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White parents raising adopted children of color must grasp racism

Beth Hall Director of Pact Pact, An Adoption Alliance

In our society that considers color blindness a noble attitude, parents are often reluctant to talk about, or even mention, racism. But we must talk, and we must talk in a way that also encourages our children to engage in dialogue. A central task of childhood is to define and come to value one’s self.

Although children’s self-esteem is initially shaped by others’ perceptions of them—and will always be influenced by these external perceptions—at the age of four or five, their cognitive capacities begin to develop, and children begin to think for themselves about what it is that makes them okay. As they are loved and cared for by their parents, adopted children of color need to hear, again and again, how much we value their warm brown skin, their tight curly hair and their shining almond-shaped eyes. It is particularly important when these physical characteristics mark their difference from us.

Eventually, their internalized picture of self becomes more important than the views of others. But if the inner picture of self is not clear and strong, children will develop the skill of impression management, presenting what they believe others want to see. This preoccupation with external expectations and the value judgments of others tends to diminish their comfort with themselves. And they may attempt to avoid racism, rather than developing skills for coping with it.

Discrimination hurts everyone, but white parents are especially susceptible to being taken aback by racist experiences because, having not experienced them, they don’t anticipate them. To successfully support children of color and become effective anti-racist allies, white parents must overcome their fears and take an unflinching look at their own blind spots and biases. Additionally, when parents confront their own fears, they are modeling for their children, who will need to do the same.

Breaking the racial “sound barrier” is critical to providing important survival tools to adopted children of color. Talking about and understanding racism gives children a way to see that the racism they experience is not about them. Rather, it is about something bigger that operates on a societal level.


Do talk about race

Parents must not hesitate to talk to their children about racial experiences. We don’t wait for children to ask us how to cross the street, or fear that talking about the dangers of cars will scare children too much. We know it is critical to their well-being to have a healthy fear of the road. We discuss the dangers of traffic because we understand that navigating traffic is a matter of life and death. Issues of racialization are no different. Children must be taught how to anticipate and cope with social bias. They need to be able to identify—and give language to—prejudice to be able to understand the differences between the principles we are teaching them, and those they may encounter in the world outside our homes.

Every parent learns to distinguish the meaning of their baby’s cries based on tone. Yet, we seem to put this talent away when our children get older. Many of us would rather talk than listen. In sensitive areas, we need to learn better listening skills. Young children’s feelings about race usually emerge in their play, with comments such as, “This doll is the pretty doll because she is white like you, Mommy,” or preferences for crayon colors, ice-cream flavors or skin colors of dolls. As children grow, their understanding of adoption, and their sensitivity to the role race plays in our society changes. Television, stories in books, news events, commercials, billboards and human interactions all around us offer openings for conversation. For better or for worse, there are discussion opportunities everywhere.

Do connect with communities of color

Your child needs to belong to your family in every way possible. That means you must share your own heritage as unquestioningly as you would with any child born to you. Your child’s need is to belong to you. But equally important is your child’s need to belong to his or her racial group.

The foremost challenge you face as a white parent to a child of color is recognizing you will not be able to provide for all of your child’s needs, no matter how hard you try and no matter how much you want to. No matter how many books you have read or how much soul food or chilies or dim sum you eat, no matter how educated you become about the history of her race, you will not be able to provide personally for your child’s need to belong to her culture. You will always be acting beyond your own intuition and experience, and will never be fully conscious of the many implications of your child’s birth identity. Culture is not something you learn about in books; it is something you live.

Your role becomes one of giving your child permission to explore, learn and live the cultural heritage that is hers. Your goal is to connect her to people and communities of color who can help her where you are unable, so she will never hope to be what she is not, but rather will be proud of and celebrate who she is.

It is important not to make kids choose between family and race. Children can’t make such a choice without negating a vital part of themselves. In order to feel whole, they must feel connected to all of the worlds they inhabit. And at times, this may come at the exclusion of you. But don’t feel discouraged. Your child needs to belong to groups to which you cannot belong, and your job is to be a bridge to that culture. The connecting links you forge will not only support her, but will strengthen your relationship and expand your family life in ways that will continue to unfold throughout your lives. Nothing could be more positive.

Do avoid statements such as, “I don’t see color.”

It is sometimes tempting for transracial parents to see racism as an event—instead of an ongoing series of messages contributing to an overall belief that there are inherent race-based value differences between human beings. First coined by Chester Pierce in 1970, the term, microaggression, is more descriptive of the everyday experience of racism. Simply stated, microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group.

Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and tones. A microagression can even be intended as a compliment. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed, glossed over as being innocent and innocuous. Examples include white teachers who rarely call on students of color, or white strangers who compliment Asian Americans on their mastery of English. Microaggressions are detrimental to people of color because they create inequities and impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients.

White parents need to understand that these “micro” actions and behaviors cannot be ignored or explained away. They have a significant, cumulative and harmful impact on the developing child. Helping white parents understand these interactions will give them insight into their children’s experiences and allow them to traverse the conversation from culture to race.

