Transracial adoption when the baby is white

Last week Newseek.com ran a piece called “Raising Katie: What adopting a white girl taught a black family about race in the Obama Era,” an unusual story about transracial adoption in that it focused on a set of black parents who adopted a white child—an almost non-existent form of transracial adoption.

The article is interesting for the ways that it details, by way of this very uncommon example, the common experiences that interracial families often have in public: the stares, the comments, the bizarre behavior that indicates the trouble people have reconciling familiar displays of affection, caring and relations of authority in an unfamiliar racial context.  We learn of the various ways that white strangers surveil the Riding-Smith family, for example, following them around the mall to make sure Katie is not being kidnapped, asking Katie directly (in the presence of her mother), “Are you okay?”.

The story traverses the terrain we have come to expect in coverage of issues of transracial adoption, though the racial signifiers are reversed: accusations that these parents must be self-hating black people if they chose a white child over all the many black children lingering in foster care; the fear strangers express that Katie will be confused about her identity when she gets older; and a discussion of the rights of children to be raised by their racial and (it is assumed) cultural similars balanced against their right to be raised in a family at all.

What I find especially compelling about this story is the way it demonstrates that when racialized abstractions are replaced with real live human beings, the hard line positions people often take on the subject of interracial intimacy, and adoption in particular, become less defensible. Katie’s adoptive mother, Phyllis, you see, is a former head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, and supports that group’s policy discouraging transracial adoption. Even so, when she received Katie, who had been bounced around to a dozen foster homes by age 3 because she was considered unmanageable, Phyllis “couldn’t say no.”

The article hints at, but never really moves its analysis of transracial adoption “upstream,” as Barbara Katz Rothman puts it, to understand the historical, political and social conditions for why so many more black babies are available for adoption than white and, further upstream still, what makes adoption necessary in the first instance.

Allison’s post about Shanley’s concept of a “relational right” to support is relevant here. That is, if we operated from the principle that parents and children have “a positive, “social right” that leads to claims for support to sustain their relationship,” far fewer women would have need to surrender their children to the vagaries of the adoption and foster care system for we as a society would create the economic and social conditions in which such family relationships thrive.

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8 Comments on “Transracial adoption when the baby is white”

  1. Pamela Oliver Says:

    Good post. Not on your main point, but a sub-point about the adoption debate is the complaint/allegation that one reason for the “shortage” of black adoptive parents is that white social workers turn down applications from black people who want to adopt. The general argument is that white social workers give too much weight to financial resources over personal qualities in deciding who would make a good parent.

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  8. This is great. Thanks for the article. I’m pro adoption.


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