As a Black adoptee raised by White parents — incredibly loving White parents — in rural, White New England, I feel a vivid sense of urgency to offer some words of advice for White adoptive parents of Black children, and particularly Black girls:
We don’t think about sex before White girls do. Our bodies may develop differently, sooner, broader, but we are still girls inside of these growing bodies.
Please don’t characterize us in ways that set us up for further stereotyping. If you don’t want your Black daughter to be labeled an “angry Black woman” as an adult, don’t think that calling her “a spitfire” as a child is innocuous. Find and use different language, push beyond your own vocabulary and toward a cultural conversancy — that is part of what it means to parent Black children.
Be careful how you engage with modern tropes, or perhaps more pointedly, resist the urge to turn a phrase Black people made and love and feel good about into a trope — Black Girl Magic looks different through a White lens. We are not magic because you adopted us; we are magic because our ancestors saw us coming and stayed with us in our spirits.
Please don’t fetishize or exoticize how we look. I know it’s tempting to tell us how beautiful we are in a world that doesn’t often find us beautiful, and where the standard of beauty is historically, consistently White, but we can tell when you’re overcompensating for that. Even if you feel bad about having been complicit in perpetuating this notion at some point in your life. Our beauty does not exist because you have given it to us.
Our hair is revelatory and gives us the first roots we can lay claim to. Find a Black hairdresser who can teach not just you how to care for our hair, but who can teach us how to care for it and wear it the way we want. And please don’t be offended if we’d more often rather have the hands of a Black woman work through the tangle we call the “kitchen” at the nape of our necks, detangle the kinks and grease our scalps. It’s an act of generosity to let the legacy of this ritual stay Black.
Good intentions are not parenting skills, and Martin Luther King Jr. did not die so you could use your admiration for him to defend your failings. In fact, maybe don’t mention him at all until you also know who the following people are: Bayard Rustin, Shirley Chisholm, Marsha P. Johnson, Pauli Murray, Diane Nash, W.E.B. Du Bois, Kara Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Carrie Mae Weems, Ida B. Wells, Marlon Riggs and Nina Simone. There are, of course, hundreds of thousands more, but to this Black adoptee, this short list is a bottom-line-acceptable sampling of Black folks other than Dr. King who have made extraordinary contributions to American culture, and whom you may rightly evoke in conversation.
Your naivete may be legitimate, but if you legitimately don’t understand how systemic racism works, or the ways in which it will target your child specifically and often, then maybe you shouldn’t adopt a Black child. And I mean that in the kindest way possible.
Please do not suddenly start acquiring Black friends after you adopt a Black child — if you didn’t have any to begin with, meditate on that. If you had a casual Black friend in college, but didn’t maintain that friendship into adulthood and only reference said friend when asked by your Black child why you don’t have any Black friends as an adult, you’re exploiting that Black friend to make yourself seem less racist. And that is racist.
It is also racist to adopt a Black child and raise her in an all-White environment, because you have decided that it’s okay for you to live your life, every single day, until your dying breath, without seeing another Black person. Here is a hard truth: Parenting comes with sacrifices.
Love is lovely. Unconditional love, though, is not unconditional if it then becomes conditional when we talk about race. If you will be unable to love your Black adopted child as a grown Black adult who calls out systemic racism not merely in society at large, but also within the White family you brought that child into, the struggle will be disproportionately real.
And finally, I am not discouraging transracial adoption. But it does represent a foundational dynamic between Black people and White people in America, wherein White people are setting the tone, the tenor, the structure and the standard of value for Black people who don’t have a voice. Moving past that dynamic will require brutal honesty, radical compassion and almost unimaginable levels of humanity.
What it does not require is colorblindness or “post-racialism” or “racelessness” — if you are choosing not to see your child as Black, the message you are sending is that you value your child only if you strip away something that is integral to her identity, her existence and her sense of self. We will internalize that message, because you are our parents.
Listen to Jonathan Capehart’s interview with author Rebecca Carroll on his podcast Cape Up: