move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

“Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present.”

I’ve mentioned Lori L. Tharps’ book in several other articles, but I’ve finally decided that it needs its own feature.

In light of the recent “white woman drives her and her black adopted children off cliff and kills them” story and the “Indian adoptee beaten to death by her white family” event and the many other documented cases of transracial adoption gone horribly awry, I can’t think of a better time to discuss this book.

To be clear, I’m referring to transracial adoption as white families adopting children of color.

When I initially started writing, I took an ambivalent stance on transracial adoption. Specifically, I said

I am “adopt transracially with extreme prejudice.”

But several months ago, I read Same Family, Different Colors and have been sitting with Tharps’ findings ever since, carefully weighing her honest accounts of interfamilial colorism among non-adoptive families with my transracial adoption experience and research. Tharps examines how African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and bi-racial Americans confront color in their own families, questioning her own child’s light skin tone against her own, wondering how society perceives a dark-skinned mother with an almost-white daughter.

Through extensive conversations with ethnic families, Tharps found that even “microscopic” skin color variances can “impact everything from interactions among family members, parenting practices, and sibling relationships to racial identity formation.”

Tharps continues, saying what all adoptees (especially transracial adoptees) know:

[E]ven in the twentieth century, the general public does not understand that families don’t match.

“People expect families to match,” Tharps writes, “despite the fact that interracial marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 1967.”

My aim here is to position Tharps’ work within the scope of transracial adoption and ask: If same-race, non-adoptive families experience colorism, how are transracial adoptive families expected to succeed?

In her chapter discussing black colorism, Tharps states that “[b]lack family parenting might look different than white family parenting.” Specifically, Tharps points out “raising Black children adds an additional layer of responsibility for parents.” This me wonder if white parents are aware of these issues and can adequately prepare transracially adopted children for such survival.

Other academics tentatively suggest that no, white parents cannot prepare black children (or, I’d argue, other children of color) for a racially-colored life. Since, as Tharps makes clear, much of this parental racial “training” is done via “osmosis–meaning most children simply pick up on the opinions and attitudes of their parents–some of the lessons are more overt.” In a transracial family, discussion of race would be anecdotal at best. And, when viewed through a “white” lens, racial attitudes are formed less on colored experiences and more on moralistic views.

One woman Tharps interviewed, Linda, enjoyed playing outside as a child, but recalls her mother’s admonishments that doing so was making her “Black.” Because of the colorism within the family, Linda came to understand that “Black was not something she wanted to be.” Her sisters, meanwhile, were praised for their light skin and straight hair, with her father’s dark skin causing internal family strife so bad it eventually tore the family apart.

In a Latina example, a woman’s lifetime of teasing from her family about her “African nose and springy hair” drove her to straighten her hair and undergo a nose job.

Another interesting finding was that some

“[b]lack parents treat their children differently based on the shade of their skin.”

Current transracial adoptive parents have spoken with me, doing their best to navigate their child’s color and race. I don’t have easy answers but the best ones are those who acknowledge their limitations. There isn’t an easy answer, but my hope is transracial adoptive parents and adoptees read this book now (yes, I’m that excited about it) because it’ll help spotlight the real truth:

  • Color matters.
  • Society will judge non-matching families.
  • You won’t be able to figure it out.

Instead, let’s focus on understanding and admitting our chosen family’s inherent boundaries. Perhaps from within that framework, and with ongoing education, we’ll dispel the hope of a white saving grace, embracing our differences while constantly advocating for deeper conversations on color, family, and the myth of the homogeneous family.

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I can’t emphasize enough how highly I recommend this book. If you’ve already adopted transracially, it’ll give you an amazingly genuine insight into the difficulties color creates, hopefully motivating you to continue learning from, speaking to, and truly listening to transracial adoptees.

If you’re considering transracial adoption, Tharps’ work will prepare you for the intense struggle monoracial and interracial families endure. Consider their perspectives when adding a transracial adoptee to your home.

5 thoughts on “move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

      1. Thank you for sharing your insights, everyone. The subject itself sheds light on the continuing discussion of race and ethnicity in America. In some Native American communities, adoption among us, is simply a matter of “taking in” a NA child. In some instances, in Canada, in the past, more so than in the US, NA children were simply taken away from the mother and given to white parents who wished to adopt a child. In one of my special contributions to Indian Life newspaper (I write as KB Schaller) I interviewed a NA man who was adopted under these circumstances, and was one of very few NAs to reunite with his mother after many years of searching. The title of the article is The 60s Baby Scoop. It sheds light on a darker side of adopting as it affects different cultures.

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