There are three fundamental, complicating truths about adoption. First, every single adoption begins with profound loss. Through death, abandonment, or even loving surrender, a child suffers the loss of his or her mother and father. Second, the demographics of those in need of loving homes do not precisely match the demographics of those seeking a new child. Adoptive parents are disproportionately white. Adopted children are not. Thus, multiracial families are a natural and inevitable consequence of the adoption process. Third, American culture has long been obsessed with questions of race and identity.
Combine these three truths and you will not only begin to understand the challenge of adoption, you’ll also gain insight into a darkness in American culture, a darkness that scorns even the bond between parent and child. I know this firsthand. Amid the stories of adoption in America is the story of my family—the story of my youngest daughter.
I’m an evangelical Christian, and ever since I was a young man, two Bible verses have tugged at my soul. The first comes from the Book of James, and defines “pure” religious practice in part as looking after “widows and orphans in their distress.” The second, from the Book of Galatians, declares an eternal truth: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As a result, my wife and I not only felt called to adopt, but we believed that race was no barrier to unity for a family of genuine faith.
And so, in the summer of 2010, we journeyed to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to pick up our youngest child, Naomi Konjit French. As with every adoption story, hers begins with profound loss. Her unwed mother surrendered Naomi to her grandmother and grandfather and then disappeared from her life. Her grandparents were subsistence farmers, barely able to eke out a living. Then her grandfather died, and Naomi and her grandmother began to starve. By the time Naomi was 2 years old, she weighed barely more than 14 pounds. That was her condition when she was abandoned again—this time lovingly turned over to an adoption agency. Her grandmother simply couldn’t keep her alive.
Think about the trauma. As a toddler, she’d already experienced death, starvation, and abandonment. And soon enough, she’d experience displacement. This American family arrived, scooped her up, and flew her halfway across the Earth. Within a day she was in a new land, living with people she did not know.
From the instant we saw her, we loved her with our whole hearts, but any adoptive family can tell you (indeed, any family at all can tell you) that love does not heal all hurts. There is pain that can last a lifetime.
I will never, ever forget the moment when we told our daughter her story—when we held one another and wept shamelessly and publicly in a pizza parlor in Middle Tennessee. (Parenting tip: Never have the tough conversations in restaurants.) It was a hard night, but our bond has grown, and we can speak more freely about the difficult past. In fact, one surprising consequence of that conversation is that Naomi has developed even more curiosity about (and pride in) the country of her birth. It was as if lifting the veil of secrecy freed her to embrace her heritage.
Day by day, we love one another and we fight through that pain, the consequence of trauma and loss. How does a little girl attach to a new mom after losing a mother and a grandmother in rapid succession? How does a father bond with a little girl when the only man she was ever close to died before she was old enough to speak? And early-childhood malnutrition carries with it developmental challenges that can last long after she regained her health and strength.
All of this is hard, but many families face far greater challenges. And, as we remind ourselves daily, we’re blessed beyond measure. Naomi is growing up in an intact home with siblings who love her deeply. She’s part of a church and a school community that are dedicated to helping her flourish. Her parents have good jobs, and the days of material deprivation are long past.
But hovering just outside the frame—and sometimes intruding directly into our lives—is a disturbing reality. There are people who hate that our family exists. Actual racists loathe the idea of white parents raising a black child, and ideological arguments about identity raise questions about whether a white family’s love can harm a child of a different race. And, sometimes, people even question whether adoptive parents truly love their children, claiming that parents adopt to “virtue signal” or simply to ostentatiously demonstrate their open-mindedness.
Before we adopted, we of course knew that there has long been political opposition to transracial adoption. In 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers famously declared white adoption of black children to be a form of “cultural genocide.” But that was decades ago. By the 21st century, American churches were fully engaged in an adoption movement. Families continued to adopt domestically, but they also reached out (like we did) overseas. By 2004, the peak of international adoption, Americans brought home 22,884 children, many of them with special needs, many of them of different races from their new parents.
In 2010, the year we adopted, The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson wrote an article that reflected the heartfelt views of countless adoptive families. It was the “noblest thing about America,” he said, that “we care for children of other lands who have been cast aside.” And what of multiracial families? His answer was our answer: “Instead of undermining any culture, international adoption instructs our own. Unlike the thin, quarrelsome multiculturalism of the campus, multiethnic families demonstrate the power of affection over difference.” There was a spirit of optimism, of hope that we could actually live the promise from Galatians, and in living that promise help change the nation we loved.
