Haiti’s ‘Orphans’ and the Transracial Adoption Dilemma

Bring up race and adoption, and watch people squirm. But the reality remains that African-American children remain on the bottom rung of the adoption ladder.

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Popular culture treats transracial adoption like trends in ownership of Yorkies versus Golden Retrievers. On the Us Weekly site, a commenter wondered if Angelina Jolie would soon be adopting from Haiti so that she can “find … one to match Zahara.” Meanwhile, there’s the White Swan Barbie, which conveniently comes equipped with a special accessory: an adopted Chinese daughter.

Then there’s Gia, a contender on the The Bachelor whose job description is “Swimsuit Model.” Snuggled in front of a campfire with bachelor Jake, Gia tells him that she wants to have a couple of kids, then adopt a Chinese girl—“and a potbellied pig.” Giggle.

‘Degrees of separation’

I asked Terrance Heath, a black, man who blogs with his partner about raising two adopted African-American sons for The Republic of T, what he made of the rush to adopt Haitian “orphans.”

It “reflects a desire to avoid certain aspects of our history in this country, and may be based on the assumption that Haitian children are somewhat removed from that history,” he said.

”It does give them a couple of degrees of separation from the history of racism in this country,” as does adopting from Asia or Latin America.

There’s an unspoken hierarchy of adoption, said Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, a transracial adoptee from Portland, Ore., who has worked within the Unitarian Universalist faith to educate young people of color raised by white adoptive parents.

On the top tier are white children, either adopted domestically or from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. When restrictions on those regions made it more difficult to adopt, China and other parts of Asia became the next most desirable. Latin America is next, followed by Africa (and Haiti, not accounting for the disaster effect). Mixed-race or biracial children can vary on this spectrum, but are considered desirable if they can "pass" for the biological offspring of their parents. Black American children remain in the bottom tier. “These perceptions are actually realities in people’s attitudes,” said Santos-Lyons, 36, who is Chinese and Czech, and identifies as hapa. He understands this firsthand: His adoptive parents, who are white and adopted him domestically, told him that they had been offered a black child before him.

“They declined, and waited until they got a child of my mixed ethnic background,” he said. “That’s a pretty heavy realization.”

When transracial adoptees grow up and begin to understand the history and politics of adoption—particularly the fact that many international adoptions have been the products of black-market child trafficking or coercion of birth families, Santos-Lyons said, “It leads them to become hurt and upset.”

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