‘We’re not projects’: Transracial adoptees insist on being seen

But to the backdrop of the larger reckoning on race that has boiled for years in the U.S. before spilling onto the streets this summer, adult adoptees like Ms. Dinwoodie are pushing back against stubborn myths and misconceptions – and demanding that adoptive parents engage more purposefully in anti-racist work. “I’ve gotten a harder edge to some of my words, and I’ve gotten sharper about things, because I think there’s more urgency than ever before,” says Ms. Dinwoodie, who also hosts the podcast “Born in June, Raised in April: What Adoption Can Teach the World.” 

“I think there’s a confluence of things or maybe some intersections of the things that are happening right now. … The community of those of us who have been transracially adopted have been talking and coaching and advocating and sometimes screaming and yelling and sometimes crying for a long time,” she says. “And I think there’s a lot of readiness to meet the moment.”

Lopsided statistics

Adopting across racial lines in the U.S. began after World War II, when children born to servicemen overseas – and often orphaned at home – gained the attention of the larger American public. Those first multiracial families helped pave the way to transracial adoption domestically.

The first recorded placement of an African American adoptee in a white home was in 1948. Today, 44% of all children adopted in the U.S. are adopted across racial lines, according to an Institute for Family Studies (IFS) analysis of adopted kindergartners in the U.S. Many of those placements include adoptive parents of color, even though they are often ignored in the adoption narrative, says Michelle Hughes, an adoption attorney in Chicago. A small portion include Black families that have adopted white children, which can stir up its own harmful stereotypes. One Black mother who adopted a white child posted a video that went viral on Instagram challenging in a rap song the assumptions she faces – that she must be the nanny, for example.

Yet based on the IFS study of kindergartners, 77% of adoptive mothers in the U.S. are white, while only 39% of adoptees are white.

That demographic reality has always raised suspicions. Some of that traces back to systematic racism like that faced by Indigenous communities across North America. In Canada, for example, during the “Sixties Scoop,” roughly 20,000 Indigenous children from 1951 into the 1980s were “scooped” from their families and “assimilated” into white families. There was also backlash against international adoption, especially as Christian communities in particular adopted in large numbers, sometimes with a religious zeal that raised suspicions about their motives. Corruption and criminality in the industry have also been a problem, bringing the practice to a trickle in more recent years.

In the height of the Black Power movement in 1972 in the U.S., the National Association of Black Social Workers took a “vehement stand” against the adoption of Black children by white parents. Nearly 50 years later, in the wake of protests after the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white police officer in Minnesota, some of those same questions have resurfaced.

When Justice Barrett was asked how her family responded to the video of Mr. Floyd’s death under a policeman’s knee, she said she and her Haitian-born daughter, Vivian, “wept together.” 

It could have been a moment of understanding about the layered experiences in multiracial households, but in polarized America it descended into an ugly debate, with her supporters using her transracial adoption as an example of her enlightened views on race, which in turn generated backlash. Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to be an Antiracist,” ignited a frenzied Twitter debate after he pushed back: “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people.’”

Adult adoptees speak up

Kevin Hofmann, a biracial man who was adopted into a white family as a baby, says he doesn’t recognize his experience at either extreme. He does say it was “heartbreaking” to watch the confirmation, as Justice Barrett’s details on the vulnerabilities her children faced in Haiti served to reinforce the “white saviorism” messaging that abounds in international and transracial adoption. “We need to understand that adoptees bring just as much to a family as that family gives to us,” he says. “It was a decent thing our parents have done, but we’re not projects.” He also dismisses the criticism that white people shouldn’t adopt Black or Hispanic children. “Children of color are overrepresented in foster care. So if you say, ‘We’re not going to adopt over racial lines,’ the only alternative is you let a lot of children age out of foster care.”

For decades, many parents, especially in the international adoption arena, aimed to “assimilate” their adopted children as Americans. In the past decade, says Chaitra Wirta-Leiker, a psychologist who counsels pre-adoptive parents and adoptees in Denver, a keener awareness of the need to cultivate children’s ethnic, cultural, and linguistic bonds has grown. But in too many families, especially in domestic adoption where the cultural differences can be more nuanced, a notion of “colorblindness” has prevailed – at the expense of the adoptee, she says. “As a parent, you love your child and may not think so much about race, but the truth is that the rest of the world is always going to see race first,” says Dr. Wirta-Leiker, who was adopted from India into a white household and later adopted a son from Ethiopia. “And so we have to prepare our kids for that.”

The generation of adult adoptees must lead the way, she says.

Mr. Hofmann works for the state of Ohio as a trainer for adoptive parents and uses his own experience to show the hard work that underlies transracial adoption. Born in the wake of the Detroit race riots in 1967 and the product of an affair, he was adopted at 3 months old by a white minister and his wife in Dearborn, Michigan. When he was about 11 months old, the family “woke up to a burning cross in our front yard,” he says.

