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by Charles Boehm-Hill
Illustration by Jesse Sandhu, Age 6
ABOUT A YEAR AGO I RECEIVED A PHONE CALL FROM A VICTORIA WOMAN WHO IDENTIFIED HERSELF AS THE ADOPTIVE MOTHER OF TWO HAITIAN-BORN GIRLS OF AFRICAN HERITAGE. She said one of the girls was experiencing difficulties at her elementary school and asked if I could help with an individualized educational plan (IEP). I had been referred to her because of my training in school psychology and my work in prejudice reduction and conflict resolution. While we worked together, we came round to discussing the ramifications of raising a child of African heritage in Victoria. Many families in Victoria and on Vancouver Island are parenting children of African heritage. They report that one of the greatest challenges is to be constantly confronted with issues of adoption, culture, gender, colour and race. They are faced with such questions as: "When can we identify our child's behaviour as relating to development issues, rather than adoption or race?" and, "What do you do or say when family members don't support your child's racial identity?"
These kinds of questions prompted the creation of a support group which we call A Support Group for Families Raising Children Where One or Both of the Parents are of Non-African Heritage. One family I met said they wanted to adopt a child, any child, and when they finally brought home their son of African heritage, it occurred to them what they had done. "We have a black son in lily-white Victoria," said the father. Neither parent had any experience with people of African heritage, either as friends, co-workers, or acquaintances.
To understand how to support children of colour who have been adopted into European Canadian homes, we must first understand what these children face in a society that is biased about both adoption and race. We are witnessing the decline of the "dominant culture" theory‹those who are now classified as minorities are fast becoming the majority. Still, we are bombarded by racist values, no matter what our skin colour. A child growing up with parents of another race must learn the skills necessary for survival in times of increasing racial tension. In a racist society, being both comfortable in and aware of one's skin is a life and death matter.
Children cannot choose between their family and their race without negating integral pieces of themselves. The goal is for these kids to be comfortable in all the worlds they populate. Parents must help their children to feel part of the race with which the society will identify them. To learn to walk the walk and talk the talk, these children must have role models within the race. No one who is of European descent can know what it is to be a person of African heritage. If European Canadians love their children, they should be willing to sacrifice their own comfort of living in a "lily-white" neighbourhood or always being in the majority. They should choose friends, business partners, and professionals to include adults, children and young people of their child's race. Picture books, ethnic restaurants and festivals are not enough.
We all must affirm and acknowledge these children's dual identities in both European and African heritage communities as well as birth and adoptive families. If we are successful, we will raise adults in a unique position to understand and access white-dominated society while standing with pride and power in their own racial identity and self-awareness.
Charles Boehm-Hill is Owner/Director of Paideia Educational Consulting which provides conflict resolution, prejudice reduction and organization consulting services.
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