White Parents, Black Children: These Popular On-Screen Depictions Show The Struggle Of Transracial Adoption

November 25 2019

The transracial adoption landscape in the U.S. has significantly shifted since 1972 when the National Association of Black Social workers advised that Black children should not be adopted by white parents because "Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people."

While the statement was divisive at the time, it would be even more inciting today. A study from the Institute for Family Studies found that 55 percent of Black adoptees are raised by a parent of a different race. On average, most people looking to adopt children are white. With the cultural spike in the number of Black children being adopted by white parents, it makes sense that this would be reflected in television and film.

Depictions of multicultural families can be seen as a progressive step forward for diversity and representation in America, but they also highlight the cultural differences that when ignored can have a negative impact on the child well into adulthood.

So, what exactly is the role and responsibility of non-Black parents raising Black children? Are there necessary tools and, if so, do white parents possess them? In one form or another, This Is Us, Luce  and How to Get Away with Murder have each attempted to grapple with and explore these exact questions.

On This Is Us, the tension and anxiety Randall Pearson (Sterling K. Brown, Niles Fitch and Lonnie Chavis) has had being a Black child adopted into a white family has been there since season one, but the current season of the show is delving deeper into the complexities of raising a Black child in a white home and how good intentions—even from super-parents Jack and Rebecca—are not enough.

For all intents and purposes, at first glance, Randall is shown as falling neatly within the parameters of Black Excellence. He is intelligent, poised, has a successful career and a thriving, financially secure and upwardly mobile Black family. However, he suffers from anxiety and has panic attacks.

Researchers have generally concluded that anxiety is genetic and can be inherited. In fact, this season, it's revealed that both Randall's father and now his young daughter have panic attacks. Yet it is worth noting that environmental factors can have an impact as well. In Randall's case, often being the only Black person in a space with no one who fully understands the ways in which you feel different from those around you certainly didn't help. While Rebecca (Mandy Moore) and Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) are both aware that Randall may have unique cultural needs than their other two children, their comprehension is often limited in scope.

Rebecca comes to understand that Randall should be around other Black people. Rebecca befriends a Black mother and son when Rebecca gets called out for isolating Randall and herself from the Black people in their neighborhood pool back in season one. We even see that the friendship has continued over the years when it comes time for Randall to make his decision about which college to attend. However, this season we see more than ever that Randall has a yearning for knowledge of a culture that his parents don't even know exists.

Given the history of segregation and white supremacy in America, their lack of awareness of Black history and culture is understandable, but unacceptable. Feeling threatened and insecure in his lack of knowledge, Jack antagonizes Randall's only Black male teacher until Rebecca steps in and stresses the importance of Randall having Black male role model to connect with--which is rich, considering Rebecca is keeping the existence of Randall's father from him, Jack and everyone else. Still, Rebecca sees the Black teacher as less of a threat to her family structure than Randall's biological father would be, so she encourages his relationship with Randall.

Randall is with parents who have the right intentions, but not the best knowledge or follow through. They want to raise Randall the same as the other two children and this is what inevitably backfires. In wanting to view Randall the same they render his Blackness invisible and force him into the impossible position of learning about Black culture in private, teaching his parents to see him as a full human who is also Black, or watching his father flounder in a sea of insecurity, all of which would be demanding too much of any child. But this is Randall's burden.

Even after Jack overcomes his need to know what's best for his son, and acknowledges that the lone Black teacher in the school, who has become more like a mentor, may actually be a good thing for Randall and accepts his help, Randall still has to get his parents to observe him as he fully is, which is exemplified by his choice of poem to share with his father, "I, Too" by Langston Hughes. 

The selection of the poem was undoubtedly intended to show Randall's plight, and the plight of Black people in general, which it arguably does, but what it also does is exemplify the pathological effects of racism. Instead of being able to simply enjoy the wonders of being a child, Randall must "eat well, and grow strong" in the hopes that those around him will see his innate beauty and he may be invited to the proverbial table. 

Again, the onus is on the child to teach the adults instead of the parents taking the time to learn of the art, history, etc. of their child's heritage and be prepared to share it with them to further aid in their development of maturation into a fully self-aware adult.

For college, Randall was all set to go to Howard University, an HBCU where he could finally be immersed in Blackness. Yet, when his father tragically died, he decided to go to school closer to home so that he could look out for his mother and sister, instead. The lack of immersion in Black life has continued into his adulthood, outside of his wife and children in his home. They live in a white neighborhood; their children go to white schools; and Randall has only been shown at odds with other Black people in the This Is Us universe who aren't related to him.

