A white adoptive Christian mother of two African sisters claims not to see race. So why is she so quick to call Black people “racist” for offering helpful parenting advice?
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Every once in a while, a story comes to our attention that forces us to ask whether white people should be allowed to adopt Black children.
You might remember the incredibly tragic story about Jennifer and Sarah Hart, who intentionally drove their SUV off a Northern California cliff with their six adopted Black children inside. Last week, the remains of one of the missing children, 16-year-old Hannah Hart, were found and matched to her biological mother. Devonte Hart, 15, has still not been found.
Days before the crash, Washington State authorities had begun to investigate allegations that the Harts were neglecting the children after a neighbor filed a complaint saying that the children seemed to be deprived of food. In 2011, Sarah Hart pleaded guilty to a domestic assault charge in Minnesota for spanking one of the children.
A day after Hannah’s remains were identified, Jenni White, a white woman from Oklahoma who adopted two Black girls from Zambia, wrote a disturbing piece—“The Worst Racism My Black Children Have Experienced Came From Black Peers”— that inadvertently serves as a strong argument against interracial and transracial adoptions. White’s piece appeared in The Federalist, a notoriously conservative rag. Yet despite that obviously biased platform, we must pay close attention to the attitudes and practices that Jenni White describes as we consider the unsettling dynamics behind some transracial adoptions.
White, the education director for Reclaim Oklahoma Parent Empowerment, together with her husband, adopted two girls—sisters—in 2007, when they were 4 and 9 years old. At the time, the couple was also raising their two biological sons, who were 2 and 4. White describes a conversation with an associate pastor, a Black woman, who asked if the girls were being immersed in Black culture. White asked what she meant, and the pastor explained that White was not expected to understand the Black American experience, and suggested she and her husband expose the girls to Black television shows, movies, and magazines.
White was aghast. “As a staunch believer in the dream of Martin Luther King, Jr., this pastor’s admonitions didn’t sit well with me. MLK advocated against bitterness and hatred in the black community … it actually angered me that, instead of focusing on the girls’ adoption to a completely new country and their new lives as Americans, this [black] woman chose to hone in on racial politics, especially as a pastor.”
In a rebuttal to honest discussions about race and racism that we see far too often, White told the Black woman pastor that her family “didn’t really ‘see’ color, so we had no intention of raising any of the kids … to be anything other than ‘Americans'” “Once we adopted them … they became Americans. Not African-Americans, not black girls, but girls who would grow up in nation where they were afforded the opportunity to become anything they wanted to become.”
Both the Hart and White family situations highlight how transracial adoptions can go horribly wrong. One resulted in brainwashing, abuse, and murder; the other in cultural erasure and psychological abuse by willfully ignorant white parents who refuse to equip their Black daughters with the tools they need to grow up to be healthy Black adults who can navigate a racist society. Both sets of white parents were infected with white savior syndrome and used Black children for virtue signaling. I should also note that the cover photo used in The Federalist piece was taken from another white adoptive parent’s Instagram account. One of the adopted children is from India. Note the irony of this white woman saying she doesn’t see color but then steals this photo of a white man with an African and an Indian child. Here’s a symptom of her refusal to see color: All dark skin looks the same to her.
If she doesn’t see color then how does she recognize Black people? If she doesn’t see color then how can she recognize so-called black racism vs. white racism? And why does she completely ignore racism and white supremacy and focus on Black people’s comments?
Jenni White might seem like an anomaly, but she isn’t. There are prominent national voices on transracial adoption who agree with her that race shouldn’t matter when it comes to adoption. Elizabeth Bartholet, a professor at Harvard Law School, and director of the Child Advocacy Program, has argued for the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA), which outlawed racial matching of children within same-race families, based on the belief that children “don’t belong to their racial group of origin” and that it’s best for them to be placed in the “earliest available nurturing permanent homes, regardless of color.” Bartholet also asserted that “there is no evidence that transracial adoption hurts children or communities,” and that “MEPA should be seen as the model for the adoption of American Indian children and children abroad.”
In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers published a position statement in favor of preserving Black families, and they were the first child welfare organization to question the disproportionate removal of Black children from their birth families. But, “this statement was twisted by critics, who said that black social workers would rather have children remain in foster care than to be adopted by white families,” wrote J. Toni Oliver, vice-president of the association and founder of the Roots adoption agency. “Nothing could be further from the truth. The National Association of Black Social Workers has been … in many instances, a lone voice, for black family preservation … We believe that families considering interracial adoption should be prepared by their agencies to understand the pervasive impact of race on achievement, self-esteem, self-concept and mental health. Adoptive parents of black children should recognize and combat the pervasiveness of institutional and individual racism. They should ensure that black children are connected to appropriate role models, and are not racially isolated.”
Jenni White reminds us of those white parents in transracial adoptions who want to erase their children’s blackness. She calls a Black woman “racist” for asking whether she’s introducing her Black children to Black culture—and ignores the existence of real racism. Throughout her essay, she accuses Black folks of being racist against her Black daughters. But her anecdotes don’t support evidence. Rather than so much as acknowledge the systemic evils that shape our country, she calls out teenage banter as potentially life-threatening. She works overtime to deny that her daughters’ skin color will impact their opportunities in life.
How can we trust White’s accusations of Black racism in an historical moment when so many white people are in denial about the racism that they create and maintain? More than half of white people say they believe that racial discrimination against them is getting worse. A 2017 NPR poll reports on a study that “Majority of White Americans Say They Believe Whites Face Discrimination.” While 55 percent of the whites in the poll claim this discrimination against them exists, less than 20 percent say they have actually experienced it.
