White Parents, Black Children

Gift Children: A Story of Race, Family, and Adoption in a Divided America

By J. Douglas Bates. Ticknor & Fields, 270 pages, $21.95

Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother

By Jana Wolff. Andrews and McMeel Publishing, 148 pages, $12.95

Loving across the Color Line: A White Adoptive Mother Learns about Race

By Sharon E. Rush. Rowman & Littlefield, 190 pages, $23.95

Whites who adopt black children are widely viewed with suspicion. Are they adopting black youngsters to satisfy some neurotic need? Are they more interested in demonstrating political virtue than in pursuing the prosaic tasks of parenthood? Are they so desperate to raise a child that they will accept a black one though they would really prefer a white one? Are they dangerously naive about the realities of racism? Are they racial missionaries seeking to "save" black children from blackness? Are they trying to obtain juvenile slaves?

Moreover, as if the suspicions of strangers were not enough to contend with, white adopters must also frequently deal with nagging doubts of their own. Like other minorities, white adoptive parents of black children are at risk of internalizing the prejudices surrounding them. Many have accepted myths that portray white adopters as merely "better-than-nothing" parents -- people society should turn to for parenting a black child only when no same-race option is available.

But should we as a society be discouraging interracial adoption, as so many believe, or, on the contrary, celebrating it?

The facts about the whites who cross the racial frontier to adopt -- how many there are, who they are and how they pursue their parenting responsibilities -- are difficult to ascertain. No comprehensive, up-to-date survey exists. Over the past decade, however, a few white adoptive parents of black youngsters have written memoirs about their experiences. Three are particularly noteworthy: J. Douglas Bates' Gift Children: A Story of Race, Family and Adoption in a Divided America, Jana Wolff's Secret Thoughts of an Adoptive Mother, and Sharon E. Rush's Loving across the Color Line: A White Adoptive Mother Learns about Race. All three are eye-opening, although not entirely in the ways their authors intended.

In 1970, Bates and his wife, Gloria, decided to adopt a child. They had two biological children, both boys, but Gloria wanted to add a daughter. Her husband did not want another pregnancy or baby but was willing to adopt an older girl. Influenced by friends who were also contemplating adoption -- and were willing to adopt regardless of race -- the Bateses told the Oregon Children's Services Division that they wished to adopt, and that age mattered to them, but race did not. "Within four months," Bates writes, the agency "brought us a [4-year-old] daughter who turned out to be healthy, beautiful and black."

This little girl, Lynn, had been born to a white mother and a black father while both were serving prison sentences for heroin possession. (Why this child is defined in America as "black" is problematic, but that's another issue.) When they were released from prison, they neglected to claim Lynn, who was then sent to a white couple for foster care while state authorities began the process of terminating the biological parents' parental rights.

The Bateses first saw Lynn, by pre-arrangement, when she and a social worker visited rabbits and kittens at a pet store. Bates writes:

[W]e gaped at the little girl. She looked just as she did in the photographs, wearing the same red and white plaid dress and white stockings and shiny shoes that the kindly social worker had purchased for her. ...

Gloria was standing stiffly at my side, and I could sense she was highly upset. ...

I whispered, "We can turn around and walk right out the door."

Gloria took my hand and squeezed it a little. "No we can't," she said.

Then she led me firmly, as she would so many times in the years ahead, toward our destiny -- back to the rear of the store, back to the kittens and rabbits and the little girl who had waited so terribly long to meet her mom and dad.

Two years later the Bateses adopted another little girl, the product of a relationship between a black man and a white 14-year-old. Another white couple initially adopted the neglected and abused baby, but that adoption fell apart when the couple failed to withstand the opprobrium heaped upon them by disapproving white neighbors. Soon afterward the Bateses adopted her, changing her name to Liska.

The Bateses immediately faced the task of protecting their new children from racism, prejudice against adoptees and kindred menaces. "What you ... have [in your biological children] is like a clear, pristine mountain stream," an uncle declared. "Why would you want to spoil something so pure by mixing it with polluted, muddy water?" Neighborhood children in the Bateses' white working-class community routinely referred to Lynn and Liska as "niggers." This prompted the Bateses to move to a more affluent neighborhood that they thought would be more enlightened. It probably was. But that did not prevent the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers from also racially taunting the Bates girls.

In elementary school, in a folk-dancing program, a group of boys insisted that Lynn hold their sleeves rather than their hands. And while the Bates parents initially suggested that race might not have had anything to do with it, that maybe the boys were simply being naughty, Lynn quickly disposed of that comforting hypothesis. The boys, she told them, "said that they didn't want to get African cooties." Some of the white girls were also cruel. In the fourth grade, a group of them threatened to beat Lynn if she ever used a toilet with a white seat rather than the one with the black seat. Lynn remembers that "these girls would crawl up on the adjacent stalls and look down at me and start laughing and making fun of the black girl on the 'black' toilet." This stopped only when Gloria barged into the school to police the situation.

