With a full-time job and a toddler at home, I grimaced at the thought of adding another show to my watchlist, but after a deafening promotion for This Is Us from my adoption support group, I decided to check it out. And I was blown away. This Is Us brings the audience into the lives of a transracial family formed through adoption. A major storyline relates to an adoptee searching for his birth parent. I connected to the show immediately. I’ve never watched a show so poignant to my life. Nearly every episode brought me to tears and without fail. I was left ruminating for weeks over the many complex issues surrounding adoption.
The most recent episode I watched, season 2 episode 9, “The Most Disappointed Man,” stopped me in my tracks. I’ve watched it twice with a lot of rewinding and pausing. This episode made me question something at the core of my existence: transracial adoption. The backdrop of current racial tension in this county made me even more sensitive to this issue.
In this episode, we are brought into the Pearson family’s life during the adoption process. Rebecca and Jack Pearson head to court for the legal adoption of Randall, a 1-year-old African American baby, who has been in their care since infancy. The social worker has assured them that the court appearance is a mere perfunctory box to be ticked, so they need not worry. Her confidence in a swift approval leads her to decline accompanying the couple to court. Rebecca and Jack Pearson stand before Judge Bradley, ready to accept legal adoption of Randall. But the African American judge takes one look at the white couple standing before him and notes he cannot grant approval without asking the absent social worker a few questions and reschedules the hearing. Baffled as to what has gone wrong, the couple approaches the judge outside the courtroom, who reluctantly invites them to his chambers. Without mincing his words, he explains, “I don’t believe that child belongs in your home. That child belongs with a black family. How else will he see himself? Understand who he is?”
The Pearsons’ mouths drop. Jack pauses, and before he says something, Rebecca jumps in. “Because we will teach him all of that.”
“You will teach him?”
“Yeah,” Rebecca responds in a nearly inaudible voice.
“Mrs. Pearson, I was nine years old before I understood I was black. I understood my skin color, the color of my friends, my parents, but I never really understood what my blackness meant until a white man called me a n*****. And my father sat me down, and he explained to me what that word meant. He didn’t sympathize or feel sorry for me because he understood all the pain that that word elicits. My father had been called that word more times in his life than he can count. Now you see, what you have in your possession is a black child who will grow up to become a black man. And my fear is that he won’t have the tools he needs in his life if he stays in your home.”
With only a few words from Rebecca, my blood boiled. Her ignorance, her attitude, and her tunnel vision reminded me of times when my Caucasian adoptive mother insisted that the world saw me no differently than my blond-haired friends. And I believed her for a long time, but when strangers made comments about my dark skin and my origins, I saw myself differently. When I shared my experiences, my adoptive mother housed herself in denial or ignorance, but either way, my interpretations of encounters did not exist in her world. So I was left alone to struggle. Perhaps Rebecca, like my mother, couldn’t accept that the world did not see me the way she did, and this blind spot could lead to catastrophic results.
Judge Bradley’s speech reminded me that there is no substitute for experience. Knowing skin tones differ does not provide information about the implications and ramifications of that color on a daily basis. Experience does. Neither Rebecca nor my mother can ever truly know what it’s like to be ostracized for their race, but does that render them incapable of empathy? In my opinion, Jack proves the counter. He does so in seemingly little ways like acknowledging that he will never be able to roll his tongue, an inherited genetic trait that Randall obsesses over by asking random black strangers if they can roll their tongue in hopes of identifying his family. Jack, willing to make himself a minority, involves Randall in predominantly black communities so that Randall can be around people that look like him.
As a parent, I understand how badly Rebecca wants to believe that she can be enough for Randall. We all want to believe that as a parent we inherently have everything we need to care for our child. But in the case of transracial adoption, there is no substitute for having a parent who really gets you, who looks like you, who has gone through experiences that may exist in your future.
But should that be a reason to discourage transracial adoptions? Should we also go back to the days of making interracial relationships illegal too? As a woman in a mixed-race marriage and mother to a biracial, Indian-African son, I can’t fathom this. While I can never fully understand what it’s like to be a black man or boy in this country, I can empathize in a way I never could before marriage. When I catch another horrible headline about an unarmed black man being shot, I no longer just think, “That’s unbelievable and so sad,” instead, I feel with every ounce of my body, “Oh my god, that could be my son.”
It saddens me to realize relationships and self-interest were a catalyst to forming my newfound empathy. Unfortunately, I do not think I am unique in this regard. Issues always matter more when they are personal. It’s easy to assume your black friend is exaggerating when he says cab drivers won’t pick him up until you are the one trying to catch a cab with him and can’t get a ride. Then you get it.
I would like to believe that if adoptive parents adopt a child of a different race or culture, they will learn through positive or negative experiences that race may not matter to them, but it matters to their child and the world. The hope is the parents will choose the route of accepting and promoting cultural exposure rather than trying to bury it under layers of their own view of the world. I do not believe you can ever replace the comfort in growing up with a family that looks like you and has experiences that only someone of the same race could have, but I do wonder if it would be detrimental for us as a people to only associate, marry, or have kids that are of the same race? I fear it would.
Judge Bradley held steadfast in his views and ended up recusing himself from the case. His replacement, an African American female judge granted the Pearson’s the swift approval promised by their social worker.
Adoption is complex and transracial adoption even more so. While love may be blind and may not conquer all, acknowledging one’s deficit perhaps is nearly as powerful as sharing the same skin tone.