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South Africa

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Black Iike me

Text: Kerrin Wilkinson. Article from the September 2015 issue of Noseweek Magazine.

Transracial adoptive parents subjected to torrents of criticism.
Luke and Bella

I recently joined a facebook group devoted to transracial adoption. I thought that by joining I would I meet and have enlightening and  fulfilling discussions with like-minded people across the globe on the subject. I also thought it would be a good platform to attract readers to my blog which is on parenting and, occasionally, when the topic calls for it, the fact that my husband and I are white and our children are black and adopted. The old adage of being careful of what you wish for is ringing so loudly it threatens to drown out the maxed-out volume of our home.

The transracial adoptions group is large, with over 6,000 members, based predominantly in the United States. My request to join was accepted and I was told to read the pinned post and then spend at least 48 hours reading past postings to get a feel for the group. I read the pinned post then introduced myself and added a link to a blog I wrote six months ago on our journey to adopt our first child. I immediately received comments and feedback, all positive, with many queries regarding the differences in SA/US terminology, procedures, etc. Then I was rapped over the knuckles, put firmly back in my box and instructed not to engage again until I had done the 48- hour homework.

So I did – and was flabbergasted: I was totally out of tune with a community I had thought would be caring and sharing. Instead, I found my American counterparts so sensitive to the issue of race as to border on the ludicrous. They seemingly have a need to label everyone. A very serious query was posted asking if members would take offence at the acronym WAP (White Adoptive Parent). No one really seemed to mind, although I added the proviso that I would prefer not to be called such at a dinner party and would restrict the use to written discussion. It was also decided that TAP (Transracial Adoptive Parent) was preferred over TRAP, the latter considered derogatory because the R presumably stands for Race. Next up, a post declaring someone’s profound offence at the word “articulate”. What?

All comments, posts and threads use the abbreviations. Handy for quick texting, sure, but could the constant referrals to these abbreviations (labels) not foster a self-deprecating image and perpetuate the stigmas? All to be passed on to their children. Little Sarah comes home from ballet super-excited: the recital theme is The Jungle Book and she wants to be a monkey. Mom explains in her best children’s vocabulary that she cannot be a monkey. You would truly believe these people are under constant racial attack. Selfishly, their kids are going to become the adults the parents are, col¬our conscious with radars scanning every millisecond for a real or perceived slur.

I found posts starting with phrases like: “It’s finally happened…” as though this mom has literally been waiting for the moment when her child is the target of a racial slur, instead of getting on with the business of parenting and dealing with these issues as and when they arise. When our son first went to nursery school, we were asked daily by children, “Why is he black and you are white?” For a year I patiently explained that he was adopted. No one asks any more: they all now know.

My new Facebook group seethed with negativity, gripes, whinges and complaints. I tried to add some levity by sharing links to two humorous blogs on my children; one relates the story of when my son realised his sister was “black like him” and the other deals with the challenges a white mom faces when dealing with her daughter’s black-ethnic hair.

My blog was getting good hits, so I thought I might share a blog about something more serious. It relates to our journey to adopt our daughter, a totally different journey. It is hooked on a comment I heard at a child’s third birthday party.

Kerrin Wilkinson with her husband, Chris (left) and Luke

This is it: “If our first adoption was like navigating our way through a minefield then our second adoption, that of our little girl, was more of a ground offensive, with us as the target of barrage after barrage of incoming fire. We were the French troops at Dien Bien Phu, Pickett’s Confederates at Gettysburg, outgunned and outmanoeuvred no matter which way we turned or to whom we appealed.”

A 15-month-long emotional assault with weekly incoming sucker punches. Finding our way to our daughter opened our eyes to the scandalous industry that is the South African social welfare community and its lackey, the 2005 Children’s Act (to be fair it’s the regulations that govern the act rather than the act itself).

You could comfortably say that by the time we had her in our arms we had seen it all, heard it all and felt it all. We were raw, frustrated at every possible level and in no doubt as to where adoptive parents feature on this particular food chain – they don’t even make it up the first rung.

