Where Did You Get The Idea You Could Raise A Black Child?

Margey-R-3-e1383497149422In honor of November being National Adoption Awareness Month, Portrait of an Adoption is hosting the third annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days.  Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences. 

Where Did You Get The Idea That You Were Qualified to Raise A Black Child?

By Curtis Rogers

My wife and I were enjoying a day out with our beautiful newborn baby boy.

We adopted our son at birth, and this was one of our first family trips out of the house.  I was holding him close to me, enjoying the his infant smell, looking into the most amazing brown eyes I have ever seen, and simply falling more in love with him at every moment.  I feel like I had that dopey-happy-new-Dad look on my face.

We were waiting in the deli line at a local grocery store as we enjoyed our Daddy-baby time.  An African-American woman who appeared to be in her early 60s approached us.  “He’s beautiful,” she said.  “Is he yours?”  Her face held only the slightest hint of a smile.

The question didn’t bother me, but it was awkward.  It still is.   Our son is African-American and the sight of an adult white man holding an African-American baby generates questions.  Some people just think the questions.  Some people -- like this lady -- ask.  It is rarely malicious, but it is inherently uncomfortable when people look at you, and based solely on differing racial aspects, ask the question.

“I am his Dad,” I said proudly.  I nodded toward my wife who was standing close to us.  “We adopted him a few weeks ago.”  I smiled at the lady and got the same indifferent look she displayed before.

“What do you know about black infant hair care?” she asked.  “This baby’s hair looks tangled. “  She gently pulled aside the blanket I had over him.  “What are we using on his skin?  This child’s skin looks dry.”

I started to feel a bit defensive..  Where was she going with this?  I moved back slightly.  “We have some hair oils that were suggested to us and we are using cocoa butter and lotion on his skin,” I said.  The answer sounded weak and insufficient.  My wife engaged as soon as the other woman made physical contact with our child.  It’s a mom thing.  “Do you have something you could suggest?” my wife asked.  She was smiling, but there was a bit of tension in it.

The lady ignored the question and looked directly at me.  “What do you plan to do to make sure this child grows to be a strong, culturally connected young black man?” she asked.  Honestly, this question had come up as we contemplated adopting an African American child.  I had given it considerable thought, but I had trouble putting those thoughts together in the deli section.

Any hint of a smile went away.  She looked at me and asked.  “Where did you get the idea that you were qualified to raise a black child?”  There it was.  The statement oozed with racial and social implications that never, ever entered our minds when we decided that race didn’t matter when it came to adopting.  Well . . . it didn’t matter to us.

My wife and I looked at each other.  By now, it was pretty clear that our adoption of an African American child had social implications that we didn’t consider.  This lady in the grocery store wasn’t the first African American to express concern over our adoption of this child.  We figured the first few situations were just isolated opinions.  It was now clear that the opinions were not isolated. The questions the lady in the store asked had me confused.  She wasn’t just questioning our ability to parent an African American child, she was questioning our motives.  I shook off the urge to consider them rude and offensive.  That would have been easy.  Then I could just walk around being offended and not have to address the issues inside me that her questions triggered.  This was more important.  Why did we adopt an African American baby?

It wasn’t quite that simple.  We didn’t just randomly decide to adopt an African American baby.  My wife has always wanted to adopt.  We talked about adopting even before we got married.  When we didn’t get pregnant shortly after we started trying, it was a natural and easy transition to adoption.  It wasn’t about passing on our DNA; for us, it was about being parents together and offering a family to a child.

When we started moving forward, our facilitator asked if we would be open to a child of another race.  We said ‘of course’ immediately.  I had already given the issue some thought.  It was pretty simple for me.  Once I decided to adopt a child, the race and sex became irrelevant.  We were asking God and a birthmother for the privilege and blessing of being parents.  Personally, I felt closing our hearts to a child of another race would be petty and disingenuous.  To be clear, this was our decision. Other adoptive families get to make their own personal decisions.  I am a Dad, not an activist.  I don’t tell other people what they should do, with the exception of my children.

The same day we finished our paperwork, we received a call about an African American woman in the Midwest who was due in a week.  Were we interested?  Of course we were.  They gave her our information.  She talked to other families, but she wanted to talk to us before she made a decision.  Our conversation lasted the entire afternoon.  She said that after hearing about us, she was compelled to talk to us.  At the end of the week, we were in her home town waiting for a miracle.

The first problems came in the hospital after our son was born.  A nurse on our birth mother’s floor told her that God would never forgive her for placing her child with a white couple.  Later, the social worker assigned to the hospital refused to facilitate the adoption because we were white and our son was African American.

Despite the objections she faced from others, our son’s birth mother saw things differently.  She isn’t a lady that is used to being told no or to having her decisions questioned.  Her reasons for placing her child for adoption are her own.  She told us her reasons, but I don’t feel right repeating them.  Suffice it to say, she thought long and hard about her decision, and she did what she thought was best for her baby.

She had choices.  Some of the couples she had considered were African American.  But after discussions with different prospective parents, she called us.  She chose us.  She addressed the issues in the hospital head on.  In a tense situation, she was the strong one.  At the time, hers was all the approval I needed to be this child’s Dad.   At the time, it never occurred to me that anybody else’s opinion mattered.

On that count, I was wrong.  Sometimes other people’s opinions do matter.  In my opinion, they matter in the instance of transracial adoption.  In time, my wife and I tied together all the conversations we had or were exposed to with African Americans who questioned our adoption of our son.  It would have been easy to call it racism and blow it off.  But calling it racism made the situation all about my wife and me and took our son out of the equation.  It’s not about us; it’s about him.  So we took the harder route and considered their objections.

