Colorblind Idealism

There seems to have been an evolution among some citizens in the United States to realize that racially colorblindness isn’t really the answer to racism. In the evolution of adoption and in an attempt to get some children in foster care placed in stable homes, transracial adoption was seen as the answer. As some of these adoptees have reached adulthood, they are increasingly speaking out about why growing up black in a predominantly white community and school has proven challenging, even difficult for them.

Recently The Washington Post had an article by Rachel Hatzipanagos that focuses on transracial adoptees – I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people. A few years ago, there was a Medium piece – The Myth of Colorblindness by Rosa Perez-Isiah.

For adoptees, their adoptive parents couldn’t see and rarely talked about the racism they experienced. Classmates’ racist comments about their hair and eyes were dismissed as harmless curiosity. America’s racial dynamics were explained in the language of “colorblind” idealism. 

In her Medium piece, Perez-Isiah says – Colorblindness is the belief that we don’t see color or race, that we see people and that we are all the same. These beliefs are widely held by well intentioned people, including educators and school leaders. These are idealistic beliefs and there are a number of issues with this ideology. Colorblindness negates our diversity, race and culture because we all see color and we all have biases. When we identify as colorblind, we are suppressing our authentic views and in the process, perpetuating systemic racism. Race matters and it has impacts on opportunities, education and actual income (as well as its future potential). Colorblindness oppresses people of color. When you fail to see color, you fail to acknowledge the current narrative, a system of injustice for many non-white people.

Cross-cultural adoptions have been debated for decades. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a strong stand against the adoption of Black children by White parents. Several years later, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to address the wave of Native American children being separated from their tribes and placed with White families.

The growth in transracial adoptions from foster care in recent years has far outpaced the growth in same-race adoptions and transracial adoption is now 28% of all domestic adoptions in the United States. More recently, the national conversation about systemic racism (driven by George Floyd’s death in 2020) has cast a new light on interracial adoption and prompted transracial families to confront the unspoken cultural divides in their own homes.

For adoptees, there is a transracial adoption paradox. Growing up, they experience many of the privileges that come with Whiteness because of their adoptive parents. When they then enter the school system or move out of the family home to live independently as adults later in life, they’re confronted with the reality of being perceived and treated as a racial minority. Not so subtle is the experience of white students putting their pencils in the hair of a Black student and marveling at the way the texture makes them stay in place.

When adoption agencies take on a color-evasive approach with hopeful prospective adoptive parents, they signal to these white parents that race does not need to be a significant factor in their decision-making. Then, by extension, it is no surprise that these adoptive parents might not think that the race of their adoptees is a significant factor in raising their child. Often these parents naively hope their support will make up for racial difference, even when they acknowledge there are challenges in raising a child of a different race.

From a transracial adoptee – “I believe that a lot of people think that adoption is this beautiful, magical, straightforward process. And also when they think of adoption, that they are centering around this “White savior” image and focusing on adoptive parents more than adoptees. And/or birth, biological parents — those two seem to get left out of the narrative a lot. I also believe that adoption from a birth mother, birth parent perspective can be very intense, very complex, very emotional. And I believe that we need to lean in and listen to adoptees and birth parents more.”

Today, many adoptees have their DNA tested, either at Ancestry or 23 and Me. For an adoptee that was raised white, it can be an amazing experience to discover their father is Black and see somebody that looks like them, finally a true racial mirror. One mixed race adoptee notes – “I think a lot of White people think that they have a good handle on race … and have what they would call a ‘colorblind’ kind of mentality. But I don’t think they understand that when you say the word ‘colorblind,’ what I hear is ‘I see you as White’.”

Another transracial adoptee suggests – “I think first acknowledging that your child is not White is, like, a huge step for a lot of White adoptive parents is to, like, see outside. Because a lot of parents see their child as, this is just your kid. They don’t see them in racialized terms. But in seeing them in that colorblind way, you are not protecting them. You are not preparing them to grow up and be an adult.”

Adoption is a trauma. Every adoptee has a different response to their trauma. Often it takes therapy to understand what was experienced as a pre-verbal infant and more importantly, how it continues affecting the adult adoptee. Therapy can help an adoptee get over feeling defective simply because they were given up for adoption. It can require learning that babies are placed for adoption for a number of reasons and that none of those reasons have to do with the baby or the value of that baby regardless of their skin color. The adoptee, not the adoptive parents, needs to be the center of their own life and story. Much of the narrative around adoption centers on the adoptive parents and frames their actions as selflessness and saving a child.

One Black adoptee admits –  I longed, and continue to long, to understand why I needed to be adopted, why I needed to be shipped across the country, why I couldn’t stay in the South, why I couldn’t stay with Black families, why I couldn’t have stayed with at least my biological extended family.” And though I am white and my mother was white too, this is a universal need in adoptees. My mom’s genetic, biological family was in the rural South and she was taken by train from Memphis to Nogales Arizona by her adoptive mother. For a long time, my mother believed she had been born in Memphis, a belief her adoptive mother was also led to believe by Georgia Tann, until birth certificate alterations made clear my mom had been born in Virginia which just made my mom believe she must have been stolen from her mother because things like that happened with Georgia Tann’s adoption practices.

