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90'S FAMILY

'A Big Guiding Light'

The Institute of Black Parenting Offers Classes and Advice for Families Involved in Interracial Adoptions

June 09, 1996|NANCY ROMMELMANN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A baby is given up for adoption and put in foster care. Social workers seek an appropriate adoptive family. For this African American child, the most appropriate family would be of her own race, but when one is not found, she is adopted by a family of another race, a couple who have fallen in love with her and are willing and eager to raise her with knowledge and pride in her heritage as well as theirs.

A happy ending, but still, these parents will inevitably find that their desire to recognize their child's background is complicated by their ignorance of it. The problems may be as difficult as dealing with racial discrimination or as simple as learning how to care for an African American child's hair.

"Transracially adopted kids have special needs, as do the parents who adopt them," says Habiba Herbert, public relations and training coordinator for the Institute of Black Parenting in Inglewood. "'Nonminority parents sometimes feel ill-equipped to raise a child of another ethnicity. That's where we step in."

Founded in 1988 as an offshoot of the Assn. of Black Social Workers, IBP's initial goal was to match African American adoptive parents with African American kids. While IBP still advocates same-race placement, it came to recognize the reality of interracial adoption, and the unique needs of these new families.

"Nonminority parents may feel they have to make a choice between family and the transracially adopted child's culture," Herbert says. "We try to show them the child can be part of a loving family and still be in tune with their culture. That's the goal."

To this end, IBP provides parenting classes, community referrals, and monthly family get-togethers celebrating African American holidays such as Kwanzaa.

"But mostly we just get together and rap. That seems to be what people need the most," Herbert says.

Reassurance is often of paramount importance for new interracial families. Linda Klein, the adoptive mother of a 4-year-old African American girl, was very reluctant to contact IBP.

"I was scared. I'd read that IBP was pro same-race adoption, so when I heard about these classes, I thought, why do they want me to go? Were they going to try to take my baby away? Any adoptive situation makes you paranoid, but race adds another dimension."

A year later, Klein's fears have been ameliorated.

"IBP's been a big guiding light," she says. "I can ask a question, no matter how stupid I may think it is, and get an answer. For instance, my daughter had ringworm under her eye, and the stuff I was treating it with seemed to stain her skin. I called to ask if this was a normal reaction for an African American kid, and it was. But it was very nice to be able to ask this, to make you feel you're not crazy."

At the monthly meetings, "We talk about a lot of things that non-transracial families wouldn't understand," Klein says. "An African American woman who works at Von's asked me, 'Why did you get such a dark child? You could have gotten a lighter one.' As a non-African American, I never thought about her shade, but some African Americans do. And the issues on hair are tremendous. We compare notes on hair and skin creams. It's not like I can call my mom or my sister and ask these questions."

Klein feels keenly responsible for helping her daughter understand her culture, and also recognizes the need to educate herself.

"My daughter needs much more of a dose of her heritage because she doesn't come home to two black parents, but two white parents," she says. "And being part of IBP has helped me understand discrimination a million times more. I never realized how privileged I was. I can hail a cab at 11 at night or pass a check at a store without ID. A lot of black people can't do this. I need to know this for my daughter. Not now--she's a little princess--but later. You're going to have a very angry kid on your hands years down the line if you don't do the right thing now."

"For every family that calls IBP to say, 'I need help,' there are hundreds that don't," Herbert says. "They don't call because they feel inadequate. They don't want to admit they have questions. It's too bad."

She says the biggest thing interracial families need is contact, with other interracial families and with families of their child's race.

"Most families ask, 'Could you match us up with an African American family with kids of similar ages to ours?' like it's 'The Dating Game,' " she says. "Instead, we try to get them involved with more than one family, by offering settings and opportunities where they can meet families of other races."

IBP believes this reaching out to others is the only way to jump the big hurdles, like understanding and overcoming discrimination, and the small ones, Herbert says.

"We have a lot of people tell us they don't know what to do with their child's hair. We give them the name of a good salon in their area, but warn them that people may not like them right off the bat. There's a lot of ignorance and bigotry in the African American community, too. I tell them, 'If you're satisfied with the work they do at the salon, go back, and eventually you'll start meeting people.'

"That way, they can start to take the kids to the park together, or to McDonald's. That way, they can start to build up a network of friends."

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