Physically abused, ridiculed and constantly reminded that she was an outsider by the family that adopted her when she was a 5 years old, author and children’s advocate Stacey Patton says conversations about the complicated issues surrounding race and adoption are almost always dominated by the perspectives of clinicians, politicians, and parents.
A black Alabama lawmaker’s challenge to state residents to show him “a whole bunch of whites” who have adopted black children—and the response by white adoptive parents who rallied in their own defense—fit that pattern well, she says. The left-out perspectives? Those of the adopted kids.
In her memoir, That Mean Old Yesterday, Patton set out to change that by chronicling her experience with what she calls a “bad adoption” by a family that happened to be African American. In the years since the book’s publication, she’s founded Spare the Kids (a website that aims to offer black parents ways to discipline children without violence) and traveled the country offering cultural competency workshops on race and adoption, corporal punishment, and foster care to child welfare professionals.
We spoke to Patton about concerns far more urgent than one politician’s public bet facing adopted and fostered kids, including physical abuse and lack of clarity about how and why race matters.
The Root: What was your reaction to the Alabama lawmaker who suggested that white people don’t adopt black children?
Stacey Patton: I laughed. I thought, “This is a juvenile dare.” The reality is that this question of whether interracial adoptions are bad or good has been hugely controversial, especially for black people, for decades. In the 1970s it was the status quo opinion that white parents should not adopt black children. I see this lawmaker, and his stance that white people do not want to adopt black children, as signs that he’s behind the times as a result of his age and demographic location.
TR: What’s the background of that conversation on transracial adoption?
SP: The last numbers I saw were taken in the 1970s and the number at that time was that about 8 percent of all adoptions were transracial. From the end of World War II until the early 1970s, you had white people adopting black children and also Native American kids. But because of a belief that white people were not equipped to raise black children, that these adoptions destroyed their attachment to the black community—they basically called it cultural genocide—the number of black kids getting adopted decreased. There’s been a trend toward reversing that, but it did have a huge impact.
TR: Where do you come out on that?
SP: My adoptive parents were African American and they had a devastating impact on my identity. They were born and raised in the South during Jim Crow and had never healed from their own trauma, and here they were raising a black child growing up in the ’80s and ’90s as if she was still growing up in the Jim Crow South. The anxiety parents at that time might have over a child’s physical and sexual development came out in the way they socialized me. I’m not sure whether a white couple would have done any more damage than my adoptive black parents did.
There are also some universal things adoptees go through in terms of identity formation, regardless of who’s adopting them. One could argue that racial differences exacerbate that, but these are also just parts of being an adoptee.
TR: So, do you think race doesn’t matter in adoption?
SP: I think it’s problematic when a black child hears from his or her adoptive parents that “race doesn’t matter,” when color is something they have to deal with every day …
On the other hand, it’s misleading to say only black parents can teach black children how to look at race.
It’s important for us to look at individual situations when it comes to children.
TR: How else does your own experience in foster care inform your work with Spare the Kids—and how does that overlap with your cultural competency trainings?
SP: My whole goal is to keep parents out of prison and kids out of foster care. There’s this tribalism where you have, on the one hand, black folks saying, “White people shouldn’t be adopting black kids because it’s damaging, and we’re the only ones who are capable.” And then you have this unhealthy intraracial tribalism where good black parenting is defined by being harsh with your kids, beating them, whipping them, to prepare them for being a black child in a society that fundamentally hates them. As a result, you get these parents who are feeding their kids to the foster system and juvenile justice system. All of this is deeply embedded in slavery and Jim Crow history.
We say, “Nobody else can love our kids than us,” but we’re doing some really jacked up stuff to them under the guise of love.
I try to help social work professionals understand the historical roots of corporal punishment in black families, where it comes from, what expressions it takes and how black parents are increasingly using social media to film themselves beating their kid. This is horrifying stuff. It brings tears to my eyes. It’s awful.
But they have to be able to listen. What is the parent’s fear? Once you start with that, you can get into the cultural aspects of this, so you can develop the literacy to be able to have conversations with these parents in a nonjudgmental way.
TR: What’s one thing you try to get people to understand about black children who are adopted or up for adoption?
SP: My most popular workshop is about the grief journey of children placed in foster care. People don’t talk about the grief of being placed in foster care, and the grief in adoption, and in being separated from your family even when there’s abuse. Black children in this country are seen as devoid of emotional lives … so when our kids get placed in foster care after having been victimized and traumatized, their behavior is not contextualized as much. They get overmedicated, suspended from school and placed in the juvenile justice system. So I’m working with them through what grief looks like in these kids.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root’s senior staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.