Input from the African American community matters to my family, because my son is African American, and at some point, he will have to find his place in the world and his cultural community.  I wasn’t sure how to help him do that.  Maybe, just maybe, the African Americans who voiced concern about our adoption were as concerned about how this baby would find his way as we were.  When that thought came, it stopped me in my tracks.  It made sense.  After all, this was about the baby, not us.

My wife and I realized that the people who voiced concerns about our adoption in the first few weeks of our son’s life knew something that we didn’t know then.  They know what it’s like to raise an African American child, especially an African American boy, today.  The black community’s opinions and input can be an invaluable resource.  But I am still this child’s Daddy.  I enforce the rules, give gentle disciplinary reminders, provide support, toss the baseballs, wipe away the tears, kill the spiders, read bed time stories and scare the crocodiles from under the bed.  I’m a good Daddy.  My wife is a wonderful Mom.  We also love our son enough to recognize that sometimes we don’t have the answers, and we will do what it takes to figure them out.

I had only a split second to ponder any of this.  Most of the revelations were in the future.  The lady in the deli section was still looking at me.  An awkward silence filled the space between us as the question hung in the air.  “Where did you get the idea that you could raise a black child?”

I thought for another second.  I looked directly into her eyes.  “From his birth mother,” I said.  “But she doesn’t live here.  We are hoping to connect him with as many strong role models as we can.”  I introduced my son to her.  I looked at her.  “Looks like we found one,” I said.

She blinked at me.  The lady gently patted my son on the back.  She smiled just a little.  Before she left, she quietly gave my wife the names of a couple of products she thought might be useful.  She also offered her opinion on specific hairbrushes and combs.

In the years since our meeting with the lady in the grocery store, our son has grown into a very healthy, happy little boy.  There have been rough spots.  Most of them have little to do with his race or our race.  They are problems that parents everywhere face.  We make specific efforts to expose him to positive influences.  We pay special attention to influences that connect him with his race and culture.  Sometimes I am frustrated because he doesn’t explode with interest over a book, movie or other example of African American culture or influence.  He pays attention in his own way and in his own time.

I felt like a complete failure when he showed little interest in watching the movie “42”, the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play Major League Baseball.  He was more interested in playing with Legos.  “A baseball movie?” he asked.  I told him that it was much more than a baseball movie.  I told him why it was important.  “I only like playing baseball, not watching it.  Plus we have a book about him.”  I was sure that I had somehow failed.   I put the movie on and watched alone . . . or so I thought.

A few weeks later we were in the car in traffic.  “Dad, why weren’t there any black big leaguers before Jackie Robinson?” he asked.  I looked in the review mirror.  He was looking out the window with a thoughtful expression on his face.  I explained, as best I could about bigotry, racism and segregation to an 8-year-old.  “Is that why he couldn’t eat in the same places as the other Dodgers?”  Apparently he put down his Legos at some point.

That instance taught me a valuable lesson.  Cultural awareness isn’t a spot where we drop our son off and say “Go get connected.”  We attended the African Caribbean Heritage Camp in Denver, Colorado in June.  The camp is for families who adopt children of African and Caribbean descent.  They are a remarkable group and provide an incredibly diverse and informative environment for children and parents.  (Google African American Heritage Camp or look it up on Facebook.)

The most valuable parts, for my wife and me, were the seminars given by adult transracial adoptees and experts and researchers on the subject.  One researcher told us that in order to maximize our children’s cultural connection, we have to embrace their culture ourselves.  That made sense to me.  We have always looked at cultural awareness as a family experience.   My son didn’t want to watch the movie.  I didn’t just put him in front of the television and administer the movie like medicine.  I watched it.  He followed my lead, which is kind of what I want him to do anyway.  My wife and I make sure we do as many things as we can that embrace African American culture, knowing, that at some point, he will put down his Legos and follow us.

Some issues feel like they are too big for us to handle as parents.  We leaned heavily on African American friends, the experts we met at camp and various support groups when the not guilty verdict was announced in the Trayvon Martin case.   I sat down with my son and explained that people are going to make judgments about him based on the color of his skin and clothes he is wearing.  I explained how he should not be confrontational.  I explained, the best I could how to be cooperative without being submissive.  We talked for a long time and I wondered if any of this made sense coming from a white man.  I can only hope it made sense coming from his father.

I wasn’t sure he was listening until a week later.  We were going into a book store.  He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt.  He always wears the hood up . . . always.  Before we walked into the store he stopped, looked around and pulled his hood down.  I guess he was listening.

We have two adopted children now.  We adopted the little one at birth almost 4 years ago.  Our older son claims his little brother, who is biracial, is not black, he is beige.  We are working on that.  Making sure our boys are connected to their culture is an ongoing process.  I am not sure we will know if we are successful until a crisis tells us we weren’t.  I see things that tell me that we are on the right track.  Recently there was an advertisement for “42” on DVD.  Our older son pointed at the television and told his little brother, “Look! That’s Jackie Robinson.  He was the first black major leaguer,” he said.  “He was black, like me.”

I smiled and walked out of the room.  The process will continue.  I will continue to play my role in this process.  I am sure at some point that this role will change.  Right now I am leading him to water and letting him drink at his own pace.  Someday, much sooner than we will be comfortable with, he will set out on his own to look for old answers and new questions.  When that happens my role will be whatever he needs it to be.  I will be there right behind him.  I will be there because I am this boy’s Dad.

Curtis Rogers and his wife Margaret enjoy life with their family.  Curtis is a retired member of the United States Air Force.  Besides raising his boys, he is a stay-at-home Dad and a full-time student at the University of Alaska.  He also writes a blog about fatherhood called This Side of the Diaper.  www.thissideofthediaper.wordpress.com

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