His parents were keenly aware of the emphasis on white supremacy at the time, so they relocated to a Black neighborhood of Detroit, his white siblings growing up in Black schools. “So from age 3 to 18, I was always around kids that looked like me,” Mr. Hofmann says. “I didn’t have to rely on the media and especially ’70s TV to tell me what Black was. I got to go out every day and see.” In fact, he recalls feeling sorry for his siblings because they were white.

In the end his family shows how influential racial identity can be in a multiracial context. He remembers preparing his father’s eulogy several years ago, sitting in his mother’s kitchen with his siblings and their families. In that room were different races, ethnicities, and maternal tongues. “I think it’s just a beautiful thing what our family became,” he says. “And that’s all because of the exposure that we had as kids.” To shine a light for others, Mr. Hofmann wrote “Growing Up Black in White.”

When love isn’t enough

Yet, some transracial adoptive parents acknowledge that the love and work inside their own family isn’t enough, given deep structural racism – something that’s been made clearer this summer. Shelley Vermilya and her former partner adopted two Black children in the ’90s in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the U.S. Well aware of her own limitations as a white parent, she filled their home with African American books and music; she drove her children an hour away to get their hair done by a Black hairdresser. Around the dinner table, they talked about class and gender, sexual identity, and race – so much that the kids would roll their eyes. “They’d say, ‘God, there goes Mom. She’s going to start on transgender now,’” Ms. Vermilya says.

And yet as an equity scholar-in-residence in the Vermont public school system who is also writing a book on transracial adoption, Ms. Vermilya says that she is aware of how much more work needs to be done by society at large. “Love hasn’t been enough to get them where they are or have them be who they are,” she says. “Society’s got to come up with some love as well. … So it’s been my life’s work to work with people on this to get them to understand the systemic issues.”

This summer has caused her to reflect more deeply. “I’ve really wondered, especially this year and the pain for people of color, if that was too much pain to ask a child to feel, or if I gave them enough of a foundation in life that they’ll be able to really carry on well and understand the complexities of that kind of experience, sort of knowing whiteness from the inside and being Black and facing the world that way.”

Karen Moline, an adoptive mother in New York City whose son was born in Vietnam, grappled with her own decision to adopt abroad in 2001, becoming a reform advocate for more transparency on the international front. She too has faced gnawing questions: Were her actions in the best interest of her child? “Maybe their lives are ‘saved’ from physical danger, but does that mean their lives in this country are better as transracial adoptees? The second half of that sentence is always left out,” she says.

Challenging parents to be advocates

That is starting to change, as adult adoptees push for their experiences to be more deeply understood. For Ms. Dinwoodie, who also founded AdoptMent, a mentoring program for adoptees, and gives trainings and talks, her ability to have conversations about race with her own family is “very, very recent,” she says, only after American football player Colin Kaepernick refused to kneel in 2016 as an act of resistance against racial injustice – a stance some in her family couldn’t understand.

Ever since it has been a constant balance.

Ms. Dinwoodie knows her story starts with violence and loss – complexities that would follow her regardless of race. When she tried to reconnect with her biological mother, she learned she was the product of a painful family secret: Her mother had been raped and had given her up. When she found her, her birth mother refused to form a relationship. Ms. Dinwoodie is still looking for her birth father. 

Ms. Dinwoodie’s adoptive parents had the best intentions from the start, but silence and denial about race were able to grow, especially since she was biracial. It reached into the most quotidian acts. Growing up in a farmhouse on a well system, all the family had to take quick showers. But it was physically impossible to get the suds out of her hair with a quick rinse. She remembers panicking about it every time. As she tells the story, she worries it will break her mother’s heart to hear it. “I just love her so much,” she says. “I know my mom is constantly worried that she wasn’t a good mom and that she failed me, and she didn’t, because I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without that strong foundation she gave me.”

So she continues to speak out – testing the limits of that fragile balance in her own family. And she intentionally looks for people who seem to have it all together, those without the extreme hurts that land them in emergency rooms but with the subtle gaslighting and denial that can do so much harm down the line. Even in herself she recognizes that she might be married or have children if she hadn’t had to expend so much energy on her own identity. 

“I really feel that, now, if you are a white parent adopting a Black or brown child, you actually have to be doing clear and very obvious anti-racist work,” she says. “You have to welcome Black people into your home as your friends, as your neighbors. You’ve got to have Black art on the wall. You have to be in the schools demanding for changes to curriculum and looking at data around suspensions, and looking at over-policing of Black and brown children. You can’t just simply transactionally parent your kid. You’ve got to be doing that through a very clearly defined and purposeful anti-racist, anti-bias lens.”


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