Article 25

Archive for December, 2015|Monthly archive page

Chosen, then Excluded

In Uncategorized on 12/07/2015 at 10:52 am


Race, class and the adopted child

By R. Dubucs

Adoption usually changes a child’s status. Often his original parents were at a lower social, economic and educational level than his new parents (particularly in international adoptions). In many cases a baby born to a young, unwed minority woman is raised by an older, married white couple. The changed circumstances can make a difference in how the child is treated in a world where race and class still matter.

An adopted child’s real ethnicity counts less than his perceived ethnicity in determining how he gets treated. Strangers draw conclusions about ethnic background. Thus, one Hispanic boy was variously viewed as Hispanic, Caucasian, Native American, African-American and Asian. These conclusions, correct or not, can lead people to misjudge the socioeconomic status (i.e., class) of the child and his household. For example, some whites assume they rank higher in class than a black youth – until they discover his adoptive parents are white or have professional degrees.

Someone prejudiced against a race or class might discriminate against an adopted child considered part of that group. This can cause problems such as obstacles to academic success, unfair stereotypes, insults, police misconduct, discriminatory punishment and even danger. Below is a discussion of these problems and how some adoptees – or their champions – dealt with the bigots.

‘Give him the lowest’

A report card helps determine whether a student gets into a good college or attends one at all. Some teachers have low expectations for minority students and grade accordingly, as illustrated by Robin’s story. (All names of adoptees in this article were changed for privacy reasons.)

Robin was adopted as an infant from Latin America by an upper-middle-class Caucasian couple. He is smart, as most of his grades indicate. However, one year in high school he kept bringing home C’s in English.

Robin’s mother met with the English teacher. The teacher was surprised to see a white mom, to hear that Robin liked the assigned book Of Mice and Men and to learn that he would enter college after graduation (although he was on the honor roll at a school where almost everyone goes on to higher education). The mother left convinced that the teacher, because of Robin’s ethnicity, had assumed that he was from a poor minority family, was incapable of appreciating a John Steinbeck novel and was going nowhere. After the meeting, Robin’s grades in the class turned, as if by magic, into A’s and B’s.

Sometimes the root of the problem lies outside the classroom. One recently retired high-school administrator hated children of color. He worked with notable success over several decades at “persuading” minority students to drop out of school. As part of his harassment campaign, he told the teacher of a well-behaved Asian boy having trouble with Spanish, “Give him the lowest grade possible.”

The man especially despised people of mixed race. He said to the adoptive parent of a biracial student, “You are lucky we let (your child) into this place, since (the child) is mixed.”

While Robin was hurt by a negative stereotype, Matt was troubled by a “positive” one. The teenager, adopted from Korea, shines in English courses but struggles with math. This confounds teachers who expect every student of Asian descent to excel at numbers. Matt resents being chided for failure to live up to the stereotype.

A shocking incident, such as the shooting rampage by a Virginia Tech student, can lead to the typecasting of minority youths. If someone of their ethnic background commits a horrendous act, others might consider the youths likewise capable of that act. Teasing is the mildest form of this racial targeting.

Matt had little but a Korean homeland in common with the Virginia Tech gunman. Yet soon after the massacre he was quizzed on the subject at school before the whole class. After establishing Matt’s country of birth, a boy asked, “So are you going to shoot us all?” Matt won the round and the laughing support of his classmates with his reply. He said, “No, but if I did, I’d shoot you first!”

Her friend, her child’s foe

Some adopted children face public insults. This happened to Steve, who is partly Asian, as he was entering an autobus. A female passenger objected. She announced that “people like that” should not be allowed on the bus. Not even the driver came to the boy’s defense. Steve, furious, told the woman off. The incident ended with Steve on board and the segregationist in tears.

Often the insults are silent, though the meaning is clear. For example, some salespeople follow minority children, including adoptees, around a store, considering them more likely to steal than white children.

The affronts can be indirect but nonetheless painful. For instance, a business that assigns white employees to deal with the public and gives black employees the menial backup jobs sends a clear message to black customers, including adoptees.

Occasionally the insults come from a surprising source. An American family was staying at a nice hotel in Colombia, the country from which the children had been adopted years before. One day the son and daughter set forth from their lodging. When they failed to return on time, the parents grew worried. The boy and girl were found waiting outside. The doorman, certain they could not be guests of such an upscale hotel, had barred them from the building. Yet he and the children were of the same ethnicity!

The insults can be ongoing. For example, a teenaged adoptee who tans deeply repeatedly found himself the target of pointed stares when with his lighter-skinned girlfriend.

A couple perceived to be interracial might encounter more than glares and poor service at business establishments. In one horrific incident, Jack, a college student adopted from Latin America, was attacked by three James Madison University students as he was leaving his white girlfriend’s apartment. This young man, whose hobbies include weightlifting, is very strong. Despite getting knocked down and kicked in the face, he fought back with fury. Jack broke the nose of one of his assailants and scared them off. The next day he and 10 friends tracked down the three thugs in their residence. While the trio cowered, their visitors, without ever touching them, taught them a lesson they will never forget.

