Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Raising African-Born Children in White Adoptive Families

The world we live in is not colorblind. As most fair-skinned parents who are raising darker-skinned children can attest, there is a fine line between helping our children feel included and "as one" with their foster or adoptive families and helping them identify with and stay connected to their ethnic and cultural roots. And as any black child being raised in a white household can verify, no matter how accepting and supportive their family may be, finding their racial identity is difficult.

"Being Raised by White People": Navigating Racial Difference Among Adopted Multiracial Adults is one insightful article about cultural identity in adult adoptees who were raised by white parents. This is another interesting article about raising "culturally responsive" black children in white adoptive homes. While this type of information is certainly valuable, most resources on the topic of racial identity in "black" children address raising children of African American descent, not African-born children who are now residing in the US. The difference may sound trivial but African culture is NOT the same as African American culture. To expect African-born children who were adopted at an older age to understand and fit in with the culture of their African American playmates and classmates can be equated to expecting a Ukrainian-born child to identify with white American culture based solely on the color of their skin. And while undoubtedly it is important and necessary to raise our African-born children around others whose skin color resembles their own, it doesn't seem totally correct to expect African children adopted at a younger age to be taught African American culture as their "own", either.

The fact not all blacks share the same culture became painfully clear when we took our daughter to an African American children's dance class a few months after she joined our family. Assuming that she would enjoy being around other children and adults who "looked more like her", we drove to the African American Cultural Center and waited for the class to begin. The other children approached our daughter, introduced themselves and made conversation with her. When the class began, our daughter danced with limited enthusiasm and I could tell by the look on her face that something was wrong. After the class ended, she walked out and in a flat tone said "I don't ever want to come back." Shocked, I asked what had happened. She began to cry. After lots of prying and questions we arrived at the conclusion that she had expected the other children to have more in common with her. As soon as they began speaking and she noticed that they didn't have the same accent as her, that they referenced pop culture icons that she had never heard of, that their music didn't sound like "hers" and that they were more like her white siblings at home than the African classmates that she'd left behind she was sorely disappointed.

We had a similar incident when it came to hair care. In Uganda, nice braids (such as cornrows or box braids) are considered "good hair". Extensions or fancy weaves are considered really nice. Few women relax or straighten their hair on a regular basis. Our daughter had been in our family for less than a month the first time we received a comment about her hair. An African American woman walked up to us in a store and asked when I was going to "do something" to her hair. At the time our daughter's hair was still growing out from having been shaved and was only a few inches long. With hundreds of girls, boarding schools cannot properly maintain all of the girls' hair so it is common for girls in African orphanages and boarding schools to have shaved heads. I had been doing something to her hair- I'd been keeping it clean, detangled and well-hydrated and we planned to have it professionally braided when it grew longer, something our daughter was eagerly anticipating. However, it did not take us long to learn that "good" hair is often considered by many African American women to be chemically-relaxed, straight hair. Here I thought we were doing it right according to the standards of her birth country only to learn that we weren't providing proper hair care according to the standards of many African American women!

Where does this leave us? In a place where either we classify children according to skin color alone and expect them to identify most closely with the cultural group whose shade is most similar to their own or we think outside the box. We raise children in a world that is NOT colorblind and that recognizes all of our similarities but that also celebrates all of our differences. We recognize that skin color is but one part of our identity and that nationality, language, region, family background, religion, personal interests and so much more comprise who we are. We seek out African families from the same country or region living in our community to help teach our children about their culture and background. If possible, we travel back to their birth country together as a family. We support exploration of culture and identity and allow our children to help decide who and what defines them. We encourage them to play, study and learn with and from children of all backgrounds and skin colors. And we understand that there is more than just one shade of black, brown or white when it comes to racial identity.


  1. I love this! I have thought about this so much when people talk about AA culture in regards to my Ugandan son. Ugandan culture is far, far from AA culture. Thanks for the great post!

  2. Thanks for talking about this-- I think it's really important! Although Haiti, being so close to the U.S. and having such a large diaspora that sometimes does travel back does seem to idolize some of the U.S. black culture I have noticed. What I think is awesome is actually TALKING about it! =)

  3. Thanks for the insights! This was very helpful!

  4. Ooh, this is good. I've thought the same things about African-now-in-U.S. vs. "regular" African-American in the US. Really we should try to help our kids to be comfortable among three different cultural groups: whatever the adoptive family's culture is, whatever the child's birth culture is, and "regular" African-American culture. Not sure if it's possible to be 100% comfortable in every culture that may apply to you, but it'd be awfully nice.

    Thank you for this post. I'll be linking to it.

  5. This is a beautifully written article! What I find most important is realizing that someone's skin color does not determine their cultural identity. The term "race" is a socially constructed term and has nothing to do with who we are as humans. I am black and from the outside people expect me to act a certain way, listen to a certain type of music and have a certain type of family upbringing. The TRUTH is I am Afro-Brazilian and I was raised by an Iranian woman and an African American man. My culture is the culture of the home I was raised in....I don't necessarily identify with any one ethnic group more than another.

    I think you're doing a wonderful job as a mother in making sure your children feel loved, accepted and comfortable with who they are! :)

  6. "An African American woman walked up to us in a store and asked when I was going to "do something" to her hair". That woman was out of line to ask you that especially in front of your child. Unless your daughter's hair was uncombed and unkempt it was none of her business. Your daughter seems old enough to ask her opinion on her hair and if she wants braids that is what I would do. don't start relaxers until she is old enough to take care of it herself. I agree with Lua above your concern shows in your post and most important thing you can do for a child of any color is the make sure they are loved and comfortable with who they are.