Lynn and Liska didn't distinguish themselves as students. But neither did the Bates boys. The girls, though, grew up to make repeatedly disastrous decisions that mired them in destructive relationships with men and left them with babies whom they were ill-prepared to raise. Soon after graduating from high school, Lynn got pregnant by a man to whom she stayed married for only a brief period. Her stated reasons for having a baby so young are achingly poignant: "I wanted to feel like I belonged to someone, genetically, and that they belonged to me -- having the same blood running down their backbone and sharing the same facial features. ... When I gave birth ... I felt that physical bond, for the first time in my life."

Soon after finishing high school, Liska also became pregnant. Not only did she have the baby without benefit of marriage, she moved from Oregon to Los Angeles to live with another man. This new man, Bernard Lee, promised to marry her and adopt her baby, but his failure to do so should not have been difficult to predict. According to Bates, Lee was an unemployed, drug-abusing and violent ex-convict and the father of a boy named Stink, whose mother was a drug addict and prostitute. When Liska eventually left Lee, he threatened to kill the Bates family. In one of several messages he left on the Bateses' telephone answering machine, he reportedly said: "Go ahead, Liska. Care about them white motherfuckers up there. Care about them when you go to their funeral. 'Cause like I said, I'm for real. Okay? I'm for real. And I know where you're at."

Bates sought police protection. He also purchased a 12-gauge shotgun. Lee never made his threatened visit to the Bates household, but had he done so, the author states that he was prepared to use deadly force to protect his family.

In certain respects, Gift Children bolsters the case against interracial adoption. The Bates parents seem at times to have been appallingly ignorant about white racism, and Lynn and Liska undoubtedly suffered on account of racial isolation in schools and neighborhoods. Bates convincingly suggests, for instance, that a contributing cause of Liska's blind infatuation with Lee was the parochialism surrounding her upbringing. "In our community of one hundred thousand," Bates observes, "with barely a sprinkling of people of color, Liska had never met anyone quite like [him]." Bereft of exposure that might have provided antibodies against Lee's infectious influence, Liska fell victim to it.

Bates recognizes that he and his wife were tardy and unsophisticated in their efforts to seek assistance. He confesses that he sometimes wonders about the wisdom of what they attempted:

Why, I wondered, did our daughters -- long after their teen-age years -- continue so desperately to turn toward men for their sense of identity and self-esteem? Was it born of their formative years prior to adoption? Were they subconsciously searching for the love they felt was missing in their lives? Were they acting out personality traits that Gloria and I had destructively and unwittingly instilled in them through clumsy parenting? Or was it all a reaction to the roiling forces of race, gender, and biology in the transracial adoption they had experienced?

Some readers will say yes to that last question. But the truth is that many black adoptive and biological parents also impotently witness the self-destruction of troubled children. And before confidently asserting that the cause of the Bates girls' problems was interracial adoption, readers should also consider other possibilities, including pre-adoption trauma, the seductions that ravage young people from all sorts of family backgrounds, and the pressures generated or magnified by external disapproval of interracial households.

Bates ultimately concludes that in matters of parenting, racial knowledge is subordinate in importance to personal commitment, that the interracial character of an adoption is a source of strength and benefit (and not solely a source of discord and problems), and that what parentless children need most of all is not someone who looks like them but someone who loves them. To this, Gift Children offers ample testimony. When Liska or Lynn needed demanding outlays of parental love, presence, counsel, protection, forgiveness and money, the Bateses appear to have given unstintingly. Indeed, it seems likely that they devoted more of their energy and resources to Lynn and Liska than to their biological children, and that they demonstrated a measure of generosity beyond that which even the obligations of parenthood require.

Through the adoption of Lynn and Liska, Bates writes:

We moved beyond [integration] and achieved assimilation -- and not the ... unilateral kind affecting only blacks. For us the process cut both ways, with whites changing, too. Over twenty-three years, two African-American girls grew up with a special understanding of both races, black and white, and with a valuable ability to function in both worlds, bridging two cultures. At the same time, their lives touched those [of their white adoptive kin] who "grew up" along with Lynn and Liska. In our family, relationships have transcended race.

Although Bates' memoir is sobering, it closes with glimpses of redemption and renewal, with both Liska and Lynn pursuing education and job training and establishing new relationships with men who appear to be solid and respectful. "My spouse and I have no illusions about tidy, fairy-tale endings," Bates writes. "But we have a surprising store of resilience, and we still have plenty of determination and hope."

