Ask ARP: Is my wife making too much of our adopted child’s race?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

My wife and I are adopting a little infant girl from Ethiopia. My wife has read 35 books, spends hours in adoption related chat rooms, has taken courses on caring for black kids’ hair and skin etc. Suffice it to say she is really committed.

Me on the other hand…….have convinced myself that racism doesn’t exist in our small rural community outside Toronto. My faith in love and nurturing my little daughter (as I do with our 3 young sons) is the key ingredient to making our daughter feel loved and secure. Growing up my best friend was black, I dated women from diverse cultures, my parents were not racist……….so it was just not an issue. I NOW feel like my wife is making race an issue.

Am I totally naive? Do I need to pull my head out of the sand? Is adopting  and/or adopting a black baby that complicated? I do have two adopted sisters (Caucasian), so I do understand some of the

Any words of advice?

C. Spencer
Toronto, Canada

From the Editor:

I agree with you on one point: Love and nurturing is the key ingredient to raising a happy and healthy child. It is just not the ONLY ingredient. (Think cookies–You can’t make yummy batch of chocolate chip with just sugar and flour. They are key ingredients in the recipe, but alone they don’t do the trick.)

You’re a dad, so I know you know that in addition to loving and nurturing your children, you also have to work to meet each of their unique needs. You probably don’t think about it, you just do it intuitively. One son has high energy and an agile mind, so you make sure he is challenged and has things to do. Another child is a quiet and amazing artist, so you encourage his talent, but also make sure he doesn’t disappear into himself. Your wife is right to recognize that your new daughter’s race will give her some unique needs.

If you are a member of the majority culture, it is easy not to notice that we live in a white supremacist culture. I don’t mean that in the “skinhead and hate speech” way. I mean that in Western society, in general, white = right = normal. White appearance, culture and habits are the default, which positions people of color as “other” and , at worst, deficient.

Beauty standards are one way that the idea of white supremacy plays out. Black girls grow up learning from what they see and hear in magazines, the media and everyday conversation, that long, silky, straight hair (particularly light-colored hair) is supremely beautiful and most coveted. Conversely, the dark, tightly-coiled, coarse hair that is common to many women of African descent (not all) is not. The same with narrow, light European features vs. broader, darker African features. Parents of black girls need to work hard to affirm their beauty. A black girl in this society has this unique need. Your wife is smart to learn how to properly care for your daughter’s hair, because it will likely be different from your other children’s. And you will both need to stress that different does not mean deficient; your daughter’s tresses will be beautiful in a different way than her mother’s hair is beautiful.

It’s not that black children (or Asian or Hispanic or Native American) are so different from their Caucasian counterparts; it’s that the way people react to them is different. You may think there is no racism in your town, but I have a hunch that the people of color there would not agree. They likely recognize race bias in many everyday situations. That doesn’t mean that your town is a hot bed of racism. There is likely some racism, but more race bias. I live in a small, not-so-diverse town in the Midwestern U.S. I love it here. I have encountered little racism, but race biasyes. I am very aware that I am the only person like me in many day-to-day interactions. Think about what it would be like to be the only white male, day-in and day-out wherever you go. Depending on the diversity of your town, a black child living there may have a unique need for support in combating the stress of being “the only.”

How will your black child, raised in a white culture, interact with other children of her race who were raised by parents of the same ethnicity? Some children of color raised by white parents find it difficult to fit in among people of their own race, who expect the adoptee to understand cultural touchstones that may be foreign to her.  Your daughter may have a unique need to stay connected to her own culture.

Don’t let these unique needs scare you. Let the love and nurturing you have to offer guide you in discovering your new daughter. Just understand that as a black girl her place in the world is different from yours and she will need her parents’ help to navigate life’s challenges–like all children do.

Congratulations on the new member of your family!


ARP readers, what do you say?

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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