Crossing over the sea: a word about transracial parenting.
April 13, 2015

The first time I heard it, the words spilled from the mouth of someone I have known since high school, someone I count among my closest friends.  “White people are different,“ she sighed as she played peek-a-boo with Genevieve.  “You took our land.  Repressed our languages.  Raped our women, killed our men, controlled our history, ravaged our community, oppressed our voices.  I know you do not think of life this way, that you yourself did not commit these crimes, but you should know how it feels.  I am the child, the grandchild, the many-greats-grandchild of people who witnessed the destruction of their community.  This is my family’s story, what my family must never forget and always rise above.  You will never feel that weight.  Fostering and adopting is beautiful, but someday someone like me will look at you and say: That wasn’t enough?  Now you have to steal our children too?“

The second time I heard it, there were tears involved.  “I’m not one of those people, you know, who hates white people,“ Genevieve’s birth mother said to me.  “But she shouldn’t be with you.  She should be with a Mexican family, with someone who looks like her!  Who speaks her language!  Who can tell her the way the world really is!  How are you going to do that?  You have everything you want.  You can take, take, take.  She isn’t white; she will always have to fight harder for less.“

Over and over the incident repeats itself.  In the grocery.  At the library.  Sitting on the park bench beside me.  The faces are different and the words are different, but the ideas are the same.

You are not one of us, they tell me.  We are different.  Genevieve is one of us.  She is different.  How can one of you raise one of us?  What gives you the right?

—-

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They!
                                        - Rudyard Kipling

—-

When we decided to begin walking the path toward foster and adoptive parenthood, one of the classes our agency mandated focused on cultural sensitivity, competency, and connection.  It was three hours long.  We took the class twice, so we felt pretty confident when we selected the box under the category of Race/Ethnicity that said “no preference” when we were specifying which children we were and were not open to.  Love was what these children needed, we told ourselves.  And love we had aplenty.  And love would be enough.  The agency was making too big a deal out of this race business.

I cannot say for certain when we began to be lifted out of our ignorant fog.  Perhaps it was the time that a white adult called Genevieve a racial slur and, upon confrontation, said, “Oh, I’m sorry.  I did not realize she was with you.“  As though being parented by - or perhaps simply accompanied by - a white woman like myself conferred upon Genevieve a different status of human, as though it would have been okay to call her that same slur if the person “with” her shared her skin color.  Perhaps it was the time a white parent allowed her children to play with Charlotte and Evelyn, but encouraged them to avoid Genevieve and the other Latino children who were sharing the same play space.  Perhaps it was the time someone whose company we had always enjoyed spent twenty minutes railing against people of Genevieve’s race IN OUR HOME while we stood mouths agape, struggling to find the words to march into a battle we had never anticipated.  Perhaps it was the time one of my relatives acted surprised to find that we had adopted Genevieve.  She knew that we had adopted, of course, but she thought that we would have “returned” Genevieve for a baby “like us.“  As though she were a piece of merchandise.  Perhaps it was the time Charlotte heard a joke made at the expense of Latinos and heard people she trusted laughing and interpreted it literally and spent weeks agonizing, torn between listening to the laughter of these people she loved and listening to my voice telling her they were way the fuck out of line.

Perhaps it was all of these things.  All of these tiny ugly moments, sliding like sands in an hourglass, until one day we realized that we had previously lived in the half that was empty and now we were buried.  We had to learn to survive in a new universe.

Sometimes when I think over my life, I am amazed by this simple fact: Genevieve’s arrival in our home set off a chain of events in my family’s existence that have been more life-altering than any other.  We are different PEOPLE today than we were 18 months ago.  We have more knowledge about the foster care system and less faith in it.  We are less optimistic and more pragmatic.  We set firmer boundaries and we pick our battles.  We face greater challenges and have less time to devote to our friends and relatives.  Sometimes I remember the days when I fretted about teething or commercial characters on children’s clothing and I want to snap that woman into reality.

Genevieve is a wonder.  She turned two years old on the last day of March.  She can walk and run and jump.  She can put together train tracks and utterly destroy a small tupperware full of cupcakes in complete silence.  She can mimic any animal sound and is forever saying “MORE HAM” without any idea what that means or any interest in ham whatsoever.  She loves to put on her own shoes and says “ME HELPING ME” when she wants acknowledgement for her contributions to the family.  She is sneaky, she is emotionally guarded, and she is cheerful.  She loves to climb and she loves to jump on our trampoline and she loves to sit in a swing while I push her and her hair flies in the breeze.  She never stays still.  She has a warmth about her that can melt any heart.

But she is not white.  And because she is not white, the greatest change in our lives has been that she brought with her a sort of call to action.  We had to confront our privileges, listen to the oft-silenced voices in our community, read alternate histories, seek out alternate news sources, consider new ideas.

What a shame, we say to one another now.  What a shame that we wasted so much time reaching this point.  What a shame that we did not know.  What a shame that we did not care.  What a shame to find that we were born into a system of entitlement and institutionalized racism and that it not only took us decades of our lives to figure that out but that we also spent decades of our lives committing all manner of micro-aggressions (and, sadly, some macro-aggressions) without realizing this was a problem.  What a shame that we never intentionally sought out the voices of color within our community, despite living in a place where fewer than 1/3 of the residents are white.  What a shame that we did not privilege the voices of adoptees, adoption professionals, and transracial adoptive parents before jumping headlong into adoption.  What a shame that we believed in a post-racial colorblind society.

