THE BLOG
01/29/2013 12:08 pm ET | Updated Mar 31, 2013

Raising Culturally Responsive Black Children in White Adoptive Homes: Uncovering the importance of Code-Switching in the Battlefield of Racial Identity Development

How do white parents manage to teach their black adoptive children to negotiate white spaces when many white Americans remain skeptical and unconvinced that race actually matters, according to recent survey data? The nation is "colorblind," many white folks reason, often pointing to the election of our nation's first black president, Barack Obama, as living proof of large societal changes in American racial attitudes. White parents adopting black children is not a recent practice, beginning as early as the 1960s; however, black childcare advocates concerned with the welfare of black children in the U.S. have never fully endorsed the union.

The question remains, then, as polemical as it once was in 1972 when the National Association of Black Social Workers (NASBW) articulated concern over white parents raising black children: Can white parents raise black children to cope and understand the viscidities of race, racism and discrimination while simultaneously developing a healthy racial identity? That the parenting of decent and loving adoptive parents is being called into question is unsettling for most. Yet, NASBW had tapped into an issue that few whites completely understand to this day. I hope to give the adoption community a greater understanding of NASBW's position at that time (which could be argued is fundamentally the same today) as well as information, tools and resources to aid them in helping their transracial adoptees thrive in predominately white communities and spaces.

The eminent scholar, W.E.B. Du Bois, coined the phrase "double consciousness" 100 years ago to explain the social conditions and democratic contradictions of living with every day racism(s) that black Americans endure. A complex concept of multiple layers, Du Bois describes blacks as having to navigate situationally-driven responses and particular registers that vary with differing communities, and that certain responses are more highly valued within the white community. Sociolinguistic registers are not just free-floating structures, but are embedded within a nexus of "codes of power" cloistered around white notions of beauty, goodness, art, religious persuasion, interpretation of work, English language proficiency, popular music, culture and other Euro-American notions that all testify to the existence of white people.

Black Americans have traditionally learned and operated in two different registers which gave rise to Du Bois' "double consciousness." The recent film The Help cinematically illustrates the different codes and registers that African American female domestic workers utilized while working with and among whites in the "big house" with its own specific codes of power and linguistic structure, while simultaneously living in blackness at home with informal dialects and mannerisms. Many professional blacks often say they can't wait to finish work so they can go home and be black, or in other words, be themselves. Black Americans have been expected to learn specific rules and conventions that benefit "well-behaved" minorities within and between the white and black worlds, and yet, they are faced with mostly negative racialized impressions, experiences and interactions when encountering the white community. These racial slights that occur daily, often in the form of micro-aggressions, are confusing for youth and cause a myriad of emotions from pain and sadness to anger and self-hatred. White parents must be especially attuned to listening to the racialized stories, experiences of racial misdeeds reported by their adopted children, which has the potential to cause harm to their fragile identities. Du Bois felt the weight of this tension on his soul as he expressed the difficulties that black Americans are faced with being too white for blacks and too black for whites.

White parents must know the perils and pitfalls of rearing black children in a nation with a long protracted history of racial discrimination. The looks and jeers of curious spectators double-taking when the blended family is out in public should be a hint of what black adoptees experience on any given day, whether consciously or not. That black and white Americans live in two dissimilar worlds with opposing codes of power and rules of conduct, Du Bois argued those rules and codes preferentially proffered whites at the expense of African Americans. In order for a black person like myself to gain some rewards and advantages in this country, I along with scores of other typically middle-class and well-educated people of color have to be proficient in these preferred racial codes which are often hidden from plain sight, but have enormous consequences for social mobility. For African Americans, the need and ability to tread between two separate and opposing registers is identified as "code switching." Though this is often unconscious, it affords black Americans the ability to traverse white norms and values in order to "succeed" in the illusion of the American Dream, while still maintaining a connection with and understanding of the black community and its central struggles with racism and class inequalities as they move up the social ladder and try to preserve their status as middle class.

Black Americans raised in predominately white homes and communities never develop, or are slow to develop, what sociolinguist call alternate "registers," specific varieties of informal/formal styles of speech that are racially and ethnically distinct from the white dominant group. Because black adoptees spend a considerable amount of time around whites, they become adroit at understanding and speaking in largely white middle class ways. These "socially white" brown and black people might have all the racial markings of blackness, but they know very little about the black experience, rendering them to some extent as "culturally incomplete." Those same children, when interacting with African Americans, are understandably less fluent and conversant in uniquely African American registers and experiences that have sustained the black community for centuries. Black Americans, in turn, can sense whether or not fellow blacks have ever set foot in a black community. The ways in which black folk speak to one another and understand particular ways of blackness can only truly be found within the context of black communities and organizations. If not given the opportunity to interact with black people on more than just a perfunctory level, black adoptees become proficient at only one register. Though this happens to be the more highly valued register, thus allowing for greater opportunity in a white world, it comes at a significant cost to their sense of self as a black person.

While unable to effectively "code-switch" in a more complex and diverse society, black adoptive children expressed the strain on their identity in feeling out of place and out of touch with the very people who look like them and should identify with them. As one adoptee stated, "I feel like they know I'm a fraud" when in the presence of other blacks. Not knowing these codes and registers for black children can have negative consequences for their mental and emotional wellbeing, and thus, their physical health. The constant shifting of context that African Americans must tolerate carries with it a greater burden of disease. The consequences for their health and wellbeing take the form of higher cortisol levels, which can produce higher rates of chronic ailments that lead to increased morbidity and mortality.

When the National Association of Black Social Workers (NASBW) expressed strong reservations against the practice of transracial adoption in 1972, their real concerns were that white parents would sufficiently create the environment and social conditions whereby their children's identity and any shred of blackness would be deracinated. Understanding blackness goes much deeper than celebrating Black History Month, attending heritage camps once a year, learning about Africa, or discussing Martin Luther King, Jr. The death of Trayvon Martin was a troubling wake-up call, particularly for white adoptive parents, as foresight of what potential pitfalls their children may face by simply being black in America. By pretending that double consciousness doesn't exist and suggesting that racism only exists in localized settings, parents are setting their children up for a lifetime of grief and self-doubt. Instead, parents must inoculate their children against the pervasiveness of daily racists insults and practices. By giving young black children the understandings and tools of this white-centric world, you are only preparing them with positive strategies to engage unavoidable circumstances that they will encounter.

There are ways in which white parents can gain understanding and skills that are useful for their black children. For example, read books by well-written, black authors on the subject of white privilege and white racism, move into more racially integrated communities, attend an African American church and other social functions, and finally, increase friendships with more African Americans of equal status. I remain hopeful that white adopting parents have the desire, courage and conviction to move beyond the racial frame that "race no longer matters in American society" and look to understand the two worlds your adoptive children will inevitably live in. Merely raising and loving a child whose racial makeup is different from the birth parents is not enough to counterbalance any societal stigma a child of color might potentially face while living and existing in whiteness. If whites fail to take ownership of this problem in order to deflect any semblance of racism away from them, then we as a society further fail in our efforts to instill wholesale change.