White babies kind of seem pale to me now.
Both my wife and I are Caucasian and pretty ordinary looking (actually, she looks better than ordinary), but our son is brown, and it’s obvious his beautiful caramel skin didn’t come from us.
We adopted Benjamin in 2013, and while we didn’t set out to have one, our adoption is among the estimated 40 percent of U.S. adoptions that are transracial. Transracial, or interracial, adoption occurs when a child of one race, culture or ethnicity joins a family where one or both of the adoptive parents are of a different race or ethnicity.
Transracial adoptions are most often seen in families who adopt children from developing nations, but, as in our case, they are occurring more and more with domestic adoptions as well.
Several years ago, we turned to an adoption agency for help in starting a family, and in December 2012, we finally heard what we had been waiting to hear for nearly two years: a baby was available for adoption. We wanted a healthy baby, and the color of the child’s skin didn’t matter to us. So, just before Christmas, we were matched with Benjamin. There isn’t much information about his biological father, but we know that Ben’s birth mother has some Hispanic heritage.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Children’s Bureau, more than half of the children adopted in 2013 and 2014 in Michigan were white, while 24 percent were African-American. Children of two or more races, such as Ben, accounted for 14 percent of the state’s adoptions.
Many families, however, make an active choice to adopt children of different ethnicities by adopting children from other countries. In 2015, American families adopted more than 2,300 children from China. Another 300 were adopted from Ethiopia, including a boy adopted by Nikki Racine and her husband, Michael, of Grand Ledge.
The Racines already had one adopted child and adopted their second child from Ethiopia. Their older son, now 4, is African-American and was born in Grand Rapids. While born in different countries, Racine notes the boys have one thing in common: both are of African descent.
“Race does make a difference, but love conquers all,” Racine says.
Kristen and Thomas Perso of Kalamazoo also have children through transracial adoptions of international children. With two daughters of their own, the Persos decided to add to their family by adopting boys. Their 5-year-old son, Sampson, came from Uganda in July 2013, and the Persos adopted a son from China last year. Kristen Perso says about two years ago, her older son started asking questions about why he looks different from his sisters (the Persos and their daughters are Caucasian). The entire family spent three weeks in Uganda before the adoption, and Perso says showing her son photos from the trip and talking about their time in Africa has helped.
“He knows we brought him on an airplane,” Perso says. “He notices that he has a different skin color, and we explain why and say that’s OK.”
Adoption agencies encourage transracial families to recognize the culture of their children’s birth parents and can provide materials like books and videos on hairstyles and holidays of the children’s birth cultures. Racine says her family celebrates Kwanzaa and Black History Month.
Joel Bell, assistant branch director for Bethany Christian Services in Kalamazoo, says adoptive families often look to community organizations — not only professional adoption firms, but also churches and groups for stay-at-home parents — to help find children with the same skin color and ethnicity as their adopted children, so the children will be able to learn about their own cultural heritage among people of the same background.
Early in our own adoption process, the agency we worked with gave us books on transracial adoption, telling stories of black children raised in white families, among others. We also have a DVD with tips on African-American hair care — but it turns out Ben’s hair is more wavy like mine, so I already know what we can do to manage it (go to a professional hairstylist).
“We encourage families to find a church and maintain friendships of the same race as the child, so they have connections who look like he or she does,” Bell says.
Eventually, we may talk with his birth mother about her Hispanic background when Ben, who is 3, is a little older.
Transracial adoptions begin the way most adoptions in the United States do. The process begins when a pregnant woman or couple decides they can’t care for the child once he or she is born. In most cases, the birth mother or parents seek out an adoption agency to help place their child with an adoptive family. These agencies have lists of potential parents who have signed up with the agency to find children to adopt and have been screened for everything from their financial situations and hobbies to the families they grew up in.
There are also “direct placement” adoptions, where an adoption is arranged between a birth family and an adoptive family without using a public agency. In the state of Michigan, an adoption attorney usually handles these and adoptive families are still required to go through the home-assessment process. If the birth parents know a family interested in adopting their child — maybe a relative of the mother or a friend at church, for example — they may choose direct placement.
According to the U.S. Children’s Bureau, nearly half of all Michigan’s adoptions in 2014 were by married couples, 30 percent by single women, 17 percent by unmarried couples, and just 4.6 percent by single men. Same-sex couples can adopt in Michigan, though adoption agencies can legally refuse service to them for religious reasons.
Most adoptions these days are “open” adoptions, where the child will know at least one of his or her birth parents, as opposed to a “closed” adoption, where the birth parents remain unknown to the adoptive parents and the child. Once the norm, closed adoptions accounted for only about 5 percent of U.S. adoptions in 2012, according to a report by the Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption advocacy group.
In an open adoption, the birth mother (or couple) gets to know the adoptive family, and — as long as they agree — they stay in contact with one another throughout the pregnancy, birth, and long afterward. After the baby is born, but before he or she is legally adopted, the child is placed in a temporary foster home, while the courts officially terminate the birth parents’ parental rights and assign these rights to the adoptive parents, a process that can take weeks and even years.
In other cases, such as ours, the birth and adoptive parents may not have months to get to know one another. There are “gift” babies, born to women who decide to give a child up for adoption only after they’ve given birth, and international adoptions, where a child from another country comes to the U.S. to be adopted, and the adoptive parents learn little to nothing about the birth parents.
Ben was a gift baby. The hospital where he was born had a relationship with the adoption agency we were using, and the agency contacted us on the day he was born. We didn’t know anything about him or his birth parents, but we said, “We’ll take him.”
However, bringing children of a different race, culture or ethnicity into a family requires some preparation. Agencies recommend that parents who are planning to adopt and who already have children talk with their children about their plans for a transracial adoption and what that will mean for their family. Adopting parents might have to talk with their own parents, too, about the possibility that the new family member will be a different race. When my wife and I were told this, we weren’t concerned; we knew our parents would be happy with our child, no matter what he or she looked like. And we were right.
But our agency had told us stories of Caucasian would-be grandparents who didn’t want a child of a different ethnicity as part of their family. Bell says parents who claim “not to see race” may have the right idea, but that may not be enough when a child is old enough to understand that he or she doesn’t look the same as his or her parents and extended families.
“We say, ‘We’re glad you feel this way, but your child is going to come to the realization that ‘I’m different, and what does that mean?’” Bell says. “We encourage parents to have answers to those questions.”
My wife and I haven’t had to face those questions yet — Benjamin is still a little young to ask about his birth parents, though we meet with his birth mother twice a year and send photos. He attends day care five days a week and his classmates and teachers are racially diverse. He already realizes that not everyone looks the same and, hopefully, in a culturally and physically diverse community like Kalamazoo, he’ll have friends from all races and ethnicities.
Adoptive parents who take agencies’ advice and celebrate a child’s cultural background may find it allows them to learn about different social and ethnic groups. The Perso family meets with a Western Michigan University student from Uganda about once a month, just to spend time together.
“I was always interested in adoption, but it’s nothing like I ever expected,” Perso says. “I feel like our kids are learning things they wouldn’t normally. We see life beyond our tiny little slice of Kalamazoo.”