Race Preference in Adoption


January 29, 2008 by multiracialsky


This American Life aired a piece on NPR–on January 18, 2008–about a Nurse/Actress who worked in toy store FAO Schwartz’s Newborn Nursery (hat tip to Mixed Race America and Land of the Not-So-Calm). Here is the toy store’s promotional quote:

What You Will Experience When You Visit a Newborn Nursery:
As you enter the area, you’ll hear sounds of happy baby noises cooing from the nursery viewing area. When you peek through the glass, you’ll see a variety of babies with all different complexions and hair and eye colors. It’s almost too difficult to choose just one bundle of joy to take home! Once you do make your selection, a sales associate dressed like a real nurse, will help you put on your hospital gown. Papers are then completed with the baby’s name, address, and birth date. The “nurse” will carry your baby out of the isolette and will place him or her on a changing table. She’ll conduct a full health examination of your baby and then she’ll teach you how to hold your baby. New “parents” can shop for accessories (including dresses, blankets, shoes and more.) to make their new arrival the prettiest baby on the block!

(There are a lot of things about the way FAO Schwartz handles infant doll adoptions that really bother me, but I am going to focus on adoption and race issues here.)

The 17-minute American Life story is so worth listening to (download the whole “Matchmakers” show here and then fast forward to 41:00 minutes). The narrator is a light-skinned biracial (White and Mexican) woman working as a ‘nurse’. WARNING: PLOT SPOILER AHEAD . . . The dolls/babies begin to move quickly after they are featured on a segment of the TV show ‘Rich Girls’. Most of the ‘adopting mothers’ (approximate age: 7 years old) are White. Not surprisingly (to me at least), FAO Schwartz sells out of all the White baby dolls–within weeks of Christmas. The doll factory is back-ordered until mid-January. FAO Schwartz’s doll nursery has only minority Babies of Color available for sale adoption.

After the White babies are gone, then the Asian babies sell out. Next to go are the light brown (Latino/Hispanic, Native American, multiracial?) babies. The nursery is then full of Black babies–along with one factory-rejected White doll (with melted-together fingers that make its hands look like flippers). The unsellable factory-reject White floor-model doll is purchased adopted when there is an entire ‘nursery’ full of perfect Black babies dolls available.

Nothing about this story surprises me; it is simply play (some would say art) imitating life. I’m going to talk about supply and demand here. Let’s pretend we’re just talking about the FAO Schwartz doll nursery.

The people paying for the dolls/adoption are (for the most part) wealthy White parents, with White daughters choosing their baby to adopt doll. The parents want their daughter to have a White doll. Most of the daughters want a White doll. When all the White dolls have already been sold adopted by other little-girl-mothers, the racial hierarchy of doll-adoption flows the same way it does for children in real life. (Although in real life there is also the parallel gender-preference hierarchy. In the toy nursery, the ‘adoptive mothers’ simply state that their dolls/babies are girls. In real life, the adoptive parents request girls and the boys just wait.)

Here’s a real-life paralell example: a site that hosts pre-adoptive parent profiles*, families waiting for domestic–usually infant–adoption (NOTE: this site only accepts heterosexual, married couples–and most are Christian as well). Of the hundreds of currently listed waiting families:

  • 88% would ‘accept’ a White baby
  • 33% would ‘accept’ a South American or Hispanic baby
  • 28% would ‘accept’ an Asian baby
  • 26% would ‘accept’ a Native American baby
  • 14% would ‘accept’ a Black baby

I ran these same stats for an article I wrote two years ago, and the numbers were just about the same. For biracial babies (White/____) the numbers of families willing to ‘accept’ a child rises. Adoptive parents still think raising a part-White biracial child will be easier, less complicated, than raising a ‘full’ (for example) African American child. (Ha!)

