Race and Adoption, Part II

January 24th, 2012

I wrote Race & Adoption, Part I, more than 4 years ago. But I just posted it two weeks ago—and, as they say at the end of successful fundraisers, “the response was overwhelming.”

What does “overwhelming” mean for a blog post? Five “likes” on Facebook, four emails, three comments, and one phone call. Yes, people. There was an overwhelming response to my thoughts on race and adoption. I expect Oprah to call next week.

I started wondering today why I waited so long to post those brief thoughts. They have been sitting as a draft on my computer for quite a long time. Longer than my computer has lasted, actually. I retrieved them from a failed hard drive three years ago.

Why did I wait? Well, for one, I didn’t have a blog for about a year. Another thing—by the time I had a blog, the race issues that are part and parcel of adoption in America were so complicated and confusing to me, I didn’t know where to start.

And then there’s this. I know that there are lots of people involved in adoption who don’t want to talk about the race issue. They like to stay on the cheerful side of adoption, the one where all parties are served well and everyone is happy.

Well, there are lots of other sides to adoption. And I don’t like to be the one to talk about them. I’m okay talking about grief—about the grief of birthparents, about infertility and grief, about the adopted child’s grief about not being with his family of origin. But other issues? They make me uncomfortable, because I don’t like to rock the boat. There are so many other people who can rock the boat, and they have a lot more experience than I do with adoption.

But I think I’ll let go of that fear, and just write about what I know. I’ll write more about race and adoption from here on out—I’m hoping for more overwhelming responses.

I wrote this about four years ago, when Nick and I were just being confronted with the various forms and checkboxes that are part of the adoption process. I was baffled and overwhelmed by all the choices that go along with adoption. Race is one of those choices. Here’s what I was thinking in January, 2008:

We can’t ignore it: the adoption forms are full of questions about the kind of child we’re looking for. The ones we’re open to. The child we will welcome into our family. The child who will steal our hearts.

When we first started researching agencies, we would fill out online forms, pre-application applications for adoption agencies or facilitators. The race question is inevitable: “What races are you open to? Check all that apply.” Sometimes the question is tidied up and you’re just presented with two options. It goes something like this: “X adoption entity has two types of adoptions: the “traditional program” and the “agency assisted” program.” Or sometimes, just “Group A” and “Group B.”

There are different kinds of babies?

Yes. But only TWO different kinds of babies. One group is all babies EXCEPT ones of African American ancestry. Group 1 and Group 2. “Agency assisted” usually means the organization waives part of its fees to facilitate the placement of these African American or multi-racial babies.

An admirable cause, yes. Necessary? It depends on how you look at it. How things ought to be? Definitely not.

The instant impression this two-tiered system makes is that there is an ECONOMIC difference between black babies and other babies. A different monetary value is placed on “Group A.” Now we know from adoption statistics that healthy, white babies are a scarce commodity, insofar as there are not enough of them to go around for all the families who would like to be matched with one. So this double system–Group A and Group B– reflects reality. Does it follow that because seemingly fewer families want to adopt “Group B” babies that their adoption should actually cost less?

Many agencies maintain that these adoptions should cost less to increase adoptions of black babies. But do we really want decisions about which family wants what race of child to be based on money? Or you could say that people choose to adopt black children just happen to get a little “thank you” in the form of reduced rates. Something not connected to their decision. No matter how you look at it, the separation of babies based on race reinforces the status quo: it represents certain children as more valuable than others. And representation doesn’t just show us reality; it creates reality.

Don’t get me wrong. I think that measures are needed to find homes for black babies. But measures such as the this double system are bandages–they treat the symptom, not the disease. It’s not the best solution to the problem of finding families for all the babies. We need to inquire into the powerful but silent workings of the system itself. Why are black babies harder to place? Are black and multiracial families recruited by adoption agencies and facilitators at the same rate as their caucasian peers? Why is it so beyond the imagination of many white families that they might adopt a black child?

This American Life on PRI ran a show called “Matchmakers” in January 2008. The third act of the show tells the story of a writer who works as a “nurse” in a “nursery” at FAO Schwartz. The idea is that little girls can adopt newborn dolls and bring them home to be part of the family. The store is swamped with white parents and children who buy out all the white dolls, then the asian, then the hispanic (in that order). The “nurse” is left with a group of unadopted, black babies and one white baby, whose hands are deformed.

