A McDonald’s play area in Pittsburgh’s North Hills. Two boys are running around, hand in hand. Their mom, Meg McKivigan, is watching them from closeby.
The boys stop in front of another boy, and Eli asks, “Can me and my brother play with you?”
“That’s not your brother,” the boy says, looking at Ezra and his brown skin.
More than a year has lapsed since, but McKivigan, of Bellevue, often encounters people who don’t understand her family. McKivigan and her husband, Josh, are a white couple and parents to three adopted kids: Eli, 4, who’s white, and 2-year-old twins Ezra and Naomi, who are black.
In 2012, 916 of the 1,941 children the Pennsylvania Adoption Exchange Council served were black, while only 6 percent of adoptive families were black, which means that sometimes, white families adopt black children, and, in doing so, begin building their families through transracial adoption.
It seems like a logical, mutually beneficial solution. Placing kids with “forever families,” or in permanent homes is good, right? Much of the time, it is. But transracial adoptions call for careful, thoughtful navigation — and choosing to be “color blind,” or ignore that the child is of a different race, can be harmful.
“Color blind implies that there is no difference, [but] there is a difference and it needs to be honored, recognized, and supported,” said Lorrie Deck of the Pennsylvania Statewide Adoption & Permanency Network.
Federal law dictates that adoption placement agencies receiving federal funding cannot consider race when determining who can become foster or adoptive parents. The law aims to reduce the wait times for children to be adopted as well as the likelihood of discrimination.
It essentially endorses the color blind approach.
But a 2008 report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute challenged the wisdom of not mandating training for white families considering the adoption of minority children, with researchers concluding that transracial adoption “adds another layer of development and adjustment challenges.”
Many agencies do, however, voluntarily offer support, education and resources for parents considering transracial adoption.
Growing up with people not of their own ethnicity can make it tough for adoptees to develop their own racial identity.
Susan Branco, division director of Loyola Clinical Centers at Loyola University of Maryland, was adopted from Colombia by white parents and grew up in Philadelphia. She says children need to grow up in a community that reflects what they look like.
“They can be immersed in a culture that would reflect the culture of their birth family, so, therefore, they can learn some of the traditions, the customs, the language, something basic like haircare, skincare,” she said.
The McKivigans moved from Zelienople to Bellevue for just that reason. Bellevue, a borough northwest of the city, is 87 percent white, a contrast to Zelienople, where the population is 99 percent white.
“It was actually hard to find a school in Pittsburgh that was truly diverse, because they were either 90 percent white or 90 percent black,” McKivigan said. In Bellevue, McKivigan says there are more families that look like theirs and the family doesn’t stick out the way it does in the suburbs.
Still, challenges persist each day. The struggle to find superhero toys of color for Ezra. Once, an acquaintance even speculated that Naomi must like to watch Good Morning America host Michael Strahan on TV because she must think he’s her father.
‘Are you babysitting?’
Carria Rooke can braid hair in both the French and fishtail styles. For now, though, her older sister or a family friend bear the responsibility of arranging the 12-year-old’s hair into dozens of tiny braids that cover her whole head, capped by blue-and-clear beads — a more complicated task.
Carria’s mom, who spends lots of time in the kitchen with her baking cookies and cakes, isn’t too much help on that front. Hair styles hold a significant place in black culture, and Carria’s mom and her husband are both white. Six of their seven adopted children are black.
That doesn’t bother Carria, though. One of the only things that really bugs her about her situation is one particular question she often gets.
“When people ask a question like, 'Oh, is that your real parent?' … it's annoying,” she said. “Just because we're different colors doesn't mean anything."
But, sometimes it does trigger unusual reactions from outsiders. Carria’s adoptive mom, Christi Rooke, said that heading out with her black children, especially to the suburbs, means attracting stares, and, sometimes, intense scrutiny that can feel hostile.
Once, a woman even followed her around a Walmart store, asking her whose kids they were. “Are they your boyfriend’s?” the stranger wanted to know. “Are you babysitting?”
But adopting her kids, all of whom were in the foster care system at some point, was the right choice for her family.
“One of the sad realities is that white infants are the highest demand,” Rooke said. “That, to us, just didn’t sit right, so we’ve pretty much said, ‘Give us whoever needs a home.’”
How to relate
Connie Bach, director of adoption at the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh, said the organization handles about 20 infant adoptions each year, and about half of those are black or multiracial babies joining white parents.
“In preparing them to be a transracial family, there’s some people who forget that their whole family’s going to be transracial,” she said. “Usually, by having those really honest discussions with people, the ones who end up following through, they really understand, and we know they’re going to do a good job.”
Still, Theresa Gallick, the mother of two adopted girls from China, said she was “naïve” about what it would take to raise kids who aren’t white. When the Bellevue resident adopted Zofia, 14, and Libby, 9, as infants, she expected they would learn about China and celebrate Chinese holidays together, and that would be that.
“[I expected] they would be proud of their Chinese heritage and they would fit right in with not only Caucasian-American kids, but Chinese-American kids as well,” she said. “And I think I underestimated the fact that they would not really be Chinese American, that they’re much more raised as I was, as a Caucasian American.”
For Christi Rooke, relating to her children, whose backgrounds are much different than hers, is another kind of challenge. Rooke was raised comfortably in a white, upper middle class community. Her adopted children have dealt with significant trauma.
Her younger kids were forcibly removed from their parents. They had experienced drug-addicted birth parents, abuse, neglect, and the sense of abandonment that stems from moving from foster home to foster home.
“To get to a place where you are removed from your birth parents, it means a lot of really hard, ugly things have happened,” Rooke said. “Our kids come from brokenness, from people who have been horribly hurt… It’s a hard thing to hear them ask, ‘My mom chose drugs over me?’”
Some people treat Rooke and her husband as heroes for adopting these children. It’s not a characterization they think is correct or healthy.
“We’re not heroes,” Rooke said. “We’re just people who are loving kids who have a different skin color.”
One key piece of advice experts offer to parents who have built their families through transracial adoption is to talk about the adoption, including painful topics such as the loss of their first families.
“If you don’t talk about birth parents, if you don’t talk about early experiences in foster care or losses involved in multiple caregivers, if you don’t talk about race, then kids get the message that it’s off-limits,” said Diana Schwab, a developmental consultant who works with transracial adoptees and their families at Pittsburgh’s Kids Plus Pediatrics.
Gallick’s older daughter, Zofia, a high school freshman, has her mother’s support in learning about and embracing her Chinese heritage.
She and her mom located a third cousin and a smattering of fourth and fifth cousins through the DNA ancestry service 23andMe. They’ve also visited Xi’an, her home city in China.
Zofia’s big question for her birth parents really reflects her life as a transracial adoptee who is also a typical teenager: Which side of my family do I get my athleticism from?
“I just wish I knew what my life could have been in China as well as here,” said Zofia, who is on the golf team and plans to join basketball and track. “I’m very athletic right now and couldn’t imagine my life without sports, and so if I were in China, I don’t know if I could play sports, or which sports I could play.”
Correction: The story previously misstated the ages of twins Ezra and Naomi McKivigan. They will turn 3 years old on Sunday, Oct. 30.
Reach freelancer Andrea Frazier at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @andfraz.