I had the honor of first reading Ms. Rhonda Roorda’s writing when my husband and I started our adoption journey back in 2007. I picked up a copy of In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories by Rita Simon and Rhonda Roorda. The book was ground-breaking, eye-opening, and riveting. To this day, I still recommend this book to all the families who ask me about transracial adoption.
Ms. Roorda’s new book is called In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption. I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Roorda, a transracial adoptee and transracial adoption advocate, about her new book.
Rachel: Tell me about your connection to adoption, both personally and professionally.
Ms. Roorda: After spending two years in the New York State Foster Care System, I was adopted by a white Dutch family in 1971. This was at a time when there was an influx of black and biracial children being adopted into white families. The following year, in 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) spoke out against this form of adoption. In part their concerns were that black and biracial children raised in white homes in this country would not be connected to their ethnic communities of origin and would most likely grow up to have fragile racial identities and low self-worth. In fact they believed that what we now call transracial adoption was a form of cultural genocide. The NABSW has since softened its voice on this issue but their position has not changed. While much of the traditional research, which the current federal policy on transracial adoption is based, concluded that transracial adoption was indeed a healthy way to form families, tens of thousands of transracial adoptees like me were too often left alone in white spaces to struggle internally with their racial identities without knowing the emotional land mines that they were going to walk into or how difficult it would be to navigate in this society with dark skin, and with very few tools in their toolbox.
As a student of transracial adoption, I was interested in learning especially about the experiences of other black and biracial transracial adoptees given my own journey. This led me to partner with one of the leading scholars on transracial adoption, Dr. Rita J. Simon. Together we authored the Simon-Roorda trilogy of books on transracial adoption. Today this trilogy serves as a wonderful resource that is used by adoption agencies, adoption support groups, parents, therapists, and many others.
I continue to support transracial adoption as a viable option for children and families but with radical change. What I mean by this is that while I agree love is crucial, the “colorblind” approach that most transracial adoptive families are still operating from must be replaced with an intentional desire to truly see and care for our children, their skin and hair, their ethnic communities of origin, and ultimately their full promise. Potential transracial adoptive parents deserve holistic child-focused training, including post-adopt services from adoption agencies that will prepare them to raise children of color to feel worthy. It is imperative that in all structures impacting our transracial adoptive families that there is meaningful involvement of people who look like the children that are being served.
Rachel: Why was it important to you to write this book, offering it to not only parents by adoption, but also adoptees, siblings of adoptees, educators, social workers, and therapists? What are you reading, seeing, and hearing in the transracial adoption community that inspired you to write your book?
Ms. Roorda: In the last twenty years as I have traveled across country listening to transracial adoptive parents (most who have been white), white non-adopted siblings, and transracial adoptees from various racial and cultural backgrounds, I have found that most of the transracial adoptive families that I interacted with lived in predominately white communities, had primarily white social networks, and attended mostly white places of worship. This pattern is reflected in over 40 years of research on transracial adoption and documented in the Simon-Roorda trilogy of books on transracial adoption. The bottom line is that most of these families did not have meaningful and sustainable relationships with persons that looked like the children they adopted.
As the transracial adoption movement has matured, there has been more emphasis, compared to the early ’70s and ’80s, on carving out tangible avenues for transracial adoptive families to learn more about their child of color’s racial and ethnic background(s) and grappling with the challenges that face adult transracial adoptees such as through attending culture camps, reading books by and about transracial adoptees and other people color, and watching documentaries featuring adult transracial adoptees. Still most transracial adoptees from all racial/cultural backgrounds raised in white homes rarely see someone who looks like them sitting at their dinner table, partnering with their parents in equitable ways, or investing in their lives as mentors or even godparents. This striking gap in the long (and short) run negatively impacts every member of the transracial adoptive family unit. Why? Because we now know from research that when there is minimal immersion and comfort level among transracial adoptive families in the communities of color in which these adopted children come from, members of the family, particularly the transracial adoptee, are left to rely on stereotypes and shattered images of their true selves.
I wrote In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption to narrow the experiential gap between white transracial adoptive parents and members in the black community. I wanted to show that black Americans are just as diverse in thought and action as white Americans, and that everyone has a story.
In the process of writing this book and interviewing incredible people, from the first black Mayor of Philadelphia to the great Grandson of W.E.B. DuBois and to a foster care alumna and transracial adoptee, I too learned that I was going to have to replace my own colorblind glasses with more multidimensional ones.
The biggest lesson I learned was that the answers or struggles many white transracial adoptive parents eventually will have to come to terms with are the same realities that black parents raising black children deal with. Transracial adoptive parents are craving to find answers on ways to help prepare their black and brown children to grow into successful adults . . . of color. Sadly, for over forty-five years, the transracial adoption world has looked only in white spaces for these answers. Truly absorbing this reality as a transracial adoptee myself nearly put me in a fetal position. It simply does not make sense!
