Chicago’s wildly popular 1970 song “Colour My World” had the singer’s world colored by “the hope of loving you.” Numerous American couples’ worlds have been colored literally and figuratively when their hope of having a child to love was fulfilled via a transracial adoption. Based on the concept of colorblindness, transracial adoptions have drastically increased over the last few decades and are now considered commonplace. But does commonplace mean that the practice is a good idea?
Transracial adoption is a fact in today’s world. 84% of international adoptions are transracial. Even domestically the majority of adopted children are non-white while the majority of adoptive parents are white. Of the non-Caucasian children who are adopted, almost three-fourths of them are adopted by Caucasian families.
In a transracial adoption, a child has a different racial background than his adoptive family. With a colorblind policy, love is deemed to trump race. But the reality is that if a child is of a different race, he may experience things based on his race that his parents have not and will not experience. His adoptive parents may be equipped to provide him with shelter, food, clothing, and love, but can they help him find his identity in a world which is not colorblind?
The long-term effectiveness of transracial adoption is not merely an academic question. Such adoptions impact adoptees, their multiracial families, and society as a whole. Adoptees do not stay children forever; they grow up and become adult members of society. Issues adoptees experience as the result of a transracial adoption influence who they become and how psychologically healthy they are. Transracial adoption benefits our society by allowing the number of children languishing in foster care to be reduced, relieving society’s burden to provide for them.
So, do colorblind transracial adoption pass muster? Who better to ask than an expert with personal experience? Rhonda Roorda, an author and international speaker, is a transracial adoptee; she is black, but her adoptive parents are white. Born in 1969, Roorda spent two years in New York State’s foster care system before being adopted by a Caucasian couple of Dutch heritage.
As an adult, Roorda examined the topic of transracial adoption in four books, three in a trilogy written with the late Rita J. Simon (In Their Own Voices, In Their Parents’ Voices, and In Their Siblings’ Voices) and one a solo work, In Their Voices. These books discuss the practice of transracial adoption from the perspectives of transracial adoptees, transracial adoptive parents, siblings of transracial adoptees, and of black Americans in general. It is difficult to imagine anyone better qualified to assess transracial adoption in the United States than Roorda.
The passion Roorda brings to a discussion of transracial adoption was evident in her powerful presentation to adoption professionals at the 2019 Florida Adoption Council Conference in St. Pete Beach; audience members were riveted by her words. Roorda was no less passionate when discussing transracial adoption one on one in a recent interview. While she speaks from the heart, Roorda has the personal experience and the research to back up her analysis of the value and consequences of building multi-racial families through adoption. And she is not hesitant to give voice to her opinions because the stakes are high—children’s lives and the well-being of our society are literally at stake.
Although Roorda has focused on transracial adoption for many years, that topic was placed front and center for public consideration recently. Jada Pinkett Smith’s interview with transracial adoptee Angela Tucker on “Red Table Talk” in October received media buzz. Ms. Tucker revealed that, as a black woman raised in a white family, she struggles with self-acceptance. Her challenge was to assimilate into white culture while retaining her racial identity even though she was not raised within it. Tucker concluded, “Transracial adoption is not the solution.”
Does Roorda, based on her own personal experience as well as her research and writing on the subject, condemn transracial adoption? She makes clear that she still believes in transracial adoption but stresses that more work is needed to make such adoptive placements truly successful in the long run. The aim is, as Roorda explains, “not merely for adoptees to survive, but to thrive.” She characterizes transracial adoption as a “bold” undertaking but views the system and structure in which it occurs as “flawed.”
Perhaps the biggest flaw is that neither the child welfare system nor most transracial adoptive parents are prepared for the cultural needs of a black child. In Roorda’s view, the failing of the system is that the focus is directed to merely placing children in loving homes. What is not adequately addressed in transracial adoptions, according to Roorda, is that in transracial adoptions the parents are still white, the child is still of color, but the family has become multi-racial. How does the family navigate that dynamic? She points out that the adoptee’s history did not begin when the multi-racial family was formed. His race is part and parcel of who he is and must be addressed and cultural awareness cultivated.
A history of transracial adoption is crucial to understanding the process and the challenges this type of adoption presents. Roorda’s writings present the background out of which transracial adoptions arose. This context provides a foundation for assessing the current system and its effectiveness, or perhaps its lack thereof.
The crux of transracial adoption is rooted in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s; this movement brought to society’s attention the plight of parentless black children in our country. A disproportionate number of black children were in the state system waiting and available for adoption. There was a great need to get black children out of the foster care system and into permanent homes.
Nevertheless, at the time, a rigid race-matching policy was in place. Public pressure was brought to bear to allow adoptive placements of these black children with white families. Public and private agencies, as a result, became open to transracial placements, and a surge in the number of black children being placed in white homes occurred. According to estimates, twelve thousand children were placed in white homes between 1968 and 1975. This type of placement became a public controversy, and the National Association of Black Social Workers announced its strong opposition to the practice in 1972. This position was grounded in the belief that placement in a white family would not equip a black child to survive in a racist society.
Society now, as in 1972, is faced with a dilemma regarding transracial adoption. Children need homes, but they also need the tools to navigate in society based on their race. Can these two needs be reconciled?
