Is Love Enough? Exploring White Understandings about Race and the Limits of Whiteness in Transracial Adoptions

By Dr. Darron T. Smith

The recent explosion in transracial adoptions (white parents adopting black children) within United States, especially by high profile celebrities such as Sandra Bullock, Madonna and Angelina Jolie, sends a dangerous message to ordinary Americans that race, racism and the persistence of discrimination has all but faded from our national memory. And more so, that love alone is enough to raise a child of color. White parents that definitively espouse, “Love is enough” are doing a huge disservice to their black children. Research shows that black adoptees experience a high degree of uncertainty in deciphering the onslaught of race-based information (particularly with regards to self-image) they inevitably encounter in predominately white communities where they are raised (http://www.amazon.com/White-Parents-Black-Children-Experiencing/dp/1442207620/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1333993760&sr=8-1); the adoptees often experience daily racial micro-aggressions that are typically “unseen” or misinterpreted by the white parent, thus leaving them exposed without developing effective coping strategies in a life-long battle for their racial identity. The concern is not that these white parents are willing to love and raise a child of a different color, but that they are typically resistant to openly examining our nation’s racial history and identifying their role as benefactors in a system of white privilege where white people receive a multitude of unearned, hassle-free benefits.

One of the limitations of white adopting parents raising black children is that the parents are viewing race through the lens of whiteness. In the history making of what it means to be white, this constructed lens is what white people use to view society and the world. This has been a privilege undeservedly bestowed upon Whites in which they do not have to think about what it means to be a white person in society (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vAbpJW_xEc), but this poses a barrier to raising mentally and emotionally healthy children of color who will be confronted with their position in society on a daily basis. White privilege, which includes views on race through a white lens, stems from this nation’s history of race and racism. Part of the challenge of being a white parent adopting children of color is comprehending the children’s racial group history in relation to past and present. In order to understand racism today, one must examine its origins and evolution in history. To understand this is to gain some awareness of what a person of color experiences and the burden they carry for this country’s past deeds. In that process, a white parent has to come to grips with racism and his/her place in a white racialized society. Only then can a parent begin to provide their child with the tools (tools that black parents tend to pass down as received wisdoms through mere experience) to have a strong racial-identity and to contest the experiences and challenges they will surely encounter as a person of color in America.

Nearly two and a half centuries (more than half this country’s history) of white racial framing (http://www.darronsmith.com/2012/03/walking-while-black-the-senseless-killing-of-trayvon-martin-by-dr-darron-t-smith-existing-while-black-in-america-series/) of black Americans as the objects of white scorn has left a legacy of deep-rooted demons that lurk about just beneath the surface of consciousness, dictating how we think and act on our racial assumptions. Hence, the body has become a canvas on which (racial) discourse is painted according to the unconscious and conscious images seen, providing the interlocutor with specific understandings and awareness about human difference, whether real or imagined. According to Lakoff and Johnson (1999), “Conscious goes way beyond mere awareness of something, beyond the mere experience of qualia (the qualitative senses of, for example, pain or color), beyond the awareness that you are aware, and beyond the multiple takes on immediate experience provided by various centers of the brain. Consciousness certainly involves all the above plus the immeasurably vaster constitutive framework provided by the cognitive unconscious, which must be operating for us to be aware of anything at all” (Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought, p. 11).

Because these thoughts exist below the level of conscious awareness, unconscious frames developed which are cognitive maps or conceptual systems, ways of thinking about human difference. Racial frames are specific forms of knowledge production around black bodies that evolved from uneven historical conditions of far-reaching black exploitation and, in a number of significant ways, built up and sustained the wealth of the nation for centuries through the horrors of European colonialism and African slavery. White elites (i.e., lawyers, doctors, scientists, clergyman, etc.) extorted socially constructed ideas about blacks to justify that exploitation. Racial frames are deeply rooted in the image of the body and are remarkably resilient. Thus, each successive new generation of Whites is racially primed with old racist folklore inherited from their white forbearers and reinforced through media portrayals as well as the larger white context of family and friends. For example, white racial frames about black males as scary are well known among a substantial numbers of Whites and, unfortunately for black men, can result in life or death. Certainly George Zimmerman acted on white racial assumptions of black males, which in part lead the tragic death of Trayvon Martin (http://www.cbsnews.com/2718-201_162-1485.html). The recent shootings in Tulsa that left three black men dead and two critically injured is an added reminder of the salience of race in American life (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57411146/tulsa-shooting-spree-racially-charged/). Black Americans know all too well the continued high costs of living with racism.

