My son and the NPR program on transracial adoption

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, you should know that I’m a white adoptive mother to two children born in Guatemala. My daughter, Olivia, is almost 9; my son, Mateo, is 6. Olivia is indigenous Maya; Mateo is what Guatemalans call “Ladino,” meaning his heritage is Hispanic. Each has brown skin; one darker, one lighter. Our family discusses skin color often; see two previous blog posts, Peach and Brown.

On Friday afternoon, as he climbed into the car after school, Mateo asked me “Can brown people marry white people?”

“Of course they can,” I said. “You can marry someone with any skin color.” I skipped my usual speech about marriage, which includes a requirement for love, college graduation, money in the bank, maturity, self-awareness, etc. etc. This conversation was about something else.

I continued, “Did someone say you couldn’t, because you’re brown?”  Mateo nodded, looking miserable. I paused and took a deep breath. “Another kid? Or a grown-up?”

“Another kid,” Mateo said. (And here I will disguise the child’s identity.) “X.” 

Why am I writing to tell you about this? Because I want you to know that, yes, even here in Marin County, Northern California, which considers itself one of the most enlightened, educated places on earth, another kid said those words to my 6-year-old son. And I’m guessing X didn’t make it up out of thin air. He must have heard it from an adult.

On May 11, NPR ran a great “All Things Considered” program that really resonated for me:  The Parenting Dilemmas of Transracial Adoption. Here’s an excerpt from the NPR website:

Today, approximately 40 percent of adoptions in America are transracial — and that number is growing. In decades past, many American parents of transracial adoptions simply rejected racial categories, raising their children as though racial distinctions didn’t matter.

“Social workers used to tell parents, ‘You just raise your child as though you gave birth to her,’ ” Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, tells NPR’s Neal Conan… Pertman’s organization has conducted extensive research on transracial adoption in America. He says turning a blind eye to race wasn’t good for anybody. “We don’t live in a colorblind society,” he says.

University of Chicago professor Gina Samuels — who is multiracial and was raised by a white family — has also researched the experiences of children of color who were raised by Caucasian parents. She tells Conan that parents who take a colorblind approach to raising their children often do so with the best of intentions.

“[It] reflects maybe how they hope the world will be someday,” Samuels says. “But oftentimes what this ends up doing is having children [meet] the world — the real world — unprepared.”

On Friday, my son Mateo came up against the “real world” referred to by Professor Samuels. And please let me assure you, this wasn’t the first time. I’m glad Mateo trusts me enough to talk about it.

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4 Responses to “My son and the NPR program on transracial adoption”

  1. Sveta says:

    Excellent, Jessica. Thank you. It is precious that Mateo can talk to you about it. You and Tim are doing an amazing job of creating an envoronment of open talk about subjects that are typically uncomfortable to talk about in families. I love that! Hope to foster the same in my own family. And yes, this world is far from being colorblind, and to pretend that it is for our children would be like being in denial. I think there’s such a fine line that I am learning to walk. I hope to make sure that my son has a keen awareness of history, and current reality, of his ethnic identity and skin color, and yet I would not want him to walk around with a badge of eternal victimhood, feeling put upon and deficient at the same time. Such a tough balancing act. As a parent, sometimes I feel like I am walking around newly blindfolded, just feeling things out with each step.

  2. Ellen says:

    Thanks so much for sharing. Comments like that just break my heart. My son (also adopted from Guatemala) is 4 1/2. I want to be ready to respond to things like that.

  3. christine says:

    One of the great things about living in a military community for 20 years is that our kids were exposed to lots of multiracial families. There were so many permutations of asian, black, hispanic, or white kids the playground looked like a box of crayons. It was something the military did right!

  4. Jessica says:

    Sveta: Yes and yes. We don’t want to live in denial, yet don’t want to pin the badge of victimhood, either. I love the image of being newly blindfolded. We learn by feeling our way.

    Ellen: For us, it’s important to know they can tell us when things happen–whatever it is–and we can try to help them sort through it. And even when they don’t tell us, to bring it up sometimes ourselves, as with the subject of adoption and birth families, to put it out there. One day at at time, we do our best.

    Christine: So true! Tim and I often notice and comment how the military comprises the most diverse population in the US. Walk onto any military installation or base and you see it immediately. A beautiful community.

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