In March I accompanied my son to his friend’s fourth birthday party. The mums got talking, as is our wont, and the conversation turned to our boys interacting with girls when they’re older (every mother’s nightmare), I was blindsided with these words: “I’m so glad I only have boys [three of them] because at least when they’re older and they impregnate a girl it’s not their problem.”

Of course I was astounded by this archaic thinking (thankfully I wasn’t the only one), but having lived and breathed every word of the Children’s Act and its regulations – which now grants equal rights to the biological father, as with the biological mother – my jugular began to twitch.

Both biological parents must sign consent for a child to be “adoptable”. Once consent is signed, either or both has 60 days in which to change their minds and rescind said consent. How often do you imagine the birth father is around to sign consent?

In his absence, an advertisement must be placed in one local, one regional and one national newspaper for a period of 90 days. If he does not respond to that he forfeits his rights as a parent.

These two chunks of the newborn’s life do not run concurrently. So the baby waits at a place of safety for five months. But that’s not all. The government, in its questionable attempt to place children with adoptive parents of the same race (“so they don’t lose their culture”) instituted a national register, known as RACAP (Register of Adoptive Children and Adoptive Parents). The act states that this register exists simply to keep a record of adoptable children and screened adoptive parents. It even makes sense: at any time an adoption agency or accredited social worker can have a look at the updated weekly list and know exactly where a child or parents may be found.

That’s what RACAP is on the outside. Inside it is a festering cancer of racism because the real purpose of it is to give black couples (who by the way can adopt from birth) an extended opportunity (a further 30 days) to adopt any black child on that register. Again, this period does not run concurrently.

Six months. That’s how old the baby will be before it may legally be placed with a loving couple desperate to start a family and shower a child with love and opportunity.

So tell me, Party Mom, when will that attitude change so that the millions of unwanted children can at least have a chance at a happy, fulfilled life? Because here’s the rub: couples who want to adopt want newborn babies or babies as young as possible. They don’t want to miss a moment. And they certainly don’t want to miss three months of their child’s life because “it wasn’t your son’s responsibility”.

My article is almost wholly focused on the attitude of this mother. To illustrate the lens through which I saw and heard it – aside from the obvious -I cited facts about the adoption process. Okay, “festering cancer” may have been too harsh but the reality of my experience was one of grave frustration, deep-seated disappointments and anger at a system that I did not for a minute believe – and still don’t – is in the “best interests of the child”. The facts about adoption in this blog are just that, facts, and festering cancer goes to my state of mind at the time. The fact, however, remains that the focus of this piece is on an adult, educated woman who quite openly and unapologetically washes her and her sons’ hands of any responsibility they may have later in life of causing an unwanted pregnancy, ergo an unwanted baby, while the law is very charitable toward these oft-elusive fathers.

Not one person commented on this blog by saying, “I can’t believe this mom’s attitude.” Instead I was lambasted and abused from every direction, not one of which spoke to the essence of the blog. Here are some threads (they obviously all remain anonymous):

• “… Are you really saying that you wish parents did not have a chance to truly consider the gravity of their decision before they irrevocably sign their rights away? Or that the dad should be cut out of the equation?” [No.]

• “News flash: Adoptive parents should be the lowest rung on the ladder.”

• “… many whites in South Africa continue to have a highly imperialist attitude towards black people and towards Africa, but this just boggles the mind.”

• “You write as though adoptive parents somehow deserve to experience the newborn phase…”

• “Many potential adoptive parents I have conversed with speak as though they believe it is their right to sign a piece of paper and walk away from the hospital with a newborn baby & pretend the baby’s parents never existed.” [Not at all. During the screening process we are well briefed on the position of the birth parents within the triad and indeed our social welfare system favours their needs.]

• “Why is it a problem to prefer to place black children with black adoptive parents?” [It’s not, I’m all for it, but adoption is not common among black South Africans. An aside here is that same-race adoptions take place from birth… you walk out of the hospital’s maternity ward with your baby.]

