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.

The Pain of Family Feuds

I’ll let this story from my all things adoption group speak for itself.

I’m an adoptee that was adopted by my maternal grandparents at birth, my birth mom has always been in my life at different times and in different ways, our relationship now is very rocky, and I never saw much of my dad growing up.

When I was 6, my grandparents cut off all contact with my dad’s family. For years they told me that it wasn’t safe, or that they had no interest in seeing me, which wasn’t true – my grandparents actively threw out letters and cards from them.

I used to beg to see my family, when I was a young teen I started sneaking out to see my aunt, then my grandparents found out. I was grounded and stopped from leaving the house. I grew up remembering and loving these people who lived literally two miles away but missing out on a childhood with them.

I grew up with no racial mirrors and felt like I did something wrong to these people that I had fun memories with as a kid. One time I saw my aunt across a store and begged my grandma to say hi, but my grandma dragged me out of the store and said it wasn’t safe.

4 years ago, I reunified with my dad’s family locally and have an amazing relationship with them, and flew to California to see my uncle and meet my cousins for the first time, and eventually flew to New York. I was greeted with open arms, but it doesn’t make up for the 20 year gap of not having these people in my life. These are people I should’ve grown up with!

My aunt lives close to me and we talk, but I feel like a stranger in her house. I feel like I don’t belong here. My uncle is in town to visit with his kids, and I’ve been here all day, and decided to stay the night…for the first time at 28 years old, I’m spending the night with my aunt – something that most kids did growing up.

It’s 3 AM and I’m laying on her couch, unable to sleep because I don’t feel like I belong here, even though they treat me like we were never apart. I don’t know what the point of this post is…it’s just complicated, not many people understand my complex adoption trauma or seem to think that it’s somehow “less” because I was adopted by my grandparents, I should just shut up and be grateful for that.

I still feel like I’m in the fog. My grandparents have both died, and I have a hard time wrapping my thoughts and emotions around the trauma that two people I loved very much even so caused. I’m just trying to live with it.