Utterly fascinating and very sad–have a listen.

You can stream it for free, or download:


Adoption is showing up a lot these days in TV storylines. Grey’s Anatomy is taking another stab at it this season, as Ellen Pompeo and Patrick Dempsey’s characters try to adopt Zola, a baby from Malawi who has spina bifida.

I dip into Grey’s once every few years, and every time I get caught up in the drama: I’ll admit I love it. Especially the talent and emotional realism on display when Pompeo and Dempsey interact. They’re like magic together. Seriously. It’s true, even if it’s said a little too much by adoring fans and talk show hosts.

Here’s the super-sweet and well done scene where Derek proposes adopting Zola to his wife.

Adding a person to the Derek/Meredith love story is a great way to enliven a plotline that’s getting pretty L-O-N-G in it’s eighth year. A love triangle, lets say. But without too much jealousy and backbiting. Any baby would do, really. But a kid with medical problems? That fits in well with the hospital scene. They can throw all sorts of health crises at her to fuel the drama and have an excuse to have a cute baby on set. The adoption process? LOTS of drama.

So you see I know that Grey’s is primarily about drama. That’s the deal–it’s a prime time soap opera. But its producer Shonda Rhimes and Ellen Pompeo have spoken publicly  about wanting to depict the adoption in a realistic way. They want the show to spill over into reality, to circulate socially and start discussions, contribute to the gradual breakdown of stereotypes and prejudice against adoption (both of which are rife, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Rhimes chose the most controversial adoption pairing she could: a black child and two white parents. (Revision: More controversial would have been an African-American child instead of an African child, but that’s also is a topic for another time.) They could have tried to adopt a caucasian baby like Lisa Cuddy on House, whose toddler is only paraded around when we need to be reminded of how complicated Cuddy’s life is.

But the Mer/Der/Zo configuration makes a real statement about the possibilities of multi-racial family groups occuring even when both parents are white. (And even though Angelina and Brad make it seem like old-fashioned stereotypes of matching families are a thing of the past, believe me: they’re not.)

This storyline has SO MANY possibilities for real discussions about the difficulties white parents have in parenting children of color. These are real problems, real questions. Can they handle the pressures of being a “visible” family, always drawing stares? Can they give their children strong and meaningful connections to other people of color? Can they successfully recognize racial difference without making it a point of precious special-ness or a one-dimensionsal attribute?

Did Zola’s social worker ask Meredith and Derek anything about these issues? No. In fact, Zola’s race has become discursively, if not physically, invisible on the show. The social worker thinks they’ll make great parents because they’re doctors that can understand Zola’s medical problems. The other doctors comment on how perfect they are as Zola’s parents because they’re doctors. No one ever says anything about Zola’s skin color.


Why does it matter that she’s black? Isn’t Grey’s just representing a world that we would like to exist? Where no one would look twice at a family like this one?

That would be a great world. But that world won’t exist until we’ve dealt with a myriad of political problems surrounding adoption. For example, how black families interested in adoption are not recruited by adoption agencies as often as their white peers. How black kids make up a disproportionate number of the children in the foster care system, and black families are targeted more for intervention by DCF than white families. How poverty, which disproportionately affects people of color, makes it hard for black mothers to parent their children and black families to stay together. How children of color raised by white parents in the US have spoken up about the difficulties they encountered and alienation they felt in all-white neighborhoods, all-white schools, and all-white churches.

So for now, we have to have discussions about how white parents can parent kids of color. I’m not targeting anyone specifically here, just myself and anyone who wants to think about this issue. Our son is partly Hispanic and we get LOTS of stares and questions in public. One day we might adopt an African American child or a biracial child. Believe me, the stares and questions will increase. It will become even more of an issue we’ll have to deal with constantly as a family.

I wish Grey’s would mine some of those questions. If Rhimes really wanted the adoption process to be realistic, her realism on this point is an epic fail. Unless she’s copying all those agencies that cater to white parents’ desires to think that love is enough, and race doesn’t matter. Or, in Meredith and Derek’s case, it’s not that love is enough. It’s just enough to be a doctor.


{After I wrote this, I watched the Season 8 premier. It turns out it’s not enough to be a doctor. You also have to not do crazy things like run off with the baby you have temporary custody of and worry people into thinking you’ve kidnapped her. Point still holds, though. Still nothing about the “transracial” part of this potential adoption.}