Why white adoptive parents must actively engage in anti-racist work

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

It’s a precarious position for anyone who tries to be an agent of change within any institution. It can be difficult to balance the needs between individual people and systems that were created to help and instead have become so bureaucratic that it is a wonder anyone is helped at all.

When I was in graduate school for social work, we were often told that social reform and social justice were as important to the profession as the ability to empathize and help. Truthfully, however, the field of social work is quite polarized.

I would say the majority of the people in the field (and most of them are women) came into the program because they wanted to “help people” (I could go into a whole separate post about how women are valued in our society and why that created an over-representation of women in the “helping professions” because that deserves an investigation as well. But I’ll leave that for another day).

Many of my colleagues spoke passionately about how their personal spiritual beliefs “called them” to the field.Well, I have no argument with that because in a way I also feel “called” to my work, though not by a sense of spiritual duty. My “calling” if you can call it that, was based on many goals; first, I did not want to participate in a profession that was based on the production, marketing or selling of consumable goods. Secondly, I wanted to try to be an agent of change within the field and represent as a voice not included in the existing framework (as both a person of color and as an adoptee). Third, I strongly felt I could contribute to critiquing and challenging the current paradigms of practice and research.

I think “helping people” is a nice goal too. And I believe that it is very important. But in my view, having only a tight focus on “helping people” is limiting. We can “empower” people to change their lives on a singlular basis and I believe that is all well and good. But without looking at the rest of what is happening in the forest, we might be encouraging people to try and work within an overall system that is set up to fail them and send ‘em right back to your doorstep.

We give a lot of lip service to the abstractions of “social reform,” “social justice,” and “empowerment.” But it would be more accurate to say that a great deal of social work involves social control more than our obligation to empower the people we serve.

And, in fact, I have difficulty with the concept of “empowerment” because as one of my insightful fellow grad students once stated, “empowerment is a gift we bestow on our [clients].” We’re speaking about privilege here, because as social workers we have the power and control (backed up by our government and agencies) to make people do certain things in order to receive services. Right, we don’t just believe in the welfare state – people need to prove or earn their way to services.

What we are really about is telling people how to fix their lives the way we think it should be fixed, as arbiters of whatever framework of morality we believe.

The result is a push-pull between “worker” and “client” (on a tangent, let me just say that I really despise the way social work has chosen to appropriate business/market economy language – as if the people who use services are free to choose among a buffet of options).

The push-pull in adoption services is balancing the needs of prospective adoptive parents and the children who become adopted. I’m not selling goods, but I’m definitely selling ideologies. In order to make prospective families and children in foster care appealing to each other’s social workers, we use marketing strategies. Wednesday’s Child or Thursday’s Child as many “markets” call them are features of foster care children in newspapers. Just like the puppies and kitties they feature for adoption on other days. We use brochures and flyers and videos of the kids to show prospective adoptive parents. And prospective adoptive parents are asked to make brochures and flyers about themselves so the children’s social workers can determine if they look like “a good match.” Many adoption agencies have web sites where prospective parents can look at featured children and read a little blurb about the child. If that doesn’t seem eerily like shopping on the internet, then you are not being honest with yourself.

It’s one part marketing and one part matching services like an on-line dating service would provide. Which begs the question: who is the real “customer” in this transaction? The prospective parent, or the child?

We know the child has no “voice” of their own (unless they are older kids and then most people aren’t interested anyway). And I believe that prospective parents have an infinitely difficult time with all the decisions that have to be made as they go through the adoption process. What kind of temperments do they have? What kind of children would they be able to best parent? Where do they live, and is diversity going to be an issue for them? Do they have enough supports in place? Are they aware of the losses and traumas that children in need have? What are their expectations? And it goes on and on.

So while I believe that prospective adoptive parents must be honest about what they can or can not deal with in adopting a child, it also breaks my heart to see so much “choice” being thrown around on behalf of adoptive parents and meanwhile the child has to hope and pray that their social workers are making good choices on their behalf.

Agencies become damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Yesterday, I participated in a panel on transracial and transnational adoption for a local adoption support conference. Many of the participants there had great questions and we had, what I thought, was a difficult and educational discussion.

