All last week at the Interactions hair salon in Provo, shop owner Tamu Smith and her customers have been talking about Haitian orphans and what it means for a white family to take in a black child.
Smith is a black woman married to a white man. She's mom to both biological and adopted children, hair dresser and confidant of many black children and their adoptive white parents. And as talk turns to Utahns and their efforts to provide homes to Haitian orphans in the wake of the earthquake, she says she's glad so many want to help children in need. But it's naive to think that love for the child alone will erase cultural differences.
"I think people who adopt interracially feel that 'if I provide a great home and love, if I center them in the gospel of the LDS Church or any church, then this fixes the problem' and you can trump some of the cultural differences," she said. "Even in the best of homes, they will eventually look at their parents and say, 'I'm different.' "
What to do with those differences is the stuff not of chance, but of reflection and hard work, experts say.
"So many adoptees are struggling with what it means to be black," says University of Utah Ph.D. candidate Darron Smith, who is completing a dissertation on transracial adoptions in Utah and who, with BYU sociology professor Cardell Jacobson, interviewed dozens of black adults who were adopted as children by white families.
Whether they had black or biracial biological parents, as these children in their new white families become teens, some may be unsure where they fit in — the black world or the white world, both or in-between. Some biracial adoptees even report being afraid of blacks. He said his research found most got past those struggles, though their teen years were often painful. The majority of the grown adoptees he interviewed are now "doing fine."
White adoptive parents must realize, he says, "that love is not enough." Tamu Smith wonders who will teach those children "how to be a black adult." Black children face issues that white parents have never faced, such as racism. The parents must bring the local black community into the child's life as both mentors and family friends, they agree. For Haitian children, that should mean enlisting Utah's Haitian community.
Kathy Searle and her husband, who are white, have raised six black and two Colombian children, along with three biological children. Searle, who directs programs for the Adoption Exchange, says ignoring racial difference is a mistake. Only white people have the luxury of thinking you can be color-blind. While "growing up in a family that doesn't look like them is no big deal to some kids, to others it's a huge deal." She's seen adoptive families bristle when they hear Darron Smith discuss his findings. "I think it's just their heart hurting because who doesn't want to be everything to your child?" But a black child will need black adults as well, she notes. "That doesn't take away from who and what I am to my child."
Because being a successful parent in a transracial adoption is complicated, parents are encouraged to take online classes. The Hague treaty, an agreement on best practices for international adoptions, requires some courses on culture, race and ethnicity for international adoptions.
Embracing black culture means more than "fun, food and festivities, or hanging up pictures of Martin Luther King," says Darron Smith. The unfortunate reality is that black male children, for example, need to be taught by black adults to put their hands on the steering wheel if they're pulled over. That's not a common white experience.
Racism in Utah may be covert, says Suzanne Stott, executive director of the adoption agency Families for Children and the adoptive mother of 11. Expectations in school may be lower for black children, for example.
Some experts say that race pales beside traumas like earthquakes, abuse, death and abandonment. The earlier trauma happens, the more it affects the brain's wiring, says Marty Shannon of Utah's Division of Child and Family Services. Being nurtured and being traumatized both change brain development. A young child who endures instability may be more prone to fear; stress can be "hard-wired in."
She says a child who is adopted at a young age but who had a traumatic background may act out more than an older child who had a stable, nurturing early start, even if he's since lived through devastation. The older child is likely to be more resilient. That contradicts belief that if you adopt a child young enough, the past won't matter.
"Put race and a different culture on top of that, and stress, and a family that doesn't speak the language or smell the same or feed foods that are familiar … ," she says. "Some kids are naturally adaptable and some are not."
"I hope in two or three years we don't have a bunch of these (Haitian) children in the foster care system because parents were unable to manage some of the challenges," worries Lori Findeis, owner of Children's Counseling Center in Orem. "We saw that with a lot of the kids from Russia and Ukraine."
She hopes too, she says, that parents who do adopt don't demand gratitude: "I came and saved you. You should be grateful."
Quite the contrary, says Irene Rytting, who with her husband has adopted six African-American children. "They saved me," she says.
Rytting has advice for people who come across Utah parents who have adopted transracially: Don't ask questions that should be reserved for close friends and family, especially if the child is listening. (Does she know her birth parent? Does she get along with other children?)
Experts say the best source of information and support is other families who have adopted children with similar backgrounds.
White parents with black children have to feel pride in the black culture themselves and know "all kinds of history of African-American people who have done well," Shannon says. The mindset is "We are an ethnic family," not "I have adopted an ethnic child."
Introduce foods and customs and language native to the child, experts agree. Celebrate all cultures and differences. Buy a black doll — and a white one and a Native American one. Talk about differences, but also note similarities between diverse people. Celebrate both.
Finally, don't allow biased remarks, but address them politely: "I am sure you didn't mean to say whatever." The Transracial Adoption Network says that teaches a child to confront it without fighting, which could be dangerous. Plus, being gracious gives others a chance to overcome bias/ignorance.
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