48 | Listening to Adoptees

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INSIDE OUT LGBT RADIO looks at everything from pop-culture to politics through a LGBTQ+ inclusive lens. For people in the Washington, DC area, the show airs every Tuesday 2:00-3:00pm EST on WPFW 89.3 FM. This episode features host Tony Hynes and guests Schai Schairer, a Haitian adoptee and poet known as Diabolically Haitian, and Beth Wheeler, a white adoptive parent of two children of color.

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Emily : November is National Adoption Month. On the last episode we mentioned the wonderful writer, activist and educator, Tony Hynes. He recently was a guest host on Inside Out LGBT Talk Radio discussing interracial and trans-racial adoption. For this episode of Outspoken Voices, we have some highlights from that really, really fantastic discussion. Enjoy.

Tony: Welcome to Inside Out LGBT Radio. Inside Out LGBT Radio is brought to you live every single Tuesday from 2:00 PM to 3:00 PM Eastern standard time here on WPFW which is 89.3 FM here on the East Coast and the Washington D.C. Area and we can also be streamed alive by going to www.wpfwfm.org. Inside Out LGBT Radio show is a program that looks at everything from pop culture to politics in anything that falls in between and we look at that through an LGBTQ+ lens. I’m your host for today’s show, Tony Hynes, and we’ll be joined later by Schai Schairer, an interracial adoptee, spoken word artist, and criminal justice reform advocate. As well as Beth Wheeler, a psychotherapist, licensed clinical social worker, diversity trainer and mom to two African American boys. In today’s topic, we are here to talk about adoption and more specifically interracial adoption, a practice that refers to parents adopting children at different rates from their own, but as widely defined today is the practice of white parents adopting minority children.

Tony: The first recorded case of interracial adoption took place in 1948 at the time a white couple took an African American infant in the foster care adopting her when she was nine. In America where Jim Crow laws still personified race relations in the country, interracial adoption was a rare and potentially dangerous process both for minority children and the parents who dared to adopt them. However, in the next decade, the practice would rise exponentially as white adoptive parents became more comfortable adopting babies who did not share their skin complexion. Still, the babies they did adopt often came from outside of the United States and if they were minorities, they were often from Asian countries. Adopting children from a different cultural background originated for a variety of reasons, but began increasing in popularity due to the restricting of available white orphans coupled with the rise of orphaned Korean children after the Korean war.

Tony: This phenomenon allowed white adoptive parents to tap into the unique difference that came with being an interracial adoptive parent while avoiding the stigma that came with adopting an African American or other minority child. Despite the rising rates of international adoptions, domestic adoption of minority children in the fifties and sixties was still a relatively rare occurrence. Among the earliest examples of intentional domestic interracial adoption was the Indian Adoption Project, which happened between 1958 and 1967. The project was a collaboration between the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Child Welfare League of America and was designed to remove any children from their families on reservations in an effort to assimilate them into mainstream society. In both domestic and international interracial adoption during the era, the goals were often to produce a colorblind home that would nurture an environment in which adoptees left behind the customs and identity of their pre-adoptive homes in favor of adopting the ideologies, identities and customs of their white adoptive parents.

Tony: After Loving vs Virginia made interracial marriage in the United States legal in 1967, interracial adoptions of African American and minority children started to become more common then in the adoption world. By 1972 the rising numbers of African Americans adopted into white homes caught the attention of the National Association of Black Social Workers, who came out against the practice stating that they were taking a “vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason”. Calling interracial adoption unnatural artificial, unnecessary and proof that African-Americans continued to be assigned “shadow status”. In the following decades, several adoption agencies would follow the lead of the NABSW, making it more difficult for white adoptive parents to adopt African American children. Many prospective white parents were upset by the proclamation and its subsequent impact asserting that they were being racially discriminated against by certain agencies who shared that sentiment of the NABSW.

