In a discussion of adoption on Radio 4’s Today programme last year, Dr Derrick Campbell, Chief Executive of Race Equality Sandwell, stressed the importance of considerations of heritage and culture when black children are being adopted.

Ben Douglas, a black man adopted by a white family, was dismissive

“I’ve been brought up in England.  That is my culture.  It would be ridiculous for me to be running around in tribal gear and try to cook over an open fire…would be absolute nonsense.

“What is my culture?  My culture is English.”

Mr Douglas could not understand why Dr Campbell found his comment offensive  – “I’m a black man” he replied – and in this illustrated precisely the point that Dr Campbell was making.  Mr Douglas toured the broadcasting studios in February 2011, defending the Government’s assertion that ethnicity was unimportant.

The purpose of adoption procedures is to find families for children.  The needs of the child are paramount.  People who wish to adopt may be found to be unsuitable for a particular child for any of a number of reasons.  The primary responsibility of the social worker is not to satisfy the adults’ wish to adopt;  it is to find suitable parents for the child.

A black child growing up in the UK today has to learn to negotiate a social environment in which racism is endemic.  The child has to learn how to maintain their self esteem when the wider society may provide relatively few positive role models.  They will encounter many more negative racial stereotypes – for example, that all black culture amounts to is “running around in tribal gear” and “cooking over an open fire”.

The adults responsible for a black child’s upbringing need to help that child to develop the social and psychological knowledge and skills to build a positive self image as a black person.  This is necessary to avoid damaging behaviour such as trying to “scrub off the black” or applying chemicals to bleach their skins or rejecting identification with a black doll when given a choice, which are still being observed.

Much of this is learnt informally and unconsciously by a child growing up with black adults who have themselves been through this development process.  The child learns through observation.  But sometimes this learning needs to be explicit.

Contrast the responses of two black people who had both been fostered by white families.

“Imagine what it’s like.  You’ve been called racist names at school. You’re angry. You hate all white people. Then you get home and you are met by this loving white foster mother and you cannot tell her how you feel as she doesn’t understand and it will hurt her feelings.  You have nobody to talk to about the anger that you are feeling!”

“I was fostered by a white family, but I remember my foster mother explaining to me about the racism.”  This man’s foster mother, who understood about racism and the need for him to develop appropriate resilience, had actively encouraged him to be proud of his heritage.

A “loving family” is not enough.  Indeed, it appears that when such a family are ignorant or dismissive of issues of race and ethnicity this may result in particular identity conflict for the child.

Guardian journalist, Joseph Harker, who was raised by white parents, has written

“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”.  Guardian 2 November 2010 a

Or listen to Chris Nicholson, a white man who has adopted a sibling group of children of mixed British and Asian heritage, who in a thoughtful piece about what he learnt from his own experiences concluded that

“white liberal parents can fulminate all we like about whether race should matter, but for some children it does – and it’s the child’s interests that count, not the prospective parents’…

“Do I regret adopting my children – not for a moment.  But do I think ‘inter-racial adoption should be promoted’? … No, I do not.”

Guardian 2 November 2010 b

For Michael Gove to use his own experience of adoption to legitimise his dismissal of the importance of race and ethnicity as “political correctness” is unacceptable.  His personal experience does not give him expertise in the needs of black children.

If the concern is that black children are having to wait longer than white children to find suitable parents, the solution is to find more of these suitable parents.  If fewer black people are “coming forward” to adopt, the solution is for social services departments to develop better “outreach” to these communities.  Agencies that have done this have no problem with finding suitable black families.

If, rather than suggesting that more black families should be found, it is proposed that the racial/ethnic identity of the child should be disregarded and white families should be chosen for these children, it is implied that suitable black families do not exist.  If you believe that suitable black families do not exist, it is logical to decide that a white family is better than no family.  This is, in essence, a racist proposition.  However, if the needs of the child are paramount, the priority would be to find a family that can support the development of a black child.

This approach does not exclude all white families.  The legislation says that in identifying a family to meet the needs of the child, agencies should take account of a child’s ethnicity, culture, religion and language.  Families who can provide evidence of their ability to support the all-round development of a black child – for example, through their multi-cultural circle of family and friends or their in-depth understanding of the challenges a black child is likely to face – are already currently being chosen as suitable parents in very successful placements.

Where agencies have the skills to communicate with black families and assess their suitability without ethnocentric or racist stereotyping, suitable families can be found for black children.  This is the good practice in meeting the needs of the black child that should be promoted by the Department for Education.

Dr Marie Stewart MBE




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