Do teach values about race and racism in order to nurture strength

Passing on our values is a critical aspect of a parent’s role, but it involves much more than just telling children what we believe. It means helping them navigate value clashes and move through challenging situations.

Even when children are very young, we can begin to introduce our values by pointing out situations in books or in real life that give us the opportunity to explain our stance on certain issues. For example, parents can talk with a child about a parent they see yelling at a child in a grocery store. Once you are back in the car, you can say, “I noticed a mom who was talking in a yelling voice to her child in the store. Remember, children never deserve to be yelled at, even when they make a mistake. That is not behavior we agree with in our family.” These kinds of discussions must address race as well.

Parents can talk about race in straightforward, concrete ways with children of all ages. Every child deserves to have a parent who has communicated certain basic truths about the racial landscape of American culture. When the child is a person of color and the parent is white, it becomes especially important for parents to be clear about their values as they pertain to race and racism. These conversations should certainly include:

  • Race comes with birth; no one can choose or earn it.
  • It is okay to be different. The goal is to recognize, accept, include, honor and celebrate the diversity of human beings. As people, we are more similar than different. Our differences benefit us all.
  • She need not let anybody, of any color, limit or define her solely by race or undermine her acceptance of and belief in herself.
  • He doesn’t deserve bad treatment, and is a good person just as he is.

Do prepare children (and yourself) for the challenges of racial bias

In order to become an ally and advocate for children, parents must sort out their feelings about their own racism in a safe context, without asking their children to participate. We must take inventory of the racial stimulus around us and understand its impact. Children deserve parents who can admit that race will be a factor in the way they are seen by others in their community. White parents are often afraid that naming racism will somehow make their child a victim of it, when the exact opposite is true.

When we teach our children to identify bias when it comes up in books or on TV, we make it far easier for them to recognize and respond to it when it comes up in their day-to-day lives. Preparing our children for the hate words that might be used against them is hard. But won’t it be easier for them to hear them at home first, where the sting of surprise will be minimized? A parent could say, “Some people use mean words to hurt people because they don’t like them. Some people don’t like people who are girls or people who are boys, so they call them mean names. Or sometimes people don’t like people who are one race or another, so they call them mean names.” Eventually, when your child asks you what some of those names are, you can begin by asking if he has heard any. After he shares some, you also can share some. Tell your child explicitly that these are names that you don’t want him to use because they are meant to hurt people, and they are targeting people because of who they are, not how they act—and that is wrong.

To prepare your child to deal with the reality of negative attitudes about race, you must point them out and have conversations about them. “Did you hear what that little girl said? She doesn’t think it’s possible for Asian people to be American” or “Why do you think she assumes that you don’t have a father who lives with you?” Parents who take a proactive approach to teaching their children to recognize racial bias will give their children the tools to identify whom they can trust and rely on to be their allies.


Do not avoid or postpone talking with your children about racism

Remember that you won’t be there most of the time your children are racially profiled or targeted. Parents need to teach their children how to recognize racialized assumptions, so that when they are alone, they can be assertive and protect themselves. It is, of course, important to consider the age of the child when developing expectations of what they can learn. But remember: They are always watching and listening. It’s easy for parents to imagine that since racial differences within the family have become a comfortable part of their own reality, their children must be feeling the same. Don’t let yourself forget how different a parent’s experience often is from that of a child.

Children notice racial differences at very young ages. Agree and teach them that racism is unfair, and promise that you will not tolerate such behavior within your sphere of influence. Practice different responses and let them practice their responses too, so that they are prepared to handle racism when it comes up. This is a safety issue. Without practice, your child becomes more vulnerable.

Make sure that your child is able to talk with other people of color who have had similar experiences and can provide new ideas on how to react. Without this exposure, the only role models for children are other white people, who are having a different experience, or the media, which is generally negative. Notice the messages you send in real-life situations: When you walk past a homeless person, when a fundraiser rings your doorbell or when a person with physical differences serves you in a restaurant. Since none of us is bias-free, it is useful to discuss with your kids the responses that may have been inappropriate or confusing. Soon your child will let you know when your bias is showing.

Do not excuse racist attitudes or behaviors in others

Make a commitment to believing your children when they say something might have racial connotations, even if the parent is not sure it does (remember those microagressions). For their health and safety, children must develop good antennae to recognize racism in its overt, as well as its more subtle forms. If we undermine their confidence in their own ability to do so, we may place them in grave danger.

Be very careful and aware of using phrases such as, “Oh, I’m sure she didn’t mean it like that!” Focus on impact rather than intent. When we are teaching young children how to stay safe on the street, we don’t chastise them if they are overly careful on an empty roadway; rather, we understand that they are honing their skills and learning to practice caution, which we want to encourage. By the same token, white parents must encourage their children of color to explore the possibility of racialized responses, such as, “What makes you think your teacher said that to you because you are Latino? or “Why did his comment about black people make you feel uncomfortable?” and understand that this will sometimes mean that they see danger when it is not there. But that is so much better than not having the tools to see danger when it is.

