Rebecca Carroll is not the face of transracial adoption.
It’s an important distinction to make, since the veteran writer and cultural critic’s acclaimed account of growing up a transracial adoptee, Surviving the White Gaze: A Memoir (Simon & Schuster) has inadvertently cast her in the role of informal ambassador.
Carroll’s experience might not be altogether uncommon; approximately 28 percent of adoptions are transracial, with 33 percent of those being Black children, according to a 2020 report (pdf). However, in popular culture, transracial adoption narratives have most often been produced through Hollywood’s lens—think Different Strokes’ Arnold and Willis Jackson-Drummond and the Papadopolous family of Webster, or Losing Isaiah and This Is Us favorite Randall Pearson, to name a few (with a dash of The Blind Side, for good measure).
This Is Us has proved dynamic in shifting the conversation around transracial adoption, but rarely has the story been told entirely through the lens of the adoptee—or encompassing the inherent trauma of adoption, no matter how loving the family. This is what makes Carroll’s retelling of her experience—one as rife with emotional trauma as filial affection and appreciation so gripping. Growing up the only Black person in rural and predominantly white Warner, New Hampshire, her difficult excavation of her own racial identity was complicated, not only by loving but often willfully oblivious adoptive parents, but a deeply manipulative birth mother, a white woman whose disdain for (and dismissal of) Carroll’s Black birth father colored her treatment of her biological daughter, as well (pun intended). For this and many reasons, Surviving the White Gaze is a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls of transracial adoption—albeit through the lived experience of one woman.
Similarly, another woman recently raised eyebrows with her shared views on adoption. As Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, herself a mother of seven including two Black children adopted from Haiti, heard arguments in defense of Roe v. Wade earlier this month, she offered a lens into her own perspective, one seemingly ignorant of the trauma exacted on both parent and child in the process. As transcribed by Slate, Barrett asked:
So petitioner points out that in all 50 states, you can terminate parental rights by relinquishing a child after abortion [Ed. note: She misspoke; she meant birth], and I think the shortest period might be 48 hours if I’m remembering the data correctly. It seems to me, seen in that light, both Roe and Casey emphasize the burdens of parenting. And insofar as you and many of your amici focus on the ways in which forced parenting, forced motherhood would hinder women’s access to the workplace, and to equal opportunities, it’s also focused on the consequences of parenting and the obligations of motherhood that flow from pregnancy—why don’t the safe haven laws take care of that problem? It seems to me that it focuses the burden much more narrowly. There is without question an infringement on bodily autonomy, for which we have another context like vaccines. However, it doesn’t seem to me to follow that pregnancy and then parenthood are all part of the same burden, and so it seems to me that the choice, more focused, would be between, say, the ability to get an abortion at 23 weeks, or the state requiring the woman to go 15, 16 weeks more, and then terminate parental rights at the conclusion. Why didn’t you address the safe haven laws, and why don’t they matter?
For Carroll, the question was triggering. Barrett’s suggestion—however unintended—that birth parents are tantamount to incubators who could just casually give birth and relinquish their children with little risk, remorse or repercussion was not only insulting but dangerous. Taking to Twitter, Carroll launched a thread in response, which read in part:
My memoir...is not just my story about the enduring trauma of being adopted into a white family, but an excavation of the chillingly foundational dynamic of transracial adoption in America...Amy Coney Barrett’s callous suggestion that birthmothers just gestate children and then give them up for adoption is sadly emblematic of that foundational dynamic. That she is an adoptive mother of two Black children all the more so.
“It’s really important to remember that the birth mother that she’s thinking of is the Haitian women who gave birth to her children, right?” Carroll further explained in conversation with The Root. “She’s not thinking of the white teen girl in Texas who, you know, got pregnant by accident—or worse. She’s not thinking about white girls or women. She’s thinking about specifically the birth mothers who in her mind gestated her children.”
“[I]t was such a visceral moment for me when she said that...I felt like I had to say something,” Carroll added.
What she didn’t expect was to find herself on the receiving end of hundreds of insults from strangers, calling her everything from anti-adoption and pro-abortion to mentally disturbed, a segregationist and even a “brat” for daring to characterize her childhood as anything less than idyllic, and herself anything less than unconditionally grateful. To many, Carroll was simply not entitled to acknowledge there may have been collateral damage, as well.
“I didn’t realize how it struck a very specific white supremacist chord...Especially coming from a Black woman to talk about the way in which transracial adoption mirrors the kind of foundational dynamic between Black folks and white folks in America,” Carroll admitted, adding, “Because it’s essentially white people making decisions about what is best for Black people, including the birth mothers, through the lens of the white gaze. And, you know, sort of imposing themselves as arbiters of all that is valuable and right—[including] how to deal with your body.”
