It Takes Love—And Work—To Create An Interracial Adoptive Family

This guest post is by Marlene Fine and Fern Johnson, adoptive parents and authors.

interracial-familyWe are the white adoptive parents of two African American sons, both adopted when they were infants and who are now in their 20s.

Our experience as white mothers of children of color has taught us much about the importance of helping children develop a healthy racial and/or ethnic identity.

White adoptive parents of children of color from outside the U.S. are often encouraged to travel to their adopted child’s country of birth or to enroll their child in language or cultural classes.  These are important to both the adopted child and the adopted parents and we strongly endorse them.

But there’s much more to be done. 

When you adopt a child who is racially or ethnically different from you and other members of your family, you create a multiracial or multiethnic family.

Helping your child develop a healthy racial identity is also tied to creating a family culture that both recognizes and incorporates your child’s heritage.

We offer the ideas below as a starting point for thinking about ways you can create a multiracial/multiethnic family culture for you and your child.

For each idea, be sure that what you do feels authentic to everyday family life, rather than what some have termed “cultural tourism”— picking and choosing things to be on display for your children rather than making them a part of your own identity.

1. Create a home environment that reflects the heritage and cultural background of your child, not just you. 

What is part of your home—from art work on the walls to magazines and books to the food you cook—helps create the family.

Fern is Lutheran and Marlene and the boys are Jewish, but we’ve always celebrated Christmas.  Our Christmas tree has a black angel on top with a Jewish star just below.  Our ornaments include a black Santa Claus.

2. Make race and ethnicity part of the daily conversation at home. 

To help your child feel his or her place in the world, you need to provide normalized daily recognition of your child’s heritage.

We often used dinner conversations to discuss items in the news (both positive and negative) that focus on people of color.

Was there something in the news today about a Latino politician? About how people of color voted in a recent local election? About discrimination against Blacks in mortgage lending? Has there been commentary about a television program or movie because of its inclusion or exclusion of blacks, Latinos, Asians?

For your child to participate, the conversations need to be age appropriate, but it’s also important for a child to hear parents discussing these things—even if they do not completely understand what is being said.

3. Incorporate your child’s cultural heritage in your family’s celebrations. 

Our sons included African American spirituals and poetry in their bar mitzvah ceremonies.

At our annual Passover seder, which celebrates the release of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, we include readings about slavery in the U.S. and offer prayers for people throughout the world who are still enslaved.

4. Use school projects as opportunities for both you and your child to learn about your child’s heritage.

When our younger son had to write a biography of a well-known person in middle school, we encouraged him to read about Jackie Robinson.

His paper described how Robinson broke the color barrier and taught our son about Robinson’s courage in facing racist attitudes and comments—a lesson he would be able to draw on in his own life.  Both of our sons chose selections from Langston Hughes when they studied poetry, and each used the ubiquitous family tree school project to explore slavery in the U.S.

Our older son used that project to talk about how slavery had erased his birth family’s lineage and the Holocaust had done the same with his adoptive family heritage.  In each of these examples, we learned with our sons.

We were also in the audience when they presented their family trees, acknowledging to the community that this was our shared family heritage.

5. Seek out events that focus on aspects of your child’s ancestry.

Many cities have ethnic cultural festivals, which offer a wide range of activities and entertainment. Events featuring Black storytellers or annual celebrations of the Black Nativity or Chinese New Year provide rich resources for first-hand engagement with the traditions that are associated with different ancestries.

They also provide opportunities for your children to be with others who look like them, and for you to share those moments with them as a family.

We’ll always remember the first time that Marlene took our sons to a black barbershop.

She and the boys waited for several hours in the crowded shop until it was their turn.  When they left, our younger son looked at Marlene and said, “Mom, did you know you were the only white person there?”  She did—and it was an important experience to have shared with our sons who often experience being in the minority.

6. Seek out and get to know as many adults and children as possible who are from the same or similar ancestry as your child, and build a friendship circle of multiracial and multiethnic families that have been created through both adoption and birth.

Having people in your life that share your child’s racial/ethnic identity ensures that your child doesn’t always feel different or isolated.  Creating this friendship circle takes work and getting out of our comfort zone, but your child’s life and yours will be enriched.

Marlene Fine and Fern Johnson are the adoptive parents of two African American sons and the authors of The Interracial Adoption Option: Creating a Family across Race.

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