Every year new families are built or expanded through adoption. And in the case of those who are adopt from Massachusetts’s foster case system, a large percentage of those new families are transracial.
While the term technically means parents of any race adopting a child of another race, the majority of transracial adoptive parents are Caucasian, a fact that brings to the forefront questions of culture, identity and perhaps surprising considerations in these still charged and conflicted times.
Many prospective parents good-heartedly come to the idea of transracial adoption color-blind, an approach that seems fine on the surface but one adoption experts say is wrong.
“The world would be a better place if we didn’t have to deal with race and if we understood everybody’s the same, as if race didn’t exist,” says Beth Hall, co-founder of Pact, a multicultural adoption organization dedicated to addressing issues affecting adopted children of color. “We have to help educate white parents who are considering transracial adoption that race does matter and to learn how to talk about it. Because most of us didn’t grow up learning that and, in fact, we often learned it was kind of impolite to talk about it.”
The caucasian adoptive mother of a Latina daughter and African-American son, Hall lives the issues personally and professionally. “Many of us, especially those who are white, have not learned how to talk about race, especially across racial lines,” she adds. “We know race is a huge factor, all you have to do is look at the news for the past 6 months to understand how polarizing race is.”
Diane Tomaz, Director of Family Support Services for the Massachusetts Adoption Resource Exchange, trains and educates pre-adoptive parents. She agrees talking about race can be difficult, noting she sees many Caucasian adults even stumble over using the labels “black” and “white.”
“You’re not going to be able to whisper about race because your kid’s friends won’t do that,” she says. “People always think they’re introducing the idea of race to their child, they’re popping their innocence: ‘I don’t want to talk about racism and these terrible things people may call them or say to them.’ But they really should worry that people may be saying those things to them and they have no idea what they mean or they don’t know how to respond.”
Caucasian parents must be prepared to have age-appropriate discussions with their child about everything from why their skin is a different color to how to respond to derogatory remarks, Tomaz says.
“Kids need language, and if you pretend that they don’t by having this sameness philosophy — by pretending everyone’s the same — I almost think you negate the importance of cultural differences that can be positive and great and foster cultural pride,” she says. “Kids aren’t dumb. Teach them the language, ‘Here’s why people have melanin and here’s why some people’s skin is dark and some people’s is not.’ I think it helps them when they’re having those conversations on the playground with kids who are making comments.”
Adds Hall: “People really have to be ready to go there, to talk about race, to acknowledge that racism is real and exists.”
Another key is providing diversity — settings, churches, organizations, schools and more — where the child can be immersed in his or her culture and race and not be in the minority. This is critical, experts say, especially if a family lives in a less-diverse area.
“If you live in a place where there are no other adults of color, you’re going to have a hard time doing that and that means your child is going to have a hard time because that means they’re going to grow up without those role models,” Hall says.
Same-race adult mentors, teachers, community members or friends are another essential element of parenting a child of a different race, experts say. As much as he may love his parents, a child needs to see himself reflected in role models with the same color skin.
“Adult adoptees are now telling us, ‘The most important thing to me was I had an African-American teacher or coach or somebody in my life who was a successful, positive adult I could look to,’” notes Tomaz, herself a transracial parent. “It doesn’t have to be somebody they have an ongoing relationship with but that they were so impacted by seeing that this person was respected in the community, as an individual, and that was their potential, too.”
The importance of this means prospective parents need to take a look at their community’s makeup, as well as how they would provide such if their town is overwhelmingly Caucasian. Parents need to do their homework and figure out whether they’re willing to travel, or even move, to other cities or towns to find a more diverse church, school, sports league or even a barbershop so their child can be in the majority at specific times and places.
Tomaz points to one activity prospective adoptive parents undergo in mandatory pre-adoptive training and education, in which adults are given a cup and a series of colored beads representing ethnicities and races.