In Their Voices is an attempt to bring incredible men and women of color into the living rooms of our transracial adoptive families in this country and around the world. It allows the reader to hear from these individuals the challenges they struggle with in raising black children in a society that still measures someone’s character by the color of their skin and not by the content of their character; and how they work to move forward in positive ways going around this obstacles. The reader gets to feel the rhythm of each person I talk with, their intensity around issues of race and discrimination, their joy of who they are, and their deep concern and support of transracial adoptive families. The words of wisdom each one of the people I interviewed shares is of tremendous value to our families. This book for me is a gift to my inner child. It allows me to breathe . . .
Rachel: In my experience as both a writer and mom by transracial adoption, there seems to be two camps. The first is parents who are educated and proactive. They are aware of the racial climate of our country presently as well as our nation’s violent racial history, and they pursue every possible resource (be it a person, a book, an experience, etc.) to benefit the child. The other camp believes in some of the things you talk about in the book: that love is enough and that it’s perfectly fine to raise a child of color as if that child is white. They are ignorant to their own biases and privileges, and this in turn has a negative impact on the child, usually most evident in adolescence and beyond. My question for you is, how do we help those in the latter camp realize that they are making grave mistakes? How do we get them to realize that they need to read a book like yours? And who is most responsible for educating parents who have adopted or want to adopt transracially?
Ms. Roorda: The truth of it is that transracial adoption is bold. It is complex. But is can also be powerful, beautiful and freeing. However, if this journey is not respected for what it is, many transracial adoptees will walk a lonely road in figuring out all of who they are, at the same time trying to keep a smile on their face.
I cannot tell you how many parents have said to me in my travels that race is not an issue for their child in today’s age. Further, these same parents attest that because we are now living in a “post-racial” society, the issues that transracial adoptees who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s confronted do not exist today. What I can tell you is that too many parents who believe this myth are the same ones who five or ten years later discover in upsetting ways that race and discrimination are alive and well . . . and that they did not prepare their children (or themselves) for this sad truth.
I believe that adoption agencies must better prepare parents who choose to adopt transracially for especially the racial and cultural complexities of this type of family building long-term. But in order to do that, the current federal policy needs to be amended where training to meet the needs of these children of color adopted into white families is incentivized. If adoption agencies were financially rewarded for ensuring that they hire a team of professionals that also reflects the racial and ethnic backgrounds of the children they serve and provides a robust curriculum for these families so that they are not setup to fail or flounder, I think that we would see better results all around.
Saying that, I know of adoption agencies that are doing great work and find creative ways to provide resources in this effort for their families. I simply want quality and intentional support and care for children and families of all backgrounds and circumstances. Families deserve to win.
Rachel: Your book focuses on multiple interviews with individuals who have lived through various eras (Jim Crow, civil rights, and post civil rights). Not all of these interviewees have a connection to adoption. Why did you decide to include their voices in the transracial adoption conversation, and how can their experiences and insights benefit parents who adopt transracially?
Ms. Roorda: One of the glaring gaps within our growing transracial adoptive world is that too many of us in it do not have bridges that connect us to communities of color; a vital lifeline for our families. This matters because our families miss out on crucial conversations and experiences with a wide range of people that look like our children of color. All of us want to see people that look like us, especially those that are doing positive and productive deeds in society. We want to feel comfortable in our own skin. We want to be connected to the rhythm and essence of our heritages.
I get that it is difficult for some families to get the courage to build these linkages in their own circles or even live in places where there are people of color in their communities. But I also know that there is an increasing number of transracial adoptive parents who are passionate about meeting the needs of their children but struggle with how to go about it.
In Their Voices brings amazing black men and women with diverse backgrounds, but tied to America’s history and to the national stage, directly into our living rooms. They help narrow the gap of knowledge between our families and communities of color. The conversations I have with these individuals are meant to help support white adoptive parents to raise confident, centered children of color who one day will be men and women of color.
My life is enriched because I have benefited from African American godparents, mentors, and friends from a wide range of backgrounds. I learned to incorporate the lessons from those who connected with me along my journey into my entire being. As I approach opportunities and challenges in my personal and professional life, I am more effective and versatile when I can pull from my Dutch upbringing and from the strength that I have gained from a wide range of people.
Rachel: What do you hope your book does for its readers? Why was it important for you to include practical suggestions for parents in the book’s appendix?
Ms. Roorda: I hope In Their Voices, excuse the pun, opens a whole new world for my readers. I want my readers, especially transracial adoptive families, to know that there is support and encouragement for them in this journey. I hope that they will see the incredible generosity and vulnerability of each person I interviewed in the book and know that these courageous individuals put themselves out there because they too believe that children deserve families.
Saying that, there are a lot of direct thoughts that are being communicated by each one in this book on this topic. They offer a lot of valuable information to adoptees and adoptive parents. I wanted to offer a plan for transracial adoptive parents to use as a guide to help them as they care for the ethnic and cultural needs of their child of color as well as help them find ways to build relationships with people who mirror their child.
Rachel: What’s next for you as a writer? Any new projects we should look out for?
Ms. Roorda: Wow! That is a great question. The book writing process for In Their Voices was amazing and life-changing. It required me to dig deep within my soul. My goal was to rest a bit . . . But in my immediate future I plan to promote this book. It is special and unique. Already, In Their Voices is selling quickly and it just was released. I am excited about the swelling interest this book is already attracting. My guess is that I will be around for a while advocating for children and families.