Sadly, the saviorism of white adoptive parents is just so prevalent. Unfortunately, there is a deep-seated belief that white people can take care of Black people better. I have been learning a lot about this in overall society by reading White Tears/Brown Scars by Ruby Hamad.

I end today’s blog back where I started with the issue of colorblindness – Why is the colorblind narrative popular? The Medium piece notes – it is easier to identify as colorblind than acknowledge differences that make us uncomfortable. This is easier for people to handle, especially in schools where we may lack the information and guidance to have difficult conversations about race. Another reason is simply not knowing…you don’t know what you don’t know. Many people also repeat what they’ve been taught and fail to reflect or question those beliefs. In the end, we don’t realize how harmful the myth of colorblindness can be.

Adoption is a challenging situation regardless – add in racial differences and it becomes doubly so. It takes courage and practice to shift from a colorblind to a color BRAVE ideology.

Birthday Blues

My birthday usually falls near the Memorial Day weekend. Many years, I had a L-O-N-G celebration of existing. It was a happy and self-affirmative occasion.

However, when I began to learn about the trauma associated with adoption, I discovered that the day an adoptee was born is not a happy occasion for many of these persons. It is a reminder of abandonment, rejection or at the least, that the parents from who their life descended are not raising them.

Until an adoptee matures and begins to break through the fog of how wonderful it was that they were adopted narrative, many wonder why they act out or sabotage their own birthday celebrations. What is wrong with them ? Everyone else seems happy to celebrate their birthday.

And now I understand better and can see the difference between my own birthday and an adoptee’s. I remember as well there was some confusion about my own mother’s actual birthdate, though eventually it settled on January 31st and now that I have her adoption file – I see the errors and their eventual correction.

Yesterday, I watched a youtube video the Birthday Episode by My Adoption Story by Lilly Fei and the conflicted feelings, which I remember my own mom having about her adoption are so obvious. Two things stood out for me – when she said she was “found” and how she described the way some international adoptions of transracial children involve the child having birth dates that are estimated based upon physical characteristics because the actual date of birth is unknown.

One adoptee writes – One reason I hate my birthday is because its a celebration of the day I was born and then placed in a nursery just sitting there because my birth mom didn’t want to get attached by holding me. It annoys me that this reason even bothers me, but it definitely does. People who aren’t adopted have great stories about the day they were born and how all these people came to see them and hold them and there are pictures. Yeah that doesn’t really exist if you’re adopted.

Many adoptees feel anger and negative emotions that are understandably directed at their birth family…It is not actually the birthday itself. Yet unavoidably the birthday is a reminder of what happened – back then – so each year, when that birthday rolls around, it all comes back into sharp and painful focus. It is what was done to that baby, for whatever reason at the time of birth, that is the actual problem.

One possible strategy for an adoptee is to change the focus of their birthday. Take a few or even several hours of time out on your birthday. Just you – go somewhere you really like, and reflect, alone, on your current goals and how you hope to achieve them. Keep your thoughts written down. Look at them a few times during the following year. Then when the next birthday rolls around, go over your thoughts again and revise them for the current reality. One adoptee found this kind of birthday event to be helpful in overcoming the birthday blues.

One other suggestion is to deal with all of your negative feelings BEFORE your birthday. Don’t avoid them because then you will feel sad that day. By acknowledging your feelings and seeking to understand what they are trying to tell you, you can then let them go for that day and celebrate the fact that you are resilient, you are a survivor, you are worthy to be loved and celebrated, you rock this life (even though you have that trauma of having been adopted).

For more insight, you may wish to read this Medium essay titled Birthday Blues. Adrian Jones says – “There is one certainty with my birthday: I will find a way to sabotage it. As sure as the sun rises each morning, my birthday will somehow become a fiasco. For most of my life it has been like this. I wish it would stop, but it won’t.” He goes on to write what he has discovered is the source of his pain and the anxiety he feels as his birthday approaches –

“You see, I’m adopted. Born a bastard, I was separated from my biological mother at birth. The woman I spent nine months preparing to meet was gone in an instant. In my most vulnerable state, I was motherless. Without mother. At the time, I was overcome by a high degree of trauma, a trauma that cannot be undone. Worse, this trauma is precognitive. I, like millions of my adoptee crib mates, do not know what life is like without trauma, as we were introduced to life in such a traumatic state. Due to recent scientific studies, we know this to be true. Babies are born expecting to meet their mothers, hear their voices, smell their scents, taste their milk.  When their mothers are not available, they become traumatized. If puppies and kittens must stay with their birth mothers for a few weeks before being adopted, why is it okay to separate a newborn from her mother at first breath?”

There is much more to read in that essay. I highly recommend it.

Curiosity

Morgan Hannah with her mom

Researching Russell Moore for my blog yesterday, I somehow stumbled upon Morgan Hannah with a Medium article titled – I Was Adopted. I’ll share some excerpts and then, if you feel so inclined, you can support her writing by clapping for her piece there.

