Black, White and Gray: Transracial Adoption Last week, French aid workers were arrested in Chad for attempting to remove more than 100 children for placement in Europe. Lisa Marie Rollins, founder of Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora, wrestles with so-called baby lifting and transracial adoption.
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Black, White and Gray: Transracial Adoption

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Black, White and Gray: Transracial Adoption

Black, White and Gray: Transracial Adoption

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Eleven Europeans are still stuck in the African nation of Chad. They're accused of trying to kidnap 103 Chadian children by passing them off as orphans and taking them back to France to live with host families. If convicted, the Europeans could face 20 years of hard labor.

The French charity in question - it's known as Zoe's Ark - says it was just trying to give these impoverished kids a better life. That does not sit right with the orphans' parents, since most of the kids actually weren't orphans. Many Chadians are seeing this is a simple case of Western superiority complex, you know. Like, of course these little Africans would be so much better off in safest Europe. But on the other hand, wouldn't they be?

The story got us thinking about transracial adoption. Are all of the Madonna's and Brangelina's 45 adoptive kids necessarily better off because now they're living with rich white people?

We tracked down Lisa Marie Rollins. She's founder of Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora. And she writes a blog, A Birth Project. You can find it at She herself is a transracial adoptee. Hi, Lisa Marie.

Ms. LISA MARIE ROLLINS (Founder, Adopted and Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora): Hi. Good morning.

BURBANK: Thanks for getting up so early out there in California.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROLLINS: Thanks for having me.

BURBANK: How are you doing?

Ms. ROLLINS: I'm just drinking my coffee.

BURBANK: Okay. Good, yeah. Can you tell us a little bit about your own adoption story?

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah. I was adopted domestically in the United States through the social welfare system in Washington State in 1970. I was adopted - in foster care for about a year, and then was adopted by my family also in Washington State in seven - 1971. And I was…

BURBANK: And your adopted family was white.

Ms. ROLLINS: And my adopted family is white. They're basically like German-Yugoslavian stock, blonde hair, blue eyes, the whole thing. And my entire extended family is white. And I grew up, basically, in an all-white environment. I went to private school, was the only child of color - not just the only black child, but the only child of color for many years of my educational experience until I went to a public school in high school. And that was really the first time I - and - was started making friends, black friends and Vietnamese friends. So…

BURBANK: I understand that…

Ms. ROLLINS: But my experience was pretty isolating.

BURBANK: I understand that when before your parents had actually met you, there was some confusion about what your actual race was.

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah. Actually, that confusion kind of continued through all the way through high school, and it wasn't until college that I actually got sort of a clear picture of my racial identity. But when my parents - so in the 1970s, of course, there has been this history in the 1950s and the 1970s of Korean and Vietnamese adoptions in the United States. And my parents were really, like, not any exception to the sort of, you know, Christian families that were looking to adopt at that time. And they went to the adoption agency looking for what my mom said, when I interviewed her, an Asian mixed. And…

BURBANK: You were supposed to be an Asian mixed.

Ms. ROLLINS: I was supposed to be an Asian mix. And on my adoption papers, it said that I was Mexican and Filipino, and that my other birthparent was Mexican-Filipino - one was Mexican-Filipino, the other one was Caucasian. I'm sorry. I'm confused. One was Mexican…

BURBANK: You're still confused.

Ms. ROLLINS: …and white, and the other one was Filipino and Caucasian. And so I, basically, am going through life with people telling me that I'm not black. And but it's clear by looking at me that I am black. And so my theory on that, basically, has been that the adoption agency sort of made a marketing decision when they were giving me out to families, and made a decision to just sort of excise that part of my racial history because I was light enough to pass. But, of course, as I grew older, that didn't happen.


Yeah. I'm looking at your MySpace page.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: There's really no question in my mind.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ROLLINS: You know…

BURBANK: I wouldn't think - Asian mix would not be the first thing that came to mind.

STEWART: Although, I do like on your Web site, you talk about your other mix, that you're the six p's: poet, performer, playwright, professor, philosopher and party girl.

Ms. ROLLINS: Oh, yeah. See?

STEWART: That's quite a mix.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: So, Lisa, in your experience, having grown up being sort of the only person that look like you looked with a bunch of people who really loved you and really wanted the best for you…

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah.

BURBANK: …what goes through your mind when you see Madonna carrying some kid out of Malawi or these folks who are well-intentioned, but are taking someone and putting them in a place that's - they're going to make them always a sort of foreign person?

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah. I think several things. I mean, my - I am an adoptee activist who actually is working towards, you know, at some point, the abolition of adoption as we know it. So I definitely have sort of strong stance against the way that the social welfare system has set up - both internationally and domestically - has set up adoption. It really is sort of a money-making venture.

And - but I also, in terms of the way that race infuses itself into this situation, it's a difficult - it's a difficult thing when parents think that they absolutely know better than, you know, adult adoptees and researchers and folks who have been doing this work for many, many years and have been talking to them and saying, you know, whether the - talking about the difficulties of being transracially adopted, talking about what it means to be isolated when you're the only black person from miles and miles and miles, and what it means to, you know, have everybody's idea of blackness sort of projected on you when you're the only person in schools or any kind - or church or any kind of setting.