What a shame that we thought we had it all figured out.

—-

For awhile, we felt overwhelmed by what it would take to parent transracially.  On a day-to-day basis, parenthood is parenthood.  We think about the same things every parent thinks about: snacks and naptime and laundry and where the kids’ sneakers disappeared to.  But race is always there, always lurking in the back of our minds.  How can we provide her with the tools to deal with prejudice, discrimination, and racism?  How can we ensure competency in a culture that is not our own?  Where is the line drawn between appropriation and appreciation?  How can we bridge the cultural and linguistic gap between her birth family and our family?

On and on the questions come, tumbling forward from the depths.  Tumbling faster when an unsavory incident occurs.  Making us think about things we’ve never had to consider before, making us grow, making us fret.  Making us fear.

—-

The most recent time the incident happened, I did not stand in shocked silence.  I listened to the woman who was talking to me and heard her, really paid attention to her concerns.  When the opportunity presented itself, I thanked her.  I told her what we know now, what we want for Genevieve, and I asked if she could help us.

She stood there, my phone number in her hand, my words sitting in the space between us.  Then she leaned over, hugged me, smiled at my children.  “Gracias, mija,“ she said.  “This is good.  This is right.  I will call you tomorrow.“

And she did.

And so, little by little, we cross over the sea.


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  1. By on April 14, 2015

    I am so very glad that you started blogging again.
    I kept checking your blog to see if more posts had appeared, staring at The Sunflowers for months.
    Thanks for adding your voice to the internet’s hum once again, and thanks for letting me share in your parenting adventure.

  2. By on April 15, 2015

    I AM SO HAPPY YOU ARE BACK!!!!  I have missed your writing so much so I echo the above comments as well.  Congratualtions on all the new developments in your family, they are beautiful!!! Can’t wait for more to come, you are hands down my favorite blogger!  You have inspired me to write my girls monthly letters that I turn into yearly books for them with photos and it makes me feel so good to do this for them, so thank you!

  3. By on April 16, 2015

    Hi Sarah!

    I am writing this comment from a very different place, geographically. In my country, where we will be adopting 2 kids out of the national foster care system soon, almost everybody is white (98% of the population or so; we’re in a tucked-away corner of the “good old rich” Europe). Racism here, while just as pervasive as in any predominantly-while place I guess, is much less of a public issue, since there are so few people to actually have to live on the receiving end of it.

    Out of the group of prospective parents in our training classes - all white, but again, this is mostly just reflecting the country’s ethic makeup - we are the only couple open to taking in kids that look ethnically different. There is a strong chance this will in fact happen.

    There is no real option for non-white kids to be adopted by non-white parents in this country, because there are literally no candidate parents of colour. We know, because we checked. If all white adoptive-parents-to-be declined to take in kids of colour (which is not going to happen, I’m just describing possible outcomes here), they would be slated for international adoption.

    So non-white kids can either be adopted here by white parents and live in an overwhelmingly white environment, with all that this entails, or wait much longer and go through much more complicated procedures to be adopted abroad, to a place where possibly, but not necessarily, their ethnicity will be more of the norm.

    And the reason I am writing is because I am struggling with thoughts that somehow mirror what you wrote. Given these two options, which one is better, really? Is it better that we adopt the kids, and give them a loving home, but in a country where they are always very visibly The Other? Do we let them go and hope for the best fate for them elsewhere, knowing that this is a very random chance, not a guaranteed outcome at all? I have no idea.

    We might be spared this decision if we are ultimately offered kids that are of our ethnicity, but now in this last phase, I am struggling with this a lot, and so is my husband.

    Which is just a very long-winded way of saying that I appreciate that you took the time to write about your thoughts and experiences, and also just of saying that life is complicated! :-)

  4. By Sarah Christensen on April 16, 2015

    Hello Anka!

    You know, there’s a really awesome Facebook group called Transracial Adoption that you could pose that question to and they might be able to shed more light on your situation.  There are several members who were raised in racial isolation and they’ve discussed before how that felt to them as children and how that feels now in adulthood - it’s really enlightening, even if they aren’t all in agreement all the time.

  5. By on April 17, 2015

    Thanks for the info! I’ll make sure to track them down then. Best of luck to you for when the time to push comes :-) and I hope you will continue to blog (though if you manage to so with with 4 kids in the house, chapeau bas!).

  6. By Molly on April 17, 2015

    Hi Sarah!  I just got an email from Adoptive Families with a link to their guide on how to handle race issues with your adopted child.  You might find it worth a look:

    https://www.adoptivefamilies.com/transracial-adoption/talking-about-racism-race/?utm_source=eletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Apr15

    Thanks for writing about this…I’m in the process of adopting two Peruvian children and know that creating a mixed race family is going to be a unique challenge for us!

  7. By Camille Griffiths on April 21, 2015

    First of all, congrats on the adoption and on the pregnancy!!!

