The biggest lesson I’ve learned since becoming a mother is that love isn’t enough. From the moment I discovered I was pregnant, I loved my baby; that was the easy part. That immediate and natural love was enough for me to feel like a successful parent for the better part of the first two years of my son’s life. It wasn’t until he began to speak well and challenge my authority that I started to realize that good parenting is a complicated recipe of equal parts love (tough and gentle), nurturing, support, protection, understanding, guidance and relatability.
As with any recipe, the ability to improvise is crucial, but an understanding of the process is paramount. So when I read the frequent stories of white celebrities adopting black children, I wonder if they realize that their desire to give a child a loving home will not be enough. I find myself at odds with happiness because a child in need will find a home where minimally, all of their financial and material needs will be met, and the reality that a “better” life for an orphaned black child means so much more than a big house, nice clothes and fancy vacations.
Adoption, regardless of racial dynamics, requires an almost saintly level of patience, love and empathy. But a white person choosing to adopt a black child must first be willing to confront the passive racist views all white people hold, subconsciously or otherwise. Going in with the mindset that this black child is no different from any other child is a naiveté the adoptive parent cannot afford, and for which the adopted child will pay. The desire to love a black child must be matched by the willingness to learn and accept the unique needs of blackness and black childhood.
A white parent adopting a black child must first understand that no matter how much they’d like to believe that race is not real or pretend they don’t see color, that black child is dealing with the very real social ramifications of his race and color. That parent needs to recognize that the needs of that black child are different emotionally, socially, mentally and physically. That parent needs to be committed to the Herculean task of making their home, with all the subconscious subtle hostilities learned through decades of an inevitable socialization of suspicion, a space where that black child feels free from the ever-looming burden of racism.
No, adopting a black child is not an opportunity to prove you’re not racist or be heralded for wanting the undesirable and loving the unlovable. White people who adopt black children don’t deserve reverence and praise for doing the unthinkable. White parents of black children also don’t get to christen themselves black by proxy, carelessly draping themselves in the adornments of soul food, hip hop and braided hairstyles they have been brainwashed to believe encompass the entirety of blackness. And black people most certainly should not be bestowing irreproachability on these people, as if a choice to adopt a black child demonstrates an absolute commitment to being anti-racist and deconstructing white supremacy.
It means understanding and accepting that despite the notion of race as a purely social construct, there are physical differences between us. It means understanding that caring for that black baby’s hair requires educating yourself on what products and methods work best for us. It means knowing that medically, that black baby is more much more likely to have Sickle Cell. It means understanding that moisturizing his skin is much more than cosmetic.
Parenting a black child means you’re willing to take on the administration of an entire school district because they have already decided your child is a problem to be handled from his first day in kindergarten. It means not only that you buy dolls with hair and skin like hers, so she learns to embrace her own beauty, but that you are willing to check and or even cut off your family members who refuse to do the work to confront their own racist beliefs. It means not only rolling out the King documentaries and Langston Hughes novels during February, but making sure that child has a library of black literature at his disposal. It means not only standing up for your child when he’s called a racial slur or harassed by cops in the neighborhood, but ensuring that black child plays and socializes with other black children regularly.
White fragility must be abandoned. White parents must be prepared to take on challenges to their fitness to parent black babies. They must know their ego and bruised feelings will never matter as much as the well-being of that baby. Their determination must be steadfast to ensure that their black child’s relationships with white children do not become models of white supremacy, the black child conditioned to feel honored just because she’s deemed a worthy friend for a white child.
The acknowledgement of a black child’s blackness by white parents is a delicate thing. It must be constant yet never blaring. It must become effortless yet conscious. It must be broached such that the child realizes black is everything he is but not all he is. A white parent of a black child must be skilled at navigating the intricacies of that child’s racial identity such that it becomes as natural as breathing.
That acknowledgement, though, must not turn into an assumption of proxy blackness. It must not look like a woman who has adopted black children taking the liberty of freely dropping “nigga.” It must not be mistaken for an insider pass, providing carte blanche to adopt and appropriate black dialect and mannerisms. It must not turn into addressing that child with, “What up, son,” or other stereotypical representations of black vernacular white people see in movies depicting black people but written by white people who know nothing about black people.
That baby’s blackness cannot be the elephant in the room. It should not only show up when you debut your new accessory, an orphaned black baby you rescued from poverty, on the cover of the hottest magazine. It should not be mentioned casually with a one liner about how you adopted this black baby because you fell in love with him and not because of the color of his skin. Black goes with everything, but that doesn’t extend to children.
There’s no manual for raising children. Black children are no different, but black parents raising black children have been black children. White parents of black children have been white children. The disadvantage is nearly insurmountable. The victory is never flawless. And the preparation is never enough.