Some adoptees assume a menacing persona. They try to conform, in clothing and manner, to the gangster stereotype for their ethnic group. This tough-guy role could be a response to too many insults, as even racists are wary of provoking such angry-looking youths.

Too often the insults come from police officers. Jack, the Latino college student, received an automobile as a gift from his adoptive parents at his high-school graduation. Police officers in several states repeatedly stopped the car. Once officers actually dismantled parts of the vehicle in a lengthy and vain search for illegal drugs. In the worldview of some officers a young Hispanic male driving an expensive-looking Volvo has either stolen it or bought it with drug money.

One night officers showed up at a birthday party. They picked certain guests for Breathalyzer tests, which nobody failed. Although most of the guests were white, the test was administered only to guests of other races. (The blacks were not surprised.) An adoptee was in the group targeted. He was neither driving nor under the drinking age, but he was subjected to the test in front of his friends anyway.

Many Americans were taught to view a police officer as “Officer Friendly.” The Caucasian mother of the minority adoptee subjected to the Breathalyzer test has modified her views. Among other incidents, an officer aimed his gun at her non-threatening son during a routine traffic stop, and another time an officer temporarily handcuffed her son for no known crime. Increasingly, the woman believes that a police officer is her friend – but her child’s enemy.

‘I’m very white’

Sometimes punishment or harsher punishment is reserved for minorities, including adoptees. This happened to a Latino boy adopted by a white couple. One day Kenny and his friends got into mischief in elementary school. All the troublemakers were Caucasian except him. The administrators decided to make an example of someone. Although the Hispanic child had acted no worse than his buddies, he alone was to be disciplined.

His mother refused to accept this blatant discrimination. According to her argument, Kenny should be considered white because he had white parents, lived in a white neighborhood and attended a white school. The administration backed down on the punishment.

Bigots can be dangerous when they judge adoptees based on skin color or perceived status. For example, racists might, like the James Madison students, turn into a pack of violent savages, point a loaded gun or make false accusations of illegal behavior.

When Robin, adopted as a baby from Latin America was a sophomore in high school, he was an honor-roll scholar, wrestled on the varsity team and won a student-athlete award. Yet that year the assistant principal of a rival high school accused the teenager of a gang-related crime.

At the time, wrestlers were competing in a district tournament. Robin won a regional slot, and a photo was taken of the finalists. In the photo, Robin’s hands were positioned in an unusual way. Immediately afterward the white assistant principal of the host school pulled the boy aside. He announced that Robin was going to be arrested. The assistant principal claimed Robin had flashed a gang sign in the photograph. The man could not identify the gang. (Nor could he rely on clothing, jewelry, or tattoos to corroborate the charge, because the boy was in his team uniform, wore no jewelry and is not tattooed.) Yet he was sure about the sign, due to the unexpected position of the Latino youth’s hands. He gave Robin no chance to explain.

Robin’s coach, a dignified black man, unsuccessfully tried to resolve the situation. With the accuser still insisting on the police, the coach dispatched one of his wrestlers to find Robin’s dad. Standard attire for parents at wrestling matches consists of jeans and a T-shirt or sweatshirt. Robin’s father, a Caucasian lawyer who had come to the tournament directly from court, strode up wearing a dark business suit, white shirt and tie.

The man, outraged, resolved the confrontation on the spot. At his demand and with the assent of the school’s principal, the standoff ended with the assistant principal apologizing to Robin and to his coach for the false accusation. When the father and the coach were out of earshot of the group, the dad, in explanation, said, “I’m very white.” The coach, laughing, replied, “You figured it out!”

However, relative class power was also a factor in the school’s total capitulation. When Robin’s father arrived, the accuser’s expression changed to that of a bully realizing he is sorely outmatched.

In the dad’s view, no educational institution serious about retaining and graduating minority students should employ an administrator like the accuser. The next day he called the principal. He also contacted a friend on the school board. The school system did not renew the assistant principal’s contract.

Despite the election of an African-American president, a child’s perceived race and perceived class continue to affect how he is treated. Sometimes minority children, including adoptees, are the targets of ugly discrimination. To get equal treatment, the victims should not have to qualify (under the test of Kenny’s mother) as honorary white people. In short, all parents should, like Robin’s father, help fight bigotry.

Adopted children from a minority group are not bound by the negative expectations of racists, as Robin’s story, still unfolding, makes clear. In the eyes of an intolerant stranger and a biased teacher, this teenager was either a gangster or going nowhere. However, others see him more clearly. Robin went on in high school to win the Gentleman Award, including a certificate calling him “an all-around good guy.” Courted by various universities, he is now a freshman at a college of science.

R. Dubucs is the pseudonym of an attorney, author and adoptive mother in Virginia.