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Support for Black Children in Transracial Adoptions
By Darron T. Smith, PhD, PA-C

How can black Americans find value within themselves given the mixed messages that children receive regarding the worth of their dark skin, even within their own communities?

This concept of colorism, as it is known to social scientists, was featured on the Oprah Winfrey Network documentary Dark Girl. The documentary explored deep-rooted attitudes about skin color, especially dark-skinned women, and the impact this has on their mental and emotional health. Being cast as ugly, dirty, sooty, or unclean based solely on skin color promotes self-doubt and leaves people psychologically scarred with feelings of shame.

Our racial history, with its long production of white racial stereotypes about black aesthetics, has proven difficult to remove from the minds of black people, as we often focus the imperial white gaze on each other, comparing and contrasting skin tones among ourselves with equally damaging effects to self-esteem. If this happens to black children raised among those that look like them, what happens to black children who are transracially adopted by whites living in circumstances and environments in which parents fail to recognize the pervasiveness of racist practices such as colorism and, in some cases, even interpersonal forms of racism?

Sharpening Self-Esteem
The African Caribbean Heritage Camp (ACHC) believes it can help white families raising black children through carefully planned events to sharpen self-esteem of the children they love while the parents engage in consciousness-raising workshops.

Held in Denver for the last 15 years, the ACHC is working to teach black adoptees to love blackness. The camp intends to help children of African descent celebrate and explore their identities in ways that help them cope with the harsh realities of whiteness, particularly in predominately white spaces where many of them are reared. Each year, one hundred or so families converge in Denver, armed and ready to cut a little deeper into the negative implicit racial biases they hold and the explicit racial stereotypes they’ve practiced with the hope of unlearning and unpacking “whiteness” for the sake of their black adopted children.

Though many black child-care advocates believe that white parents have no business rearing black children, it has not stopped Pam Sweetser, a white women and adoptive mother of two international children, from trying. Sweetser sees the opportunity in a gathering of like-minded white parents struggling to understand the complexities of American racism as a way to better prepare the parents for teaching their children how best to cope with the potential ups and downs of a lifetime of unequal treatment.

Black children living under white roofs have been racially primed in most cases, like their white siblings, to deny the existence of race. Many parents are unable or unwilling to see the centrality of race in their children’s lives. Thus, the adoptees feel confused when race-based events occur repeatedly.

Further, black adoptees in white households live in a world where they face significant challenges with color prejudice and exotic curiosity being the only person of color. This has caused many children to wish they were white to reduce the stigma of race and blend in with their white peers. This is why Sweetser has been involved with ACHC for 20 years, to help
make black children and their birth culture the center of the universe if but for a brief moment.

Children’s Voices
In contrast to Sweetser’s optimism, Rhonda Roorda, coauthor of In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories and a black transracial adoptee, says that “transracial adoption is a lifetime journey with triumphs and emotional landmines.” She says it requires intentional and ongoing work for every member of a white family to build links to communities of color. If white parents live in large white areas, it is incumbent on them to relocate in the interest of their children, the importance of which many whites do not understand.

Black children, who grow up in predominately white locales, have not (to the same degree) developed the necessary coping strategies to withstand the ugliness of colorism. Consequently, they may feel a certain degree of race-related identity confusion, making them vulnerable to self-doubt and self-hatred especially as they get older, not knowing how and why they must identify with the arbitrariness of race in a nation that continually places emphasis on skin tone.

The numbers of black adoptees who publically speak about their experiences are small. Many fear being seen as ungrateful by their adoptive families or being “left out of the family will,” Roorda says. Many black adoptees also carry pain and trauma when asked by white adoptive organizations to relive explicitly negative events of their childhood related to being black in America. Many transracial adoptees find themselves managing their emotions as they muddle through the challenges of identity work with little or no help from white parents. But a few parent groups across the nation are taking matters into their own hands, quietly supporting their black adoptive children yet not knowing entirely where to turn for answers.  

Despite the ACHC’s efforts to educate white adoptive parents, the question still remains about whether whites should raise a black child in the first place. White adoptive parents need to reassure their children that they matter in the world and are valued members of the family while at the same time being respectful of their birth parents’ choices and circumstances that led to their adoption in the first place. These issues and many more are very real, and they become much more salient in transracial adoptions.

— Darron T. Smith, PhD, PA-C, is an assistant professor in the department of physician assistant studies at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center. His research spans a range of topics, including health care disparities, religious studies, race and sports, transracial adoption, and the black family.