First day in my new school in a small town in France, I’m 5 years old, it’s time to line up to get inside the class, I approach one of my new classmates — this was an almost entirely white school where most of the children of color were adopted by the way — and here it comes: “I’m not holding your hand, you’re Black.” Two major informations were brutally delivered to me that day: a) I was Black and b) it was reason enough for other children to refuse to hold my hand. My heart was broken, not only because of rejection but also because this incident marked the beginning of what would become my regular disappointments at my parents’ helplessness.
My parents: two endearing white middle-class French people who fought their way out of the working-class. Mom saw and used the (then efficient) French meritocratic education system that not only made her the first woman in her family to attend high school and then university, but also allowed her to become a teacher.
Dad quit school at 14 and started working as a locksmith in a factory and quickly managed to oversee construction projects. A most unusual couple in rural France in the 1970s with an atheist worker married to a Christian teacher who was making more money than him. And when they realized that my dad could not have children, contrary to most people who first try assisted reproductive technology (ART), they went straight to domestic adoption. Domestic, because my mom has always had pretty hard feelings towards transnational adoption. Long before people started to question it, she considered this practice to be unethical (if not un-Christian). In her view: how could one involve money in adoption? Once they were grown up, what would these children say about the fact that you took them away from their country?
And yet, being as French as it comes, race never entered her/their critical thinking on adoption. To be fair, their multiracial family was some kind of an “accident.” My parents had been on the domestic adoption waiting list for quite a while when my mom met my brother in her class — he was placed in a group home at the time. My brother was a great kid who was never visited by his biological family so, knowing that my parents were on the adoption waiting list, a social worker offered for them to start mentoring him: he would spend week-ends and holidays with my parents. Their relationship went on like this for a while — more than a year actually — and thus, the status of limitation for parental custody had expired for my brother’s first family — the French law states that after a year without any visits from your biological family, you can be adopted. The social worker then suggested that my parents filed for custody and since my brother was happy with it, they did.
As it turns out, my brother was Black. In the 1980s, “rainbow families” were NOT a thing in rural France and when the social services heard about the upcoming birth of a little girl whose Moroccan mother insisted on pointing that she would be Black, they called my parents. If they were okay with adopting another child of color, they would not have to wait another four years to expand their family. And that is how my parents went from temporary mentors to parents of two Black kids. So, now that I’m also an adult, I see how unfair it is to put them in the same basket as the White Cumbaya-singing hippies with no perspective on race of their era just because they adopted two Black children in an all-white French village in the 1980s. In their case, it sort of “happened.” They were definitely naive, but at least they had not been fetichisizing or performing their dream of a colorblind society through us. They were just truly colorblind themselves, utterly oblivious to racial discrimination because, in their experience, race was indeed, not an issue.
So, back to my first disappointment: here I am, standing like an idiot in the middle of the schoolyard, surrounded by little white kids who are asking why my mom (who teaches in the school) is white. And it hits me, I look at my arm, I look at theirs and suddenly, I see it too. I’m Black, actually, I see myself as brown, which I tell them but they all agree: I’m Black. And I feel betrayed: how could my parents tell me that I’m adopted from such an early age that I don’t even remember being told, while leaving out such an enormous piece of information?! How could they not see that I was Black? Were they that stupid? And if they saw and did not tell me, why were they so mean? Why leave me to be ridiculed in a schoolyard when it was so easy to notify me that I was different?
That feeling of helplessness and betrayal characterized my childhood and crystallized a very deep resentment of my parents. I later confronted them about their (much-too-late) realization that racism was alive and well. My mom argued that, at the time, she truly believed that my brother’s stories recounting racist acts against him were exaggerated, and I now believe her. She simply could not see it. After all, she came from a poor family and the French republican system had worked for her, it was designed to even inequalities of birth. If the educational system was not discriminating along class lines, why would it discriminate along race lines? So we grew up being torn apart by white supremacy while my parents were watching or should I say looking the other way, offering all sorts of irrelevant comments on how me and my brother were not really being discriminated against. And yet, it was happening all the time, pretty much everywhere we went, including at my grandparents’ house. Oh the jokes about my hair, oh my grandpa’s refusal to sit me on his lap on the grounds that I was “too big” compared to my white cousin (we were the same age), and so forth and so on.