    I can’t begin to imagine the unique and complex challenges that come with adopting a child of another race, but it sounds like you are handling everything very admirably!! I can’t say I’ve been in the same situation, but I do get comments on my kids all the time. My husband and I have 2 daughters, and both are genetically ours, but one is blonde and one looks Native American like my dad. We’ve been asked what race she is, if she’s adopted, if they have different dads… I was so surprised at first, because I thought the majority of people were colorblind these days, and that mixed race families were pretty normalized. I hope one day they really will be!

  8. By on April 29, 2015

    So glad to see you posting again! 

      I have to say that you are a better person than I am. I love that you and Donald are considering how to parent transracially.  What I don’t like is that people feel free to challenge you on a transracial adoption. On a good day, I would tell them that my family is not up for discussion. On a bad day, I would ask them how many children of the appropriate race they are fostering.

  9. By victoria on May 04, 2015

    I have to agree with Mitzi. When I saw on Facebook that you were writing again, I was so excited and then I read this and it just made me mad on so many levels.

    First of all, your family has done a wonderful thing and no one should make you feel guilty about that.

    Your friend is not a friend to say such cruel, abusive things to you. Really, you have four kids now. You don’t have time for that negative energy directed at your parenting decisions. I cannot imagine saying something like that to a friend who has adopted a child of another race.

    Second, her birth mother had to have done something extraordinarily horrible to permanently lose her parental rights, and yes I have a lot of compassion for poverty, mental illness and addictions and all the things that can cause someone to do something bad enough to lose their child forever. However, there’s a part of me that wants to say that if she really cared so much about who raised her child then she should have thought about that before she made whatever choices she made that caused her to lose her child. She needs to take responsibility for the fact that her own actions are the reason she isn’t raising her child in her Mexican culture, and I’m sure that is really heartbreaking for her, but she should be on her knees thanking you, not blaming you.

    Third, I cannot imagine people making racist comments to a little child, except yes I can because I’ve seen it. It makes me sick. I pray that every time you hear someone say something that you call them out on it and speak up in the most polite way possible. Teach your girls to stand up for injustice wherever they see it.

    I know you are going to do a wonderful job raising Genevieve (do you pronounce it the french way?) and that she is lucky to be with you. You have done an incredible thing and don’t let anyone try to make you feel badly. You did not steal someone else’s baby and if anyone is going to respect her heritage, of course it will be you and your husband. So don’t feel guilty. Feel lucky that the Universe gave you this lovely little girl and to hell with what anyone else says.

  10. By Sarah Christensen on May 05, 2015

    Victoria, I probably should have added more context to the conversation I had with my friend. At the time, Gen was still a foster child and she had only been in our home a couple weeks. My friend is Mexican and was commenting as part of a much broader discussion about the prospect of adopting, whether or not to maintain birth family contact, and so on. She’s a very social-justicey person, a side of her I didn’t really see much of until Gen joined our family. I did not take her statements offensively, I took them as her explanation of a reality I needed to become acquainted with. People do say these things to us and to other transracial families and they are valid criticisms that have been beneficial for us to consider. Honestly, she was the first person who said anything to me about race in a way that made me consider what Genevieve’s heritage could mean to her growing up in a white family. I’m glad she did because if I hadn’t ever thought of it, I would have been caught off-guard by G’s mother and strangers voicing those same ideas. Being prepared was very helpful and helped us understand that we needed to be cognizant of the fact that how we were raised to view things is not the only way to see them.

    As for Genevieve’s birth mother…I want to tread carefully here because the world I live in is so vastly different from the world she lives in. I will say that she loves her children and that I think she is fighting against a system prejudiced against her. I believe that it is in G’s best interest to have access to her family and her mother, even if I understand why the system placed her permanently with us.

    Overall we’re learning to navigate a post-adoption terrain that is vastly more complex than we anticipated. I’m grateful for what insight I’m given by others, even if it is uncomfortable to hear sometimes. It’s hard to bite my tongue sometimes, but on the other hand it is also sometimes difficult to find the words and courage to stand up to racism.

  11. By on August 07, 2015

    I love the glimpses into your family’s life. Today as I read this post, I though to myself that you really are a super hero. Thank you for what you do, for sharing your story, for being an example.

  12. By on August 13, 2015

    Hi Sarah,

    I don’t usually comment on blogs I just come across, but I wanted to let you know that I really loved this post. We are hoping to enter into the world of fostering and adopting as our baby gets older and I have really been trying to prepare myself. I feel like you have really given me a lot to think about on how to deal with these issues when they come up.

    I just really loved this post. In a world where moms always tear each other down, I just wanted to tell you that you seem like an incredible mother- your family is all blessed to have each other to get through life.

  13. By on August 31, 2015

    It’s been a long time since I checked in… Like 3 kids ago, for both of us! It gets a bit more tricky as we add doesn’t it? Anyway, gorgeous family. I love this post. Very well written. <3

  14. By BLOG PELAJARAN on June 21, 2016

    For awhile, we felt overwhelmed by what it would take to parent transracially.  On a day-to-day basis, parenthood is parenthood.


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