While I do not always want to or like it, as a transracially adopted person, I think and talk about differences of race, class and culture a lot. I feel compelled to engage in thoughtful conversation about these elements because they represent some of the toughest aspects of our shared human experiences and because they are often at the center of adoption and foster care and not faced head-on often enough.
When parents and members of the extended family of adoption and professionals within the field do not bravely and purposefully face these differences, at best, children and families are left at a disadvantage, and at worst, our children can be in real danger physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Even as a young child, when the issue of me being the only person of color in my white family would come up, I did not always understand what was being said, but I do remember how I felt and the energy shift that would occur when something was said pertaining to my race, hair or adoption. I can still feel my mother’s body tense and her hand grip mine just a little bit tighter. For children, it can be hard to remember specific words, but feelings can be embedded for a lifetime.
While complicated and confusing, foster care and adoption can be made less so when we approach the realities openly and honestly, providing parents with the support, encouragement and knowledge to fully engage in this unique parenting journey. Here are a few things I have learned from my personal exploration, as well as collective conversations about the complex realties surrounding differences of race, class and culture embedded in foster care and adoption.
Tend to your racial identity. Everyone has a racial identity, even white people, and we all need to understand and tend to it. This means looking in the mirror literally and figuratively to get a grip on who you are, where you fit, and how to be in better connection to those around you, particularly those who are not like you. Of course, this is vital for all of us today but even more so for those parenting children of another race via foster care.
It simply is not enough to adopt the naïve colorblind idea and in fact, it is dangerous. Not seeing and recognizing differences can symbolically render a child or young person invisible. At the same time, the outside world will absolutely see the differences and not being equipped to move in our racially charged world can be unsafe for people of color. Sadly, there is no time to waste.
Embracing racial differences and giving children the best tools possible means being proactive and unrelenting in your pursuit of understanding your own racial identity in order to better support your child as they develop theirs.
As a child, I navigated these differences on my own. As much as my parents provided a solid foundation of love and nurtured me to become a strong woman, they were not equipped or encouraged to dig deep into differences of race, class and culture. As far as I could tell, they were not actively exploring their white identities and in many ways because I was a light-skinned woman of color, they likely felt they did not have to either. Now, as an adult, I can clearly see where I could have used more support and maybe even where their lives could have been enriched had they more actively supported my racial identity development and explored their own. To be clear, articulating my truth isn’t easy and doing so is not about an indictment against my parents, but rather a real reflection, and I share openly so that things can be made even better for children and families today.
Recognize that every family has a culture. Just like all individuals have a racial identity, every family has a culture and a general way of working. From what holidays are celebrated to traditions to daily life, families can have distinct ways of operating. Foster parents should examine the culture of their own family and how it might change when welcoming a child, especially a child of another race. With this in mind, it is imperative that you go the extra mile: first by understanding the culture of your child’s family of origin and then working to truly integrate some elements into your family. While this may indeed seem overwhelming, the sense of belonging you will create on behalf of your child has the potential to be truly transformational.
Start to recognize and talk about the differences of class inherent in foster care and adoption. Money is a necessary, complicated and difficult element to discuss in our modern lives. This is even more true when we think about money in respect to foster care and adoption where lack of money and resources often contributes to family separation. Recognizing this as a starting place helps to put things into perspective, allows for a more open discussion about the realities, and makes the space to tackle some of the practical things that occur in daily life — some of these include things like where to meet for a birth parent or birth sibling outing and deciding who pays and what to do about holiday gifts. Because differences of class as well as culture can be more subtle and because we are often ill-equipped to be in conversation about them, it can make already complex situations even more challenging. It no longer needs to be this way and the first step is to stop glossing over class and money as factors in foster care and adoption.
I’ve gotten better at navigating differences of race, class and culture because I’ve had to. As a woman of color who was raised in a white family, I have not had the luxury of choosing whether or not to go into the deep water. Today, being uncomfortable actually feels comfortable and I make it my business to help parents raising children of another race to do the same so that they can do everything possible to ensure the physical, emotional and psychological safety of their children.
As spring comes into bloom, our extended families of foster care and adoption continue to evolve and our identities continue to become clearer, let’s challenge ourselves to open up more space for conversations and actions around our differences of race, culture and class, and take bold steps forward for ourselves and on behalf of our families, and our collective humanity. •
April Dinwoodie is a transracially adopted person and nationally recognized thought leader on adoption and foster care. Dinwoodie created a specialized mentoring program called Adoptment, where adults who were adopted and/or spent time in foster care serve as mentors to youth navigating foster care and adoption. Dinwoodie candidly shares her experiences at workshops, conferences, schools and via her iTunes podcast “Born in June, Raised in April.”