“The thing that really, really struck me the most is the sheer laziness of thinking that the only two alternatives to adoption are abortion and foster care,” Carroll continued. “When what it really is is a self-tell by white people, right? Basically, what they’re saying is the idea of being able to sort of be fluent in Black history, to have organic relationships and friendships with Black folks is unimaginable.”
Instead, she posited: “It’s not even about integration or segregation; it’s about the inability on the part of so many white folks to imagine thinking about the entirety of Blackness as a contributing force in this country...You’re raising Black children to not have any sense of Black community. And the presumption that’s often made by white adoptive parents that we don’t carry that knowledge that as adopted children, we don’t carry that knowledge, that ferocity of unity somewhere in our bones is willfully obtuse, at best—and racist, at worst. It’s like the whole dismissal of our legacy, that’s what it feels like to me; that’s the trauma to me,” she concluded.
Despite her justifiable concern, Carroll is clear: she is not anti-adoption—or even anti-transracial adoption. “[My] interrogation of transracial adoption has always been about cultivating compassion and finding ways to move forward,” she added. “And what I end up coming up against is this real unwillingness on the part of white people to either recognize the way in which their behavior has fallen short as parents or to just completely bulldoze over me and try to denigrate me.”
It’s not only white people; Indian-American conservative commentator and professional pot-stirrer Dinesh D’Souza posted one of the most excoriating—and intimate—insults in response to Carroll’s thread, tweeting:
“If it’s ‘enduring trauma’ for you to be adopted by a white family, you might consider that 1. The black patents [sic] that gave birth to you didn’t want you 2. There were evidently no black couples that chose to adopt you. Aren’t you grateful someone did?”
“That’s a popular one; the gratitude,” said Carroll, later specifically referring to D’Souza’s post as “really, really low.”
“And particularly because...I had one white parent and because my Black birth father actually wanted me. And because of the structure, because of systemic racism and all sorts of ways—because of the health care system, because of him not being able to handle or deal with his mental health—he himself grew up in foster care,” she further explained. “[B]ut that was not the point—in the same way that my parents, my adoptive parents loving me is not what is at issue.
“Our job—and I say this as a parent—is to help our kids see who they are and become themselves...[to find a] sense of safety in self,” she continued. “And I feel like as Black Americans, it’s a higher premium; the stakes are higher for us to feel safe within ourselves. And so if you are a white parent, adoptive or otherwise, of a Black child, you have to work a little harder to make sure that your Black child finds that safety in self...”
“And I think that that is something that is so far out of the realm of understanding for white folks because they’re so busy trying to deflect the trauma, the way that they define it...but for me, it’s the sheer absence of Black unity and Black joy and Black power. It’s the absence of that,” she posited, later adding, “if you’re receiving a value system from the people who are supposed to love you unconditionally and the most, if the value system that you’re getting is entirely through a white gaze? Come on, don’t tell me that’s not traumatic.”
Ignoring the foundational basis of racial trauma has long been a convenient go-to; a lazy deflection that in this case ignores the systemic impacts upon Black families that might otherwise be open to adoption. It also ignores the anti-Blackness that keeps many Black children languishing in foster care despite comprising a lower percentage than white children awaiting adoption—a dynamic exacerbated for darker-skinned Black children. Contrarily, adoptive families are overwhelming white; a proportion that can’t be divorced from ongoing racial disparities in income, education and employment.
Carroll’s own white parents were not financially privileged, but they were educated artists who encouraged her to be the same. “So that is a privilege in a sense, right? But it’s also it’s also very nuanced,” she noted. “I think that my hope when these conversations come up is that we can build on them in a way that sort of changes language and rules and shifts the narrative.”
Carroll will soon have the opportunity to expand on the narrative; Surviving the White Gaze is being developed as a limited series. When asked how she hopes to expand the lens on transracial adoption, she responded, “[W]hat I hope is that my work makes for bigger and better, more nuanced stories...and it will not just encourage people to think differently, but to build on those thoughts, right?
Taking a beat, she continued: “I mean, if we’re really in this moment of racial reckoning—if we’re really in this moment of hearing voices—Black adoptees have a lot to say about racial reckonings, you know what I’m saying? We are kind of inherently expert at that because we’ve been living in a microcosm of America.”
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Surviving the White Gaze is available now from Simon & Schuster.
Corrected: Tuesday, 12/14/21 at 3:45 p.m., ET: An earlier version of this article stated Ms. Carroll’s hometown as Portsmouth, N.H. She grew up in nearby Warner, N.H. The article has been amended to reflect this.