Race preference in adoption

by ARP columnist Natasha Sky

This American Life aired a piece on NPR–on January 18, 2008–about a Nurse/Actress who worked in toy store FAO Schwartz’s Newborn Nursery (hat tip to Mixed Race America and Land of the Not-So-Calm). Here is the toy store’s promotional quote:

What You Will Experience When You Visit a Newborn Nursery:
As you enter the area, you’ll hear sounds of happy baby noises cooing from the nursery viewing area. When you peek through the glass, you’ll see a variety of babies with all different complexions and hair and eye colors. It’s almost too difficult to choose just one bundle of joy to take home! Once you do make your selection, a sales associate dressed like a real nurse, will help you put on your hospital gown. Papers are then completed with the baby’s name, address, and birth date. The “nurse” will carry your baby out of the isolette and will place him or her on a changing table. She’ll conduct a full health examination of your baby and then she’ll teach you how to hold your baby. New “parents” can shop for accessories (including dresses, blankets, shoes and more.) to make their new arrival the prettiest baby on the block!

(There are a lot of things about the way FAO Schwartz handles infant doll adoptions that really bother me, but I am going to focus on adoption and race issues here.)

The 17-minute American Life story is so worth listening to (download the whole “Matchmakers” show here and then fast forward to 41:00 minutes). The narrator is a light-skinned biracial (White and Mexican) woman working as a ‘nurse’. WARNING: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD . . . The dolls/babies begin to move quickly after they are featured on a segment of the TV show ‘Rich Girls’. Most of the ‘adopting mothers’ (approximate age: 7 years old) are White. Not surprisingly (to me at least), FAO Schwartz sells out of all the White baby dolls–within weeks of Christmas. The doll factory is back-ordered until mid-January. FAO Schwartz’s doll nursery has only minority Babies of Color available for sale adoption.

After the White babies are gone, then the Asian babies sell out. Next to go are the light brown (Latino/Hispanic, Native American, multiracial?) babies. The nursery is then full of Black babies–along with one factory-rejected White doll (with melted-together fingers that make its hands look like flippers). The unsellable factory-reject White floor-model doll is purchased adopted when there is an entire ‘nursery’ full of perfect Black babies dolls available.

Nothing about this story surprises me; it is simply play (some would say art) imitating life. I’m going to talk about supply and demand here. Let’s pretend we’re just talking about the FAO Schwartz doll nursery.

The people paying for the dolls/adoption are (for the most part) wealthy White parents, with White daughters choosing their baby to adopt doll. The parents want their daughter to have a White doll. Most of the daughters want a White doll. When all the White dolls have already been sold adopted by other little-girl-mothers, the racial hierarchy of doll-adoption flows the same way it does for children in real life. (Although in real life there is also the parallel gender-preference hierarchy. In the toy nursery, the ‘adoptive mothers’ simply state that their dolls/babies are girls. In real life, the adoptive parents request girls and the boys just wait.)

Here’s a real-life paralell example: a site that hosts pre-adoptive parent profiles*, families waiting for domestic–usually infant–adoption (NOTE: this site only accepts heterosexual, married couples–and most are Christian as well). Of the hundreds of currently listed waiting families:

  • 88% would ‘accept’ a White baby
  • 33% would ‘accept’ a South American or Hispanic baby
  • 28% would ‘accept’ an Asian baby
  • 26% would ‘accept’ a Native American baby
  • 14% would ‘accept’ a Black baby

I ran these same stats for an article I wrote two years ago, and the numbers were just about the same. For biracial babies (White/____) the numbers of families willing to ‘accept’ a child rises. Adoptive parents still think raising a part-White biracial child will be easier, less complicated, than raising a ‘full’ (for example) African American child. (Ha!)

There are also the corollary international adoption statistics. The top 10 ’sending’ countries for 2006 provided U.S. families with 18,290 new children through international adoption. By region of the world, these children are from:

  • 43% from Asia (China, Korea, India)
  • 26% from Eastern Europe (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine)
  • 24% from Central and South America (Guatemala, Colombia)
  • 7% from Africa (Ethiopia, Liberia)

The parts of this doll adoption story that strike deep inside me echo the same heart-issues I have with race and adoption in real life. Although transracial adoption should not be taken lightly (At all!), I have been kept up many a night thinking of all those Children of Color waiting for adoptive families, all those pregnant women seeking families for their unborn Children of Color. When will skin color and race be just one more thing we see when we look at someone (like their gender or their height)? When will light skin stop being a tally in the ‘plus’ category and dark skin a tally in the ‘minus’ category? If we as transracially adoptive parents are not expected (or able) to get past this light/dark skin-tone scale, who will?

I remember one pre-adoptive parent I was working with who was considering switching from the willing-to-accept-a-White-baby-only category to the ‘biracial’ category. This parent had a potential ‘match’ and wanted to know if their unborn biracial child would look ‘more White or more Black’. I gave the standard multiracial-children-come-in-all-shades response. But what I really wanted to say was, “If you have to ask that question, I don’t think you get it.” Black/White biracial is Black. If a parent can’t accept a ‘full’ Black child as their own, how can they embrace the Black-ness of a biracial child? As a country, we must be willing, no, committed to discussing race and racism and White privilege–as they relate to adoption and foster care (and to everything else).

Although I believe that no one should adopt a child they do not feel prepared to parent (race/ethnicity or known special needs), becoming a parent is not a multiple choice menu. Just because parents engineer their child to be what they desire or (in the case of adoptive parents) are ‘willing to accept’–that does not by any means guarentee the menu-selected individual will be the child those parents receive (through birth or adoption). When you have children, you get what you get–much of your child is unknown no matter how you build your family. The unknowns involved in building a family are both magical and scary, but IMO worth all the risk.

* NOTE: Finding accurate statistics for domestic adoption is impossible. Statistics are collected for almost all states for foster care adoption, but infant adoption is regulated by individual states, and neither states nor the federal government collect these statistics.

Natasha Sky is a multiracial woman, a writer, an artist, and an activist—as well as the fulltime mother of four young multiracial children. Two of her children joined her family through open domestic adoption and two of her children joined her family through homebirth. Natasha created MultiracialSky.com, a website of resources for multiracial families. During naptime, she blogs about multiracial family life.
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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, Change.org, 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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