Jana Wolff and her husband, both white and Jewish, found that they were unable to conceive, decided to pursue adoption and immediately, she says, began to confront racial choices that they had never before considered:

The intrusively thorough application forms presented options like they were menu items -- healthy, or other than healthy; white, or other than white; newborn, or other than newborn -- but we knew that our responses would dictate our options. If we chose "white, healthy, newborn," our wait would be years; if we chose "other than white, less than healthy, other than newborn," we could have a baby within weeks.

Wolff and her husband indicated that they wanted a healthy baby but that they "didn't feel a strong need to be matched by race or features." Their willingness, she writes, "to parent a child of a different race had more to do with naivete than with altruism. ... We didn't understand that we might be taking on a job even bigger than parenting ..., that of transmitting a culture that was not ours. We simply knew that we wanted a baby, we believed that we would be good parents, and we presumed we could love any color."

Sharon Rush, the third memoirist, is a single parent who declines to discuss her motives for adopting. Yet in other respects, she and Wolff are strikingly similar. Both stress, far more even than Bates does, that their adoptions have opened their eyes to a world of antiblack racism to which they had previously been oblivious. "I've evolved," Wolff maintains, "from an unenlightened white woman who thought all people should be treated equally, to an enlightened one, who knows they are not." And Rush, a law professor at the University of Florida, says that in her "predaughter days" she "did not realize that [her] White liberal views on race and race relations were inadequate to comprehend how profound and pervasive racial inequality is in our society."

In response to this reality, Bates, Wolff and Rush portray themselves doing what we hope all parents will do: protecting, nurturing and teaching their children. They rebuke people who say mean things to their children. They fight to make sure that their children are not shortchanged for any reason, much less racist ones. They put their children in touch with people, institutions, books and rituals, hoping that these resources will impart learning, happiness and a decent sense of self-regard. As long as Bates, Wolff and Rush draw a breath, it seems that their children will enjoy the great privilege of having access to someone who will love them no matter what.

Recognizing the apparent parental virtues of these memoirists, however, does not compel us to agree with either their interpretation of events or their policy prescriptions. For one thing, like many black parents of black children, Wolff and Rush suffer from a surfeit of suspicion that causes them to rely overly much on racism as an explanation for things. For them, virtually anything bad or disappointing that happens to their children is a result of racism if whites are at all involved. Wolff writes:

Loving my son as I do, I have become an acute barometer of bias: I notice where race makes a difference, and I can't find a place where it doesn't. Attuned to the slightest suggestion of discrimination and prejudice, in even the most innocent and mundane places, my antennae are always up. I've seen racism on playgrounds, in swimming pools, in glances, in books, on applications, and at the doctor's office.

Wolff's anxious vigilance is understandable given the continuing prevalence of antiblack prejudice. Still, there are elements in her indictment that seem far-fetched. Among the examples of "friendly racism" that she lists, for instance, are children who ask her son why he is black while his mother is white. To be sure, that question must be a bore for the Wolffs and can be posed in a denigrating fashion. But it can also be posed innocently, with no hint of conscious or unconscious animus -- a question arising simply from curiosity generated by the fact that it is quite unusual to encounter a white mother with a black son. The latter interpretation is surely plausible, especially if the questioner is a young child. Yet Wolff does not even consider that possibility, asserting instead that "racism ... is never innocuous, no matter how slight or unintentional" -- as if it were obvious that the question constituted a species of racism in the first place.

Rush is a bit more sophisticated. She at least signals an awareness of competing explanations for ambiguous events. Racism invariably emerges, however, as the explanation of choice. In Rush's view, racism is as ubiquitous as the wind. "I approach each day," she writes, "genuinely hoping it will be a good one for [my daughter] and that however the day's racism decides to evidence itself will be only 'mildly' hurtful. Some days are better than others. ..."

Wolff and Rush display a curious combination of hubris and self-doubt. On the one hand, they feel sufficiently confident in their perceptions to write books that will presumably contribute to an intensely emotional and contentious debate over the terms on which whites should be permitted to adopt across the race line. And they both applaud their self-assessed progress from naïveté to wisdom. On the other hand, both embrace much of the myth of race matching. A chapter in Wolff's memoir is titled "Whites Raising Blacks: Good Intentions, Bad Qualifications." Bemoaning what she perceives as an inevitable absence of authenticity in whatever she and her husband do to inculcate within their son a good sense of racial identity, Wolff writes: "We can read about Langston Hughes and march in the Martin Luther King Jr. parade. We can visit the First Baptist Church for the Kwanza celebration, role play the story of Amazing Grace, and talk about prejudice; but it is not enough. It is not enough because it is not the real thing. ... We are ultimately inadequate dispensers of racial wisdom."