Long story short, I’ve always been a tough cookie and this hatred fueled my desire to take over the world, which I did — I’m not done yet, but I foresee world domination for 2028! Sadly for my brother and all the other transracial adoptees in my school, the outcome was not so “positive” — I could write another essay on the overachieving transracial adoptee syndrome and its damaging psychological effects, but not today. And this is why this issue has to be politicized: it is unfair and unethical to leave all my brothers and sisters in relinquishment’s destiny to fate. You’re a tough cookie, you might stay alive and sane enough to pursue a decent life, you’re a sweet cookie, too bad, you’ll be eaten alive, better luck next time! I cannot accept that, I want all of us cookies to make it to adulthood, and I do not mean in a capitalist and utilitarian perspective of “what those kids could bring to the world.” I mean, us, being here, is enough. And our people as in, the global Black diaspora, not just black transracial adoptees, should claim us.
Sadly, it’s not always the case. Which adoptee has never heard : “Bounty”, “Oreo,” or any other tired, sweet and sour culinary metaphors created to remind us that our claiming of Blackness won’t necessary be met by the welcoming arms of our people. And yet, I’ve chosen to be Black. Not in some messed-up Dolezal, attention seeking, appropriative way but in a healing, empowering road to (re)discovery of my roots. I look Black — even if I’m probably mixed Arab/Black — and this is why growing up in France, I’ve always been categorized as such, way before I chose to (re)claim my Blackness. So it was a shock when I discovered the 1972 statement on interracial adoption by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), in my mid-20s:
“The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of Black children in white homes for any reason […] The socialization process for every child begins at birth and includes his cultural heritage as an important segment of the process. In our society, the developmental needs of Black children are significantly different from those of white children. Black children are taught, from an early age, highly sophisticated coping techniques to deal with racist practices perpetrated by individuals and institutions. These coping techniques become successfully integrated into ego functions and can be incorporated only through the process of developing positive identification with significant black others. Only a black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perception and reaction essential for a black child’s survival in a racist society. Our society is distinctly black or white and characterized by white racism at every level. We repudiate the fallacious and fantasied reasoning of some that whites adopting black children will alter that basic character.”
I felt betrayed again, but this time by my people. How come these struggles never made it to the francophone Black communities? How come nobody was claiming us? Little people have no agency, so if Black communities don’t stand up to protect us, who will? And then it hit me: as exemplified by my parents, race was absent from public and scholarly debate when I grew up, and it has only made a come back due to violent episodes in the recent past. In this context French Black communities, contrary to the Black British or the African American communities are mostly abiding by this informal law that states that advocating for Black people’s rights is somehow racist because you can either be French or Black, Black French not being an option.
Race is such a taboo in France that an amendment to the Constitution was passed in 2018 to ban the word “race” from it. Ethnic statistics are forbidden on the account that they are… racists! And as far as slavery and colonialism are concerned, it is a constant struggle to not have these memories erased. In 2005, the article 4 of a law concerning the history connecting France’s former colonizers to its colonized populations proposed to introduce a passage in educational textbooks that would present the “positive aspects” of colonization. In 2015, the Administrative Court in Guadeloupe (French Carribean island) ruled in favor of a Guadeloupian lobby — read slave-owner descendants — who wanted to erect a monument in honor of the first French colonizers — read murderers of indigenous peoples who then implemented slavery. The proud people of Guadeloupe immediately destroyed it but this is telling enough of the constant state of disdain and erasure that Black people face in France. In a nutshell, in my country “race” is a word not to be uttered and political institutions as well as most scholars avoid recalling the existence and implementation of a biological and political racism that started as early as the 16th century — the first French slave ship left in 1594.
This erasure of Black people’s history and specific existence combined with the French universal republicanism rhetoric plays a role in the difficult politicization of adoption. And yet, I won’t stop until every little cookie knows that there are now more and more former little cookies looking out for them. The gratitude narrative has to go, whether regarding colonization or adoption. If anybody should be grateful, it’s adoptive parents and, by extension, France. Transnational and/or transracial adoption is a rational process, the “right to children” and the “love conquers all” narratives too often mask that (a vast majority) of white prospective parents from the global North do not start their parenting project with a plan to adopt children of color.
So when I talk about adoption in the media or in conferences, I now say that it is high time to remove the burden of gratitude off adoptees’ shoulders. Yes, adoption allows children who have been relinquished or separated from their families to have a family, but it also allows people who wanted to start a family and couldn’t because of infertility or other issues to have children. As a kid, I remember strangers saying to my parents (in front of me) “Oh, you’ve adopted her, how nice of you, she’s so lucky!” and this comment would always get a scathing and immediate response from my mom: “We’re the ones who are lucky because we could not have children.” After many years of therapy, research, and advocacy about adoption and adoptees’ rights, I came to consider that answer as the greatest gift my parents ever gave me: setting me free from gratitude. From this strength given by my parents, I have the desire to touch those who have not had the same luck. I found a path to my own Blackness and to you, my Black brothers and sisters in relinquishment, know that you are free to define what it means to be Black to you and rest assured that you are proud and loved members of the Black diaspora.■