Adopting and Adapting

by guest contributor Catherine Bray

When my husband and I decided to adopt a baby in 2006 we put on our happy “never have done this before and don’t know what’s in store” faces and told our caseworker that we didn’t care about race. We told her that we just wanted a healthy baby girl and that was it.

Afterwards, my husband and I began to discuss race and what bringing a baby into our home that was from another ethnic background might mean to us as a family, as parents, and as middle class white people from the ‘burbs. We had a 2-year-old son, Porter, at the time.

The more we talked about it the more we realized that race did matter. We needed to be honest with ourselves – could we nurture and care for a baby from a background that we had no personal experience in? We finally decided that we wanted to adopt an African-American girl because we felt strongly that she would be a part of an amazing journey for our family.

When we first started discussing this with our family and friends, there were mixed reactions. While many were excited for us, some people questioned why we had any desire to adopt outside of our race. We also got a lot of negative reactions about our ability to be able to manage and care for her hair and skin. We took all of this in stride and started to educate ourselves on the proper care for an African-American baby.

A neighbor of mine came over one day to our house and after seeing several African-American pieces of artwork, books and photography, she commented that we were certainly prepared. What she didn’t know was that all of those things had been purchased prior to our decision to adopt a child. She inferred that the only reason we had these ethnic pieces were because of our impending adoption. It did not occur to her that we would acquire these pieces throughout our lives just because we liked them. Shortly after we finished our paperwork, our baby was born and the birth parents chose us to be her Forever Family. We packed up our things and flew to Texas to be greeted with the newest addition to our family, Gracie.

As an adoptee, I had prepared myself for all of the unknowingly hurtful things people can say and do when asking about the adoption. I knew the comments and “looks” would be very frequent since Gracie is obviously a different race the rest of the family. However, quite a few of the reactions and comments dealt mostly with the difference in race than our adoption. There is never a time that I don’t feel more like the parent of a little black daughter then when I’m out and about running errands. I have been called “the babysitter” more times then I can count. I believe that the reaction to verbally address me as “the babysitter” comes more from the idea that people do not like to encounter things that they do not understand then from the fact I’m so young looking. To place me in the babysitter box, it allows them to categorize me without looking further.

I have been stopped numerous times to be consulted on what I should be doing with my daughter’s hair. I personally think her hair looks great and that I do a kick ass job, however it seems that a lot of women feel otherwise. I am constantly stopped, in the middle of the store, and told exactly how I am failing as her hairdresser. I have been given thousands of names of products and devices to make her hair straighter, fuller, grow faster and be more manageable. My daughter is only 18 months old people, give me a break! When I need the help I ask for it and I tend to ask people that I know, not strangers at the store.

Since we adopted Gracie we have seen a dramatic transformation in our family. It’s amazing what holding a sweet infant in your arms can do to some of the deep-rooted racism that is taught and sometimes passed down unknowingly to future generations.

We have a large extended family. There are some who had trouble relating to Gracie or understanding why we would adopt outside of our race. In an attempt to give the impression that they were not bothered by her race, some family members have mentioned physical qualities about her that are stereotypically African American. They say, “she’s going to have a big butt, I can already see it” or “her hair is going to be a problem, what are you going to do?” Some relatives even told us that they would not love Gracie as much as Porter and then tell us it has nothing to do with race.

There are some members of our family who have made racist comments in the past but now bite their tongue and treat her just the same as they treat Porter. They may still have those views but I think we’ve come along way when I see them playing with her and holding her and treating her like the rest of the toddlers at family functions. They’ve started making the connection that those comments or actions are inappropriate and are changing. The change can happen slowly, but I am happy to see it.

Not every dramatic transformation is a positive one.

The most infuriating thing that has happened involved my half-sister. Since I was adopted at age 3, I didn’t even know I had a half-sister until I was 12 and it wasn’t until I was 25 that I met her for the first time, which was about a year before Gracie was born. We immediately hit it off. She was very down to earth and we shared similar characteristics and interests. It was so cool to finally have a “sister” which was something I had longed for before I ever even knew she existed. When we shared our desire to adopt she was on board and excited for us. She would even email me periodically to see how things were going and if she could do anything for us.

Gracie was adopted about four months after we began the initial process, so it was extremely quick. When we arrived home from being united with her, I sent out emails to everyone with pictures of her. All of the sudden my sister stopped calling me, emailing me, or returning my messages.

After much prodding and a very direct email from my husband, the truth came out. She sent me a very heart breaking email that said, “I am a White Supremacist.” She went on to tell me that she would never call Gracie her niece or accept her into our family because she was not of pure blood.

I WAS ENRAGED. It took my husband holding me back from driving to her house and demanding a confrontation. However, it did make me realize, even as Gracie was only a month old at the time that my anger wasn’t going to help the situation. She and Porter read cues from me on how to deal with racism and having them resort immediately to anger doesn’t help and doesn’t educate the racist view.

So I responded to her and told her that we were very sad that she felt that way. We went on to tell her very personal things about Gracie, how beautiful she was, the way she smiled even as a tiny infant and about all the wonderful ways we loved her. We left an open invitation to our family if she ever changed her mind, but that we could not associate with a family member who could not accept our daughter as a part of her family.

We have to see the world through her eyes when we consider places to visit and even to live. We recently made a move across the country and we seriously thought about how that would affect her and made sure that we lived in a diverse neighborhood where she would be around people of all cultures while growing up. Through her adoption we have become much more aware of the passive racism that exists everywhere. We are all taught a level of racism as we are growing up. Be it in the family, the media or even in a simple conversation overheard from strangers. Hopefully, with our family, our children can grow up to see that family comes in every shape, form, color and size.

Catherine Bray is a freelance writer who has written for The Mamazine (out of Atlanta) and Adoptive Families. She just recently relocated to San Francisco from Atlanta where she was first an accountant and then a stay at home mom for her two children. While living in Atlanta she was very active in adoption programs, counseled adopted children and was a guest speaker for parents considering adoption.

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