Last month was Hispanic Heritage month (Thank you for the reminder, Disney Junior!) and it occurred to me, “Hey- we have a household member of Hispanic heritage” because quite honestly, I sometimes forget. One-third of our foster children have been Hispanic, including our current foster daughter, Rose. Although I initially felt rather “proud” at my color-blindness and the fact that Rose’s skin color isn’t that big of a deal to me, I later felt a little guilty and thought, “Should I do something to acknowledge that our foster daughter is of a different heritage and color than the rest of my family?” Then again, at just over a year old she’s probably too young to even realize her skin is a darker shade than the rest of ours so would acknowledging her diversity really make a difference? Opinions on the subject will vary.
What I do know is that mixed race families never seemed to be something I ever gave too much thought to- I have nieces and nephews who are biracial or who have married inter-racially and as with our foster daughter, I sometimes forget the fact. But lately such couples and families seem to really stick out to me- perhaps because my own family now fits that description- if only on a temporary basis.
Gerstenzang described this exact phenomenon in a chapter of her book. Describing what it was like to foster a child of a different race she said,
“During the initial period when Cecelia lived with us and I became temporarily obsessed with race, I noticed every baby that ‘matched’ her mother or father and every one that didn’t. My eye was like a camera, and everywhere I went I took snapshots of children and their parents: white baby nursing at white mother’s breast; Asian female face in a stroller with white male pushing the stroller; two brown parents with their two brown children. I was hyperaware of issues that I had thought a lot about before but that now seemed so personal.”
If you’ll excuse my oversimplified analogy, it’s kind of like if you’ve ever had the experience of looking for a new car or even buying a new pair of shoes- suddenly you find yourself paying particular attention to the kinds of cars people drive (or what shoes they’re wearing) and it seems like you notice the kind of car that you’re interested in pops up EVERYWHERE. Now this is not necessarily because there’s a sudden influx of that particular car on the market, but rather it just seems more apparent since it’s at the forefront of your mind.
That’s how I’ve felt since Rose has been back in our care again in noticing both a prevalence of multi-racial families or the differences in our races and issues- albeit minor- having to do with race which I’ve never had to give much thought to before.
Here’s a few small examples:
Example #1- Last month I was at a soccer game and being the Sunscreen Nazi that I am (because of a history of skin cancer thanks to my British heritage and too much time spent worshipping the sun in my invincible younger years!) I started lathering sunscreen all over my daughter’s fair skin before the game started. I then looked down at Rose and her golden skin and wondered, “Do I need to apply some to her skin or does her darker coloring serve as protection against the sun’s rays?” I’ve honestly never had to think about it before.
Example #2- While looking through the Sunday ads and thinking about what toys to get for Christmastime (because I like to prepare early), I decided that a doll would be a great choice for Rose. But I had to search a little harder than I originally would have because I wanted to find one with brown skin- like hers.
Example #3- One day when my family went for a walk and while my white husband was pushing Rose in her stroller we passed a Hispanic man pushing a very fair-skinned looking child (I’m assuming his own) in a stroller. “That’s ironic”- I thought as we passed. My husband and I exchanged comical glances.
My mother, who was raised in a small western town during the depression said that when she was growing up it WAS a big deal to see a mixed race family- stares would abound. But fast forward to nowadays, as an almost eighty year old grandmother, having mixed race grandchildren, foster grandchildren, and great grandchildren of her own isn’t that big of a deal anymore- and I’m grateful for that.
Yet there needs to be a balance between being color-blind and having a “Does it really matter?” attitude and acknowledging that, “Yes- being a member of a transracial family can be a big deal” and that differences in skin color should be recognized and even celebrated rather than ignored.
I was particularly interested in the chapter in Another Mother about race relations, foster care, adoption, and social policy. As a white foster parent to a black infant foster daughter (And I use the term “black” rather than African American because not all people with black skin come from Africa- as is the case with Haitians, Jamaicans, and Brazilians, for example) Gerstenzang had her fair share of curious inquiries, stares, unsolicited advice and opinions and in some cases, outright rude remarks from others, both people close to her and perfect strangers.
“One of the things I particularly worried about was that some black people might feel upset that we were parenting a black child. If I could have posted a sign on my back it would have read: ‘We are trying to help a family get back together. We are foster parents. We aren’t kidnapping this child.’”
Incidentally, I also recently read a blog post which a black foster family shared their experiences fostering white children, including a very unfortunate event when the foster father was watching his foster daughters play at a park and a concerned bystander approached the little girls and asked if they were alright or if the man (their foster father) was bothering them. *Can anyone please tell me where I read that so I can reference it?* Too bad the foster father couldn’t have been wearing a sign on his back.
Gerzenstang’s concerns about parenting a black child as a white woman did not just stem from her daily encounters with others, but from her study of social policy. She recalled a stance made by the National Association of Black Social Worker’s (NABSW) in response to the trend in the early 70s of white families adopting black children:
“Black children should be placed only with Black families whether in foster care or adoption. Black children belong physically, psychologically, and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes, and self-concepts within their own family structure. Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people.”
Thank goodness that the NABSW has since modified its stance. Otherwise, there would be even more children waiting for homes. Gerstenzang continued to explain:
“By 1994, the NABSW had modified its position with a three-tiered statement. The priority, the top tier, was preserving or reunifying black families; the second tier was adoption by parents of the same race; and the third tier was adoption by parents of another race, but only after appropriate members of the African American community had determined that the second tier was unreachable.”
On a related personal note, I can’t help but wonder, with the new developments in Rose’s case, if the fact that Tia is Hispanic and I’m not has any bearing on DCFS’s decision to move her? (One of Rose’s parents is white and the other parent- Tia’s relative- is Hispanic) Is it an issue of race or is it just a coincidence? If it were about race, it wouldn’t be legal as Gerstenzang continues to explain about American social policy:
“The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) of 1994 said that race could not be the determining factor when placing a child in an adoptive or foster home. However, the legislation did note that an agency could consider the capacity of the prospective foster or adoptive parents to meet the needs of a child of a different racial, ethnic, or cultural background as one of a number of factors used to determine the best interests of the child. Because MEPA is a federal legislation, any state that receives federal money for its public or private foster and adoptive agencies (which is every state) must comply with it. And in 1996, the law was modified to make it even stricter. The Inter-Ethnic Placement Act, still commonly referred to as MEPA, said that race couldn’t play any role in adoptive placements. In other words, the law says it is illegal to consider race when placing a child in a foster or adoptive home. So if a child is available for adoption and several couples are interested in the child, the couples that match the race of the child cannot be given preference on those grounds.”
Aside from the social policies mentioned in the book, it was interesting for me to read about how this family’s experience with foster care evolved. I won’t tell you how the book ends, you’ll have to read that yourself, but I do highly recommend it. And speaking of recommended reading, I urge you to read these posts on racism by an adoptive mother (and social worker) whose two sons happen to be black.
Any thoughts from those of you with backgrounds in transracial adoption or fostering? What is something you wish people knew or that you’ve learned from your experiences?