“We as instructors read questions aloud, such as ‘My physician is of another race,’ and whatever bead corresponds to your physician, you put in your cup. After all the statements are read you look at your cup and see just what the reality of your life is, how diverse it is. It’s really powerful,” she says. “It’s not about feeling guilty, but ‘What does my life look like now?’ ‘Am I willing to make changes or is it possible to make those changes and how would my kid feel in that world?’”
If a family doesn’t live in a naturally racially diverse area, they can seek out opportunities, she says.
“People often say things, like, ‘I would definitely look for cultural activities that exist,’ which is great, but I almost think the more organic or natural it can be, the better,” Tomaz says. “If, for example, you’re going to put your kids through swim lessons, what about going to the Y that’s not in your town but to one that’s in a more diverse community? It’s hard for people depending on where they live. They have to seek that out. For some people it’s really challenging, they really have to go outside their comfort zone.”
Adds Hall: “If you’re going to things like that it will follow that you make connections, make friends and make that community, but first you gotta go.”
Whether it’s requesting a child get a teacher of color at school or finding out where to get her hair done, prospective transracial parents also need to realize they’re going to advocate for their children and educate themselves perhaps more than if they adopted a child of their own race.
“A lot of the families I know who have adopted have had to become more courageous about asking questions of adults of color,” Tomaz notes. “They’ll go out of their way and say, ‘Your daughter’s hair looks great, where does she get it done?’ and not be afraid or intimidated. Most people are so happy to help people have ended up forming really good relationships with other adults in the community that way.”
As the fathers of seven adopted children between the ages of 5 and 23, Joe Sandagato and husband Tom know this well. The men are Caucasian and four of their children identify as Mexican and Caucasian, African-American and El Salvadorian, African-American and Caucasian, and Latino and Caucasian.
The couple began the adoption process in the late ’90s, a time when Joe was working for a large multinational company that was “very big on erasing race at that time,” he says. “I really was very color blind to the world, there was a bit of naiveté on that.”
As a transracial parent, he realized his view had changed. “It was not in any way shape or form detrimental to our family, but it was something I began to recognize over time as a falsity in that I sort of was acculturated to this idea that some of the race challenges didn’t exist, when they really did,” he says. “We still continue to be color blind in terms of how we look at our family, but we’re not to the way the world looks at our family or to their needs. We’ve always been very proactive to make sure they stay connected to their culture and their heritage.”
He echoes Hall and Tomaz’s assertions that there are specific keys prospective parents must take into account when considering adopting across racial lines.
“Out of the kindness of people’s hearts sometimes they don’t want to see or think about some of the issues, but the fact of the matter is you have to be very proactive in learning about and teaching about the cultures and heritages from which they descend,” Sandagato says. “You’re really trying to keep them connected to their heritage that is the foundation of it all.”
The family lives in a small Central Massachusetts town and makes it a point to go to restaurants that reflect their children’s culture or travel to large metropolitan areas. The children also attend a regional school district, which offers a level of diversity greater than that of their tiny town.
“We spend a lot of time with the kids traveling to Boston or New York because we’re able to allow the children to exist in multicultural dimensions,” he says. “Oftentimes I say to the kids, ‘It’s not what you say it’s what you do that matters’ and I think this is one of those instances. It’s not talking about diversity, but demonstrating diversity that makes all the difference in the world. It’s going to demonstrate — not just say, but demonstrate — connectivity to the community and it creates a visual awareness of likeness and sameness that might not exist. A big piece of the process is incorporating all those rituals into your everyday life.”
He shares a piece of advice from his college mentor: “In order to be successful in life you really need to be able to understand the position of the other.”
“And in this case, regardless of your starting point of your own race, if you’re looking at transracial adoption you have to take some time to really think about what it’s like to be the parent of another race,” he notes.
But despite a series of considerations prospective parents may not anticipate and need to address, MARE’s Tomaz says transracial adoption continues to build new Massachusetts families.
“It’s so doable,” she adds. “I tell people all the time, it’s so possible.”