A view of racial realities from an adoptive parent’s viewpoint | By Martha Birkett Bordwell (Fall 2020 issue)
When Clara, my daughter, described the way in which her race and ethnicity has impacted her life, I experienced a visceral feeling of anxiety, as if I have always known that racial realities were bubbling beneath the surface of our family’s life, ready to erupt at any moment. I feared the moment when John and I would be called to atone for the casual way in which we approached inter-racial adoption, so blithely shifting all of our family identity from Caucasian to Caucasian-Korean-Guatemalan. Now I knew, that for Clara, these issues weren’t simmering below the surface at all. They erupted constantly.
I have read that in order for white people to deal with race, they first need to come to terms with their own racial identity. This is difficult because those who are a part of the dominant culture, unlike people of color, are seldom called upon to explain their identity. They take it for granted. They don’t describe themselves as white, whereas they tend to describe others as African American or Hispanic, seeing their own race or cultural identity as a given they can take for granted.
In addition, if racial identity is honestly examined, this examination can’t help but be imbued with shame, because of the way in which white people of European ancestry formed this country by displacing and subjugating Native Americans and by enslaving African Americans, who they stole from their birth continent. More recent history points to racism directed toward Asians as, for example, when the U.S. occupied Korea after World War II, participated in the decision to divide it into two nations, and then created conditions that directly led to the international adoption of South Korean children. The mixed-race children of American servicemen were the first children sent abroad to be adopted.
Shame is different from guilt because guilt implies that something can be done to right a wrong or that the problem might be solvable. Shame invokes feelings of helplessness and resignation. And it is not just oneself who is complicit in wrongdoing, but the entire group with which one identifies: One’s parents, one’s ancestors, one’s friends and associates. One can argue that the blame belongs to people who lived in the past, but that doesn’t change the fact that a white person continues to benefit from the oppression directed toward other races and ethnicities.
When one asks children of a different race to form bonds with families representing the dominant culture, what are the implications? What is it like to be asked to abandon one’s birth culture and to instead identify with another culture? Does this risk make such children outsiders wherever they go? Does it transfer shame onto them as they grapple with divided loyalties and the privilege that their family ties offer? Are we, their adoptive parents, no different from our European ancestors, who stole land from Native Americans and exploited African-born workers to further our own goals? Can it be argued that we stole children from other races and cultures to get what we wanted: Children to raise as our own?
I don’t know if my children are capable of articulating their racial identities any better than I am. They take certain realities of their lives for granted. True, Clara expressed a fear that she might be poor because she is Hispanic, but the reality is that because her adoptive parents have generous financial resources, she will never be poor, unless that is her choice. Does her first-hand knowledge of white culture advantage her when it comes to dealing with racism? Or, since she has been somewhat protected from it, is she less prepared to address it? James Baldwin has argued that white people shouldn’t raise children of color because they don’t know how to teach their children “to be despised.” But how is that a positive childrearing attitude? If they are instead taught to expect respect, are they better off ?
Other adoptees, such as a woman who is quoted in a New York Times article (January 4, 2015) about international adoption, argue that it simply isn’t normal for children to be raised by people of a different race. But that reasoning has its limits. Until recently, it was illegal in the U.S. for persons of different races to marry. The primary reasoning argued that it wasn’t natural. Recently, we had had a president who is the product of a mixed-race marriage. Persons of mixed race are prevalent and prominent in our culture.
It is too late for John and I to reconsider our decision to adopt our children. The best we can do is listen when they choose to share with us the feelings they have about adoption, culture, and race. We can validate the way in which their lives have been made more difficult due to the decisions we made long ago, while identifying what we can do in the present to respond to these difficulties. We can recognize the ways in which values which we tried to teach in our home, such as honesty, responsibility, and empathy, might arm them against racist attitudes. We can ask, but we can’t answer for them, whether they feel their personal experiences allow them deeper and wiser insights when it comes to race relations and white privilege.
Demographic trends in the U.S. suggest that by 2050 white people will be in the minority. Although currently we all are experiencing a backlash against this forecast, John and I hope it comes to pass. Our pasts were formed by the choices of our European ancestors. But our future belongs to our children. Our loyalty lies with them.
Martha Birkett Bordwell is the author of Missing Mothers: A Memoir, in which she explores the effects of her mother’s early death on her life, and the loss of birth parents as experienced by her two transnational adoptee children. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, and is now a retired psychologist. Her writing has appeared in professional journals such as Teaching Exceptional Children and Ours magazine, and in local media such as MinnPost and the Minneapolis Star Tribune.