Why Transracial Adoptees Need to Be Immersed in Black History as Children

Black adoptees raised by parents without shared cultural history can feel isolated being brought up in color-blind environments. For them, learning their Black history is a necessary act of love.

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Myrlene Mondesir, a Black adoptee who was raised by white parents, recalls feeling disconnected growing up, in both nuanced and straightforward situations when race mattered.

"I think my parents struggled with the difference of being Haitian and being African American, even though Black history is Haitian history is African history," says Mondesir, who is also now an adoptee educator. "It never was something that was talked about. I remember the first time I was called the N-word or people being biased to me. I didn't feel as though it was a safe space to speak up, and so we just didn't have these conversations."

For the families of many interracial adoptees, the task of merging cultures and discussing race is often unexplored and rarely celebrated.

Blending Cultures Means Changing Language

Interracial or transracial adoption is defined by the Child Welfare Information Gateway as "placing a child who is of one race or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group." Black interracial adoption in the United States has increased by 14% from 2005 to 2019. Interracial adoptions made up only 28% between 2017 and 2019, and 90% of those involved children of color being adopted by parents of a different race.

Tony Hynes is a Ph.D. student at the University of Maryland studying the importance of connections among African American interracial adoptees and a training specialist at the Center for Adoption Support and Education. He shares his experience as an interracial adoptee raised by two white, LGBTQIA-identifying women in his book Son With Two Moms.

Hynes says the term transracial adoptee has had a controversial history, first originating in the 1960s when it was used by social workers and white adoptive parents who envisioned a post-racial society with a new colorblind paradigm. Instead, he opts to use the term "interracial adoptee."

The National Association of Black Social Workers was created during the Civil Rights Movement to increase the quality of life for people of African ancestry. In September 1972 the organization released a statement opposing transracial adoption:

"The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason. We affirm the inviolable position of black children in black families where they belong physically, psychologically, and culturally in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future."

Hynes, who was consistently immersed in his culture as an African American growing up, says this isn't the case for many interracial adoptees.

"One of the difficulties of blending cultures in interracial households and interracial adoptive households is that oftentimes there's not a conscious blending of cultures even going on in the first place," says Hynes. He says adoptive parents of Black children should understand to make sure they live in a diverse area and that their Black children have teachers and peers that look like them. But still, "that does not mean that that in and of itself is enough to make them feel comfortable in their own skin."

Identity Becomes a Challenge Without History

Mondesir was born in Haiti and adopted at age 3 by two white missionaries living in the United States. She was able to return to Haiti for about two and a half years and connect with her biological relatives while her parents helped run the orphanage she was adopted from. Mondesir says it wasn't until she went off to college that she began to truly understand her identity as a Black woman and now runs an Instagram account to educate on adoption.

Mondesir says she believes her parents did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time but looking back she doesn't feel her household was a safe space to talk about or celebrate her culture growing up.

"There was no celebration of Black History Month, I genuinely cannot even remember it being a thing. I know in school, we would have assignments," says Mondesir. "But Black history was not part of the conversation at all growing up."

Many Black children develop pride in—and begin to embrace—their heritage at home and through community organizations. A 2015 study from the National Museum of African American History and Culture found that in K-12 classrooms where U.S. history is taught, on average, only one to two are devoted to Black history. Black interracial adoptees, whose households do not serve as pillars of cultural education, can be left virtually naive to their own identities.

Healing Is Learning Through a New Lens

Magalie Knopf was adopted from Haiti by white parents in Canada when she was 4 years old, along with four other Haitian children. Like Mondesir, she didn't celebrate Black History Month growing up.

"I asked my mother if she knew what Black History Month was when the five of us were growing up and she said she had never heard of it before and it wasn't until we were adults she had heard of it," says Knopf. "There was no celebration, and between our schools lacking curriculum around Black history and not growing up in Black community, other than my siblings, I did not get to have those experiences."

Now Knopf is a social worker in child and family services who often gets to speak about interracial adoptee experiences on different platforms.

"For myself, now at 30 years old, I've had to learn a lot and reframe my own adoptee narrative and take pride in my identity," says Knopf. "I have since gone back to Haiti with other Haitian adoptees and we could all collectively agree that getting to experience Haiti, in the way of its culture and food and learning about the history of Haiti, going to a museum, and not coming from a lens of missions trips, was extremely beneficial."

Ph.D. student Tony Hynes says that although research is split on what the social implications of being exposed to their cultures are for interracial adoptees as adults, it's clear many grow up feeling disconnected from their communities.

"They often find themselves, still, even in adulthood, uncomfortable in spaces sometimes with people who may look like them, or uncomfortable in spaces where race is being talked about," says Hynes. "We have seen that there are negative mental health implications when we aren't exposing children to their cultural identities, to racial socialization patterns, that doing that in a balanced way has positive effects, and not doing that at all has negative effects on mental well-being and also on their sense of ability to connect."

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