When Your Family Crosses Color Lines? Racial Reactions

Once you’ve made the decision to adopt a child, there are many additional things to consider. For some people, one of the most important decisions is the race of the child to adopt. And chief among the adopting parents’ concerns may be the reaction of others to their new family.

While it is increasingly common in many parts of the United States, transracial adoption is still a relatively new concept. Harry and Bertha Holt opened the doors to international adoption when, in 1955, the Oregon couple adopted eight orphaned children from Korea. This was so unprecedented that it required an act of Congress. The following year, the Holts founded Holt International Children’s Services. Since then, intercountry and transracial adoption has grown and flourished.

Determine Your Comfort Level

Not all international adoption involves adopting a child who is racially different than the adopting parents, and not all transracial adoption is international. The practice of adopting across racial lines has grown domestically, too. In the 1950s and ’60s, unwed teenagers and women of all races who gave birth to babies often made an adoption plan for them. There were more babies needing families than there were adoptive parents. But as it became more socially acceptable for unmarried parents to raise children, effective birth control became more accessible and abortion was legalized, the number of adoptable infants declined dramatically. And more and more couples and single people who wanted to build or add to their families through adoption began to adopt across racial lines.

Beth Hall, co-founder of Pact: An Adoption Alliance and co-author of Inside Transracial Adoption, urges people to think carefully about their own attitudes about race before adopting transracially. “Building a family is not charity work – it’s family building,” says Hall, who is also the mother of two transracially-adopted children. “I don’t think people should stretch beyond where they’re comfortable, because it’s not good for the kids … People are afraid to say that there is a racial hierarchy in this country.”

To apply this to adoption, parents who may be comfortable adopting from one racial group may not be prepared to adopt from another. Though all groups face racial stereotyping, the stereotype of an African American boy is very different from that of a Chinese girl, as are the challenges and expectations the family and child will face.

Preparing Friends and Family

Even if a single person or couple is comfortable with adopting a child of another race, they may face resistance from friends or family. Roberta Rosenberg and her husband, Rob, adopted two babies from Korea after secondary infertility. “We had more than half a dozen miscarriages after the birth of our daughter,” says Rosenberg. “Then we decided we wanted to be parents again more than we wanted to try for one more viable pregnancy.”

After reviewing the options, they decided on adoption, specifically, adopting from Korea. Rosenberg’s husband had some concerns about the reactions of extended family and their acceptance of adopted children of color. “Not only hadn’t anyone adopted on either side of our immediate families, they didn’t really know any people of color,” he says. “It seemed like a lot for them to accept in one fell swoop.”

Hall agrees that the idea of transracial adoption is not always easy for families to accept initially. “A lot of us went through infertility, and it was profoundly painful,” Hall says. “We struggled with adoption and then with what race of child to adopt. We then expected our immediate families to accept our decision with joy and glee. I’m guilty of this. We have to understand that adopting transracially is a process. Most of us didn’t grow up knowing we’d parent children who look very different from us in a racist society. If you need 100-percent support from your family, tell them that.”

Hall suggests a letter, so that family members have time to read and digest the news and then act appropriately. “Explain how you got to [the decision to adopt transracially],” she says. “Let family members know that while you’re fine with questions, you’re not inviting them to try to change your minds.”

Sometimes, however, there is a great ally among the family members, she says, and it is rare to see families who don’t fall in love with a child. She also stresses the importance of giving ourselves and our families room to learn and grow. “If we had to be perfect by tomorrow, none of us would make it.”

On the other hand, she says, “If family members won’t accept the child, you have a decision to make. Once you have a child, your loyalty is to that child.”

Ilene Watson says that she and her husband, Tom, had the usual concerns that every adoptive parent faces, including the reaction of immediate and extended family when they learned of the decision to adopt a newborn African American boy. Watson found that patience and honesty were key when discussing their decision with family members.

“When we let them know we were adopting transracially, they had some concerns,” Watson says. “We had many heart-to-heart talks, and once they were able to discuss their concerns, they could see that this was a good idea for us.” Happily, their family gave their unwavering support, and the Watsons also say their friends have always been extremely supportive.

Sometimes that support comes from unexpected quarters. After Mary Coyle and her husband adopted their first child from Korea, they traveled to her parents’ Midwestern home so her family could meet the child. Coyle’s father announced that he would take the family to the local VFW for dinner. “I was very concerned about this because of all of the Korean War and Vietnam War vets that would be there,” she says. Worry about possible comments that her father might not be prepared to handle plagued Coyle, but she was pleasantly surprised by the warm reaction. “Dad grabbed up Michael into his arms and announced that here was his new grandson, Michael John,” she says. “I was so relieved that I nearly fainted!”

Handling Reactions From Strangers

Once transracial adoptive parents have the support of family and friends, it’s still not always smooth sailing. Families who have adopted transracially often find themselves the center of unwanted attention, questions and remarks. Terry Jokinen says that when, after having three biological daughters, she and her husband adopted their first son from Korea they had to field many questions. “At that time, I was also learning about being an adoptive mother and felt it my duty to educate the public about this wonderful path we have chosen,” she says. However, as Jokinen’s son grew older and able to understand the questions from strangers, it became obvious that this was no longer appropriate. “I felt uneasy about these personal family questions, and our boundaries were being invaded,” she says. “I began to change my answers to more surface answers. I wanted to protect my son and our family’s right to privacy.”

Coyle is used to strangers asking about her family. Some people have asked if the Coyles’ children, both adopted from Korea, are “really” brother and sister. Others wonder about the family composition. “In most situations, people are just curious when they see a family with two Caucasian parents and two Asian children,” she says. “There are many stares and many questions. I usually feel generous enough to answer what I think may be a true question – from a person who may even be thinking about adoption.”

Coyle differentiates between genuine interest and “super curious people who are only asking questions because they are nosy.” “There are times when my kids are with me that I think I need to be honest and straightforward in my answers,” she says. She doesn’t want her children to feel that their adoption is not to be discussed publicly or that their family is unusual. “However, I draw the line for honesty and education at questions about their personal information, because that is only for our family to share,” she says. “Again, I try not to be rude when answering these types of questions. I state simply that that information is only for our family.”

Watson feels that transracial families face unique challenges. “It can be a struggle for people to see you as a family,” she says. “It is also hard to make people understand that you chose to adopt this child because you wanted children, not just because he needed a home. I get tired of the ‘Oh, isn’t he a lucky little guy’ routine. We are the lucky ones to have him.”

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