Morgan writes – “The difference between me and the rest of my family is that they will never know the curiosity of their personal history.” I think this one statement gets to the heart of the issue as to why most people do not understand this passion for a person impacted by adoption to know their origins and family roots. I wasn’t adopted like Morgan was but both of my parents were and it was like there was this black hole or void stretching out into infinity beyond them. So much we didn’t know – cultural background and family medical history. I once had a writer friend as me why adoption matters – then as I tried to explain, in her own words, she understood. She said, “Whether I am interested in my own family history or not, I know I can uncover it.” Precisely. These issues have been behind the effort to force states here in America to open up the sealed adoption records. Each state has its own laws and just under half allow adoptees access when they reach the age of maturity. My parents died clueless about their own origins.

Continuing on with some excerpts of Morgan’s own thoughts about all of this. She notes that New Jersey had passed a law to open access to original birth certificates for adoptees. “Then I read in the article that birth parents were sending requests for anonymity. Parents have every right to conceal their names, request no contact, and avoid letting the public know that they had a child given for adoption.

She states, “But why the hell would anyone do that?”

Morgan goes on to share – According to the article, state organizations such as New Jersey Right to Life and Catholic Conference worry that birth mothers will feel betrayed. The enactment of this law could cause an increase in abortions due to women fearing their pregnancy might be discovered.

There it is again – it is about how Christianity promotes adoptions as a counter to abortions.

Morgan had read that The Donaldson Adoption Institute released a report in November 2016 that looks at the thought process and influences that determine a mother’s choice to give up a child to adoption. She goes on to share that – According to the report, many new mothers say they felt social stigmas related to their religious beliefs, fear of being judged or being a single mother, along with emotional and self imposed physical isolation.

To balance her article, she adds this about why women have chosen abortions. Severe health related issues can make abortion the only choice, another report says. The Guttmacher Institute’s 2004 survey reports that “among the structured survey respondents, the two most common reasons were “having a baby would dramatically change my life” and “I can’t afford a baby now” (cited by 74% and 73%, respectively)… Women also cited possible problems affecting the health of the fetus or concerns about their own health (13% and 12%, respectively).”

Morgan did eventually find her original mother and so writes – “I am appreciative of knowing who my birth mother is and of having a deeper understanding of my identity. I fully believe that adopted children have the right to know the full details of their life, including genealogy and medical history.”

She is also Pro-Choice, writing – “I also believe women should have authority over their lives and their bodies, and I encourage everyone to be open minded about the difficult choices young women have to make about childbirth. With more people understanding the issues associated with adoption and abortion, the more support a new mother will have.” I absolutely agree with Morgan.

Trying Not To Judge But

This photo and story got the attention of my adoption group. Scott and Tari Peiffer have 13 children, nine of them adopted as babies. Any parent can appreciate how much work a family that large is.

The intuitive sense the adoption group gets is that this situation is unbalanced and smacks of what they define as savorism. I found a Medium piece by Annie Windholz titled “Unpacking White Saviorism” with the byline “How white and western society’s desire to help can do more harm than good.” The term “white saviorism,” refers to an idea in which a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation. White saviorism is deadly to culture, communities and lives. Because it is framed as benevolent and “coming from a good place,” it is generally not critically challenged, and this must change if we want any kind of systemic change in society.

There is such a thing as sharing ideas with humility, and listening and learning from those different from the dominant narrative that we belong to, but if we grew up in American schools- there is no doubt that our education was centered on white and Western voices. Humans internalize subtle messages, and the system of white patriarchal supremacy perpetuates itself with this foundational learning.

The Medium piece linked above goes on to say – A few white women in the group had adopted children who were not the same race as them. We discussed the adoption system in American in our small group. There is a language of “save the baby” in adoption circles. Another woman talked about how some of her relatives were completely supportive when someone adopted a non-white baby, but were not quite so pleased when someone married a person of color. Another woman works at an adoption agency, and she spoke about how adopting a child of color was less expensive than adopting a white baby. Why is this? She said that the agency had a harder time finding adoptive parents for children of color, so the expenses were lowered to help with that process. Is the adoption agency racist? The woman said its not her adoption agency that’s racist, they are merely a part of a racist system- a racist world.

“But I disagree with the approach taken by Invisible Children in particular, and by the White Savior Industrial Complex in general, because there is much more to doing good work than ‘making a difference.’ There is the principle of first do no harm. There is the idea that those who are being helped ought to be consulted over the matters that concern them,” American-Nigerian writer Teju Cole explains in his article The White Savior Industrial Complex.

“When we ask women of color to take the time to sit down and educate us on the specific issues that they face and how we can be better allies, rather than doing the research ourselves by reading blogs and articles and books by women of color, we are making it about us. When we ask why women of color need to be so divisive and whine that we’re all in this together, we are making it about us. When we decide to swoop in and play the hero without asking what type of help is, in fact, needed, we are still making it about us,” Annie Theriault writes in her article, The White Feminist Savior Complex.