What Happens When White Parents Adopt Black Children and Move to Black Neighborhoods
Brad and Vickie Summerquist moved to Seattle’s Central District in 2003. They chose to purchase their first home in this rapidly changing, historically Black neighborhood because they loved its vibrant, eclectic character. Also, Vickie grew up in nearby Tacoma and prefers to live among people of color rather than the predominately White neighborhoods so common in much of Seattle.
Vickie is White; as is her husband, Brad. Their two sons, Tyrese and Ruson, are both Black. This particular combination of race, family, and neighborhood puts the Summerquists in an interesting group: White parents raising Black kids in historically Black neighborhoods.
Based on my work with Amara, a foster care agency that also works with adoptive families, it seems White adoptive parents are becoming more aware of the complexities of Black children being raised by White parents in the United States. Possibly they’ve seen the chilling StoryCorp video of a Black adoptee’s near-death beating at the hands of police, from which his White mother could not protect him. Or maybe they’ve engaged in the increasing number of programs created specifically to help support transracially adoptive families avoid the common pitfalls of “colorblind parenting,” training about White privilege, racism, colorism, and microaggressions that are being taught more frequently at child-welfare agencies across the country.
Many White adoptive parents are realizing they are limited in what they can offer their Black children. They are seeking community with people who look like their children in hopes of helping them navigate the challenges of growing up Black in America. From Minnesota to Tennessee to Washington, I’ve interacted with many White adoptive parents who are choosing to move from their (usually) affluent, mostly White neighborhoods to less affluent, mostly Black neighborhoods.
Starting to sound familiar? Whether for their kids or for cheap housing, White folks moving into historically Black, or Brown neighborhoods has a name we’ve been hearing in Seattle a lot lately. It’s called gentrification.
What Happened to the Central District?
Gentrification is evident throughout Seattle, but perhaps most pronounced in the Central District, which is projected to be less than 10 percent Black within the next decade, down from 73 percent in 1970.
This shift is particularly painful considering the history of racism and homeownership in Seattle. Because of racist restrictive neighborhood covenants throughout Seattle, as well as pervasive red-lining, the Central District and Chinatown were essentially the only Seattle neighborhoods open to people of color homebuyers between the 1920s and 1940s. Today, many of these homeowners find themselves priced out of their neighborhood, while their previously close-knit community is displaced and dispersed.
The Summerquists loved living in the Central District when they first moved in. But the neighborhood has changed so much around them in the last 14 years. They are noticing fewer Black-owned businesses and Black homeowners. They watch the developers canvassing 23rd and Union and feel a general sense of loss for longtime residents. Brad laments that a “Halal grocery store and community coffee shop, frequented by the local East Indian community, was recently bulldozed.”
Worst of all, they note some very concerning attitudes from the people moving in. Vickie says that too many of the new, White residents show a “disturbing disregard for the history and legacy of the neighborhood.”
The National Association of Black Social Workers called transracial adoption cultural genocide.
And while they bemoan these changes, Brad and Vickie acknowledge that the mere presence of their upper-middle class transracial family plays a role in the very changes they resent. In choosing to purchase their home in a historically Black neighborhood, the Summerquists displaced the previous owner—a longtime Black resident.
Brad says it makes him sad that he and his wife are gentrifiers.
“We are displacing and diluting the Black population by being here.”
Does Transracial Adoption Harm Black Culture?
Transracial adoption often manifests as privileged, White parents adopting kids of color: 73 percent of all adopted children of color are adopted into White families. The prevalence of White parents adopting children of color has been a concern for a long time. In 1972, 15 years before I was adopted into a transracial family, the National Association of Black Social Workers called transracial adoption cultural genocide, asserting that non-Black parents are not capable of preserving a Black child’s culture or building their identity as a person of color in the United States.
Many adoptive parents disagree. In the 1980s, a White adoptive parent reflected an often-repeated sentiment among White adoptive families. “The quickest cure for racism would be to have everyone in the country adopt a child of another race,” he said. “No matter what your beliefs, when you hold a 4-day-old infant, love him, and care for him, you don’t see skin color, you see a little person that is very much in need of your love.”
Many transracial adoptive families are caught amid the continuing debate, however, working hard to provide the best possible life for their children—keeping their original culture, race and identity in mind.
What Do White Adoptive Parents Say?
In a closed Facebook group of about 3,000 people who identify as a part of the larger transracial adoption community, I recently queried families who have moved to neighborhoods below their socioeconomic status to better support their child’s racial identity. I asked, “Do you consider yourself a gentrifier?”
