For the first time, I am blogging per request and to give advice explicitly. I suppose I say that up-front, not to suggest that I haven’t thought about the topic lots beforehand, but because I had held off blogging about this rather sensitive subject out of doubt that I had the right to speak on the matter. After all, I haven’t personally experienced this. However, on sharing my views in conversation with some friends who had also been thinking about this and whose immediate relatives and close friends were embarking on the journey, these friends strongly urged me to put my thoughts on the blog. This, in hopes that my views might be of some value and assistance to parents of interracially adopted black babies. So, humbly, here it goes … (Please pardon the extended length of the piece, which I have broken into two parts; I dare say, there’s lots to write on this subject.)
I am a big fan of adoption. I know there are some black people who think it is wrong for children to be adopted not just outside of their race but even outside of their extended family circles. While I agree that it would be ideal indeed for kids to be raised by their kin (and I share the sentimental possessiveness that black people feel over “our children”), realistically, that isn’t always possible and it doesn’t always happen. So, I say “kudos” to all those parents who open up their homes and hearts to children biologically born to others who cannot care for them as they need, and save them from the terrible fate suffered by so many children who end up on the streets. I think it’s a beautiful thing – regardless of whether the parents are of the same race as the child or not, and in some ways more so when it happens across racial lines. (For me, as a Christ follower, Isaiah’s prophecy of God’s being a house of prayer for all nations is invoked – Isaiah 56: 6-7.)
The politics and history of interracial adoption in South Africa (and the US) is complicated. In the South African story, the beauty of this undertaking is somehow muddied by the fact that, in the past (under apartheid), when they could not legally adopt black children, white families would semi-adopt the children of their black maids. What this often practically meant was that some white families would give many privileges and benefits to their maids’ children: buy them nice clothes, feed them good food, pay for them to attend suburban schools, teach them to speak “good” English and sometimes take them on holidays. This was all while their maids were deprived of sufficient time and money to give such optimal care and attention to their own children. The maids had to focus on caring for the white families’ homes and needs.
As you can understand, therefore, these white families’ “adoption” of these black kids was an ambiguous good. It has resulted in a handful (or more – there’s an interesting study there for some social scientist to do) of black children having access to opportunities and futures that their parents could not give them yet being in many cases somewhat alienated from their own parents and saddled with challenging questions pertaining to identity. The former (positive futures) is obviously good while the latter (relational alienation and identity conflict) is not so much.
It is the question of identity that I am most interested in here, as I turn to modern-day “straight up” legal adoptions. I am under no illusion that any of us have simple, bounded, static identities or have identities that fit into the world easily. However, I do think some things can contribute to making our identities easier to figure out and stabilise sufficiently for sane day-to-day living as well as make the experience of living with our identities in the world we inhabit and the spaces in which we (will) move easier or more difficult. These things include a range of personal and interactive/social factors. They require embracing our individuality whilst also recognising and making peace with the fact that we are social animals. The latter means that it is rare that we should completely shun social structures and relationships or disregard the attitudes and expectations of others without doing ourselves some psychosocial harm in the process also.
Enough highbrowed theorising! Let me share some stories that illustrate what I’m getting at. I know someone who is one half of a white couple that has adopted a black boy and will not teach him a vernacular (African) language because, in his words, “he is our son; I would no more teach him a vernacular language than I would teach my other [white, biological] children such”. Let’s put aside the fact that, raising all three children in South Africa as he and his wife are, it seems quite clear that they should be teaching all of them a vernacular language (after all, 80% of the country speaks an African language). The point that I mean to make specifically, here, is that there is a unique responsibility to teach their adopted black son a vernacular language.
The boy is their son, indeed – and I love the fact that they embrace him as such so entirely. However, that does not mean that he cannot be embraced as one who is distinct in some ways. He is already undeniably distinct in so far as he is adopted while the other children are not. Because he is a black boy, at some point – whether now or in future – he will be called upon to, need to, or very much want to engage with people who look like him in a language that is his-and-their own.
In a sense, it is like a boy born deaf who needs to learn to sign in order to effectively communicate with other deaf people. The latter is a boy who (though he is just as completely human and perfectly beautiful as his siblings who were not born deaf) has special needs that are peculiar to his unique constitution as of birth. The consequently shared psychosocial experience he has with other people who share that constitutive/identity aspect of lacking hearing, which attracts experiences of socio-economic and political discrimination, requires a special means of communication in order for them to fully relate, discuss and commiserate. (And, yes, I am deliberately equating blackness and deafness as social – but not inherent – “disabilities”. Review the stats and you will find that this is apt.)
The deaf boy’s learning to sign may mean that his hearing parents feel left out when he talks to those other people who are deaf like him but it certainly does not mean that they should deny him the ability to enter into that community as he can only effectively and optimally do through a shared language. Rather, they should just learn the language themselves so that they can share the experience with him in some way. (The picture offered, in Acts 2 of the Bible, of the God-given, spiritual gift of “tongues” being given to allow the apostles to speak in the languages of those present “from every nation under heaven” in order to share with them news of God’s “mighty works” demonstrates to the Christ follower how seriously God takes such an approach to diversity in His family.)
It is my belief that adoptive parents have a moral obligation to enable their black son or daughter to speak some vernacular language at first language proficiency. As it happens, this can be quite easy to accomplish in South Africa by hiring a black, vernacular-speaking domestic worker or nanny part of whose job is to speak to the child (or the whole family) exclusively in vernacular. Incidentally, this may be of great comfort to the domestic worker also if their English is not very good to begin with.
See Part 2 for the conclusion of this topic.