OPINION: Story of transracial adoption offers lessons for all families

Joni and Rebecca Schwartz collaborated on an autoethnographic telling of their adoption journey. Joni and Paul Schwartz adopted Rebecca in 1990 from an American-run orphanage in Haiti. (Image provided by Joni Schwartz)

Credit: Joni Schwartz

Credit: Joni Schwartz

Joni and Rebecca Schwartz collaborated on an autoethnographic telling of their adoption journey. Joni and Paul Schwartz adopted Rebecca in 1990 from an American-run orphanage in Haiti. (Image provided by Joni Schwartz)

A few months after civil unrest swept the country in the summer of 2020, Rebecca Schwartz who was then living in McDonough, felt the attention to social justice was an affirmation of a very personal project.

She and her mother, Joni Schwartz, had been documenting their journey of transracial adoption in an autoethnography, a method of writing that allows the writer to analyze his or her own experiences in the context of the surrounding culture. Rebecca is Black and her adoptive mother is white.

Unlike autobiography or memoir, autoethnography allows for the use of personal experiences to examine historical narratives. The mother and daughter hoped their experiences would help others think deeply about race, both inside and beyond their immediate families.

There is plenty of advice out there for parents of transracial adoptees, but the one piece of wisdom that might best be applied to any family in any situation, is to actually start talking about race.

“What we have seen with race in America — most recently with the Ahmaud Arbery case and Kyle Rittenhouse — is that this history is still alive in this country,” said Joni, a professor at LaGuardia Community College in New York. “Adoption is an institution and it is impacted by racism. If I could go back to when Rebecca was first adopted, I would have prepared myself better in a lot of areas. I would have embraced conversations around race much sooner and much more deliberately than it happened.”

Joni had started writing when Rebecca was a young girl but realized the story of how a 9-year old from an orphanage in Haiti came to be her daughter was not solely her story to tell. She decided to wait until Rebecca was an adult, and together they began researching and writing in 2015.

Rebecca is currently doing humanitarian work in Yemen, where it was the middle of the night when I sat with her and her mom on an afternoon video conference to talk about how transracial adoption, a controversial issue for more than a half-century, might encourage broader conversations about race.

“I was hoping (the book) could have been opening a Pandora’s box for discussion in a non-judgmental, non-confrontational way,” said Rebecca. “This is family, and this is love. At the end of the day we are human beings. We want to be loved and accepted in spite of anything that is out there like the superficial markers which separate us.”

Just under one-third (28%) of domestic adoptions in the U.S. from 2017 to 2019 were transracial, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In 2018, there were 4,059 intercountry adoptions permanently placing children from other countries with families in the United States, according to data from the U.S. Department of State. The majority of those children have parents who are non-Hispanic white.

Before the mid-20th century, it was rare for families to adopt children of a different race. In some states it was illegal. As initiatives arose to encourage widespread adoption of children of color, specifically Black and Asian children, the racial barriers came down, and more families became racially blended.

But there is continued debate over whether parents can provide the racial empathy and commit to the anti-racist perspectives needed to raise a child that doesn’t look like them.

While writing their book, “Learning to Disclose: A Journey of Transracial Adoptions” both Joni and Rebecca experienced revelations about themselves and the identities they’ve constructed, even as those identities continue to change and evolve.

As she has been told, Rebecca was born to a mother who died in childbirth and a father who could not be located. Until she was adopted by Joni and Paul Schwartz in October 1990, she lived at an orphanage in Carrefour, Haiti that was established by an American missionary.

Rebecca grew up in Brooklyn with her parents and two brothers and describes an upbringing that was “colorblind,” without any real discussion of race, though as an adult, she recognizes that she can’t return to that mindset. She tells people she is an African American woman, but as Rebecca notes in the book, racial identity is complex and she isn’t sure she will ever come to terms with it.

A recent survey of historical data on transracial adoption from the Institute for Family Studies suggests that Black children adopted by white families do not have a statistically significant difference in objective outcomes, such as academic progress or incidence of behavioral problems, than Black children who are adopted by Black families. But studies that focused on more subjective outcomes such as racial identity and self-esteem, suggested continued evidence that transracial adoptees have difficulty forming an ethnic identity.

Racial confusion, feeling sidelined by narratives that center on adoptive parents as “white saviors” and feeling uncomfortable in their own skin are some of the experiences described by transracial adoptees in a 2018 podcast from NPR’s Code Switch.

In her memoir released earlier this year, Rebecca Carroll, transracial adoptee from New Hampshire, so eloquently expressed the push and pull of the desire to bond with the white woman who birthed her, to reconcile her upbringing as a biracial child in a culturally white environment and to foster the sense of belonging she felt when she was immersed in Black culture.

Many transracial adoptees are seeking a place to belong, noted Caitlin Howe, a Korean adoptee featured on the NPR podcast. “A lot of the times, it’s a longing for … deep connection to people that are like you,” she said.

Rebecca Schwartz returned to Haiti as an adult but found that while she connected with her African ancestry and roots, she didn’t really connect to the country where she was born. In recent years, she has observed a shift in conversations about adoption as reflected in books, movies and popular culture, that center the voices and experiences of adult adoptees rather than narratives of the adoptive parents.

“More people are awakening to the fact that there are other stories,” Rebecca said. “You are seeing not only more people of color talking about their stores, but other people in the community are willing to listen.”

This mother and daughter want all of us to think more deeply about race as well as about the relationships we are building.

“When you talk about (race) and explore it, it has the experience to not destroy or diminish the love but to make the love stronger,” Joni said.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com.