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This rush to downplay race ignores the truth of inter-racial adoption


Yes, a loving home is important, but as a black man raised by white parents I see the benefits of same-race families too

By Joseph Harker

November 2, 2010 / guardian.co.uk

According to the children's minister, there is "no reason at all" why white couples should not adopt black or Asian children. Instinctively, many people would agree with Tim Loughton when he says: "If it is a great couple offering a good, loving, stable permanent home, that should be the number one consideration." After all, isn't being in a loving, caring home all that counts?

Well, ideally, yes. But as a black person adopted as a child by a white parent I believe this notion is simplistic. There are about 65,000 children in care at present, 20% of whom are from racial minorities. Approximately 2,300 were approved for adoption last year, of whom 500 were of black or Asian origin.

There has long been a shortage of black or Asian families willing to adopt, so in the 1960s and 70s it was common for white parents to be approved to raise minority children. At the time, little attention was paid to the child's cultural needs, and many grew up feeling disconnected from their racial background.

As a result, black campaigners successfully changed adoption procedures so that the default position was for black children to be adopted by black parents. This would have worked well, but in practice the shortage of black would-be adopters left many children languishing in care for years. No one would now say this was acceptable, and in 1998 the then education minister Paul Boateng – whose wife Janet had been prominent in the same-race campaign two decades earlier – relaxed the rules to make it easier for transracial adoptions to take place. "The importance of family life to a child cannot be overstated," he said.

Since then, for the most part, though race has been an important factor, individual decisions have sought a balance in the best interests of the child. Loughton's comments, however, appear to tip this balance so that race is at risk of being downplayed altogether. His priorities seem to be finding a nice family and placing the child quickly. Presumably well-spoken middle-class types will be at the front of every queue.

My own Nigerian father abandoned my Irish mother before I was born. Three years later she married an English local, who later adopted me, and I took his name. I was never short of love, support and encouragement. But when race regularly collided with my life I was ill-prepared. I found it difficult to cope with the playground and classroom taunts and, as I grew older, the disconnect with my African heritage became more of an issue. I've spoken to many black people of similar upbringing and they often talk of the same experiences.

The media often likes to talk to children about how they feel about being transracially adopted. Every time I hear these reports I know they are asking the wrong people – because it is only in later life that one can appreciate what has been missed.

The stridency of Loughton's words gives me little faith that he understands these issues. Moreover, his thinking entirely fits a mainstream political agenda running for most of the past decade, which scorns multiculturalism and tries to deny difference. An agenda which says that in order to be accepted in Britain, migrants and minorities must speak the language fluently, adopt "British values" (whatever they are) and ditch their religious beliefs: to assimilate into this country rather than maintain their cultural traditions and historical ties.

On Monday, paradoxically, an elderly black couple went to court to claim that they'd been denied the chance to become foster carers because of their Christian-based views on homosexuality. They didn't believe it was an acceptable lifestyle. Clearly these views are outdated, but the fact remains that they are held by many who originate from strongly religious countries in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia. So, if the couple's claims are correct, would the adoption rules now in effect state that black and Asian children can no longer be adopted by those who share their cultural heritage? If so, combined with the message Loughton is sending out, we could be moving towards an effective whites-only adoption policy.

There was a time when politicians claimed to welcome difference, declaring that it strengthened Britain by connecting our country to the rest of the world. Now it seems the government believes that black or Asian families have little to offer children from their own background. The common heritage is either irrelevant, undesirable, or something so meaningless that a white parent who's visited their local library's diversity section could do just as well.

The fact is, race will always be a factor in a black or Asian child's life, and having a parent who understands this through their own direct life experience is a huge benefit. Indeed, one needn't get too hung up on whether the parents precisely match the racial makeup of the child, which can often be complex. Whether the couple is black, mixed or Asian, they'll almost certainly understand the importance of a non-white child's cultural needs.

Yes, stable homes are always better than living in care. But to deny the importance of race is not only insulting to minorities, it also risks causing unnecessary confusion and distress to those vulnerable children who look to the state to protect them.

2010 Nov 2