Adoption, Bullock does it the right way

Published Dec 8, 2015


Washington - Like every Sandra Bullock fan - and who isn't? - I was happy to read about the latest addition to the actress's family.

The Oscar winner, star of Gravity, The Blind Side and Miss Congeniality, announced last week that she had adopted a 3 1/2-year-old girl, Laila, from the Louisiana foster-care system. She joins Bullock's son, Louis, five, who also was adopted from Louisiana, and endearing family photos are now on newsstands.

“When I look at Laila, there's no doubt in my mind that she was supposed to be here,” Bullock gushes to People magazine. “I can tell you absolutely, the exact right children came to me at the exact right time.”

Louis had specified that he wanted a brother or sister with brown skin, Bullock says, and she told him they would be lucky to get either one.

Not only does that sound sweet, it's exactly what the actress needs to say.

For their whole lives, adopted children hear how lucky they are that their parents took them in - Bullock's children, no doubt, are in for extra doses of this. But there's also a flip side.

For many adoption advocates, especially those who focus on transracial adoptions - Bullock's children are African American - the idea that Bullock would call herself the lucky one is heartening. And rare. It speaks to a roiling debate about whose feelings get priority in adoptive families. And questions such as: Are adopted children allowed to express a range of emotions, including feelings of loss? Can transracial adoptees call out racism without feeling they are alienating their parents?

And: Must adoptees always feel grateful?

They are all part of the bigger conversation Bullock has folded into.

“Adoption is certainly a legitimate and wonderful way to make a family,” says author and parenting expert Deesha Philyaw. She and her then-husband had one daughter and, after they had trouble conceiving again, adopted their younger daughter as an infant. “But whether it's Sandra Bullock or whether it's me, I think that as adoptive parents, we have responsibility to think about the context in which we adopt.”

Philyaw notes efforts such as “Flip the Script” on social media that help adoptees tell their stories. She talks about ways adoptive parents can be more child-centric.

“Children don't just fall out of the air,” she says. What are the issues around inequality and the social safety net failing such that kids need to be in foster care in the first place?

She points to events like “Orphan Sunday,” sponsored by faith-based organisations, and says as adoptive parents, it's easy to feel altruistic. But “for our children's sake, we have to recognise that adoption is about loss as well. The child's loss of their original family.”

There's no indication Bullock is not aware of these nuances, Philyaw says, but “when celebrities do anything, it's an opportunity for dialogue.”

Lisa Marie Rollins is a writer, playwright and cultural activist who teaches race studies at San Francisco State University. In 2004, Rollins, who is Filipino and black and was adopted by white parents, began “A Birth Project” to explore identity issues around transracial adoption.

“Adoptees are set up as children who are disadvantaged. They have problems, they're in need of family, and when they get this family, they should be grateful,” Rollins says. And “it's not that those things are not true. It's just that when gratefulness gets set up as the only way for an adoptee to interact with a parent, then there's a power dynamic that gets set up on top of the regular parent power dynamic,” she says. Gratitude-only leaves out a lot of other emotions.

“And if you're a transracial adoptee, and you point out things that are racist, or begin to acknowledge myself as a person of colour, you wonder will that change my relationship with the only family that I have?”

Rollins applauds Bullock's choice to adopt from the foster-care system, which can be more stigmatised than other adoption avenues. But if she had Bullock's ear, she would tell her the same thing she tells other white adoptive parents: Your community should look like your family.

A lot of parents will send their kids to diverse schools or attend black cultural events, “but when they come home, there's no black or brown people interacting in any other parts of their lives,” Rollins says. It sends a message that diversity is for kids only, and, Rollins says, it can cause adoptees to wonder, “Is there something wrong with me that you don't want adults in your life that look like me?”

On top of trying to account for everything else your child may need, race adds a layer to parenting, Rollins says. One that's often tiring. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Bullock does with the role.

* Lonnae O’Neal writes a column about family, motherhood, race, culture, aging and life’s small stuff.

The Washington Post

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