Colorblindness and Transracial Adoption

A Facebook video led me to Melissa Guida-Richards who is an author, adoptee and mom. I think I had encountered her before in one of the many articles she has written. Then I found one in People that starts off with her story. Though I understand enough about how problematic transracial adoptions are, I also accept that they have happened and will continue to happen in our current society.

On November 18 2021, hers was the lead story in a People magazine article on – Why ‘Colorblindness’ Doesn’t Work for Transracial Adoptions — and How to Get It Right. Melissa is what is referred to as a late-discovery adoptee. Someone who didn’t know they were adopted until well into maturity.

Melissa Guida-Richards grew up in an extended family that cherished their culture and heritage as Italian and Portuguese immigrants. So as a child, she was confused when outsiders would ask her if she was Latina or “something else.” In first grade a girl told her “you’re Black. You can’t play with me.” “I’d tell them I was Italian,” Guida-Richards, 28, says. “But I would be confused. I’d come home and ask my parents and they’re like ‘You’re Italian. You’re one of us. Just ignore people.” 

She believed her parents, who also had dark hair and eyes, that her dark skin came from some past Italian origins. Then, at 19, she found documents proving not only was she adopted, but so was her brother. They were both born in Colombia – and not biological siblings. 

For years, parents who adopted children of other races might have thought the “right” thing to do was to pretend like they “didn’t see color,” and not acknowledge their children’s differences. But disregarding their children’s race could have far-reaching impact, and is the subject of her recently released book “What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption.”   Guida-Richards and others, like author and international speaker on transracial adoption Rhonda Roorda, assert a colorblind attitude does not serve transracial adoptees in a world where color often defines you. 

“Many adopted children of color struggle with their identities and white parents who cling to this narrative [of “colorblindness”] are doing their children a disservice,” Guida-Richards says. “What is important for adoptive parents to realize is that their privilege will not protect their children of color as they face discrimination and racism. They need to prepare their children for a world that does see color.” 

About one-third of all adoptions between 2017 and 2019 were transracial, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  White megastars from Madonna to Angelina Jolie have adopted children of color, their photos gracing the covers of magazines. And the hit NBC series “This is Us” has put the adoption of a Black child into a white family – and his subsequent struggles impacting him into adulthood — front and center in an honest portrayal of the very real issues facing people of color in America compared to their white counterparts. 

“I think that because love was married to a colorblind policy saying we don’t see color. It has devastated many adoptees … we want to be seen,” Rhonda Roorda says. “I remember wanting to be white and dying to fit in, dying to please my parents, dying to understand the rules and the policies and the culture. It didn’t work. … We’re not seeing all of our children, we are not seeing the richness that they bring to the table.”

Guida-Richards was raised in a solidly white middle class New York suburb with limited diversity. Her father, who came to the United States from Italy at 13, told her the first Black person he ever saw was a student at his high school. “At first, they refused to even acknowledge I was Colombian, that I was a woman of color. They didn’t see me as the daughter they adopted from Colombia. They saw me as their daughter,” Guida-Richards says. “I understood that, but it left a big piece of my identity out.” Her family often emphasized that family and heritage matters, but they discouraged her from looking further into her own cultural background.

“I sat down with them and said, we need to talk about race. We need to talk about how I’m treated and how this has affected me,” Guida-Richards says. “It’s been 9 years and thankfully we are in a very good place.” While her late father came around fairly quickly, it took longer for her mom. Guida-Richards married a man whose mother was Colombian. When she became pregnant in 2016 with the first of their two children, her mom started opening up about her struggle with infertility and the decision to adopt. And she told her daughter that she was afraid that people, and even members of their family, would treat her differently if they knew she was Latina. 

“We did have prejudices that I experienced growing up in a white family who made fun of Latinos,” Guida-Richards says. “So when I found out I was Latina, I was like, how could you love me and say those things? They just wanted me to ignore that I was a woman of color and unfortunately, it’s not as easy they make it out to be.” Guida-Richards was honest with her mom about how she felt like “this big ugly secret” that her mom could only love as long as she fit into the mold. And she reminded her mother that she would soon be the grandmother to Latinos. “It took a lot of hard conversations until she understood,” Guida-Richards says. 

To help her understand her own feeling about being denied her heritage, Guida-Richards started reaching out to other adoptees, finding Facebook groups just for transracial adoption and adoptees from Colombia. “I realized that I wasn’t alone,” Guida-Richards says. “Race wasn’t addressed [growing up], so we struggled with our identity. We struggled with how to deal with racism because we weren’t prepared.” Guida-Richards eventually connected with her birth mother and her Colombian culture through both her birth mom’s family and her in-laws. “I knew a lot of Italian, I knew how to act Italian, but I had no idea what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Latina,” she says. “I just started to integrate a little bit at a time. Since my father was a chef who owned restaurants, food played a large part in my upbringing so I started with that.” 

As she started integrating the Colombian with the Italian traditions, she discovered that both her cultures tended to have a lot in common. “I’ve gotten to a place where I’m happy to be part of my adoptive family, but I’m also very happy that I have my birth family back in my life,” she says.