Tony: As a result, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and its follow-up, the Inter-ethnic Placement Act of 1996, outlawed preferential placements and adoption practices on the basis of race and other factors. Today, 40% of adoptive children are of a different race, culture or ethnicity than both of their adoptive parents or their sole parent if there’s only one parent in the household. Same sex couples, unable to adopt during the first recorded cases of interracial adoption, comprise a substantial percentage of interracial adoption parents today. In fact, same sex couples are six times more likely to adopt than heterosexual partners, culminating in the creation of many homes that are both interracial and same-sex headed households. The infusion of LGBTQ families into the interracial adoption conversation has produced new conversations around the intersecting identities of children growing up in these homes as well as the live lives of parents who deal with the roadblocks, discrimination and everyday occurrences that come with being a same sex parents who minority child. We’re joined by Shai Schairer an interracial adoptee and criminal justice reform advocate and founder of F.I.S.T, an organization devoted to highlighting the plight of women in the criminal justice system. And Beth Wheeler, a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, diversity trainer and mom to two African American boys. Thank you both for being here today. So Schai, I like to start with you. Can you take us through a bit of your journey?

Schai: So I was adopted from Haiti in 1989 by a single white mother. Then in 1994 we adopted my little brother who was also from Haiti. So it was just the two of us who grew up in the same house with my mom and then life was pretty normal I guess for an adoptee. And then when I turned 26, my brother found me through ancestry DNA. And so then things started getting a little weird to say the least.

Tony: Can you go into more detail about that weird part?

Schai: It kind of made me realize how much I hadn’t really been dealing with when it came to my adoption and the trauma that I hadn’t really tackled when it came to my adoption. It basically solidified the fact that like, I already knew that there was a void and it basically highlighted that for me. Like growing up I would always say, mom, something is missing. Someone is missing. There’s somebody out there and she didn’t have any information for me so she couldn’t do anything about it. But my brother finding me just basically highlighted that. And basically it showed me that the politics of adoption are just crap, because we’re full siblings, potentially twins, but our paperwork and our birth records are completely different. So that goes to show that there was somebody in the industry in the situation that completely discombobulated everything and made it impossible. We weren’t supposed to find each other. You know what I mean? We weren’t supposed to reconnect. And the fact that somebody, whether it was for money, what it was for moral purposes, whatever their reason was, the fact that somebody had that much control over two people’s lives who had absolutely no say in what was going on in their life. I feel like that’s, that’s a little crazy.

Tony: Crazy in what way?

Schai: When it comes to the adoption, I don’t believe siblings should be separated, period. Right. And then, God forbid they’re twins, they definitely shouldn’t be separated. So the fact my brother and I were separated and granted like I love the mom I grew up with. I love my mom to death. I love his parents. He loves his parents, you know? But the fact that we were separated and we didn’t get the chance to spend that time growing up together, we were robbed of that and we shouldn’t have been robbed at that. So that part is crazy.

Tony: Right, right. And how do you think that has shaped your experience as an adult now as an adult who’s an interracial adoptee as well?

Schai: Well it’s kind of jaded my perception on interracial adoption. I’m not gonna sit here and say I don’t agree with adoption as a whole, but I don’t agree with the politics behind it at all. And I think people need to take more into account about adoptees and I don’t think that’s going on. I think adoptive parents and who are usually white people are made to look like saviors when they should be made to look like parents. And I feel like adoptees are made it look like hopeless victims when like at the end of the day, like I didn’t need to be saved, you know, I just needed to be loved and who’s to say I wouldn’t have been equally as loved in Haiti? Like who’s to say that? Like, my birth mom didn’t even want to get me up. We don’t know. So it’s like there’s certain things that I feel like need to be fixed within the system of adoption.

Tony: What would you say to people who say that you’re kind of lucky to be able to be in the United States and not have to grow up with your birth parents from Haiti who might’ve been going through difficult times?

Schai: I think that I would tell them to check their privilege because what is lucky, you know what I mean? Like, yeah, don’t get me wrong. Like the financial aspect. Yes, I’m beyond blessed. My mother has afforded me every opportunity possible. I got an excellent education. I’m living my dream by building my own business, fighting for women within the correctional facilities. I’m able to be a comfortable, dominant lesbian. I probably wouldn’t have been able to do in Haiti. Right. But still, not being able to grow up in Haiti, I got stripped of my culture. There are two languages that I have no idea how to speak. I didn’t choose this life. This life was chosen for me and that’s not necessarily fair. I’m not saying that my mom was wrong in adopting me. I’m saying that the system was wrong and how they went about things.