But then came a backlash. Claims of cultural imperialism, wounded national pride, and rare, sad horror stories of exploitation or abuse soured foreign nations against American families. And at home, identity politics and even outright hostility against the Christian adoption movement triggered attacks from some on the left—attacks that were soon to be matched and exceeded by attacks from a racist right.
The first significant blow came from the IRS during the Obama administration. The adoption tax credit (a significant financial aid to adoptive families) was made fully refundable for the 2010 and 2011 tax years. The IRS responded with mass-scale audits of adoptive families. In 2011, it audited a staggering 68 percent of families who claimed the adoption tax credit. In 2012, that figure hit 69 percent.
My family was caught in the dragnet. So at the same time we were integrating a new child into our home, we were also combing through adoption receipts trying to prove to the IRS that we had indeed adopted, that we had indeed spent the incredible sum we reported, and that we hadn’t defrauded the government. Thousands of families faced the same task, often with far more complex adoptions featuring receipts and records written in languages they couldn’t decipher. An October 2011 Government Accountability Office report indicated that the IRS “had not found any fraudulent adoption tax credit claims, and there had been no referrals of adoption tax credit claims to its Criminal Investigation unit.”
Next, in 2013, Kathryn Joyce, a writer and journalist who studies and reports on American evangelical Christianity, published a book called The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption. It was a blistering attack on the evangelical adoption movement, claiming that the adoption industry was rife with corruption and that Evangelicals were in the grips of an ominous “orphan fever” motivated primarily by a desire to evangelize orphan children. The book received significant coverage. Joyce wrote essays in The New York Times Sunday Review and Mother Jones. She was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air.
We quickly discovered that if you’re the white parents of an adopted black child, and you’re in the public eye at all, men and women will viciously criticize you for having the audacity to believe that you can raise your kid. At times, the criticism was direct and personal—most of it directed at my wife. It was one thing to face hostile comments on blogs or random tweets. It was another to face angry direct messages and sometimes-tense personal encounters in public. Family and friends were aghast. Look at what the left does and says to loving families, we remarked to one another. Look at what they believe about faithful Christians.
Then, sometime around the summer of 2015, we began to notice a shift. The attacks on our family came less and less from the left, and increasingly from the so-called alt-right—a vicious movement of Trump-supporting white nationalists who loathe multiracial families. They despise international adoption. They call it “race-cucking your family” or “raising the enemy.” Heaven help you if they find you online, and find us they did. In part because I criticized their movement directly—and in part because I refused to support Donald Trump in 2016—they came after us with a vengeance.
They lifted pictures of my then-7-year-old daughter from social media and Photoshopped her into a gas chamber, with Donald Trump pressing the button to kill her. They put her image in slave fields. They found my wife’s blog and filled the comments section with gruesome pictures of dead or dying African Americans. They made me wish for the days when the left came after us; at least progressive critics didn’t want my daughter to die.
We’re an extreme case, mainly because my wife and I are both writers and we’ve both offered very public (and controversial) political commentary. Not every adopted family has been audited by their government, been attacked online from left and right, and seen their child threatened by racists. No one should believe that our experience is the experience of every adoptive family. But many, many families have their own experiences of hatred and ignorance.
White parents see racism directed at their black kids. Cruel people use social media to accuse parents of raising kids as fashion statements. Others lecture them on their inherent inability to meet the needs of children of color. The hate our family received may have been more prolific because of who we are, but that hate is real, it is part of American life, and it will find its way to all too many families that looks like ours.
In the years since we brought our daughter home, overseas adoption has plummeted—down 72 percent since 2005—and it’s not hard to see one of the reasons. A broken American culture inflicts itself on nations abroad and families at home, and attitudes shift. In 2010, before we left for Ethiopia, the primary response from friends and acquaintances reflected the hope and joy of the moment. “Are you so excited?” they asked—offering the cheerful rhetorical question always asked of expectant parents. Since then, I’ve seen the question posed to adoptive parents change: “Are you ready?” people wonder, as they seek to prepare parents for problems to come.
For our part, we’ve sheltered our daughter from all these attacks. One day she’ll learn. One day I’m sure we’ll hold one another again—this time not in a pizza parlor—and weep for the hate directed at her because of her beautiful skin, a hate designed to wound her precious soul. We’ll do our best to guard her heart against those who would seek to turn child against parent, to claim that her parents’ love was somehow suspect and their faith a source of oppression rather than a source of life and hope.
We love our daughter more than we love our own lives. But the idealism of 2010 is gone. Then, we thought our family reflected the future. Now we know that was naive. Now we know that while the promise of Galatians—the promise that we are “all one”—is true in the Kingdom of Heaven, in America it does not yet apply.