Not Under The Tree !!

Adoptee Under The Tree

I will share some excerpts from this link where you can read Ashley Rhodes-Courter‘s essay about something that actually happened – Babies Don’t Belong Under The Christmas Tree: AN Open Letter From An Adult Adoptee. My image here comes from a feature in People magazine about the same story – Sisters Overcome with Joy After Finding New Adopted Baby Brother Under Christmas Tree. The date line is actually from 2015 but no doubt some adoptive parents will think this is a very cute idea that will also make them famous at least momentarily.

An adoptee’s perspective – In what they described as “one of the most magical experiences,” a Texas family posted a video on social media of their three daughters seeing their new baby brother for the first time. Captions accompanying the viral announcement included: “Sisters find newly-adopted baby brother under the tree,” “Parents hide new son under the Christmas tree for daughters,” and “Sisters’ adoption surprise!”

The children and family seem thrilled, but as an adult adoptee, adoptive mother, and social worker, I cringed and wished this family had been given better counsel. Not wanting to be hasty or “overly sensitive,” I asked professional peers and child advocates for their opinion. Most agreed that this video sends a variety of disturbing message to those not familiar with the intricacies of adoption. It was also the general consensus that surprising family members with a human being is not advised under any circumstance.

Even if adoption had been discussed in the family prior, it was made clear that the older children in the family were told nothing about this baby, and they had no idea they were about to welcome a child into their lives. The adoptive mother writes, “We met them at the door and told them that we had been out Christmas shopping and got them a gift to share…and it was under the tree!” Without knowing the context of the clip, a viewer might assume the little girls’ moment of delight, laughter, and tears was being expressed for a puppy, vacation, or desired toy. Adults understand the metaphor that children are “gifts,” however young children see the world more literally. The idea that the parents went shopping and came home with a baby reduces the complicated adoption process to a mere credit card transaction, likening the young boy as nothing more than a commodity.

While we are not told where this baby came from—or his price tag—it is likely these parents paid tens of thousands of dollars in legal and other fees for the privilege of adopting an infant. People enthralled by this “enchanting” scene would be better served to learn that there are currently over 120,000 foster children of all ages, abilities, and races available for adoption in America. People who believe it costs a great deal of money to adopt, would be interested to know that adopting children from their state’s dependency system has little to no costs, and many children come with subsidies to help pay for their medical care, education, and other expenses.

Adoptive parents strive to teach their adopted kids, family, and community that children are not possessions or accessories. These are little people whose needs are immense and whose love is infinite. Mothers and fathers adopt children because they want to be parents— not to be presents for their existing children. Children are not playthings to be ignored or dismissed when they cry, disobey, or getting boring; they are humans requiring years of care and nurturing. When I was still in foster care, a family who was interested in adopting me, stated: “We gave our kids the choice of getting a dog or a new sibling. They chose a sibling.” Fortunately for me, those screening the family realized this was completely inappropriate and explained this to the family.

Adoption already suffers from many skewed preconceptions. To some, adoption is a way “rich” people “steal” babies from “poor” people. Others believe they are rescuing children and should be praised for their sacrifice. Even worse, sometimes parents believe they are taking children on a trial basis and can return them if they are defective or don’t fit into their family. As a child, I knew many who were adopted—and later returned when they proved “unsatisfactory.” Adoption was a terrifying prospect for me because I knew that if I messed up, I could end up like one of those boomerang kids. As an adopted person, I must object when I see a baby depicted as an object. Parents never “own” their children and no child should be brought into a family—by adoption or birth—to fix a relationship, entertain, amuse or belong to someone else. The family is the resource for the child—not the other way around. For those of us seeking homes for waiting children, we want to find “A family for every child” and not a child for every family.

I cannot help wonder how the adopted boy will perceive his arrival. At some point in their lives, most adoptees struggle with wondering why they were rejected by their birth mothers or families or origin in the first place. He may wonder if he did something wrong, if he wasn’t loved, if this family simply had more money or resources than his birth family. Many adoptees already feel different than birth, or previously adopted children. Because the posted arrival pictures and video clip don’t allow for any nuance or explanations, all he (and the world) will see is that he was presented as “surprise” for the other members of the family, instead of being innately a member himself. The celebration should have been about him, not how others react to him. It would have been more appropriate and equally compelling to have the parents tell the children that the family had been matched with a baby; or, as one family did, surprise their foster children with adoption papers.

She has more to say, which you can read at the link for Ashley Rhodes-Courter.

Roe’s Baby

Most women know that Roe v Wade is threatened. A new law in Texas bans abortion after about six weeks and puts enforcement in the hands of private citizens. The Supreme Court, with a 6–3 conservative majority, is scheduled to take up the question of abortion in its upcoming term. It could well overturn Roe. I think I did know but was reminded today that the baby at the heart of the long drawn out legal case was put up for adoption. Sharing an excerpt from a story in The Atlantic – The Roe Baby.