Tony: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. Beth. I wanted to move on to you as well. What was your journey like, both to adoption and also in general, if you feel comfortable mentioning some of those things?

Beth: Well, first of all, I just want to say I will never ever tire of having the privilege of listening to adoptees to speak. I feel like this is first of all, an honor that you asked me and a privilege. I get to be here with the two of you. And I’ve learned more from adoptees and from the few first and birth families that have been able to speak. And I’ve been able to hear about what it is to parent across race and what it is to parent an adoptee, than I’ve learned anywhere else in the world. So I will always sit and be quiet and listen because there’s so much for me to learn. So that’s the first thing I have to say. The journey. So I came out when I was 16. Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all through all those years because I’m 52 now. So that would be a long time. When I finally realized that I really wanted kids, I knew that it was gonna take some planning and preparation because being a single sex family, the question is how do you get that sperm and make a baby happen? So we went to Rainbow Families DC and at the time it was lesbian services and did their Maybe Baby class, which helped us learn what we needed to know to biologically have a child. We tried, I tried to get pregnant for a number of years and even though intellectually I wanted to adopt, in my body I wanted to be able to be pregnant and see what that was like. I didn’t even care if it was my own kid. I just wanted to feel what it was like to be pregnant. That did not come to pass. So after doing some grieving of that, my partner and I at the time decided that we would move towards adoption. At the time we moved to work with an organization that then also asked us the question, are you open to adopting across race? And we had big, huge conversations about that as two white women, would we do justice to raising kids of color? Is it even fair for us to raise kids of color? Who are we to think that we could do that? And in the end, after doing a lot of reflection, we thought, well, we were willing to do the work to be as conscious as we possibly could be. And so we then said, okay, well we’d rather have a kid being raised in a white household of conscious parents than non-conscious parents. And so we then made the choice to adopt and then we did all of the process of what it takes to adopt domestically. We wanted to adopt domestically because we want it to be out as a couple and we didn’t want to lie about who we were. And at that time, international adoption, in most of the places you had to only have one person adopt. You couldn’t be a couple that was the same sex couple. So we weren’t willing to do that. So we adopted domestically and we also were open to adopting kids of color. And we also knew that we didn’t need to go anywhere else. We could be here. There are plenty of kids that need homes here. So then we went through the process and we, after about a year and a half of waiting, we brought our first son home and he’s now 12 and then after about another year and a half or two in that process, we did the process again and then we brought our second child home three years later. So he’s now nine.

Tony: Excellent. And what’s something you would tell to people who haven’t adopted that you think they might want to know about adopting from the parent side of it and what that’s like for someone who hasn’t necessarily thought about the process?

Beth: Well, I think there’s a few things. One is that just as Schai was talking, one of the things I, you know, I wanted to have a baby and um, I knew that adoption was complex. I had no clue how complex it was. And I also had no idea that I was actually participating in, in, in an industry that often served and was made to serve adoptive parents, particularly white adoptive parents at the expense of, and sometimes harm to people of color, first families and adoptees. So I don’t think I really had a comprehension of the systemic nature of adoption and the kind of white supremacist nature of how it was created. So what I would say to pre-adoptive parents is you have to know that you’re getting involved in an industry and that in that process you have to pay attention to if you’re going to adopt, who are you using for that adoption process? How ethical is that organization? Are they really serving the needs of first and birth families and adoptees? Or are they really focusing on your needs? And if they’re really focusing on your needs, they’re not doing the right job. That really it’s about the needs of the first and birth family and the adoptee to be born. And I think the other thing I’ve learned a lot from first mothers that I’ve spoken to is that in my mind I was like, Oh well they’re making this choice. And many first families and first mothers that I’ve spoken to said they didn’t really feel like they had much of a choice or later they realize that they weren’t given all the information that they needed to make a solid decision. So they felt somehow coerced into it or moved into it because of lack of information. And that piece, I didn’t know either. So I would just say be really watchful of the organizations that you’re working with and make sure that they’re doing justice to the triad.

Tony: What are signs that you saw when you were adopting that told you that the organizations or organization that you were working with was one of the organizations that got it, that understood some of the things that you’re talking about.