There are also the corollary international adoption statistics. The top 10 ‘sending’ countries for 2006 provided U.S. families with 18,290 new children through international adoption. By region of the world, these children are from:

  • 43% from Asia (China, Korea, India)
  • 26% from Eastern Europe (Russia, Kazakhstan, Ukraine)
  • 24% from Central and South America (Guatemala, Colombia)
  • 7% from Africa (Ethiopia, Liberia)

The parts of this doll adoption story that strike deep inside me echo the same heart-issues I have with race and adoption in real life. Although transracial adoption should not be taken lightly (At all!), I have been kept up many a night thinking of all those Children of Color waiting for adoptive families, all those pregnant women seeking families for their unborn Children of Color. When will skin color and race be just one more thing we see when we look at someone (like their gender or their height)? When will light skin stop being a tally in the ‘plus’ category and dark skin a tally in the ‘minus’ category? If we as transracially adoptive parents are not expected (or able) to get past this light/dark skin-tone scale, who will?

I remember one pre-adoptive parent I was working with who was considering switching from the willing-to-accept-a-White-baby-only category to the ‘biracial’ category. This parent had a potential ‘match’ and wanted to know if their unborn biracial child would look ‘more White or more Black’. I gave the standard multiracial-children-come-in-all-shades response. But what I really wanted to say was, “If you have to ask that question, I don’t think you get it.” Black/White biracial is Black. If a parent can’t accept a ‘full’ Black child as their own, how can they embrace the Black-ness of a biracial child? As a country, we must be willing, no, committed to discussing race and racism and White privilege–as they relate to adoption and foster care (and to everything else).

Although I believe that no one should adopt a child they do not feel prepared to parent (race/ethnicity or known special needs), becoming a parent is not a multiple choice menu. Just because parents engineer their child to be what they desire or (in the case of adoptive parents) are ‘willing to accept’–that does not by any means guarentee the menu-selected individual will be the child those parents receive (through birth or adoption). When you have children, you get what you get–much of your child is unknown no matter how you build your family. The unknowns involved in building a family are both magical and scary, but IMO worth all the risk.

* NOTE: Finding accurate statistics for domestic adoption is impossible. Statistics are collected for almost all states for foster care adoption, but infant adoption is regulated by individual states, and neither states nor the federal government collect these statistics.


11 thoughts on “Race Preference in Adoption

  1. julia says:

    That piece was VERY disturbing. The whole thing bothers me. I guess I just assumed that white upper class rich affluent people are WELL EDUCATED and open minded….

    I guess I have a lot to learn.

  2. cynthia says:

    Wow! Unbelievable story, and yeah- not so surprising I guess. This post brings up all the questions we’re grappling with as we prepare to adopt a second child.
    We are white and our first son (adopted thru parental placement open adoption) happens to be white- which in theory (mine anyway) makes us a less ideal placement for a child of color. That said, we are totally available for whatever child comes/ whichever expectant parents we are chosen by… only because we know we will move heaven and earth to make our family the best one for them. But obviously we will always be limited in what we can do by our race.
    It really bothers me when I hear people saying that they will “accept” a child of color because it will happen faster. That’s obviously the wrong reason. But I also agree with you and feel sad that people even have those preferences to begin with. And yet not recognizing the racist world we live in isn’t an effective way to parent either…

    Anyway, thanks for writing. Great post.

  3. 2xvoice says:

    Want to have your heart broken? As part of a foster/adoptive training with our local DFACS some years ago, we looked at a book containing photos and information on children in DFACS care who were awaiting adoption. There were a handful of white kids in the first few pages, then page after page after page of black kids. Sometimes one, sometimes siblings (up to four) and some were as old as 15 and still waiting for a permanent home!

    Granted, kids in the foster care system tend to be poorer and have more problems than kids available for private adoption, but still — all those pages of black kids. There must have been over 100!