The government, in its attempt to place children with adoptive parents of the same race, instituted a national register

At first I tried to answer each one carefully and thoroughly but they just kept coming, shooting from the hip, an answer for everything. I couldn’t keep up and one-liners are so easy to misinterpret. I tried the angle of social and economic differences between our countries as a jump-off point. To which I got: “…people make those arguments to justify racist adoption practices everywhere”.

I tried again, saying I believe that birth parents should have a period to change their minds but that this period shouldn’t be extensive as it prohibits bonding between adoptive parents and the child. Wrong. I was told the real aim of adoption is for it not to be necessary. I don’t pretend to understand that.

Now the curve ball: “Is part of the response here essentially that poverty demands redistribution of children from their families to waiting white adoptive parents? How in the world does that address the root issues causing the poverty? Isn’t that just a justification of providing kids to meet the demand of WAPs?”

Then it derails and gets insane and quite ugly. My favourite: “It’s a white person’s luxury to decry people being sensitive to race,” and “I can’t imagine that you don’t think that people know the history of Apartheid and that there must be safeguards in place for black children. That is truly a mind-boggling statement you are making about being in the minority there…” [What am I going to do, make my kids drink out of enamel mugs?]

I tried to keep up, I tried not be naive, help some of them understand how different things are here. I tried to understand how it could be in the best interest of the child to be lying around some home for nine months, but they were rabid, convinced that I was, as an adoptive parent and a white one at that, not even worthy of consideration. I was not holding this discussion in an all-black group: most of the TAPs are white. They consider themselves as the least important facet of the triad yet they are raising a child – a lifetime decision, an inconceivable choice unless you’ve made it.

I sat back, knowing this was no place for me. I was right – it degraded further into hashtags, #adoptoraptor being the most creative. When I bade them goodnight I was #victimplaying. I kept reading for 15 minutes or so and the vitriol took time to dissipate into a discussion on a phone app.

Of course, my children have been the target of clear racism, from within our extended family to a woman in the middle of nowhere who all but accused us of stealing our son. But we wear thick enough skins to place such ignorance and supremacist thinking where it belongs: on the rubbish dump of social retardation.

I’m also under no illusion that when my children reach primary school they may quite probably become the target of slurs, but so are the little fat girl and the skinny boy with braces and glasses who can’t catch a ball. Children have no social filter and can thus be cruel. Is that not the start of our education, that the world is populated with every imaginable type of person and it is up to us to choose with whom we surround ourselves, to learn from those we do not like, to adapt, to accommodate and thereby begin to mould the adult we will become?

I will not apologise for being white and will not bear the weight of white guilt. I will also not apologise for my privileged upbringing; I will instead be grateful for it and use it to the greater good of the community in which I live. I will use it to teach my children well, to expose them to inequality and to instil in them that, before you extend your hand to take, you extend it to give.

In three hours I could not make the smallest dent in a single one of those people involved in the discussion’s thinking. Not one was willing to really listen as I endeavoured to highlight the massive differences between our countries. After 200-plus comments, I bowed out with the final thought that perhaps these few dozen people would prefer to be black, so as a minority group they could indeed have a valid gripe.

I did wonder what the other 6,200 members thought.

And me? Well, they provided me with a wealth of material and I closed the day on a record 230 reads.

Once I got over the invidious sucker punches with the help of my husband who simply said: “You put yourself out there,” I saw all too clearly how ne’er the twain shall meet. Our worlds, or context, our histories and our daily experiences are too far apart.

This is our reality: the latest census statistics put the number of orphans and vulnerable children in South Africa at 3.37 million. This number is said to increase to 5.5m by 2015.

According to the most recent statistics on adoptions, as released by the National Department of Social Development, there were 14,803 legal adoptions registered in South Africa for the period 1 April 2004 to 31 March 2010. This amounts to about 2,400 adoptions per year and includes adoptions by relatives. Since the end of March 2010 the number of national adoptions has declined significantly. These statistics are simultaneously tragic and frustrating since it is “normal” for white adoptive parents to wait a year or more, after completing the rigorous screening process, for a black child.


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