Rush is even more self-deprecating. In addition to echoing Wolff's claims about the inherent inadequacy of white parents, Rush maintains that whites, all whites, herself included, are racist. "I am racist," she writes, "because I am part of the institution of white privilege." (She makes clear, however, that her "racism" is only institutional, not personal.) Rush also unequivocally embraces race matching. It is "undoubtedly true," she avers, that "a Black child will have a greater understanding of his or her racial identity if he or she is raised by Black parents." Similarly she asserts that "Black parents can affirm and provide security about a Black child's identity in ways that a White parent cannot." She therefore concludes that "transracial adoptions should be last resorts." To Rush, the placement of her daughter under her care was defensible only in the absence of a better option: a readily available black adoptive parent.

Nothing more poignantly reflects the continuing grip of racialist superstition on American society than the myopia of Rush, Wolff and others like them who, despite their own fruitful experiences with interracial parenting, wrongly acquiesce to its opponents. Discussing the effect of interracial adoption on her own life, Wolff mentions two features, one negative and one positive. The negative is that the interracial aspect of the adoption has made her life more difficult. The positive is that it has made her life richer. When Wolff discusses the effect on her son, however, she mentions only the negative. She seems wholly unwilling even to consider that being raised in the unconventional environment of an interracial household might offer him added riches along with the added difficulties.

Wolff and Rush display a vulnerability to destructive mau-mauing. Rush in particular evinces a pathetic inability to criticize any idea that emanates from anyone she perceives as authentically black. In her memoir, there are no bad black people, no decisions by blacks that require rejection, no policies advanced by black groups that warrant skepticism. In her account, whites are the only ones whose behavior needs improvement. Though she describes a long list of episodes in which whites say ugly things to her or her daughter, she describes not one instance in which a black person insults them. Perhaps this is an accurate reflection of what she has experienced. If so, she is lucky. Other interracial adoptive households have faced all manner of ostracism from disapproving blacks -- from placards of protest in the yards of neighbors, to raucous picketing, to harsh words, to reproachful silences, to angry stares.

As should now be clear, I strongly disagree with Wolff and Rush about important matters. But I support their right to be able to adopt children regardless of race. Moreover, I support their right to adopt interracially without having to convince authorities that they will raise children in a manner that is "racially appropriate." This is an important matter to ventilate. Some opponents of interracial adoptions are using "cultural competency" as a new and ostensibly nonracial basis for precluding, delaying or otherwise disfavoring such adoptions. Even some stalwart defenders of interracial adoption are so concerned about whites' supposed cultural deficit that they insist that those seeking to adopt black children must first demonstrate an appreciation of the ways in which race matters in modern American life. To meet cultural-competency requirements, whites seeking to adopt black children are moving to racially integrated neighborhoods, cultivating friendships with black colleagues, worshiping at predominately black churches and eliciting instruction from "experts" on blackness and interraciality.

Some of the activity generated is good insofar as it involves learning useful things or thinking about important problems that might have been previously overlooked. It is troubling, however, that the concern for cultural competency is racially parochial -- typically triggered only in the context of a white person seeking to adopt a black child. If cultural competency is so essential, why not require it of all adoptive parents -- white and black? It is implicitly presumed, of course, that, as a matter of racial grace, blacks necessarily know what is essential to communicate to a black child. But there are many blacks who, like many whites, are woefully uninformed about black history, naive regarding the social inequities blacks face and ignorant with respect to matters that some experts deem essential for a parent -- especially a parent of a black child -- to know.

That proponents of cultural-competency standards never broach the prospect of imposing cultural-competency testing on black adoptive parents is by no means accidental. Such a move would raise to high levels of political controversy such knotty problems as determining what to test, what constitutes an acceptable answer and what counts as passing or failing. (Imagine what would happen if more whites than blacks passed a cultural-competency test for parenting black children!) In the absence of racially evenhanded testing, however, suspicion will (and should) exist that cultural competency is not the actual object of concern but merely a fig leaf for continued anxiety about whites parenting blacks.

One gets the impression from their memoirs that Wolff and Rush are good, generous, intelligent people who have succeeded in doing something that warrants high praise: affording an orphaned youngster a better chance in life than that youngster would have otherwise enjoyed. That they crossed racial lines to adopt increases the praise they are due. But much needed now are people who will not only cross racial lines but will do so unapologetically, positively refusing to espouse racial myths of white parental inferiority. Much needed, for example, is the defiant spirit of one Albert J. Reynolds. Reacting to news about continued opposition to interracial adoption, Reynolds wrote in a letter to the editor of the Des Moines Register:

I am a white man with a white wife, and 33 years ago we adopted a 5-day-old black baby girl. She grew up with six siblings, all white. Today she is a vice president with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. ... Tell me this marvelous young woman is somehow handicapped and I'll laugh in your face and throw you off my porch.

If interracial adoption is to flourish, participants and supporters will have to do more than defend it as a second-rate alternative to same-race adoptions. They will have to attest to the still-neglected potential of multiracial adoptive families -- a potential for love and triumph that is no less compelling than that which resides in other sorts of families.

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