One of my thoughts, as I was driving home from that event yesterday, was how I felt adoption agencies do not prepare adoptive parents enough. I’ve heard over and over again from adoptive parents that they just did not receive this information before hand, and now that they’re delving into the issues they feel all kinds of guilt, sadness, helplessness and even sometimes hopelessness.

It would be easy to blame agencies for lack of preparation. Yet, when I meet adoptive parents who are in that stage of the process – the pre-adoptive stage – they are angry when we attempt to educate about issues of race and loss and culture and all the other things that go hand-in-hand with transracial and transnational adoption. For instance, at the agency where I work, we require all pre-adoptive parents to attend a day long session on transracial and transcultural adoption as part of their required training. The presenter is very skilled in these issues – and is a transracial (domestic) adoptee as well as a professional social worker. And this very week, one of these families threw a temper tantrum because of this training, challenged the trainer on every point, and raised a fuss with the home-study worker because they felt the trainer was being too negative and telling this family they couldn’t successfuly adopt transracially. Now, I have seen this trainer many times and I think I would have been even more pointed and challenging then he.

Agencies are bound by MEPA (MultiEthnic Placement Act) legislation which places strict limits on what agencies can do to prepare prospective adoptive parents for transracial and transnational adoption. But we can’t just find fault in MEPA, or ipso facto the federal legislature, because our government is reacting to what our society in whole – especially those who are white and wealthy – dictate.

If I could rule the process myself, I would have a few additional requirements for adoptive parents who wish to adopt transracially or transculturally – including proof that they had actively worked on investigating their own whiteness and that they have the ability to educate themselves and act as allies in the issues and concerns of communities of color. Because just loving and being “open” to a child of another race or culture is NOT ENOUGH. And just hoping that as a parent, one would be able to help them with racial “self-esteem” is NOT ENOUGH. Adoptive parents must be part of a larger movement of anti-racist work. If as a white adoptive parent, you can not picture yourself working within the political movement of your child’s race or culture, then I believe you must take a hard look at why that is.

This goes way, way beyond issues of whether you can love your child, or parent them if they have “special needs” or even whether you live in a diverse neighborhood or read books to them about their culture or take them to culture camps. This is about realizing that your little one is a member of a group of people with a long history of struggle at the hands of whiteness and you, as a member of that oppressive group, must be willing and able to step up and actively work towards dismantling those very structures. This means you will be risking your own membership in the elite group of whiteness; others who are part of the dominant structure will begin to challenge you, call you a traitor and try to bring you down. It won’t be easy. You may even risk losing friends and family who won’t agree or understand.

In the White Racial Identity work by Helms* and Carter**, they point out that many white people who become actively involved in dismantling racism face a stage where they have to learn to give up their membership in the dominant white reference group and yet accept they will not be accepted as members of a community of color – having to exist being “betwixt and between.” If adoptive parents can understand this, they might begin to understand the “betwixt and between” that their transracially adopted children will deal with in their lives.

This is tough work. My advice for pre-adoptive parents who think I am being unreasonable in suggesting they engage themselves in active anti-racist work? They should reconsider whether they are really about the child or their own needs. Nobody ever said that this work was going to be comfortable or easy.

In my own little corner of the world, I am attempting to be the small rudder of a huge ship in the ocean – hoping that by making small little changes in degree, I can help the ship change directions. But even as I’m trying to change things by small degrees, my mind is always on the ocean that surrounds me. Until we are able look out into the sea instead of focusing only on the ends of our noses, like the Titanic, what seems to be just a small little jut of ice in the ocean will instead be the deep and massive iceberg below the surface that will destroy us all.

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I strongly urge you to read and investigate the work of white, anti-racist activists Tim Wise and Paul Gorski at EdChange as places to begin.

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* Helms, J.E. & Cook, D.A. (1999). Using race and culture in counseling and psycotherapy: Theory and process. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

** Carter, R.T. (1995). The influence of race and racial identity n psycotherapy: Towards a racially inclusive model. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/

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