Phil Bertelsen grew up as the biracial, adopted son of white parents, and there was never a day he didn’t feel their profound and enveloping love.
The problem, he said, began when he walked out his front door.
At 13, the white classmate he thought was his girlfriend told him: “Mother doesn’t want me going out with niggers.”
“I didn’t know at the time what that was,” Bertelsen said, “let alone that it might be me.”
But when he tried to connect with black people, “I was tormented and ridiculed,” he said. “I certainly wasn’t aware there was a style of behavior or dress or a code of conduct associated with being black.”
Bertelsen, 39, was raised in Highland Park, N.J. Today, he is a documentary filmmaker who defines himself through his work, including the autobiographical Outside Looking In: Transracial Adoption in America.
“I don’t think white families should be able to adopt children of any race with impunity,” said Bertelsen, who lives in New York.
Families must be ready to incorporate their new child’s culture into their lives, he said. When race and adoption meet, “it’s not just about the family unit,” he said. “It’s a lot of things.”
Adoption today is a rainbow of color and country; thousands of multiracial families are created in the United States each year by the arrival of children from countries such as China, Guatemala, India and Liberia.
Yet it’s the pairing of African American children and white parents that stokes the transracial debate and sometimes provokes legal battles, most recently in Chester County.
Why? The answer, experts say, is slavery, the country’s primal wound, the issue that has tormented black-white relations for more than three centuries.
Though white people might view interracial adoption as evidence of societal progress, experts say, for many black people it is a painful harkening back to a time when their ancestors were treated as property—and proof that the child-welfare system discourages African American adopters.
The first documented adoption of an African American child by a white family was in 1948 in Minnesota, according to the Adoption History Project at the University of Oregon.
By the mid-’70s, perhaps 12,000 African American children had been adopted by white families, says Ellen Herman, the project’s creator and curator.
The discourse changed in 1972, Herman said, when the National Association of Black Social Workers denounced the practice as “cultural genocide.”
The following year, the number of black children adopted into white households dropped 39 percent, to 1,569.
Authorities believe that figure remained static until 1994, when passage of the Multiethnic Placement Act forbade agencies that receive federal money from denying adoptions on the basis of race. Since then, black-white adoptions have increased. A study published by Adoption Quarterly in 2004 estimated that 2,850 African American children were adopted into white families in 2001.
Still, experts say, the general, if unspoken, policy is to try to place children with families of the same race. The exception, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York, is when “the alternative is keeping the kid in foster care.”