Finally, be careful about attempting to extract feelings as if they were bad teeth. We sometimes assume that superficial answers to our anxious questions mean the child is concealing painful emotions. But we may be looking for something that isn’t there. Most children are not subtle. If a child is not labeling something as a racial incident, perhaps it is not one. Trust your intuition and everything you know about your child, but don’t overreact or invade your child’s right to be the star of her own personal drama by taking it over for yourself.

Do not forget that you are on your own journey of racial enlightenment

Deborah Haynor and Lori Miller, co-founders of the multicultural consulting organization, Diversity Matters, describe four stages in the evolution of transracial parents as they move towards readiness to support their children in combating and navigating experiences of racism. These include:

Stage One: We Are a Family. The primary task of this stage is the creation of a transracial family. In this stage, as parents focus on making their child of color their own, the notion that “love is enough” is often embraced.

Stage Two: We Are a Multicultural Family. The celebration of a child’s birth culture is the hallmark of this stage. It is often accompanied by the desire to reassure the child by speaking about the ways in which he/she is similar to the adoptive parent in order to minimize differences. Parents in this stage are taking steps to appreciate the traditions of their child’s birth culture, but they are not necessarily acknowledging their child’s racial identity or the racial landscape of the world. This is often a comfortable place for white parents and many get stuck here.

Stage Three: We Are an Anti-Racist Family. Parents in this stage are talking to other white parents about what it means to be white and how that impacts raising a child of color. They are observing cross-racial interactions in person, on television, in newspapers and magazines, and asking, “What does race/racism have to do with this?” Parents in this stage are actively giving up the white privilege of not having to think about race and racism much of the time. These parents are attending anti-racism workshops where, in a safe group environment, cognitive and emotional learning and skill-building can take place.

Stage Four: We Are a Multiracial Family. This stage is about becoming bicultural in a racialized context. This means the white parent spends as much time as a racial minority, as their child of color spends as a racial minority. Parents in this stage are asking themselves questions such as: What is the racial makeup of our neighborhood? Our child’s school? Our place of worship? Our friends? Our family’s service providers (doctors, dentists, lawyers, accountants, plumbers, housekeepers and childcare providers)? They are making significant changes in their lives based on the answers to these questions.

Parents moving through these stages are purposefully stretching their comfort zones. Pushing oneself to actually behave differently opens the door to establishing oneself as an anti-racist ally.

Do not overlook the need to validate feelings and offer comfort

When something bad happens, bring out the toolkit. Validate your child’s hurt, offer comfort and share feelings. Demonstrate appropriate reactions to racism by validating their anger, and commiserating with them about injustices they observe and experience. This will go a long way toward strengthening the bond between you. Revisit issues from previous days that you have had some time to think about. This demonstrates how important these experiences are to you. Not talking about it means you condone them.

Sometimes parents tell children of color that they have to try twice as hard and be twice as good to convince biased people that they are not bad. Remember, a racist will not be changed by a child’s good behavior. Negative attitudes are unfair, and strong feelings, including sadness and frustration, are appropriate. Often the hardest emotion for parents to encourage in children is anger, but righteous anger needs to be validated in order to help children (or adults) deal with the unchangeable reality of racism.

Help your child externalize racist remarks rather than internalize them. This is a critical coping skill for children of color—if they are to handle the onslaught of negative messages they will likely encounter in their lives.

Jumping cartoon

No one can know the perfect way to respond to insensitive remarks all the time. In fact, people commonly respond to racial insensitivity with shocked disbelief and stunned silence. It is only later that we gnash our teeth and think up clever ways to have handled the situation. Giving yourself permission to handle racial insults imperfectly is to acknowledge your humanness. Do not be ashamed. Use your regret as a teaching tool for your children.

Parents and children can brainstorm strategies together, which is an effective way to communicate to children that they have allies on their side. You may come up with direct responses that let people know what they have said is not acceptable. Or you may come up with silly or outrageous responses. Children’s knowledge and memory of these good times will become part of their protective armor the next time someone approaches them. Examples include: “Not another one of these comments. Sometimes I get tired of it. How about you?” or “Let’s play ‘Remember the dumb thing someone said to us recently about race, and think of the most outrageous things we could have said—even though we probably didn’t.’” These exercises and discussions are a respite in the storm. And white parents have to learn how to have them without being defensive or defending other white people.

The goal as white parents of children of color must be to have your children be able to say, “I’m glad you are my parent because you care about how I feel. You are there for me when I need you. You help me because you believe in me and see that I am a beautiful, strong, culturally connected individual of color.”

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Beth HallDirector of Pact

Beth Hall is the Director of Pact, An Adoption Alliance. She co-founded Pact in 1991 to combat the discrimination she witnessed against adopted children of color and their birth families. Pact is a non-profit organization whose mission is to ser...

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