Raising Interracially Adopted Black Babies – Part 2

Can you spot the Swede in the township?
Can you spot the Swede in the township?

In Part 1 of this post, I argued that interracially adopted black babies ought to be taught a vernacular (African) language at first language proficiency to give them the option of communing with other black people who share their experiences of being black in a (sadly, still) highly racialised world. In this part, I expand on why I think it is important to parent in a way that acknowledges the black child’s difference(s).

I think it would be an error to raise a black child adopted into a white family in a manner that says, “you are no different from the rest of us” and hence deny the very obvious surface difference and the fact that the world has hyper-sensationalised and –reified this surface difference. The boy (in the example of the couple discussed in Part 1 of this blog post) will grow up in a world that is not blind to race in its treatment of him, and the colour-blind approach of his white adoptive family cannot adequately prepare the boy to live in such a world.

An assimilationist attitude in terms of which the white adoptive parents only see the adopted black boy as “our son and therefore he must become just like us in every way possible, and we will treat him as such” also does symbolic violence to the child. In other words, it denies the child full acceptance by insisting on not seeing him for all of what he is and his consequent experience of the world. To feel fully loved one must feel fully seen and known.

Such a failure to fully see the child also hurts his development of an identity that is true to his all (similarities to his white family and differences, all put together). This is because it says that the child – in order to become one of the white family and be accepted by them – must deny or obliterate as many traces of his difference as he can, especially those related to his blackness. This means that the family’s comfort is secured at the expense of his own. The family he becomes part of is minimally challenged and changed by including him in their number but he must deny a part of his reality and experience in order to ensure that this is so. On what basis is that fair? Would it not be fairer to allow the family to be affected and significantly enriched by the difference it is bringing into itself by adopting this black child?

I recently saw the two young (white, biological) daughters of a couple that adopted a black boy holding the cutest little black dolls. I wished I knew the story behind the couple’s decision. Their act on its own struck me as being really wonderful: they had left all the many white dolls that overpopulate South African store shelves and somehow located black dolls to help their little girls love and identify with a toy person who looks different to themselves. They seemed to be subtly teaching their daughters to perceive and yet simultaneously welcome difference in their family. This is in keeping with a race-conscious approach.

Instead of the denialism of the colour-blind approach, a race-conscious approach acknowledges what the adopted black child and his white siblings see (the difference in skin colour between himself and the rest of his family). Yet, it equips him to effectively deal with what the child might sometimes be confronted with (the sometimes racially ignorant or outright racist attitudes out in the world). Indispensably, it tells him that the latter attitudes are the error in some people’s judgement of what is the significance of the visual difference in skin colour and explains the modest and celebratory significance the family assigns instead. Interracially adoptive parents employing the race conscious approach say, “you are the same, in essence, and above all, in value and moral worth; and, while others may respond to the beautiful uniqueness/difference that is your darker skin (which we see and celebrate) by concluding that you’re not as good as the rest of us, your family, that’s a downright lie!”

I can understand why white adoptive parents might be scared to take a race-conscious approach. Socially aware and sensitive people are often afraid that acknowledging difference means necessarily saying that the different one is unequal or inferior, or that it necessarily implies a kind of exclusion. While it sure can be (we are all familiar with the long-misused legal platitude, “separate but equal”), it is not necessarily true. As illustrated above, denying differences can be a worse kind of exclusion. And, interracially adoptive parents can acknowledge difference while celebrating it and constantly affirming that it is not a source of inferiority, no matter what some in the world may say.

This can occur in events as simple as daily applying lotion to the little black boy’s body, recognising that his skin gets drier than a white person’s and that’s just a genetic difference but his chocolate skin is still just beautiful. It can occur in telling a little black girl that, though her hair is not silky and smooth like her white siblings’, it’s full of so much awesome character, which allows it to be styled in a myriad of interesting and fun ways. Her unique hair is also lower maintenance, in one sense, as she oughtn’t normally to wash it more than once a week because otherwise it can get too dry and lose some of the lustre it can otherwise get from a little moisturiser added to it.

This celebration of difference complemented by affirmation of the inherent moral worth of black people should happen in bigger ways too, such as teaching the child and his white siblings about black people (people who look like him) in history who have achieved great things. That way, the child will not grow up believing that he must claim white identity in order for it to be fathomable for him to be someone of significance or to accomplish great feats.

A moment for such affirmative interventions can be uncomfortably prompted when the little one comes home from school (hopefully a bit older, but it can happen as early as age 4, as it did with a friend’s niece) having been told that black boys are not supposed to be the boyfriends of white girls. The interracially adoptive parent can’t then just pretend that the child is white (nor should they pretend such); but also obviously shouldn’t make too big a deal of the child’s blackness as a source of difference. Rather, this is an opportunity for race-conscious parenting graciously saying “you are black and beautiful, and there is nothing wrong with a black boy being the boyfriend of a white girl, as long as they love each other and respect each other just as they are – black and white – (and are old enough :)”. Feel free to use Dan and me as an example, if you like!


