Black Adoptees on Racial Identity After Growing Up in White Homes
Black Adoptees on Racial Identity
Does love know no color?
The ad campaign for Kevin Costner’s new film Black or White definitely supports that idea, pushing the hashtag #LoveKnowsNoColor while promoting the transracial custody drama.
Black or White pits a child’s white maternal grandfather (Costner) against her black paternal grandmother (played by Octavia Spencer) in a legal battle for custody. Think Losing Isaiah meetsThe Blind Side, dealing with the matter of white parents raising black or biracial children. In both those films, as in Black or White, the main focus seems to be on the adults in the room, fighting over the future and well-being of a child of color. But what of the children put in this situation, raised by white families?
The Root talked to three transracial adoptees, all adopted by white families in the 1970s, about their experiences and views on transracial adoption, as well as Costner’s new film. While all three appreciated the love and foundation their families provided, a common theme evolved: In a racially polarized society, children of color cannot be raised devoid of their history and culture. All three agreed that white families who adopt children of color need to abandon the naivete of colorblindness and deal with the racial reality their black and brown children face.
Here are their stories:
Author and performer Chad Goller-Sojourner used to be afraid of black people, despite being a black person himself. “I used to cross the street when I saw multiples of them. Rap music scared me,” he said.
Raised by white parents in a mostly white community, Goller-Sojourner had an identity that was completely assimilated. “One of the interesting things from when I was younger is when you grow up with white parents, white neighborhood, white church, your default identity is a white kid. Blackness comes later,” he said, adding, “People always reminded me I was black.”
It wasn’t until he went off to college, to a town he described as whiter than his hometown, that he began the work of unpacking his “blackness.” He had to move away from his parents and the privilege of their whiteness to see the reality surrounding him.
“Regardless of how you got to the front of the line, no one wants to be sent to the back of the line, giving up things you’ve held so dear as white,” Goller-Sojourner said of letting go of his “whiteness.” “Sophomore year, I went to my first black house party … it was like, 12 people. I remember the police came and I thought, ‘Wait a second, over [at white parties], white kids are jumping off the roof, banisters, fire escapes.’ Air was different there. These police officers were looking at us the way I’d look at others before crossing the street.”
After that, he added “Sojourner” to his name, changed his major to African-American studies and launched himself headfirst into better understanding his cultural roots. “All that happened very quickly because I was making up for lost time,” he said.
Of Costner’s film, Goller-Sojourner is wary. “There’s a lot of these movies where the white savior comes up. White people come and save us and everything is good,” he said.
Goller-Sojourner expressed concern that the film, which pits a financially better-off white family against a less-wealthy black one, plays into old white superiority tropes, not telling the full story. For him, it’s not about just meeting the basic needs of a child: race matters. He believes black children should be adopted in pairs when adopted by white parents and that white parents need to immerse themselves in black history and culture, and make black friends.
“If you’re going to adopt kids, it’s the white parents’ obligation to shepherd them in same-race maturation,” he said. “When you have a transracial family, mixed-race family, you’re going outside the normal. Somebody has to be uncomfortable and it shouldn’t be the child. … Your child should not be your first black friend. That’s the bottom line. If you don’t know no black people, why are you trying to bring one to your home?”
Writer and adoptee advocate LisaMarie Rollins admits that it was hard for her to navigate her identity on her own as a black girl with white parents, growing up in Washington state.
“I grew up in a place where most of my life I was the only person of color. Not just the only black person, but the only person of color. It was super painful. Crazy, racist things happened to me. Not only verbal racism but physical, sexual violence, all kinds of things,” Rollins said.
Her parents tried to raise her in a “colorblind” environment, which she attributes to the idea that some white parents hold that their whiteness can protect their children from the harm of racism.
“It’s the idea that you can put this veil around [the child], this veil of white privilege,” she said.
Despite her parents’ best intentions, Rollins described her childhood as hard and that she still deals with the aftereffects of it. “As an adult adoptee, [I] have no connection. I grew up in an all-white community, all-white Christian evangelical school. The notion of my blackness was simultaneously erased, yet everyone is projecting their ideas of blackness on me,” she said. “I feel like [this idea] we can adopt children from Haiti and stick them in Kentucky and it’s going to be all good … that’s not true.”
Rollins, who helped create a black adoptee resource, Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora, is cautious about Black or White, sharing Goller-Sojourner’s concern that it could be another “white savior” film, comparing it to Losing Isaiah, the 1995 film that featured Halle Berry starring as a poor, drug-addicted mother going to court to get back a baby she’d abandoned.
“[With the tagline], Kevin Costner tries to redefine race. Is he really trying to redefine race or is he trying to reassert the idea that love can conquer all?” Rollins said. “That isn’t to say that I don’t have an idealistic view. I definitely believe in the notion of what James Baldwin called universal radical love in fighting white supremacy. I don’t think that’s the kind of love Kevin Costner is talking about.”
Calling herself a family preservationist, Rollins says she is not anti-adoption, but she is concerned with how many black children end up in foster care, and feels more should be done to help children stay within their birth families, making transracial adoption a last resort.
“I’m interested in how black mothers can raise their own children in a healthy, community-supported way,” Rollins said. “Maybe that looks like [preserving] a family, instead of adopting and removing a child. Maybe I befriend someone and support them in keeping their child. Maybe I’m an auntie figure.”
Raised by white parents she credits with making sure she wanted for nothing, Rachel Noerdlingerstill went through a period during which she believed transracial adoptions should happen only as a last resort. While she loved her parents and they loved her, she wasn’t sure if that could be enough to counter the effects of racism, and that initially made her stance harsh. But time and motherhood have softened her view.
“Having my own child made me realize that all children need homes and that love is love, but at the same time I still strongly think that we need to do more to expose families of color to the adoption process,” Noerdlinger said. “With the state of racial affairs in America, it’s an impossibility to avoid race.”
Noerdlinger, who currently works as the managing director at Mercury, a high-stakes, public-strategy company, is the former chief of staff for New York City’s first lady, Chirlane McCray. Before that, she worked in publicity, and during her time in public relations, she worked on the promotionof Losing Isaiah. The plot of the film was one that was close to Noerdlinger’s heart as an adoptee.
“My parents honestly thought in their hearts they could raise us in an environment where you don’t see color, and unfortunately that’s just not possible,” said Noerdlinger.
Noerdlinger wasn’t exposed to other people of color until she was in her 20s and joined a black women’s collective at Mills College. This absence of black people and culture led to an identity crisis so severe, she moved to Africa hoping to find herself.
“I always knew I was a child of color. I knew when I looked in the mirror,” she said. “But I assimilated, and it wasn’t until later in life that I had an identity crisis. And it was just a feeling of not knowing … I had a lot of questions. I had this profound sense of loss and not knowing, and I sort of felt like there was a lifetime of experiences I had not been privy to.
“I moved to Gambia, West Africa,” she continued. “I went there in search of ethnicity, but Africans have all different kinds of ethnicities, so I didn’t necessarily find what I was looking for there. It was unrealistic to think I could just go to Africa. It was a bit extreme.”
Noerdlinger plans to see Black or White and said she applauds Costner for doing the film, saying, “It opens up a dialogue.”
She adds, “I think white families that choose to adopt black children really need to commit to themselves being educated, to being committed to exposing their adopted child to important cultural needs and values. And we live in a day and age where that’s not entirely hard to do. These days it’s much easier to have things at the tip of your fingers.”