Beth: The first thing that we did of course, we were more selfishly oriented at the time, as most people I think are before they have children, we were thinking about ourselves, but we liked the organization that we went to because they were really good in dealing with LGBT families. And we wanted to make sure that whoever the first mother was that was gonna choose us, ideally she would be counseled appropriately about LGBT families. So we originally went to that organization for that reason. We also knew that they were going to be speaking with first mothers and first fathers if they were present around different kinds of families. And that we wanted an open adoption and we wanted a relationship if at all possible. So we also were very clear that we wanted to have some kind of dynamic relationship if she was at all willing to have a relationship with us, not to have a closed situation where our child wouldn’t be able to have access to her or to their first family. So we knew that this organization was open to that and was going to be willing to have that conversation and see if it was at all possible.

Beth: The other thing I would also say to pre-adoptive parents is to do your own work around your own racial identity, particularly white adoptive parents about your own experience, who you are as a white person, what’s your experiences across race and really ask yourself some very honest questions about what kind of work you are doing or are willing to do for the sake of yourself and for your children.

Tony: I’m going to switch it over to Schai in direct response to that. Schai, what do you think white adoptive parents need to be doing to prepare themselves to have minority children?

Schai: I think actually Beth really tackled that pretty well. I think adoptive parents need to be honest with themselves and really check themselves and really have the real conversation with themselves and with family members and with their community. Is this something I can take on? Because it’s not easy. It’s not. And if you’re not ready to deal, like I feel like a lot of white parents and white adoptive parents adopt because they’re fascinated with black culture, right? Because let’s be real black culture’s amazing, right? But they want the positives of black culture and they don’t understand black culture is also very ugly. You know what I’m saying? Like black culture also has very dark, dark things about it. Like black depression, black mental health period, like across the board, right. Black masculinity, black femininity. That’s not, those aren’t the ugly parts. Don’t get me wrong. Those are not the ugly parts, but those are still very intense parts and they can be ugly parts of it. You know what I’m saying?

Beth: I was just thinking, Schai, with that, because of racism I think and because of white supremacy it becomes that shadow side that some of those things are seen as negative or not so great. It’s really because of racism and what racism puts on black people.

Schai: Yeah, I would agree with that.

Tony: Schai as an adoptee, what are some things that you think adoptees face growing up that people who are not at adoptees and might not feel growing up?

Schai: So I was kind of prepared for this, but I wasn’t prepared for this. Like this might get a little emotional right here. I feel like love is not enough. You know what I mean? Like, like I’m tired of hearing adoptive parents in general saying, Oh, but I love you. I’ve given you everything that I could give you. Love is not enough. You know, like I need to feel emotionally safe. I need to know that even when I act my worst, you’re not gonna give up, give me up, you know, cause I’m going to push you and I’m gonna push you again. I’m gonna push you even harder. I need to know that every single time you’re going to come back and love me stronger, because somebody has already given up on me once, you know what I mean? And so like I need you to watch how you word things. Like there’s certain things that you just do not say to an adoptee. I don’t care how old we get. I don’t care how experienced we are, there’s just certain things you do not say to an adoptee.

Tony: And do you have an example of that for listeners at home?

Schai: Like, you should feel lucky that you were adopted. You should feel lucky somebody took you in. Like when people tell me that I should feel lucky or I’m not appreciative of my adoptive parents or anything like that. Like what do you mean I’m not appreciative? Why should I be appreciative? I didn’t ask for this. What do I owe them? I don’t owe my mother anything. You know what I’m saying? The only thing she owed me was to love me and to show me that she would never give up on me. And that she would protect me. No, what I’m saying, I don’t owe her anything. I was a kid. I didn’t ask to be adopted.

Beth: You know what I was thinking about, Schai, was when you were talking about you don’t owe your adoptive mom anything. I think a lot of times what I’ve heard adoptees say, and you actually as well, I’ve heard you say is the bind that you’ve often felt yourself in of loyalty of mixed loyalty. Like is it okay for me to love my adoptive parents and miss my biological parents? Can I talk about my biological parents with my adoptive parents? Is it going to upset them? And the level and the number of adoptees that I’ve heard speak about this problem and dilemma of feeling like they need to take care of their adoptive parents. And you know, I think that’s of what I heard you saying just now.

