When actress Charlize Theron brought son Jackson home in March, she joined a growing list of White celebrities who have adopted Black babies in recent years. Sandra Bullock. Madonna. Angelina Jolie. Jillian Michaels. Kristin Davis. Mary-Louise Parker. Many more.
But this is not merely a celebrity phenomenon. Transracial adoption, or families of one race adopting a child of another, has been steadily on the rise for decades. One reason: More people don’t start thinking about having children until their late thirties and early forties, a time when fertility becomes a challenge. For many women, celebrity or not, the desire to parent supersedes all other considerations, including the race of the child.
In the case of celebrities who adopt Black babies, some have participated in humanitarian missions and become aware of the many Black children who need homes. And with international adoptions plummeting due to factors including greater scrutiny—placements from China, Guatemala and Ethiopia are on the decline, for example—more families in the U.S. are focusing domestically, where the process may be easier to navigate.
The recent spate of adoptions of Black children by famous Whites has reignited the debate over whether transracial adoptions are in the best interest of the child. While Whites adopt children of other races as well (a source familiar with Theron’s situation told ESSENCE that “most people do not choose what type of child they adopt”), the transracial adoption conversation gets particularly heated when a Black child is involved. Many question whether Whites are truly up to the challenge. Will the child be exposed to Black culture? How will he or she develop a healthy sense of self? Does the parent realize that a postracial America is an illusion?
For decades the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) remained “vehemently opposed” to transracial adoptions. The organization has since updated its stance. “We’re not saying transracial adoption is totally out of consideration,” says Toni Oliver, NABSW vice-president. “Our position is about preserving Black families.”
By and large, outcomes for children adopted by parents of a different race are positive. “But if White parents treat race as if it doesn’t matter, kids have to figure out what it means to be of color on their own,” says Judy Stigger, an adoption therapist at The Cradle, a Chicago-area agency that offers courses for families that have transracially adopted. “They tend to move away from home and seek out ways to become part of their ethnic community.”
The latter scenario mirrors Rachel Noerdlinger’s experience. The 41-year-old, who is Black, was adopted as an infant by Peter and Judy Noerdlinger, a White couple from New Mexico who also had biological children. “My parents believed we could be color-blind,” she says. “They saw racial distinctions as dangerous.”
Noerdlinger, whose Black brother was also adopted, says she paid a hefty price for her parents’ idealism. She felt isolated growing up in predominantly White neighborhoods around the U.S. and didn’t develop a strong identity until enrolling in Mills College, an all-women’s college in Oakland. There she finally connected with other Black women. Noerdlinger’s awakening eventually led to anger over her parents’ naïveté around race, and in 1996 she penned a forceful Washington Post op-ed arguing Black children should be placed with Whites only “as a last resort.”
Today Noerdlinger, a publicist whose clients include Al Sharpton, no longer has such strong feelings. But she continues to stress that White adoptive families can’t afford to be naive about race. “Every time I see a Sandra Bullock, I want to call her up and have a conversation, because I know the pain I experienced of not knowing who I was,” she says.
Sarah Smith, a 26-year-old from Edmond, Oklahoma, had a different experience. She was adopted as a newborn in Haiti by White missionaries from America and developed a strong sense of self from the start. For the first few years of her life Smith was raised on a Haitian compound, immersed in the culture, with both Black and White siblings. There were also Haitian aunts and uncles, who had been adopted as children by Smith’s adoptive maternal grandparents. “We didn’t know all-Black or all-White families,” she says. “We just knew diversity.”
A Loving Home
Some White parents who adopt Black children say they are compelled to develop a consciousness around race. Rachel Garlinghouse, a White adoptive mother of two Black girls, Ella, 3, and Emery, 1, attributes it to discriminatory treatment her family has faced. Whites assume her girls can dance; they touch the kids’ hair; everyone stares. She responds to racist comments with sharp quips and answers nosy questions with facts. Although her girls are young and haven’t experienced harsh racism, Garlinghouse is already teaching them how to respond to injustice through stories about Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks. “Transracial adoptive parents can’t do just one or two things to help their children navigate prejudice,” says Garlinghouse. “It’s a lifetime of experiences, resources and relationships. Being a transracial adoptive parent is a monumental role, and it requires dedication, passion and education in order to raise successful, confident children.”
Darron Smith, Ph.D., coauthor of White Parents, Black Children: Experiencing Transracial Adoption (Rowman & Littlefield), believes that few Whites are truly equipped to help Black children prepare for survival in America. “You would need to change your circle of friends, move to an integrated neighborhood and unlearn the racist history you learned about being an American,” says Smith, an adjunct professor at A.T. Still University in Phoenix, who has extensively researched transracial adoption. “This means you might look like a very different White person.”
Still most agree that, ultimately, what children need is a loving home. That’s particularly the case for Black children, who are less likely than others to be adopted. If children aren’t adopted by the time they’re 8 to 12 years old, especially Black males, they likely never will be. Then their chances of being jailed or having kids at an early age skyrocket, states Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York City.
For these reasons, many adoption agencies offer incentives to families willing to adopt Black children, including subsidies to make the process more affordable. There have also been numerous efforts in recent years to find more Black adoptive families. Nijole Yutkowitz, director of resource and community development at The Cradle, which since opening in 1923 has facilitated more than 15,000 adoptions, says a big part of her job is educating Blacks about the process. She holds information sessions to discuss cost and myths around adoption. “The goal,” she says, “is to ensure that African-American birth mothers have an array of options when choosing an adoptive family.”