Racial Sensitivity Courses Should Be Mandatory for Adoptive Parents

Janelle Harris

Adoptive family

I can’t tell you how many times this has happened: I’m in a store, and a white person will come up to me with an expression of bewilderment across their face and an adopted black child at their side with a head full of thick, unmanaged hair. The look says, before they even get the words out, that they don’t know what to do with it.

Black hair is 10 times different than everybody else’s, so I can imagine that someone who doesn’t have it could be overwhelmed. Heck, I was born with it and I’m out of my league sometimes. So I offer my advice on how to control the baby’s tresses — Pink Oil Moisturizer is a time-tested favorite, for those too timid to ask — and everyone goes their separate ways. 

But the hair isn’t the major issue. Having a child of another race requires knowledge about their community in order to raise them to be confident, self-aware, and prepared for the real world. 

We grow up with a vested interest in what we already know — our communities, our culture, our religions. If you grow up as a practicing Catholic, you know the heck out of some Catholicism. If you grow up in the Midwest, you dare somebody to challenge your knowledge of the Heartland. If you grow up black or white or Chinese or Cuban, you know the inner workings of your race, ethnicity, and nationality (because please understand that they are three separate things).

Sometimes we do a little travel or reading or soul-searching and get exposure to other communities, like when I learned about Islam in college, for example. And sometimes we date or befriend someone from a different circle who makes us hip to the inner workings of their worldview, however that differs from ours. But for the most part we know what we know because that’s what we’ve always known.

So when an aspiring parent decides to adopt a child that comes from a foreign part of the world — meaning, they don’t even have to be from another country, just foreign to their little bubble of day-to-day living —  they have to openly educate themselves on that child’s background in order to mold and guide them through adolescence.

It saddens me to see little Asian kids and little African kids and little Latino kids being raised by adoptive moms and dads of other races who clearly have never been exposed in the least to their original culture. I’ve talked at length with black adults who were raised in white households (since the preponderance of people who do adopt are white) who had been so sheltered and deprived of their history as a person of African descent that they didn’t even know who Nelson Mandela or Booker T. Washington were.

My initial reaction was to let my knees buckle and fall out in a faint. But I had to realize that these individuals, functional — even successful — as they are in every other part of their lives, hadn’t been taught an appreciation of their communal history. Which basically means they don’t know their personal history.

I know some people like to fancy that we can live in an ethnically ambiguous utopia where we’re all raceless faces appreciating one another for the people we are inside. I doubt seriously that that’s ever going to happen. So parents of minority children need to brace them for that.

Society is always going to see an Asian kid as an Asian kid. A black kid. A Latino kid. And yes, in some aspects that’s boxing us in to just the physical parts of who we are. But it also attaches us to a greater community, like it or not, by race. I’m so proud of my blackness that it oozes from my pores and wafts up from my scalp, and I’m passing that on to my daughter. I am a member of both the black American community and the global black community, and that ties me to billions of people of African descent around the world. I am not an island.

Neither are the little black boys and girls being adopted into non-black families. They need to be taught, just like I was, that there’s pride in our history, heritage, and the cultures that weave together to create an entire Diaspora. Every minority child needs that connection. It’s not a question of them just needing love. That’s a given. But parents have to facilitate their children’s self-awareness early on as an expression of that love or risk depriving them of a major part of their personhood.

Should parents who adopt children of other races be obligated to teach their kids about their heritage?

Image via Frerieke/Flickr

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