Tuesday, 21 May 2013

To Adopt Call 0800 (But Not If You're White)

"Black children need black families," says Islington Council. What a slap in the face for all the mixed families riding the number 43 bus to Highbury&Islington where I saw this poster. If the point is to encourage black couples, singles and families to adopt, why not find a positive, inclusive message that broadens the circle of all adopters rather than reducing it?

There are several reasons why this campaign makes me absolutely furious. The first is that I've recently heard a string of anti-adoption comments from friends and acquaintances: surely adoptive children must always feel a sense of loss and will ultimately track down their genetic parents; surely it must be very strange indeed to raise a child who doesn't look like yourself; surely you can't love an adopted child in quite the same, natural way as you would love your own.

What utter rubbish.

None of the adopted people in my family and circle of friends want to track down "their parents", for the very simple reason that they already know their parents. They're right there, on the other end of the phone line, talking about the neighbour's kids and the dog's latest tricks. We rarely read misery memoirs written by happy adopted sons and daughters with ordinary lives because, well, it doesn't make for a particularly thrilling memoir (nor a miserable one). There is a disproportionate focus on people with bad adoption experiences, for the obvious reason that those with good ones don't have an interesting tale to tell. As a headline, "Yeah, my parents are ok, I guess" isn't going to get a lot of clicks.

Of course, there are people who were adopted by horrible parents, or by parents who were not horrible but failed to make them feel loved and accepted. The other day, again on the number 43 bus, I overheard a black man in his 80s tell a woman about "the white man who raised me". He went on to imitate his adoptive/foster father's self-righteous, hectoring voice, which still rang in his head decades later. However, it sounded like race was the least of the problems in that particular relationship. And more well-intentioned parents can make their child feel at home in his/her new family in a number of ways, as Lola Jaye has written in this thoughtful piece.

There are other potential problems. I know adopted children who have had to endure stares, swivel-eyed curiosity, completely inappropriate questions from strangers ("have you tried to track down your birth parents?" after 10 mins of meeting someone), only because they did not look like their parents. Having spent the morning reading up on the trans-racial adoption debate (thanks, Islington Council), I found some heartbreaking pieces by people who recalled being bullied, beaten up and made to feel ashamed of the way they looked. The problem here isn't the mixed family. The problem is society. White parents don't need to stop adopting black children: society needs to stop being racist.

This is the second reason Islington Council's campaign makes me so angry. It reinforces the perception that children, and people in general, feel most comfortable and happy among people who look like themselves. It reinforces the perception that closer genetic links equal closer emotional links.
This is a) racist.
And b), the obvious conclusion to this train of logic is that adopted parents - and adopted children - can't ever be as good/happy/complete as genetically linked families. It supports the views of hateful people who say they couldn't love an adopted child the same way they would love one that shares their DNA. ("Sorry love, hope you're feeling comfy in your care home, it's just that my ideal baby is a clone").
So, c), the poster gives white and Asian people a reason not to adopt black children ("even the Council says it doesn't work"),
and d) it discourages adoption in general by emphasising genetic closeness.

Well done, poster people.

I wish Islington Council spent its money on encouraging all parents to adopt. We don't need more reasons why we shouldn't adopt. We don't need to hear that we're the wrong parents for this or that child. We need to hear the other facts: that most adopted children thrive in their families, that adoption is a great source of joy and happiness, and a wonderful way to show that love and emotional belonging matter more than society's lazy prejudices and stereotypes.


  1. Nice one, Sophie. Just to be on the polemic side, I wonder how a 'white children need white parents' poster would have gone down.

    Biggest difference is that it wouldn't be well-intentioned (I have to presume that Islington had at least one good intention: to increase the pool of parents adopting), but much of your argument would still hold, and it would look absolutely terrible!

  2. Yes, it would look terrible, but to be fair to Islington, I don't think it's directly comparable. In the sense that Islington's conclusion seems to be based on negative experiences by black children who were adopted by white families. I haven't seen any cases where it was the other way round.
    So Islington does seem to be trying to respond to (and avoid replicating) the genuine suffering that was experienced by some of these children. I just question their conclusion - that the mixed families per se are the problem, rather than society's prejudices.