We must also take into account that she lives in Oklahoma, the spiritual center of the Bible Belt and Red America, where streets are lined with churches and the Koch brothers buy off legislators. Oklahoma has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, charter schools rule, and homeschooling isn’t regulated. There have been more than a dozen cases of severe or fatal abuse of homeschooled children in Oklahoma. This disingenuous “color-blind” mentality that White and others are peddling is very prevalent in evangelical churches, where the homeschooling movement is also strong.
There’s been a whole movement of evangelicals who believe it is their godly duty to adopt and therefore “save” kids from Third World countries, while converting them to a “patriotic” American form of Christianity, devoid of any cultural identity.
The 2013 Salon article, “How the Christian Right Perverts Adoption,” outlines some of the “coercion, racism and a conservative Christian agenda that extends beyond mere abortion prevention.” This piece explores the book, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by award-winning journalist Kathryn Joyce, “details how the adoption industry has become overly enmeshed with the Christian right – how evangelical, pro-adoption church leaders have, in recent years, been creepily urging followers to adopt en masse, often internationally and from war-ravaged countries. Christian adoption booms are common in countries like Haiti and Indonesia after natural disasters and other crises.”
Joyce references the popular movie The Blind Side as promoting the message that “Christians, particularly white Christians, should [step into] rescuing children in vulnerable situations … children of color—Black children. It’s hard not to notice that this movement, like many movements right now, is [made up of] a lot of white, often Southern evangelical Christians adopting many children from countries in Africa.” They believe it is their mandate from God to save these children from poverty and their souls from damnation.
People like Jenni White are weaponizing interracial/transracial adoption to turn her daughters into racial castaways, disconnected from any sense of cultural self, with the risk of becoming self-hating adults who aren’t fully equipped to function in American society. You can’t erase blackness and replace it with “American.” And you shouldn’t want to. Not if you truly love your Black child. Not if you genuinely want the best for them. Not if you take seriously your parental responsibility to prepare them to thrive in the world they live in.
This woman might have sheltered and fed these girls, but she has done a deep disservice to her adopted children by not adequately preparing them for life in America. And her attitude confirms Black people’s suspicions about interracial and transracial adoptions. Jenni White reminds me of the historical lineage of former slave masters who turned into guardians of freed Black children and included them in the domestic structure of their families. Whites have a long history of exploiting notions of Christianity, paternalism, familial protection, and color blindness to provide cover for racial coercion, labor exploitation, physical, psychological and sexual abuse, and liberal virtue signaling at the expense of Black children. Black folks often view interracial and transracial adoption as suspect manipulative gestures that infuse generosity, white saviorism, love, and racial domination.
Over the years I have met white foster and adoptive parents who get it. Who check their privilege. Who do their best to immerse their children in Black culture. Who educate themselves about systemic racism. But I’ve also met some who, out of ignorance and lack of education, are more invested in the idea of “saving” their adopted Black children than helping them navigate racial realities or being grounded in their own cultures.
We also have to recognize that many white women like Jenni White are raising their own biological white children to be racists. But this isn’t publicly acknowledged. White America doesn’t want to hear that there’s something wrong with what they consider the “normal” white family which breeds so much racism in this country.
Meanwhile, the problematic white parents—adoptive and biological—are colonizing Black childhood and identity. White parents have a profound need to sacrifice Black children—biological and adopted—on the altar of white supremacy by willfully denying the truths of who their children are. Their choice to be in denial about racism is downright dangerous.
I am not against interracial/transracial adoptions overall, because that would deprive many children of permanent homes. And we must acknowledge that many white parents are conscious, aware, and conscientious about rearing their non-white children in culturally sensitive and responsible ways. Jenni White might represent the exception rather than the rule. But her very problematic philosophy makes me think that maybe there should be a way to culturally qualify white parents to adopt children of other races. Maybe that would take the form of a test for implicit bias to determine cross-racial and cultural fitness. Quoting and misconstruing Dr. King as your sole Black reference should be a red flag. Saying you don’t see color should be an automatic disqualifier. Not making the effort to include your child’s racial group and culture in their lives should absolutely rule them out. Living in all-white communities should also be a red flag if not an all-out disqualifier unless there is a plan to rectify it.
Regardless of what misguided parents like Jenni White say, race matters in adoption just as it matters in every aspect of life. A 2008 report by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute found that, “Black children who were adopted by whites reported that they felt uncomfortable with their appearance and struggled to achieve a positive racial identity. Some adults who were transracially adopted often describe loving adoptive parents who were not able to prepare them for the racial issues they would encounter. Love was not enough and did not help them develop a positive racial identity or prepare them for the society we live in.”
Ideally, every child on earth would have healthy, nurturing, loving parents and a home. Race shouldn’t matter, but it does, and I salute those white parents who do the right thing for their transracially adopted children. I’m just not comfortable with the cultural roulette these children are subjected to. They could end up in homes like the White family’s or the Harts’, where their truths are erased for a problematic agenda. We must pay attention to the pattern in evangelical Christian white parents fetishizing and objectifying children of color.
We need ways to help better screen, quality and prepare adoptive parents across racial and cultural lines. Nobody wins when parenting is steeped in denial and questionable agendas. No child deserves that kind of willful family dysfunction. While they might have shelter and food, their souls and identities are being starved and abandoned. And racism always seems to play a role.
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