One family stated:
“Yes, because there is no way for us to provide our children with culture and community that’s consistent with their birth heritage, without contributing to current gentrification trends. We are immediately labeled gentrifiers, which results in us becoming outsiders, even though it is completely antithetical to our motivation for residing in and connecting to these communities.”
Underneath my brown skin, there lived a simmering anxiety of feeling not Black enough.
Another transracial adoptive family said:
“I don’t feel that I’m a gentrifier, because I basically just do as I’m told [within my new neighborhood]. I don’t bring any new ideas to anyone in the community. If I have a new idea I tell my [Black] friend about it and let her decide if it’s actually a good idea etc…It’s a win-win, because my kids get to be mentored by Black community leaders.”
Does Neighborhood Make Much Difference?
The Summerquists’ experience hits close to home. I am Black, and grew up in the predominantly White town of Bellingham, Washington, after having been adopted from foster care in Tennessee. I was raised by White parents. I was one of the few kids of color in my schools and I did not have a single neighbor who reflected my race, except for residents of the psychiatric hospital just a couple miles from my home.
As a child, I attended sleepovers where my friends took turns doing each other’s hair. But my hair, a coarse afro, was never touched. It was foreign to my blonde-haired, blue-eyed friends whose silky strands were able to be brushed with a comb. My parents did what they could to help me and my siblings remain connected to our racial identity, including lobbying the band-aid companies to create “skin-tone” band-aids for people who looked like me. They did not ascribe to a colorblind mentality, and we had regular conversations about race relations and the history of race in our country and around the world.
However, underneath my brown skin, there lived a simmering anxiety of feeling not Black enough. I often wonder if living in a neighborhood where I could see Black people represented more wholly—at the supermarket, in my classroom, as my piano teacher—could have eased this anxiety?
The Summerquists have made a habit of seeking out the voices of adult transracial adoptees like myself, in hopes that their children may grow up feeling Black. They’ve intentionally sought out mostly Black spaces for their sons where they can see, meet, and build relationships with a variety of Black people.
Brad Vickie Tyrese and Ruson Summerquist.
Photo from the Summerquist family.
The Summerquists’ Black neighbors teach their children about the historically Black neighborhood in which they now live. Growing up around other Black folks offers their sons firsthand perspectives on micro-aggressions and insights on racism that Brad and Vickie would not be able to provide from their own experiences.
And while they’re grateful they’ve been able to surround their sons with people who mirror them, Brad and Vickie’s pride is complicated by the knowledge of how the Central District is changing, and how the economics of Seattle continue to impoverish Black people—as well as their own role in these changes.
What’s the Solution? It depends.
Currently, my White husband and I rent a small apartment in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, where the census reports a Black population of 2.2 percent. Because of the wealth of the neighborhood and the continued oppression of people of color, even if I bought a home in Wallingford, I would not be viewed as a gentrifier. Instead, as I walk to the neighborhood coffee shop, my neighbors lovingly gawk at my afro, comment on the beauty of my full lips and return from their Hawaiian vacations with an outstretched arm, looking to measure their tanned beige skin, next to my dark skin. It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that this neighborhood feels like home.
White adoptive parents must be willing to have difficult conversations.
I wonder what will feel like home to the Summerquists’ sons? Perhaps they will be lifelong Central District residents and that neighborhood will provide them with ample opportunities to navigate their Black identity. Perhaps they will enjoy the inevitably conspicuous nature of being part of a transracial family. Maybe, like me, they’ll feel comfortable in mostly White spaces, and sometimes wonder if they’re Black enough. And does their growing up in the Central District instead of Bellingham or Wallingford change that?
Brad and Vickie recognize that racial representation matters, and are addressing this in a nuanced, and individualized way. As every parent, they are committed to doing everything they can to help their sons achieve success, happiness and self-actualization. Unfortunately, in doing so, they—and other adoptive parents—are contributing to the gentrification of this city; displacing a once-thriving community of working class and middle-income Black families.
And yet, White adoptive parents of Black children remaining in mostly White neighborhoods does not, in itself, stem the tide of gentrification. It does, however, make it much more challenging for transracially adopted children to grow up with a solid, positive self-identify.
This situation, of course, has no perfect solution. Ultimately, each family must grapple with these tough questions themselves and decide what’s right for them.
The only thing I am certain of, is that White adoptive parents must continue to ask these questions—and so many more—as they raise their Black children. Whether Wallingford or the Central District, White adoptive parents must be willing to have difficult conversations, be uncomfortable, and tirelessly seek out and work through their own internalized racism for the good of their children.
Only when White adoptive parents approach their parenting with humility, openness, and deep self-analysis will we be able to truly find wholeness and healing for our children, ourselves and our neighborhoods.