The Realities of Raising a Kid of a Different Race

As transracial adoption becomes more common, here’s what every parent should know

Karen Valby is a writer who lives in Austin, Texas. She and her husband, who are white, have two adopted daughters, one Ethiopian and one African- American.

Robyn Wells believed she went into the adoption of her Ethiopian son with eyes wide open. She and her husband Timothy, a police officer and Army veteran, who served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, brought Ben home when he was four years old. The Wells are white and live in Champaign, Illinois, a multi-cultural Big Ten university town and have gone to some effort to create a diverse environment for their son and three biological daughters. Wells knew that raising a black son wouldn’t always be easy. “I figured I’d have to explain some name-calling, have hard talks about language, navigate the waters when somebody’s parent won’t let my son take their daughter to prom,” she says. “But what I have been surprised by is this: At no point in the process of considering transracial adoption did I think I would have to teach my son how to stay alive.”

Ryan Lowry for TIMEBen Wells at his home in Champagne, Ill.

First, she says of her awakening, there was the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012. At the time Ben was a 6-year-old boy who had just learned to ride his bike after only two trips up and down the driveway with his father running alongside him. “It was awful,” says Wells, “but I thought—as every white privileged parent wants to think—maybe this is an isolated incident.” As events quickly proved, it was not.

Many families struggle with the question Wells is facing: how do white adoptive parents help their children of color thrive? Today, more than 40% of adoptions are transracial in nature according to a recent survey from the Department of Health and Human Services. This is up from 28% in 2004. Transracial adoption has become a common enough sight in celebrity tabloids that since my husband and I adopted our two daughters (a 1-year old Ethiopian in 2009 and a newborn African-American last October), we have endured many unfunny jokes about being on trend.

In our own adoption training I mostly remember sitting in our agency’s room with other prospective white parents nibbling on fruit and cheese, listening to white people talk about race. The main takeaways were either aesthetic in nature, about the practicalities of black hair and skin care, or hopelessly broad.

On the advice of an African American friend Wells has chosen to start having some hard conversations with her now 8-year-old son Ben, even though she does it in the car so that he doesn’t have to see her tears. Her insistence on these talks has created friction with her police officer husband, Timothy who explained by email that his job as Ben’s father is “to raise Ben to be a good man… The other part of my job is to balance my wife’s education. I don’t want Ben to ever be afraid of police or to ask for their help.”

Ryan Lowry for TIMEBen Wells with his father and sister at their home in Champagne, Ill.

So what can parents do? “When I meet adoptive parents I tell them to look to my era to what didn’t work,” says Chad Goller-Sojourner, 43, a Seattle-based black author and playwright who was adopted by white parents and who is working on a book that is half memoir and half training exercises for adoptive parents. “If you imagine my parents, they were the ones who got the box of Ikea furniture with no directions in Swedish or English. Today you can get the box and have the video and step-by-step instructions in different languages.”

There tends to be a dispiriting response to stories of transracial adoption—particularly when adoptees dare share feelings of ambivalence or pain—that adoptees should be grateful, considering the alternatives. But to suggest that they should pipe down because they didn’t languish in foster care or an orphanage is to deny the idea that every child deserves the best possible home with a family who is willing and prepared to meet their needs.

In the spirit of searching for better instructions, I interviewed adoptees ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s. From my many conversations, it became clear that we adoptive parents too often choose to delude ourselves with four comforting but dangerous myths.

Read more by Karen Valby