Postscript: Once again, in the course of letting a piece “breathe” for a couple of weeks, serendipitously (as though to confirm the timeliness of the telling), Dan and I went to see a play we knew basically nothing about last night – the description given online was extremely vague. It turned out to have been so with good reason as to know more than that “Rainbow Scars”, as it was titled, was a production about the complexities of life in post-apartheid yet still highly-racialised South Africa would have ruined its plenty profound surprises. The central plot was about a “born free” black teen who had been adopted by a white family. On seeing it, I felt affirmed in the fact that much of the writer’s musings (and implied conclusions, if any) were along the lines of my own. So, here’s agreeing with the play in celebrating 19 years of South Africa’s freedom with a sober reflection on the importance of raising racially conscious and linguistically capable black-kids-with-white-parents!

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Ruth Odigie says:

    Hi guys, nice post. Although as a mom in a interracial couple who has adopted a South African black child I felt quite scolded.
    Plenty of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’.

    While I agree that teaching my (“biologically” zulu) son to speak Xhosa will give him an advantage, and we plan to do so, I can’t help wondering why just the child should be encouraged to learn a vernacular (how I could think that word without Trevor Noah in my head). Surely a more inclusive way of embracing African culture would be for the whole family to learn a vernacular, attend a traditional wedding and funeral, spend a long holiday living in a rural homestead, and have friends of all cultures. Sending the black child off to learn a black language surely just creates more “us” and “them”, even between bio and adopted siblings.

    Do you guys have kids?

    1. Sindiso & Daniel says:

      Hi Ruth,
      Thanks for your sharing. Sorry you felt scolded – certainly wasn’t intended. (An aside: that’s the reason we typically don’t do opinion posts, but focus on sharing our own experiences … Much less likely to make people feel like you’re telling them how to live their lives that way … This was an unusual exception as mentioned at the start of the blog.)
      Anyway, I couldn’t agree more about the ideal being for the whole family to learn a “vernacular” language. I tried to gently suggest that in the post. But, I guess what I meant to drive home was that, even if the adopted family feels they can’t or don’t want to fully immerse themselves in the baby’s “biological” culture, they should at least give the baby the tools to do so when s/he is old enough to finally choose for him/herself. But, definitely, first prize is for the whole family to partake in the cultural and linguistic lessons.
      On your last question, I’m sorry to say that we’re not parents yet but look forward to hopefully being so blessed one day. I’m sure we’ll realise just how hard this all is once we have our own kids and are trying to teach them the Zulu language and culture in a world where they’re mostly surrounded by the English language and American culture. Then, maybe I’ll blog about just how hard my convictions are to implement in practice. More power to you for already doing the hard work!

  2. Melodie says:

    Too much emphasis on the white couple’s ‘black child’ being different. The child needs only to feel like he/she belongs. Colour of Mom and Dad or child should be irrelevant. The African language could be part of the schooling in any case an advantage if living in SA. If in a foreign country I feel not totally necessary – should be optional eg a black baby adopted by French or English couple and taken overseas. But continually reminding the child he is different to me is wrong. He is different to who?? He has the same body components as the rest of us; the only difference is the colour of his/her skin – I ask is it such a difference? But continuously trying to do the pc thing certainly makes the child different. When raising a child of a different colour forget PC (political correct) he just needs to belong in his new family, be nurtured and grow free of any hangups. If a white English couple adopts a Greek child – same colour, different background. I purposely do not use the word ‘culture’ as the child will now grow up in the culture of the family – why make it different – why have 1 Greek and everyone else English in the family. The child needs to belong. If as a teenager or adult they wish to adopt their culture of origin so be it. I feel it should rather be encouraged when the child wants it rather than making the young child ‘different’ just to be pc. I feel the same re white family and black baby. Let the black child, adolescent enquire and investigate its culture of origin when it wants to.

    1. Sindiso & Daniel says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Melodie. I am happy to agree to disagree.
      I think your views fall under the “colour blind” approach which we are committed to rejecting before the world becomes a “colour blind” place (where one’s race doesn’t fundamentally affect one’s life experience and how others treat them). My argument is for preparing a black child to live in this world (hence, take the “race conscious” approach in raising them to live in a world where others will treat them with reference to the colour of their skin). But, obviously, some others will differ with me.

      FYI: studies show that white people are most likely to adopt a “colour blind” approach. People posit that this is because white people typically do not experience the negative/challenging effects of race-based treatment. (Even those few black people who adopt a “colour blind” approach, when asked to describe their experience, recognise that they have experienced negative, race-based treatment but just try to ignore it or make a conscious effort not to call it what it is.) I encourage you to read up more on the debates about colourblindness vs race consciousness. (A great book we recently read was written by Erica Chito Childs: she’s a white woman raising mixed-raced children who does extensive research on this issue and makes a compelling case for why “colourblindness” is problematic in our time.) Our blog is but one forum that tries to put the pro “race consciousness” argument out there.

      (By the way, as I’ve blogged before, I’m committed to colour blindness as an ideal we will hopefully reach one day; sadly, today is not that day.)

  3. Marlese says:

    Hi Sindiso, I’ve been reading all your blogs. Amazing! In your charactersitic way, you offer such wisdom, with both humility and strong conviction. My sister has adopted a black child some years ago. She parents with great awareness of cross-cultural issues, but I think would profit hugely from your blog. I shall alert her to it. Thank you. I am tryign to reach you for another reason. Please could you mail me as mails to your uct address don’t seem to be going through. Thanks Marlese von Broembsen. (Marlese.vonbroembsen@uct.ac.za)

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