Transracial Adoption Vignettes

updated July 15, 2002
other family vignettes appear on the parenting page and on the adoption page

Our Neighbourhood

Before I adopted any children, I chose to live in an area that is richly mixed racially and culturally. I feel comfortable here perhaps because of my upbringing in Africa where I constantly heard languages I didn't understand and saw people who looked different from me. I like the smells of different foods cooking and enjoy talking with people even if their English isn't perfect.

My first daughter is the same colour as me, "white". But we both have friends of many shades. I think we can gain understanding of each other, bit by bit, listening to each other, learning from each other and working to reduce racist incidents and attitudes by our comments and actions.

Many times I've heard it said that "black" children need "black" role models. I think that's true, but I also think "white" children need "black" role models. They need to see teachers, nurses, doctors, shopkeepers, bus drivers, in fact, any adult roles, being played by a variety of people of colour.

Now I have adopted a second daughter who is a different colour from me. This difference is often mentioned by Em and on this page I hope to document some of our experiences in the hope that they will help others who might be experiencing similar things and in the hope that others might be able to give advice or pointers on how we might better deal with certain situations.

Colour Perception

It is said that adopted children would be better off with families that match their race and I believe them. However, if that kind of family is not found, it is better for children to be placed with a different-race family than not to find a family at all.

Em was born in Canada but her birth parents had come from Haiti. She had lived with white foster parents in a predominantly white, English-speaking community most of her life. Her foster parents told me there was one other "black" child in the school she attended - not in her class, but in the school. Em tells me she saw no other children like her.

I first expressed interest in adopting Em when she was 4 years 3 months old, but the social agency told me they were looking for a "black" family for her. I agreed that that was best. While they searched across Canada, I continued to express interest in her. She finally came to live with me when she was 5 years 10 months old. Sometimes I resent that span of time (a year and 7 months) during which we could have been forming a bond.

We live in a richly mixed neighbourhood of Toronto where people from many cultures and races live around us. There are new immigrants from Africa, Central and South America, the Carribean, the Middle East, Asia and Europe as well as some people who have lived in Canada for generations. I think Em was surprised to find so many "black" people when she came.

But she refused the label "black". "I'm NOT black," she said many times. "I'm brown." So I started referring to her as "brown" too, although she's more likely to refer to colour as "the same colour as me" or "the same colour as you." She made many, many references to her colour as I try to document in the rest of this page. She continues to do this after 3 1/2 years.

She started into a French Immersion kindergarten class immediately. I explained to her that her birth parents speak French and she was highly motivated to learn the language. Each day, when I picked her up at the bus stop, she would report to me on attendance: "There were 16 children the same colour as me, 7 children the same colour as you, and one black boy."

But her perception of colour is not the same as mine. I'm not quite sure what her perception is because I don't see with her eyes, mind or experience.

During most of the 2001-2002 school year she was homeschooled, but when I took a job in the afternoon in addition to my morning job, I needed to find a different babysitter. A colleague had often spoken of how happy she was with a teacher/babysitter she had for her children. I asked if her sitter would have room for one more. And I asked Em if she would like to attend a different homeschool.

Her first question was, "What color are they?"

"I don't know," I said, "except for my friend's two children. They're brown."

"Darker or lighter than me?" she demanded. "Because so many times you tell me someone is brown and I can't see any brown."

"My friend comes from Africa so her children are darker than you," I explained.

On the first morning she attended, I met the teacher, Mrs. M, a woman I've since come to appreciate immensely. She's a "black" woman who came to Canada from Costa Rica. At the end of the day, I asked my daughter, "Were there other brown children?"

"Some brown and some white," she answered.

I soon learned that the other 7 children are varying shades of brown. After two weeks of attending, Em said to me on the way home, "Did you know Mrs. M is brown?" She had just discovered this fact! Because Mrs. M is a lighter shade of brown (though in my perception, only sightly lighter) than Em, Em had not perceived her as brown for two whole weeks. I don't know how she came to have her new perception of her teacher.

Em has frequently told me she doesn't like being the only brown person in the family and has suggested that I adopt another brown girl.

Yesterday (July 2002) she found a friend in the pool. "She's adopted too," she told me as we left. "Only she stayed in her family. Her mother went away and she lives with her aunt. I told her she's lucky she still has her family. It's hard to get used to a totally new family. So many different rules."

Em's Hair Styles

(You can see a few of Em's hair styles towards the bottom of the kid's page.)

Em has lovely thick, nappy hair and when she first came to live with me, the front was put into "pompoms" and the back was left in its natural state. She wasn't used to having her hair braided but it was long enough for braids and friends generously volunteered to help me with it.

Their frequent help and the fact that I have a problem with my hands (the skin on my fingers often cracks and peels painfully) means I haven't become proficient at braiding it nicely. It takes me a long time (hours) and Em gets impatient.

When her skating lessons started, I cut her hair short so the helmet would fit her easily. My friends were shocked and I learned that was not the right thing to do. They said she would be teased and kids would say she looked like a boy. They were right. The other children at school made her feel very badly even though we put lots of pretty barrettes in her hair. She remembers the teasing to this day - it really seared her.

So since then we've let it grow. It has been braided in many different styles, sometimes with extensions added to make it look long.

For a while, she went to a babysitter who did her hair almost daily and she looked very smart with freshly braided hair while she was there. But at other times her hair would become quite messy before it was done again, and Em resisted having it done because of the time it took.

Her hair became a battleground between us. I would want to do it or get it braided by someone else but she would resist. I finally told her that if she made a fuss about getting it done, I'd cut it again. That, I hoped would be a real deterrent, but I was also confident that the consequences of doing so would not be so hurtful because of the new school situation she was in.

We had found a new school for Em and all the people at the school were various shades of brown. She loved her new teacher dearly and this woman wore her hair naturally, cut short.

Em eventually had to have her hair cut (not only because of resistance but because she also deliberately put gum in her sister's hair). She was extremely angry with me and screamed "I hate you. You'll make me lose all my friends." This was a genuine worry for her because of her earlier experience but I tried to reasure her that these new friends were different.

She went to school in fear but was quite happy when I picked her up at the end of the day. "How did people like your new hair style?" I asked.

"Mrs. M said it's easier to care for like this. And everybody else said nothing or they said they liked it."

"So you still have friends?" I asked.

"Yes. These people respect me," she said. So we talked a little about the differences between her old and new schools and about respecting people.

But there have been added benefits. We comb her hair daily now - a deep comb, right down to her scalp which wasn't possible when it was braided. She loves it and doesn't like me to stop. It's become an added "cuddle" time. And she can wash it herself as often as she likes and it doesn't get as itchy as it used to.

Not only that, many people have said they like it. She may initially fear the reactions of people she hasn't seen in a while but so far, comments have been favourable.

A Guardian

When Em first came to live with me she saw many more brown people than she'd ever seen before. And she wanted to know why she couldn't be adopted by a brown family.

She would ask about specific people - "Why can't L adopt me?" or "Why can't I live with S's family?"

L is a valued family friend who lived down the hall and whose daughter R, regularly played at our place. L frequently braided Em's hair and advised on many other matters. Em was often a visitor in her home, too, getting to know the rules and routines there.

After she'd been with me about two years, I overheard Em discussing with Dee who they should live with if something happened to me.

Em said, "Well, we don't want to go to L - she'll make us clean the apartment all the time." So I guess I don't have to fear competition from that quarter any longer!

L laughed heartily when I told her this. She said, "Yes, I'm a mean auntie."

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Copyright© 2002 by Martha Greenhow
Etobicoke, Ontario, Canada