Schai: That’s so important. And like I feel like adoptees are oftentimes, they’re loyal to a fault. And they look out for other people before they look out for themselves. And they will emotionally go into past the cup being dry. The couple who have cracks in it and adoptees are still going and going and going and just like begging people to love them and really showing up with the best that they have. So in all of my relationships, with my relationship with my mom, with like intimate relationships, I’m always like, all I need is your emotional safety. I just need to know I’m emotionally safe with you. I don’t need the financial safety, I don’t need the physical safety. I can protect myself, but I need to know that emotionally I am safe with you because I feel like that’s something adoptees never really received.

Tony: And what is emotional safety?

Schai: Like for example, like I was saying earlier, I need to know that you’re not gonna get mad at me and you’re just going to roll out. You know what I mean? Adoptees have that huge abandonment issues. And don’t get me wrong, like when it comes to intimate relationships, some relationships just don’t work out, you know? But I’m talking about like the minor stuff, the petty stuff.

Beth: I just want to add as a parent, my kids both in different ways, all kids test us as parents. That’s just what they do. That’s what they’re supposed to do. But part of the challenge is that what I see is that my kids test and they test to see if I’m going to stick around. So to what you’re saying, there are a number of experiences where my kids will say certain things. Well, if you were my birth mother, then dot, dot, dot, or if you were black dot, dot dot and I think they’re looking and testing to see, number one, if I’m going to stick around and number two, how am I going to respond and am I going to freak out or am I going to go right there into that conversation with them? Which I will do because I need to make sure that they know I’m there and I’m not going anywhere. And I also need to understand that at the core of adoption is loss. And as an adoptive parent, I cannot ignore that, as much as I want to. Somebody’s joy is somebody else’s loss and pain and that’s kind of at the root of adoption. So for me, my joy of having my children is their birth mother’s pain and their pain of not having their biological mom.

Tony: I think that that’s a great point. I think that this is an example for both adoptees and for adoptive parents of what goes on when you’re growing up as an adoptee in your relationship to your birth family sometimes. And you might not feel connected to them in some way. And in other ways you might feel connected to them in negative ways that makes you feel badly, not just about your birth parents per se, but about the group that they’re attached to as well racially. And what do you do with that itself and how do you combat some of those negative feelings within yourself? Not only about your birth family, but about groups of people as well. I think for, for adoptive parents out there, and for people that are thinking of adopting, it’s important to remember first and foremost that adoptees stories are their stories and their narratives first and foremost. And is that their stories start before they ever step in the home with their adoptive parents. And so the traumas that they’re bringing with them into their new households are things that are part of their identities. And so it’s important for us to honor that as professionals, as parents, as communities, but also to recognize that there’s not blame necessarily on adoptive parents for that trauma. That there’s not blame on birth mothers and birth fathers for that trauma. The trauma is just something that simply exists and we have a choice to make. When that trauma happens, we have the choice to address it. We have the choice to deflect from it and we have the choice to ignore it. And I think we know which choice out of those three is going to help our kids. And then our adults the most. And I think this is what this conversation is, is trying to address in that way. So I wanted to move on and to get, Beth and Schai, your final thoughts on interracial adoption in general. Do you think from what we’ve discussed here from your lives, is interracial adoption something that is a positive or negative as experienced or neither? And should interracial adoption be a practice that continues?

Schai: I personally do not necessarily agree with interracial adoption. And it is because like I said earlier when we first started the show, that I feel like white parents are put on a pedestal that they don’t deserve to be on, and the system does not provide the parents the adequate tools needed to raise these black children. And I feel like black kids, whether they be interracial, international or domestic, I feel like they’re stripped of a culture that they can never get back. And, um, so for those reasons, I don’t necessarily agree with an interracial adoption.

Beth: I think I would say that in an ideal world, children would be raised with their biological parents. Given the fact that we live in a racist, classist, we can think of every IST exists. This system exists. So therefore, how do you become the best possible interracial adoptee family and what’s the work that has to be done? So I agree that ideally it would be same race adoption if there was adoption needed at all. And if there is the need for interracial adoption, I would say, white parents do your work, do your work on race, do your work on class, do your work on sexuality, do your work on everything that exists so that you can do the work on behalf of yourself and for your children so they can be as healthy with as greatest self-esteem as possible.