As expected, this week President Trump nominated Notre Dame law professor and federal appellate Judge Amy Coney Barrett to fill the seat on the Supreme Court vacated by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg. While most Democrats and the Biden campaign have focused on the proximity to the election or Barrett’s strong conservative tendencies on issues like abortion and health care, others have chosen to focus on her faith and family, which they see as being outside the mainstream. A devotional group she belongs to was falsely accused of having inspired the book and television show The Handmaid’s Tale, while others focused on the size of her family or the fact that two of her children were adopted internationally from Haiti.
Adoption is a complicated enough topic even without adding race into the mix. That hasn’t stopped commenters like Ibram X. Kendi, author of the acclaimed book How To Be an Antiracist, from jumping into the fray on Twitter, where he wrote that “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children. They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.” Meanwhile, transracial adoptive parents like the National Review’s David French, who wrote a controversial piece in 2018 about his family, have weighed in on the subject as well.
Yet few people seem to ask those who understand the situation best: those of us with Black or brown skin who have been raised by white parents.
Like Judge Barrett, my parents came to be adoptive parents through involvement in the pro-life movement. Adoption agencies like Bethany Christian Services will often reach out to like-minded churches, and a visit to my parents' congregation served as a religious calling to live out their Christian faith through action.
Through fostering, my parents had learned that they were the type of people who could easily love children who were not their own biological children. They had also learned sad lessons about race and adoption, some of which were surprising to them. One was that it is easier to find adoptive parents for white children than it is for nonwhite children. Very few white parents expressed interest in nonwhite children, and the first transracial adoption was not even recorded until 1948. One can imagine that this effect was even stronger in the 1980s, a time when most white Americans told pollsters that they would not approve of a relative marrying someone of a different race.
Yet for my family, the attitude was different. They felt confident that they could love and raise a child of any background, because they already had. My sister, a third grader at the time, summed it up for an agency-created questionnaire: “When we get the babies, we fall in love with them. But they stay usually for a little while. When we get this baby, we will have it forever. It will be very different, especially to my friends.”
Today, interracial marriage, transracial adoption, and multiracial families are not nearly the taboo that they were when I was adopted. This has led to a corresponding increase in scrutiny, often from those professing antiracist and anticolonial worldviews. For those of us who are actual transracial adoptees, the rhetoric of Kendi and others puts people like me and Judge Barrett’s adopted children in an awkward position, asked to choose between the families that raised us and love us to this day, and advocates who claim to advance the cause of equality for nonwhite America, a group we also belong to and whose interests matter deeply to us.
After all, while being raised by parents of a different background does mean a different cultural upbringing than a child might otherwise have had, it does not change the way the world perceives this child as they get older.
Being raised by white parents did not prevent my younger brother from being stopped, frisked, and taken to a police station for hours simply because he “looked suspicious” while walking home from work, still wearing his ShopRite uniform. When he was a little boy with my parents and our van was stolen, the police offered a ride home. On his own as a teenage Black boy, he was told to find his own way home, despite being taken miles away from where he was initially brought in.
This dichotomy can indeed be difficult to navigate, especially for children. Other children are rarely hesitant to ask whatever questions occur to them, and adoption is still relatively rare, which can often spark curiosity. All adopted children deal with awkward questions and unfortunate jokes about telling younger siblings that they were adopted, but for transracial adoptees, explaining yourself and your background was almost an inevitable consequence of anyone meeting your parents. In the 1990s, the only other transracial adoptees my brother and I knew were children of friends my parents had met at an event for their adoption agency.
In addition, while my parents did seek to teach us about Black American culture, it was a little bit like learning how to play piano while being taught by the math teacher. A lot of things that my parents could not understand because they themselves had never been taught slipped through the cracks, and we had to learn for ourselves, as my brother did when he was detained.
These cultural differences are what naysayers like Kendi are pointing to when they criticize transracial adoption. Yet for the vast majority of adoptive parents, choosing a nonwhite child has nothing to do with any racial fantasies, colonialist or otherwise, and everything to do with the sad realities of adoption in America.
Nonwhite children, and Black children, in particular, are harder to place in adoptive homes. As my father said in response to the agency questionnaire: “It is our desire to provide a home for a child who is hard to place because of the color of his/her skin.” In my case, interest in adopting a biracial boy was so low in 1980s Allegheny County, where I was born, that the agency rushed to get in contact with my parents, all the way on the other side of the state. My placement had taken longer than any of the children my parents had fostered in Philadelphia.
So while I certainly acknowledge that there are challenges and difficulties involved in transracial adoption, as a product of the system, I cannot help but look at it as what it is: kindhearted people doing their best to help a broken situation.
Becoming an adoptive parent happens for various reasons. Some families are unable to have children of their own. In cases like the Barrett family and my own, it is the result of a religious calling. These parents often adopt transracially, because they are the least picky about which children they bring into their families and they feel confident in their ability to open their hearts to a unique kind of family experience. According to research, conservative Catholics and Evangelicals who support transracial adoption have more liberal attitudes on same-sex marriage and adoption, and race, only fully aligning with other conservatives on the issue of abortion.
When Democrats interrogate Amy Coney Barrett, they should not be surprised if, instead of the colonizing zealot that critics fear, they find a lawyer and mom of deep compassion and a faith that inspires her to bring love to others.