Monday, January 26, 2009

In Their Own Voices Eye-Opening Resource for Adoptive Parents

(Image from Adoption Today)

The first question people ask upon glancing at my newborn daughter is, "What's her ethnicity?" Her brown skin and curly black hair pretty much serve as a billboard, announcing loud and clear that she is not my biological child. The fact that she's bi-racial (her birthmother is white; her birthfather is black) doesn't matter a lick to me, but I realize it may become a challenge for her as she grows up in a white family living in a predominantly white community. My concern led me to Amazon, where I searched for books to give me some instruction. I found surprisingly few. However, In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita J. Simon and Rhonda M. Roorda looked to be exactly the kind of book I wanted. So I ordered it, waiting anxiously for it to arrive on my doorstep. As soon as I read the Introduction, I realized the book was not going to give me what I craved. What I really wanted was reassurance that: (1) As a white woman, I can effectively raise a bi-racial child; (2) Said child will be confident, responsible and whole, unaffected by her birth and subsequent adoption, and (3) Because of the bonds we create, she will never long for her biological family, or prefer it over ours. A few pages in, I discovered that In Their Own Voices is hardly the feel-good, reassuring type book I thought it would be. Instead, it's unflinchingly honest, sometimes frightening, but always fascinating. Like one reviewer said, "It should be required reading for anyone who is thinking of adopting or has adopted a child from another race."

The book consists of interviews with 24 black and bi-racial adults who were adopted as children by white families. Author Rhonda M. Roordan, herself a transracial adoptee (TRA), conducted all the interviews but one - Roordan answered questions asked by co-author Rita J. Simon. Prompted by the authors' questions, the interviewees discussed their experience as black children growing up in a white family; their relationships with both the black and white communities; their views on transracial adoption; whether they consider themselves black or white, and so on. The interviews are presented in Q & A format, which allows readers to hear the people speak "in their own voices." It feels like an intimate roundtable discussion, a candid, no-holds-barred conversation with those who have been there.

As the white parent of a bi-racial child, I learned some invaluable information from this book. The biggest eye-opener for me was this: The majority of the TRAs of mixed race identified themselves as black. Why this should surprise me, I don't know. If you saw my daughter, you would never label her white. Anyway, because society views them as black, they are treated as such. Therefore, almost all of the interviewees agreed that bi-racial children need to be exposed to the black community as they are growing up. To white parents they suggest living in ethnically diverse neighborhoods; teaching children about the literary, musical, scientific, etc. contributions of African Americans; allowing kids to explore their "blackness"; and being open and honest about issues of race, discrimination, adoption, etc. Every respondent but one said they supported transracial adoption, but nearly all of them suggested that adoption agencies provide serious training for couples considering a transracial adoption. Having received little of this kind of education, I wholeheartedly agree.

Another thing that surprised me (I know you all are laughing at my naivete) was that there are people out there who vehemently oppose transracial adoption. In my mind, it's better for a child to be placed with a loving family of another race than for him/her to bounce around from foster home to foster home, waiting for an adoptive family of their own race. Even if the child feels out of place in his/her adoptive family, at least he/she is in a loving environment. So, it shocked me to read these statements from William T. Merritt, a spokesman for the National Association of Black Social Workers:

"Black children should be placed only with black families, whether in foster care or for adoption."

"We view the placement of Black children in White homes as a hostile act against our community. It is a blatant form of race and cultural genocide."

To be fair, Merritt made the first statement in 1971, and the second in 1985, when debates about race were perhaps more heated. It is also unclear if he considers bi-racial kids "Black children." When I first read these words, I was appalled, especially after reading interview after interview stating that few black couples are available to adopt. After pondering the idea that "white families - no matter how liberal or well-intended - cannot teach a black child how to survive in an essentially racist society" (9), I find myself at least understanding the NABSW's position. I still believe that love conquers all, but I can definitely see where the group is coming from. (For more information on the NABSW and their work to find suitable African American homes for children in need, please visit their website.)

The authors of In Their Own Voices do not take a stand on the issue of transracial adoption, or white parents raising black children; rather, they allow the reader to draw his/her own conclusions based on what he/she has read. What I took from the book is this: White families can successfully raise black children, but they should make a conscientious effort to expose their children to the black community. If they are not committed to helping their children find their identity - racial and otherwise - then they should not adopt transracially.