    We ultimately decided not to adopt, for various practical reasons, but we did eventually foster a niece. We’re interracial and have one son, btw. I just can’t get the memory of that book out of my head.
    Victor Kulkosky

  4. so sad:( says:

    Wow this completly caught me off guard.. i mean i kno there is raciusm in the world… but i just thought if that were me wanting a child i couldnt have on my own i would thank god for any childthat was brought into my life….i jus think its sad that ppl dnt think about the kids its just about wat they want:( being raised as a white female in a biracial home with an african american father figure, i believe that its not the color of ur skin but the luv ur willin to give, i thought the world was starting to change but i gess i was wrong!

  5. Monaco says:

    “If a parent can’t accept a ‘full’ Black child as their own, how can they embrace the Black-ness of a biracial child?”

    I have also met Black couples who are open to biracial children and never a “full” Caucasian child. I wonder too if they can accept the “White-ness” of a biracial child. Unfortunately one foster couple realized they couldn’t and returned their 14 month old foster son simply because he was very fair skin with blue-green eyes.

  6. Horribly distrubing, yet, I know, so frighteningly true.

    You capture the horror perfectly. Thank you.

  7. […] Het volledige artikel op Multiracialsky: Race Preference in Adoption, Januari 2008 […]

  8. toy shop says:

    An interesting discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you need to publish more about this issue, it may not be a taboo matter but generally folks don’t talk about these issues. To the next! All the best!!

  9. Jess says:

    If you recreated that doll nursery in a black neighborhood, don’t you think it would “sell out” of all the black babies first?

    I’m white in a city that is primarily black. I’ve seen the white Barbies be the only ones on the shelf.
    My friends and I have often discussed how even small children just have an instinct to find someone that looks like them. I don’t know that I can blame them. Isn’t this the reason so many pushed for companies to even start making baby dolls of color? Or a black Disney princess?

    I know one of the reason we would not choose multi racial adoption is because we feel we aren’t equity to handle the social challenges that come with it. If we could bring a child home and love them in a bubble it would be amazing! But in our particular situation, there are a LOT of issues at play. We have friends who are white and raising a black daughter in this city. And the problems they are having don’t come from the white community. The black kids at school want nothing to do with her because her parents and siblings are white. Although she has plenty of white friends, she also has an internal longing to be close to someone who looks like her.

    Wanting to seek others we identify with is human nature. I don’t see any issue with a child picking a baby doll of their own race. It would be different if kids were choosing dolls of another race and the parents were shutting that down.

    You may also consider that the term “accept” is one being used by adoption/foster agencies more than by parents. They aren’t all just sweeping in Cruella Deville style and declaring they “won’t accept those black babies”

  10. Jim W says:

    I wasn’t surprised at all by the story. We are white same-sex male parents with a black child, and our son became aware of racial differences at a very early age – before 2, at times saying he wanted to be white. At first we assumed it was us, but apparently we were only part of the story since he had other friends whose parents differed racially from them. The racism simply permeates all of society to such an extent that my son was actually distinguishing between skin tones at 2. We would look at an ad on TV, and he would point out that one black child was lighter or darker than the other. We are constantly immersing him in black culture (I know that sounds rather reductionist), so I feel like we’re doing our part, but it definitely will prove to be one challenge among the thousands that any parent of any child will face.

  11. Amanda says:

    Agree with what Jess said above. I would expect white children to want a doll that looks like them. We are Asian American and we have bought mainly Asian dolls for our daughter. We want her to be able to have dolls that look like her to play with and identify with and feel good about who she is. I don’t think that is a horrifying concept. Even with real life adoption, I don’t think more white parents adopting children of color is necessarily the answer. What about more education and incentives for people of color to adopt children of color so that these children can grow up with parents who understand their racial and ethnic heritage and have role models who look like them? That is not to say that white parents don’t make wonderful parents to children of color, but in our society, same race parents may be better equipped for the issues that come with growing up Black, Latino, Asian American or Native American in the U.S. Check out Pact for example. They offer a sliding fee scale based on the adoptive parents’ income to encourage families to adopt who normally might not be able to afford it rather than giving “discounted rates” on children of color.

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