By Rachel Patten
We didn’t tell a lot of people about our plan to adopt or the fact that we might possibly adopt a black child. Having worked in the adoption industry for over a decade, I had seen too many adoptions fail and didn’t want to get anyone too excited (including myself). My husband and I were both on the same page and figured our families would support us in whatever we decided was best.
When we were matched with our son’s birthmother, we had a negative initial reaction from some older family members, and I was a bit taken aback since adopting a baby for us was never about gender or race, but more about becoming parents. We shortly realized that a lot of it was centered on the stagnant racism based on where they grew up and less about blatant hatred (they are now our children’s biggest fans). We hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, but were prepared to rid ourselves of any relationships that didn’t support our family or the child we chose to adopt.
Adopting outside of our own race, while it’s been a huge eye-opener for our families (in a positive way) and a game changer for rooted feelings, has come with its challenges. I can recall the first time a child in our son’s preschool class said,
“Is that your son?”
“Why, yes. Yes, he is.”
“Well, he doesn’t look like you. He doesn’t match.”
While my adrenaline pumped a bit and my eyes wandered for another adult that might take the reigns, I murmured, “well, you don’t have to match to be a family.”
Then I realized that was maybe a bit too short.
“The world would be really boring, wouldn’t it, if we all matched and looked the same?”
She nodded and ran off to play with nearby toys. That was the first time I realized that I had better have some answers for these types of questions.
As a mother of a black son, I am terrified for his safety. I’m terrified in this day and age that he will be judged more harshly for his ADHD and seen as threatening for his stature as a grown man. Studies have shown — and the media has proven — that he will be judged more harshly and that he will have to take extra precautions to live a long, safe life. It makes me sick!
My white privilege becomes more blatant when I drop my son off at school, take him to soccer practice, or visit the grocery store and even the park. I think of the fact that I can wear a hoodie and walk in an unknown area, or reach in my glove box without the fear and likelihood of being shot. I’ll need to teach my son “how to act” when he’s pulled over by a police officer (something I’d never need to teach a bio child).
My children are the minority in most places we visit and, while they’ve been treated, for the most part, as equals, I know that won’t always be the case. I knew going in to our adoption that things would not always be easy, but I was willing to fight the fight.
I’m so sick of turning the news on to hear about how racism is still strong in our country, how another black man or worse yet child has been harmed, belittled, rejected or killed for something my white counterpart wouldn’t have been. I’m so sad to read friends’ social media posts about what they’ve encountered and how they’ve been judged for being white parents to black children, and how their schools and communities continue to tolerate racism without consequence.
After adopting our son, we knew we wanted another Black or bi/multi-racial child. We thought it was important for our children to have that commonality growing up and to be able to support and relate to one another.
As desperately as I wanted a girl, I had a big fear of caring for African American girl’s hair. As ridiculous as it sounded, I knew I would not be able to live up to the standards that others would place on me. Sure, I knew how to do a basic braid, but anything else was out of my league.
We decided to let fate be, and after one failed placement, we were then blessed with the most amazing little girl a family could ever ask for. She has the most gorgeous, wild and unruly hair. When she was about a year old, I thought I had completely destroyed it, but thankfully sought out help and now it’s beautiful! She is nearly three now and, while I have learned some great hair care tips, I often look to professionals to help me.
My first barber trip experience was awful; the barber told me that my son’s hair was matted and then barked off a list of harsh and judgmental “suggestions.” I wanted to be sassy back and let him know about the thousands of other things I was dealing with — “so sorry I couldn’t deep condition his hair every week” — but I didn’t. I nodded and took note of how I could better care for my black child’s hair as a white woman.
For those thirty minutes, my son was exposed to other black men and he wasn’t the minority. I was fortunate to find a beautiful black woman that praised me for the work I had done on my daughter’s hair and for caring enough to seek out help. Now our daughter, too, has an amazing hairstylist and a great female black role model.
Transracial adoption is a beautiful thing, but it comes with its challenges — challenges that I feel blessed every day to tackle. Hair is just one of them. When you decide to adopt a black child (or a biracial child; you’ll soon find they will always be labeled as “black”), you become a transracial family. With that comes great responsibility. Even though we have taken great strides to rid ourselves of racism, it’s still very much alive. It’s up to us to do our homework and to educate our loved ones and ourselves.
“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” –Nelson Mandela
Black history was barely covered when I was in school; it’s something I didn’t know much about. Now it is something on which I’ve felt compelled to educate myself because, sure, I know who Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. are, but I want my children to know and be proud of their history and what their ancestors fought for and became.
I’m still learning, but I think as parents it’s our responsibility to do our homework and pass it on to our children. To expose them to culturally diverse events in our community; make sure they have strong Black role models; take them to Black barbershops and Black beauty salons, and to not be afraid to ask for help.
I love to read to my children. I’ve tried to find books to help explain their adoption stories, and also to introduce conversations on transracial adoption. Unfortunately, I’ve only found books that skim the surface, so I decided to write one myself! My first children’s book, This is Love, which tells the story of my son’s adoption, should be available for purchase by the end of the year.
As a mother, I hope that my love alone will get them through the difficult times even though I know that’s likely not the case. I try to have faith that racism will cease to exist and that my children will have equal opportunities, but I also know the likelihood of that, so I must prepare my children the best way I can. Adopting has been the best thing that has ever happened to us. It didn’t matter if our children were black or white, girls or boys. Now that we have black children, it matters, and as parents, it carries a responsibility.
Adoption is a beautiful gift and transracial adoption has been incredibly rewarding. Nothing worthwhile comes easily, so embrace the trials and know that every second is worth it and is a part of your child’s incredible story. We are so blessed to have the children that we do and to be given the opportunity to educate others, celebrate the differences in our family, and continue to grow and learn every day.
Rachel has been working in adoption for nearly fifteen years and still remains very passionate about it. As an adoption advocate and an adoptive mother of two, she has walked through and held the hands of hundreds of families as they took the journey themselves. She has a bachelors degree in psychology and masters in social work and is currently licensed as an LCSW. She is working on publishing several children’s book about transracial adoption. Rachel loves traveling, spending time with her family, fishing, and hiking.