The election of President Barrack Obama as the nation’s first African American commander and chief emboldened the rhetoric among many white Americans that race no longer matters as a significant U.S. problem. The Obama presence in the White House only strengthens and reinforces in the minds of many that racism is nothing more than randomized situations where individual “acts of meanness” directed at one racial group by another play out. Through this mindset, any one person can be racist, but most Americans see themselves as not racist. Unfortunately, these popular understandings of race are “normal” thinking that largely ignores our racial history of white-generated forms of oppression and violence directed at African Americans and other Americans of color, the aftermath of which can still be felt presently in our modern day society from school performance to the criminal justice system. Whether it’s recoiling in the presence of a black man on an elevator, attending same-race church services or selecting a mate, race matters in virtually ever aspect of our lives.

Given that race remains is a salient factor in the lives of African Americans and other Americans of color, white Americans remain mystified when it is suggested that they are the recipients of unearned white-skin privilege that considerably shape the quality of their life experiences. The uncritical examination of race by white Americans and the perpetuation of the platitude of “colorblindness” to succeeding young white compeers only forestalls any real efforts toward progressive change. As humans, we are generally not open to the idea of evaluating and correcting our personal shortcomings, particularly when it pertains to distasteful parts of our identity and self-image (or ego). Ask any African American or progressive white person and they will invariably tell you that white folks are not particularly receptive to robust discussions about the continuing problems of racial injustice especially if such discussions involve reparations or social justice as it pertains to black Americans. But fear of white offense and their subsequent silencing should not detour important moments of discussion with the goal of radically transforming our society toward a more democratic way, principally in the practice of transracial adoption where white adopting parents have an incentive and duty to rear physically, mentally and emotionally healthy black children.

Black adoptees must be inoculated against white racial understandings, stereotypes and insults to black identity by well-intentioned and not so well-intentioned Whites, and ignoring or de-emphasizing the needs of black children’s racial identity development can have a profound effect on mental health. Black children need an outlet to discuss, process and analyze race in ways that are both productive and protective for them. Because many white Americans hotly contest their own culpability in the maintenance of white racism, how is it then possible for white Americans, the most racially privilege group, to effectively teach black Americans, the least privilege group in our society, to cope with race-based mistreatment? In other words, how can whites parents teach their black children how to handle being black in America?

In 1972, The National Association of Black Social Workers (NASBW) expressed strong reservations against the practice of transracial adoption for many of the reasons mentioned above. Although I strongly understand their viewpoint and agree whole-heartedly with their rationale, I also believe that white adopting parents have every good intention in raising their children with love. The reality is that the majority of black children in foster care will stay there until they age out on their eighteenth birthday, and I certainly cannot say that this is a better alternative to being reared in an all white context. However, I believe there is an additional alternative, and that is to encourage white parents to educate themselves and take ownership of their place in history and the unearned benefits they receive from a racist society. The recent death of Trayvon Martin combined with the Tulsa killings should be a troubling wake-up call for those who thought racism was a thing of the past and particularly concerning for white adopting parents as foresight of what potential pitfalls their children may face by simply being black in America. By pretending that racism doesn’t exist or suggesting it only exists in localized settings, parents are setting their children up for a lifetime of grief and self-doubt. Instead, parents must provide their children with cultural armor to protect them against the pervasiveness of daily racists insults and practices. By giving your black children the understandings of our whitely framed world and the tools to handle this world, you are only preparing them with positive strategies to engage inevitable circumstances that they will encounter. There are ways in which white parents can gain understanding and skills that are useful for their black children. For example, read books by well-written, black authors on the subject of white privilege and white racism, move into more racially integrated communities, attend an African American church and other social functions, and finally, increase friendships with more African Americans of equal status (http://www.amazon.com/White-Parents-Black-Children-Experiencing/dp/1442207620). I remain hopeful that white adopting parents have the desire, courage and conviction to move beyond the racial frame that “race no longer matters in American society” and to recognize their own white privilege which represents a considerable stumbling block to improving the overall quality of experience of transracial adoption for adopting parents and children alike. However, if Whites fail to take ownership of this problem in order to deflect any semblance of racism away from them, then we as a society further fail in our efforts to instill wholesale change.

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