Roorda points a finger of blame for deficiencies in the handling of transracial adoption at federal laws, specifically the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (commonly known as MEPA) and the Interethnic Adoption Provision Act of 1996 (commonly referred to as IEAPA). The enactment of these two pieces of legislation shifted national policy from strict same race placements to acceptance of transracial placements. MEPA prohibited agencies receiving federal funding from denying or delaying placement of a child based solely on the race or ethnicity of the foster or adoptive parents; IEAPA sought to clarify the provisions of MEPA.
Although the laws were designed to encourage agencies to be more aggressive in recruiting more racially and ethnically diverse prospective parents, the incentive instead shifted to “save the child.” More effort was directed to finding homes for children than there was to expanding and diversifying the prospective homes for them. The lack of accountability for recruitment efforts by these agencies would be the number one target for Roorda to improve the current system.
Based on her own experience, Roorda feels that the system’s prevailing colorblind policy is doing harm to transracial adoptees and their families. While in a perfect world, love would be enough to allow a multiracial family to flourish, our world is far from perfect. Parents of transracial adoptees, Roorda asserts, must be more proactive in helping their children find and embrace their identity. Such adoptees may grow up confused if they are separated from their communities of origin. Unfortunately, these adoptees typically grow up in homogeneous white communities with no exposure to their racial culture; in this context, their parents have little experience with the community of color and are not equipped to inform their child about his heritage and culture of origin.
The consequence of lack of connection to the child’s ethnic community is an identity crisis. Adolescents routinely go through what is called an identity crisis as part of their development. For transracial adoptees, this experience is an identity crisis on steroids. They must determine who they are within their ethnic community as well as within their multiracial family. These adoptees are in a fragile state; they do not want to lose the love of their families, so they minimize their feelings of being different and dismiss the importance of their racial identity to fit in with their white families and friends. Making their parents feel comfortable at the expense of embracing who they are results in transracial adoptees hating or ignoring the community from which they came.
What are transracial adoptive parents to do? Roorda advises them to be intentional. Actively seeking out connections in the child’s racial community and building sustaining relationships with members of that community is key because parents need a strong support group. This connection is vitally important since most transracial adoptees live in overwhelmingly white communities.
People behind the scenes quietly pouring into a multiracial family can be invaluable. In Roorda’s case an older black woman at her family’s church took Roorda under her wing. This lady, who became Rhonda’s godmother, offered good advice to Roorda’s parents about raising a black child, and this advice was not just what her parents wanted to hear—she told it like it was. Her godmother held Roorda’s parents accountable.
A transracial adoptive parent’s efforts to learn about his child’s racial heritage and culture and to care about the child’s racial community provides a sense of love and security to the adoptee. Lack of such effort, as Roorda points out, will lead to the adoptee questioning his parents’ love for him; the adoptee will wonder if his parents really love him if they don’t take the time to care about people who look like he does. These parents also need to consider in advance how they will react to racial injustice directed towards the adoptee or members of his racial community. What will they do if their child is, for example, bullied on the playground because of his race? Political and social decisions made by transracial adoptive parents will affect their child both practically and psychologically.
Roorda stresses that transracial adoptive parents must realize at the outset of the process that transracial adoption is “a long-term commitment.” The work does not stop when the child becomes an adult. In the beginning the adoptive parents see a cute little child or baby of color in need of a home. But that child will grow up into an adult of color. Transracial adoptees face challenges when they leave their adoptive homes and lose the “white privilege” they had with their adoptive families. They may not know how to maneuver in a racist society. Reading about the history of race relations can help both the adoptee and his parents grasp the societal issues which face people of color in this country—issues the adoptee can and will face in his life.
Adoptive parents are not the only ones who need to do work to make transracial adoptions successful. Roorda feels strongly that agencies who make such placements should strive to have people of color represented on their boards and staff and in their administration. And color alone is not enough; these individuals need to have experience and expertise. Agencies must educate prospective adoptive parents about the nuances of transracial adoption and how these parents can connect with members of the adoptee’s racial community.
Writing books on transracial adoption has been a “growing process” for Roorda. She learned that many adoptees feel like she did. They have tried to minimize themselves, or at worst hate themselves, for who they were, people of color. Being raised in a white home does not alter their race. Roorda explains that “we are who we are,” and who we are is made up of all our experiences. Transracial adoptees need to feel that they are lovable for who they are which includes embracing their racial and ethnic heritage. She sees potential in all transracial adoptees, but an adoptee’s perspective is crucial. As she describes it, they are “eagles born to soar,” but they won’t soar if they view themselves as “chickens in a chicken coop.”
Colorblindness may be today’s mantra for transracial adoption, but Roorda’s comments on the practice do bring to mind three colors—red, green, and yellow—the colors found in a traffic light. For red, Roorda would stop the flawed practices in the system which fail to aggressively recruit a more racially diverse pool of prospective adoptive parents and which do not hold entities accountable for failing to do so. For yellow, she would urge caution in how placements are made, ensuring that prospective adoptive parents are adequately educated on the special issues (particularly of identity) which come into play in transracial adoptions and the need for adoptees to learn about and connect with their racial community. For green, Roorda would wholeheartedly embrace adoptions, transracial or not, to provide loving forever homes for children in need. Transracial adoption colors our world; observing these three colors gives us the hope of providing psychologically healthy and loving homes for children of color.
[For more information on Rhonda Roorda, her publications, and her work in the area of transracial adoption, visit her website at https://rhondamroorda.com/.]