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Transracial Adoption Can Provide a Loving Family and an Identity Struggle
Black Children in White Families Try to Find Their Place In Society
By RON CLAIBORNE and HANNA SIEGEL
March 3, 2010—
They are images of joy, images of happy endings among so much tragedy.
A few days ago, Duke and Lisa Scoppa adopted two Haitian orphans, 4-year-old Erickson and 4-month old Therline.
“I just always felt like it would be a really enriching experience for us and for everybody involved, really,” Lisa Scoppa said.
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.”
He grew up to be a documentary filmmaker and made his first movie, “Outside Looking In,” about transracial adoption. In it, he confronts his own parents for the first time.
“Ultimately, I am a part of your family,” he told them in the film. “I use my name with pride. But I am also an African-American in your family and, you know, you have to see me as that.”
In response, his mother said softly, “Maybe we were naive. Maybe we were. I don’t know.”
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
“So in a way, home became a safe haven … but it was a total disconnect from the world outside and so you end up, I ended up, internalizing the questions,” he said.
Through his movie, Bertelsen said, he was able to say what he had always wanted to say: “See me. This is who I am.
“It was a hard truth for my parents,” he said.
“People don’t like discomfort but when you’re adopting a child from another race, another country, it’s very important that families understand that they are going to put themselves outside of their comfort zone to really understand what their experience is going to be for the child. …Otherwise, the child is going to be neglected plain, and simple,” Bertelsen said.
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.
“You’re only a child once and for a minute,” association president Batiste Roberts said. “And children deserve the right to be with people who look like them, people who understand what they are going through, who understand their culture.”
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.”
Transracial Adoption In America
These days, many white families are rushing to adopt Haitian orphans after the earthquake left so many children without parents or families.
The Scoppas said they will make every effort to connect Erickson and Therline to their Haitian and black roots. But they did not apologize for adopting black children.
No Apologies From Adoptive Family
“If there are no black families that want to adopt them and we want to adopt them, and make them part of our lives and give them as much love as possible, then I don’t know why that’s so wrong,” Duke Scoppa said.
Not wrong, say some of those who grew up black in a white family … but not easy, either.
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