Transracial Adoption Can Provide a Loving Family and an Identity Struggle

Ron Claiborne and Hanna Siegel, ABC News, March 3, 2010

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Among the things that lie ahead for the Haitian children adopted by white American parents are a better life materially and a chance to grow up in a loving family.

Outside Looking In

But some black children who were adopted by white parents say there’s another side of the story.

“I didn’t feel like I was seen or understood,” said Phil Bertelsen, who was 4 when he was adopted by a white family and then raised in a mostly white New Jersey suburb.

Bertelsen and other black adoptees tell a similar tale: They felt estranged from the people around them who they instinctively knew from an early age were different from them, and yet cut off from their own racial identity and culture.

“In my teens, I became hungry to be a part of some kind of black community, black identity,” Bertelsen said. “What was missed primarily was, you know, strong familiar representations of black life other than the ones I was getting through popular culture and otherwise.”

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Bertelsen said in an interview that adoptees “don’t tend to want to shake the tree too much. I call it the gratitude complex. We finally get this family, whomever they are, that we can call our own and so we adjust, we adapt, we learn to go along and get along and that’s what I did.”

Hard Truth for Adoptive Parents

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Through his movie, Bertelsen said, he was able to say what he had always wanted to say: “See me. This is who I am.

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An Identity Struggle

For more than 20 years, starting in 1972, transracial adoptions in the United States all but ended after the National Black Social Workers Association condemned them as cultural genocide.

The group takes a softer line now but it still maintains that it’s better for children when parents are from the same racial or ethnic background.

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The Spence-Chapin Adoption Agency in New York City, which facilitates many transracial adoptions, urged white parents who adopt black children to move to an integrated neighborhood, send their child to an integrated school and expose them to other black people.

“This is what I tell people,” Rita Taddonio, who directs the agency’s Adoption Resource Center, said. “If you look around your table and your guests are all the same color, if you don’t have diversity around your kitchen table then you shouldn’t be adopting a child of a different color.”

There are ways to help your child cope, she said. “We recommend parents connect to the black community, that they make sure they have friends in those areas, that they go to a black church or be part of the community as well,” she said. “Every parent’s job is to help them form an identity, it’s just an additional layer of complexity when your child’s identity has pieces of it that you don’t own.”

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