Jane Roe, was a Dallas waitress named Norma McCorvey. Norma won her case. But she never had the abortion. On January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court finally handed down its decision, she had long since given birth—and relinquished her child for adoption.

Norma’s personal life was complex. She had casual affairs with men, and one brief marriage at age 16. She bore three children, each of them placed for adoption. But she slept far more often with women, and worked in lesbian bars. Norma could be salty and fun, but she was also self-absorbed and dishonest, and she remained, until her death in 2017, at the age of 69, fundamentally unhappy.

In 1981, Norma briefly volunteered for the National Organization for Women in Dallas. Thereafter, slowly, she became an activist—working at first with pro-choice groups and then, after becoming a born-again Christian in 1995, with pro-life groups. Being born-again did not give her peace; pro-life leaders demanded that she publicly renounce her homosexuality (which she did, at great personal cost). 

Norma believed that abortion ought to be legal for precisely three months after conception, a position she stated publicly after both the Roe decision and her religious awakening. She was ambivalent about adoption, too. Playgrounds were a source of distress: Empty, they reminded Norma of Roe; full, they reminded her of the children she had let go.

The author of a new book – The Family Roe – Joshua Prager says – In time, I would come to know Shelley and her sisters well, along with their birth mother, Norma. Their lives resist the tidy narratives told on both sides of the abortion divide. To better represent that divide in my book, I also wrote about an abortion provider, a lawyer, and a pro-life advocate who are as important to the larger story of abortion in America as they are unknown. Together, their stories allowed me to give voice to the complicated realities of Roe v. Wade—to present, as the legal scholar Laurence Tribe has urged, “the human reality on each side of the ‘versus.’”

The lawyer for her adoption did not tell the adoptive couple anything more than that she had two half sisters. But he did not identify them, or Norma, or say anything about the Roe lawsuit that Norma had filed three months earlier. When the Roe case was decided, in 1973, the adoptive parents were oblivious of its connection to their daughter who was then 2 and a half.

Shelly knew she was adopted. As she grew older, she wished to know who had brought her into being: her heart-shaped face and blue eyes, her shyness and penchant for pink, her frequent anxiety—which gripped her when her father began to drink heavily. The adoptive parents fought. Doors slammed. Shelley watched her mother issue second chances, then watched her father squander them. One day in 1980, as Shelley remembered, “it was just that he was no longer there.” Shelley was 10. 

In high school, in the city of Burien, outside Seattle, Shelley had a boyfriend who had also been adopted. Reminds me of my own parents story – high school sweethearts, both adopted. Shelley’s hands began to shake. She suffered from depression. Eventually, she came to understand that her symptoms preceded her birth. “When someone’s pregnant with a baby,” she reflected, “and they don’t want that baby, that person develops knowing they’re not wanted.” 

An investigator who accomplished adoptee reunions with their birth mothers was given the case of finding Shelley by The National Enquirer. She was able to track her down through birth records (Norma had supplied the necessary information). She waited in a parking lot in Kent, Washington, where she knew Shelley lived. When she saw Shelley walk by, the investigator introduced herself and told Shelley that she was an adoption investigator sent by her birth mother. Shelley felt a rush of joy: The woman who had let her go now wanted to know her. She began to cry. Wow! she thought. Wow! She told Shelley that “her mother was famous—but not a movie star or a rich person.” Rather, her birth mother was “connected to a national case that had changed law.” 

At their second meeting, the investigator handed Shelley a recent article about Norma in People magazine, and the reality sank in. “She threw it down and ran out of the room.” When Shelley returned, she was “shaking all over and crying.” All her life, Shelley had wanted to know the facts of her birth. Having idly mused as a girl that her birth mother was a beautiful actor, she now knew that her birth mother was synonymous with abortion, something she was against.

When told the other person at the second meeting was on a deadline and writing an article for the Enquirer, Shelley and her adoptive mother abruptly left. “Here’s my chance at finding out who my birth mother was,” she said, “and I wasn’t even going to be able to have control over it because I was being thrown into the Enquirer.”

Instead Shelley was able to arrange a call directly to Norma. Norma didn’t mention abortion. She told Shelley that she’d given her up because, Shelley recalled, “I knew I couldn’t take care of you.” She also told Shelley that she had wondered about her “always.” But later, Shelley made clear that a day for an in person reunion might never come. “I’m glad to know that my birth mother is alive,” she was quoted in the story that the Enquirer eventually published as saying, “and that she loves me—but I’m really not ready to see her. And I don’t know when I’ll ever be ready—if ever.” She added: “In some ways, I can’t forgive her … I know now that she tried to have me aborted.”

Shelley had long considered abortion wrong, but her connection to Roe had led her to reexamine the issue. It now seemed to her that abortion law ought to be free of the influences of religion and politics. Religious certitude left her uncomfortable. And, she reflected, “I guess I don’t understand why it’s a government concern.”

Shelley never did meet her mother, Norma. She died while Shelley still struggled with her identity as the Roe baby.