Where are his Black friends? In four seasons, we haven't seen any for him or his wife Beth and their children. We have seen both of them being antagonized by other Black people, from their adopted daughter's biological mother to their daughter's boyfriend's parents. Now that they have moved to Randall's biological father's hometown of Philadelphia where Randall has been elected to serve on the city council, he's at odds with his fellow Black council members, as well. At least Philadelphia gives rise to more Black people on screen for Randall and his family to interact with. Time will tell if this will provide a healing opportunity for Randall that he missed out on in childhood and at college.

If only Jack and Rebecca were the worst of it.

Luce is a film designed to question the truths that many hold dear when it comes to beliefs of race and justice. Similar to Randall and Michaela on How to Get Away with Murder, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr.)--whose birth name viewers never learn because his white adoptive mother changed it because she couldn't pronounce it--is intellectually gifted. Unlike Randall, whose father left him at a fire station, Luce is "rescued" from a war-ridden Eritrea. Due to this, he is so haunted by the idea of falling victim to stereotype threat that he becomes an idealized version of the infallible student that others have projected onto him. While Luce's internal view of himself becomes murky as the thriller aspects of the film unfold, including his manipulativeness, what becomes evidently clear is the true feelings of the adults around him, most specifically his white parents (Naomi Watts and Tim Roth).

Why Luce's parents chose to adopt instead of having a biological child isn't clear, but what is obvious is that it was a choice and because they decided to make it, to save him, to rehabilitate him, Luce can. not. fail. Unfortunate for Luce, the odds stacked against him are unfeasible. Try as he might, he is viewed by his parents as a soldier first, so even the slightest ripple in their otherwise self-contained calm waters deems him monstrous and untrustworthy. As long as Luce does exactly what is expected of him, all is well. However, the moment he exhibits any behavior that may confirm their internal thoughts of him, the truth is revealed--he was a mission, but never their son.

Luce becomes demonized once it is revealed that for a class assignment he wrote from the perspective of Frantz Fanon. What he actually wrote in the paper is never revealed because it isn't necessary. Even the slightest hint that he might have thoughts of violence solidifies the inherent fear and belief that this is who Luce really is. The reality is, racism, inherent bias and prejudice are all stitched into the quilt of American society, with each of us having to clearly face that reality and ourselves in order to unbind ourselves from it. Luce's parents have not done that work.  

What’s worse, Luce's parents have no desire to do that work and turn the critical lens on themselves. Instead, the true issues that may be plaguing Luce, his lack of desire to fit within the tokenist role that has been planned for him, are overlooked for a preferable veneer of perfection.

Michaela’s white adoptive mother (Brett Butler) on How to Get Away with Murder takes it a step beyond, failing to acknowledge Michaela’s (Aja Naomi King) struggles as a Black child in a white home. Her adoptive mother, who was apparently absent in both mind and body, refuses to accept Michaela’s qualms of not feeling seen or supported. 

To Michaela, her adoptive mother wasn’t just negligent to all of her children; her mother never truly saw her for all of who she is as a Black girl. Michaela had to make her own way and figure out her place in the world alone. Even in adulthood, her mother, who only shows up because she needs temporary housing, is unable to see Michaela as she is. As Michaela laments her frustrations of not having had the necessary tools as a child and having to raise herself, her mother responds by calling her an "ungrateful hoe," evoking the over-sexualization of Black girls and how there is never an opportunity for innocence. The mother goes on to say that she saved Michaela from the life she was in, to which Michaela clarifies that "social services rescued me and then I rescued myself."

In all of these depictions, there are children who are forced to grow and find their Blackness in spite of their parents, not because of them. Even in the most well-intentioned scenario, the search for Black identity is met with discomfort and uncertainty. Should a prerequisite for the adoption of Black children be the guarantee of a safe haven to explore their full selves? Should Black children at a minimum be raised in a home of parents who are willing to step outside of their comfort zones for the betterment of the child, which includes actively learning about Black culture and being anti-racist? If the litmus test of a society is how well it treats its children, with art as the measuring stick, the answer must be yes.

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Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

Porscheoy Brice is a copyeditor at Shadow And Act. She is also the editor-in-chief of msmalcolmhughes.com. She is a Chicago, IL native strategizing in Washington, DC. In the words of the genius Jay-Z, she is “Pretty, Witty, Girly, Worldly; One who likes to party, but comes home early.” You can follow her on social media @msmalcolmhughes.

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