I'll be honest, certain aspects of this book scared me to death, but other parts actually did give me some of the reassurance I needed. Most of all, In Their Own Voices opened my eyes to issues to which I had not given enough thought. It's truly a fascinating, eye-opening look into transracial adoption. That being said, I also have to point out that this book was published in 2000, with most of the TRAs being adopted in the early 1970s. Also, most of the respondents were raised in the Midwest or on the East Coast. I'm curious how the experiences of TRAs adopted in the 90s would compare with their counterparts from the 70s. I also wonder how the lives of TRAs raised in the South or on the West Coast compare to those on the opposite sides of the country. I wish the authors had addressed both of these questions. Lastly, I should clarify something that the authors don't - all of the transracial adoptees with whom they spoke were either black or a black/white mix. So, if you are looking for a book that specifically addresses children of Asian or Eastern European or American Indian or Indian descent, this is not it. Of course, much of the information would apply, I'm just saying I think the cover should have noted that the authors were discussing black/white adoptions. All in all, though, In Their Own Voices is a fabulous resource for white parents and their children. I highly recommend it, as well as its companion volume, In Their Parents' Voices, which is sure to be just as enlightening as this one.

Grade: B

(Note: I realize this is a controversial subject and that I may have inadvertently offended some people. I apologize if this is so. As always, I value your comments on this book or the topic of transracial adoption in general. If you prefer to communicate with me privately, send me an email at blogginboutbooks[AT]gmail[DOT][COM] .)

7 comments:

  1. I know just about nothing about adoption, trans-racial or otherwise, but the quote about "racial and cultural genocide" struck a chord with me. It seems like it could be motivated by a reaction against what until fairly recently used to be a fairly common practice - taking native children away from their parents and community, putting them in "white" schools, demanding they spoke English, and purposefully stripping their culture and identity from them under the guise of assimilation.

    Obviously, that's not the motivation of white parents with trans-racial adopted kids nowadays, but I see how the parallels could be drawn.

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  2. Susan -
    My husband and I are both white, but our biological child looks Asian (I have no idea why we don't have any close relatives who are Asian), but we frequently get people asking us what ethnicity she is and where in Asia we adopted her from. :) I even had someone at the day care who thought I had a sperm donor (only because they saw me pregnant) they didn't beleive that our daughter was our biological child. I just wanted to let you know that sometimes happens with bio children too!

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  3. Wow, I didn't realize it was so controversial to adopt children of a different race. When I was taking a family studies class in college, during one of the classes a white couple came in to talk to the class who had adopted several children of various different races. Hearing from them all the ways that they tried to help their kids understand their ethnic heritage (as an example, the kids got to pick ethnic holidays to celebrate each year) made me quite certain that white parents can definitely raise a child of a different race.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking topic.

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  4. My children are bi-racial, I'm white woman and my husband is black. Would this be helpful to me as well? It sounds faciniating and very informative.

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  5. Fyrefly - Yes, I believe that's exactly what the spokesman was talking about, although according to the book, most of the interviewees looked at themselves as African Americans. They made conscious attempts to study their cultures, so it seems to me that his fears are unfounded.

    Darcie - How crazy is that?

    Kim - I know plenty of white parents who have successfully raised children of other races. It gives me great comfort :)

    Julie - The book focuses on kids who have been adopted, but I think it would be interesting to anyone concerned with black/white issues. I'm sure it would spark some fascinating conversations between you and your husband.

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  6. @ Darcie,

    you may have central/eastern european, russian, or sami heritage. Take a look at Bjork, as an example. Asia touches against Russia and central Europe, so there's some mixing there (like, for as long as there's been people there.)

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  7. I don't know anyone really well who has had a trans-racial adoption but where I live in Utah, I see it everywhere. It doesn't seem like there's much of a problem but like I said, I'm not close enough to anyone to know what problems they may deal with. I personally think it's wonderful that you were able to adopt that beautiful girl. I love the picture in the top right corner. I'm sure you'll do a great job raising her.

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