And I think that it's really arrogant of folks to assume that - and to sort of really take their children as an experiment and say, you know, I know that I am - I'm not racist and that, you know, my children will be loved, and so it'll be okay.

BURBANK: Well, I have to say, though, Lisa, that I find it sort of hard to understand how you could say you push for the abolition of adoption when you say that you love your adopted family. I mean, do you think your life would have been better off had you not been adopted?

Ms. ROLLINS: Well, let me just say, at first, I've sort of a two-part answer to that. I mean, the first part answer to that is, like, that question is like the question that adult adoptees actually abhor. I mean, there, of course, there is - you know, it's a question that we hear all the time, over and over.

Of course my life would not be the life that I have if I wasn't adopted. Of course I wouldn't have all of these opportunities. But what is it that actually makes all of these children available? How is it - is the social welfare system set up to take children away from their families, take children away from their mothers and not actually provide support systems for them while they're pregnant, support systems while they're raising children or if there is a moment in their life where they get into trouble and they need support? And, you know, perhaps, they do need to have their child go to foster care. But getting that child back then seems to become a larger and larger issue. And I think that those are the kinds of things that we are concerned about.

BURBANK: Right. So it sounds like - Lisa, by the way, can you stick around? We want to take you over the break here, because I have…

Ms. ROLLINS: Sure, sure.

BURBANK: …a few more questions for you. It sounds like what you're saying is there are a lot of other things that are sort of leading up to the point of adoption that you'd like to see people in high places take a look at. I want to ask you about that when we come back.

Ms. ROLLINS: Sure.

BURBANK: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. Stick around. We got lots of more for you.

(Soundbite of music)

BURBANK: Welcome back to THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. That's Alison Stewart over there.

STEWART: Hello. Good morning, everybody. We're always available online at

BURBANK: I'm Luke Burbank over here.

We're picking up on conversation we were just having about a story coming out of Africa right now, some Europeans there arrested for trying to take African kids out of there, they say, for a better life. And we're wondering about transracial adoption. And we're talking to somebody who is themselves a transracial adoptee, Lisa Marie Rollins, and she runs a blog,

Lisa, right before the break, you had said that you sort of push for the abolition of adoption. You feel like, as I understand it, you said it was a little conceited of parents to think that they know better for young kids, particularly young kids of a different race than they are.

I can understand that in the case of what's happening in Chad if, in fact, these kids weren't orphans, if they had parents, or kids in America or anywhere else. What about kids who are in the foster system? What about kids who don't have any family, and their choice is a life in this sort of institutional setting of American, you know, child welfare versus a home? Even if that home is with people of a different race?

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah. And I think that that's another one of those questions that seems to…

BURBANK: So that's the two questions you hate the most.

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah. Like that seems to get thrown out. What are we going to do about all of these children that are languishing…

BURBANK: No, but there are a lot of kids - there are a lot of kids…

Ms. ROLLINS: You know…

BURBANK: …who no one is trying to take care of. And if someone wants to take care of them, I don't understand how that can be a bad thing.

Ms. ROLLINS: Right. And I think that - I want to go back to the thing that I mentioned before about how do we know, really, that these children are children that no one wants to take care of? And how do we know - what are really, again, like, the circumstances, the individual circumstances that have these children put up for adoption? And how does, like, race and poverty and lack of support systems for the birthmothers and for the families - I'm sorry I'm sort of saying the same thing again - but factor into that?

I mean, if we think about, you know, how race plays into that a little bit. I mean, a lot of the children, and for Alameda County, for example, in California, it's like 59 percent of the children that are available for adoption are black children.

And - but there is really a large number - I mean, researcher is done - there's a really great article by Dorothy Roberts in the anthology "Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption." And she talks about, you know, how black women are much more likely than white women to be reported to hospital staff for substance abuse during pregnancies or to have their babies removed by child protective services. They're also much more likely to have their - not be given the same kind of opportunities for reunification after their children have been taken away from them. And so I think these kinds of things are the things that we're concerned about.

BURBANK: So it sounds like, again, we're back to the same thing, which is you feel like there are a lot of other kind of societal issues that are leading to this very bad kind of choice that has to be made later on. You know, we could talk about this for probably three or four hours, Lisa Marie. But we're going to have to stop it here because we have other things to get to. But I would encourage people to check out your blog, And I just want to say thanks a lot for coming on THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Ms. ROLLINS: Thank you. I'm can I just say one more thing…

BURBANK: Sure. Please.

Ms. ROLLINS: …about the adoptee organization that I founded?


Ms. ROLLINS: It - Fostered Adults with the African Diaspora, and it really is the first organization of its kind for black adoptees and African mixed race adoptees in the United States. And it really, we're attempting to be also a global organization that actually has something to say and advocate for these kinds of situations in Chad. I mean, we're modeling ourselves after these, you know, really, really strong Korean adoptee and Vietnamese adoptee networks that have been in existence for about 10 years.

BURBANK: Well, Lisa, Lisa, what we'll do is…

Ms. ROLLINS: Yeah.

BURBANK: …we'll put a link to your blog up and make sure people can take a look at what you're up do. Okay?

Ms. ROLLINS: Thank you.

BURBANK: Thanks again. We really appreciate it.

Ms. ROLLINS: Thanks for having me.

BURBANK: All right. Bye-bye. Get some sleep.

Ms. ROLLINS: Goodbye.

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