The Necessity of Racial Socialization: What White Adoptive Parents of Black Children Should Know

What does it mean to racially socialize a child? Among black parents, racial socialization is informal education whereby they transmit to and instill in their children knowledge of the values, aesthetics, spiritual beliefs and all other things that give cultural orientation to existing while black in America. While most analysts note that race is socially constructed, the institutional marginalization of people of color remains a fact of life in U.S. society, with many minority parents reporting that they train their children to help insulate themselves from and cope with the absurdity of racial discrimination. The persistence and pervasiveness of institutional racism in the United States continues to make it necessary for black parents to prepare their children for the hostilities that they will encounter in education, health care, the workplace and other significant social institutions that directly and often negatively structure the daily lives and experiences of African Americans. When black parents socialize their children in issues of race, they provide cogent messages, whether implicit or explicit, in the form of values, norms and beliefs about what it means to be black in American society, and what it means to live in a world where racial bullying continues to shape life chances for black Americans and many other Americans of color.

So what does racial socialization mean in the context of transracial adoption? In other words, what will become of the transracial adoptees raised in white spaces if they are not prepared to encounter our highly racialized society? Just as blacks socialize their children in issues of issues of racial discrimination and "otherness," whites socialize their children (albeit unknowingly) in the unearned privileges of whiteness. Thus, when black childcare advocates see whites raising black children, they call these children's race lessons into question. Do white parents have the cultural foresight to teach their children to be aware of the racisms of society, particularly when few whites have any interest in discussing race and their role in the maintenance of white privilege? How can white parents raise black children when they express difficulty in having honest and open conversations about race with people of color?

Presently, there are increasing numbers of African-American and biracial children and other children of color who are being raised in white homes by adoptive parents. As beneficiaries of systemic racism (i.e., white privilege), white adoptive parents and other whites rearing black children occupy a pivotal and paradoxical role in buffering those children from acts of mistreatment. Given the historical tenacity of injustice, it is therefore vital that white adoptive parents help their children develop a positive racial identity and a strong set of coping skills. This might be difficult for many whites, having had very limited experience with and superficial knowledge of race-based oppression. However, unlike other groups of whites, white adoptive parents of black children have a vested interest in understanding racial mistreatment, and not just from an individual perspective but from a larger societal framework. Communicating this kind of knowledge to adopted black children (i.e., racial socialization) provides them with ample protection and allows them to more effectively confront the negative consequences of human prejudice and bigotry.

The process of becoming critically conscious enough to properly socialize one's children in issues of race remains a challenge for most whites, many of whom feel that African Americans are too angry or too fixated on blackness for real, transformative work on race relations to take place. The romantic story that whites are told about our nation is that it is based on ideals of progress, merit-based achievement and equal opportunity, but this story fails to address the question of why many Americans do not progress in our purportedly "fair" society and ignores the importance of our injuriously racist past. White racial consciousness is a 500-year-old historical process inscribing racial knowledge around black bodies into law, education, medicine and every other major institutions in society through a collective experience of human suffering, violence, psychological mayhem, land theft and the exploitation of labor. If many whites are blinded to issues of race, as claims of being "colorblind" reveal, then how are they in a position to productively socialize their adopted black children to develop a strong sense of who they are as they prepare for psychological warfare against the xenophobic encounters they will experience?