  7. Thanks for all of the feedback! Robbie, I've read that we shouldn't start relaxers until after she is done with puberty because they can change the texture of the hair if they're done too soon. From your experience, is that correct?

    The funny thing is that our 5 year old daughter would love to have curly hair like her sister and our 12 year old Ugandan-born daughter would like to have straight, easy to comb hair like her sister :)

  8. The love of the adoptive parent who wrote about race above is me, yet so was the ignorance of the depth and breadth of African-American culture. The statement that many black women see "straight hair as good hair" has a measure of truth in it. It is more the case that black women of a certain generation view straight hair as preferable. Remember, white supremacy taught that black tight curly, wavy hair was ugly just as it taught that being brown/black was ugly. So, black women adjusted by making their hair more white-like to fit in. Since the 70's, black women have reclaimed their natural beauty. A white parent facing a black stranger who expects straight hair, should know the context and not feel attacked. The stranger was trying to protect the child against discrimination. And many employers do discriminate against people with braids. Adoptive parents of any background have a responsibility to emerse themselves in the culture of the child they are adopting PRIOR to the adoption, reading, visiting, talking to natives and transplants to the U.S. AA culture is extremely complex, and it would be a mistake, unless you are going to raise your daughter as Ugandan, to choose Ugandan over AA or AA over Ugandan. She is now in America. She may be Ugandan by birth, and should be kept close to her roots as much as possible; however, in the absence of a Ugandan community to help adoptive parents. The child is now black child in America with white parents. As a black woman, I would recommend raising her as a black and Ugandan child. White supremacy will not lot her escape her blackness even though race is a social construct. You will save her much anguish not by teaching her that race is real, but the that the consequences of the big white lie will likely impact her. She will be uniquely American because she is in America. She will be gifted if you can find a way to let the uncomfortable admixture of histories, trauma, culture, and difference associated with America, Blackness and Uganda become a beautiful symphony wherein your family triumphs over race and culture by affirming with love the value of her knowledge of all of these. By the way, she is going to experience the same lack of comfort in predominantly white environments, where other parents are not teaching their kids to be accepting of people of color. Try an African dance class led by Africans. But don't keep pulling her out of uncomfortable situations. That's life. We learn to adjust. Your white daughters should be going with her to the African or African-American dance classes. Don't single her out. They need the cross-cultural experience too. It will make them better humanitarians and make it a family activity not "the little black girl in the family activity." Not that you think that way...but she may feel that way intuitively. Finally, if you can find a AA church with a trained pastor, that has a vibrant children's ministry, there will be much support for her adjustment, and much you can learn from other members that will help you and her. Remember, in those congregations are descendants of recent immigrants from the African diaspora. Hope this helps. Sent with love not criticism.

  9. P.S. I would braid her hair but not in tight breads around the forehead. This pulls the hair out and causes a receding hairline over the years. If she ever wants to relax it, it will not be as healthy. It will be easier for you to maintain it with braids. Her hair can be washed with the braids still braided. Most get them rebraided bi-weekly or monthly depending upon how well the braids are cared for. Covered at night with a scarf etc. I have straighter hair than my daughter who has very thick bushy hair. We do natural twists a lot. As a fourth grader she wants to get away from pigtails. Adoptive parents rock!

  10. Thank you so much Madeline! I really appreciate all of your insight. Yes, she attends an African dance class with African drummers (we're still trying to find one led by Africans!) and our other kids dance in the little kid class! It has been fun for our whole family. Our oldest daughter recently said "We're all a little bit Ugandan now!" Thanks again for the honest, heartfelt reply!

  11. My son is Senegalese. His Father (my husband) was Senegalese and I met him when he was touring the US. I emigrated my child to the US at 2 1/2 yrs old after I married my husband.

    When my husband was diagnosed with cancer, I took my son (at 10 years old) and husband back to Senegal to remember (meet) my son's birthmom and his huge extended African family. It was amazing how he reintegrated into the culture after being away for so long and after completely forgetting his native language of Wolof. He and all the kids and adults got along perfectly without a single common language between them. For that amazing month we were there, I saw my son embrace his true self and I met more completely his true being.

    I could write about this for days. But the truth is that I am white, my child is jet black and gorgeous and my Senegalese husband has passed life from cancer. I did not expect this in our plans for our blended family. But I can say that keeping my child associated with African musicians and dancers in my community helps preserve his sense of identity and culture. His dad was an extraordinary drummer from the African Ballet and my son has inherited his talents.

    It took a few years for it to become clear to me that for one, he is fine with me as his Mom and two that he does not really relate to African American culture. I figured that second part - assuming an AfricanAmerican identity, would be a given. But as the article states, the cultures are very different and this has not happened. Most of his friends are white, from school, Mexican or of direct African descent.

    I feel that as long as I keep my child associated with his direct first generation African roots he will not have an identity crisis. If I assume and treat him as African American, well he is not, he is Senegalese. It is a tough tight rope to walk and for me navigate. I appreciate any comments you friends might have on this, critical, helpful, whatever... I love my child, he loves me and this will only get more complicated as he becomes a teenager since his beautiful Father died.
    thanks for reading...


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