Growing up black with white adoptee parents

Precious Williams, author of a book about growing up as a black child adopted by a white family, ponders the importance of ethnic matching

There is currently fierce debate over whether it is better to delay the adoption of a child, to find a good ethnic match, or if the delay itself is more harmful than a less than ideal adoption. Precious Williams was one of the thousands of black babies to be privately fostered by white families in the 1970s. She gives her view:

“As a new-born, I was advertised in Nursery World and taken on by an elderly white woman in West Sussex. My cringeworthy social services records from that period note that my new foster mother ‘devoted more time than most would have done to this coloured child’.

“When my West African-born, London-based, natural mother sometimes failed to pay for my keep – my foster mum would use her state pension to make sure I was fed and clothed. My natural mother completely lost interest in me (and stopped paying for me) when I was about 10 and a family court judge ruled that I should remain with my white foster mother for the rest of my childhood. Had all of this taken place today, I would have ended up in a children’s home – unless by some slim chance an adoptive family whose ethnicity perfectly matched my natural parents’ (Nigerian and Sierra Leonean) came forward. And what are the chances of that?

“Today the vast majority of children awaiting adoption in the UK are black, mixed race or Asian and the overwhelming majority of adoptive parents available are white. Black adoptive parents are scarce. And yet it’s almost impossible now for a white family to adopt or foster a non-white child. Is this political-correctness at its most mindless – or is there method to this madness? My experience leads me to believe that it’s a bit of both.

“The black family I was born into, and who visited me in my foster home occasionally, were wealthy, well-educated and sophisticated. Conversely, my white foster family were of modest means and lived on a council estate. Still, there was a sense seeping into my consciousness that white people were somehow better than black people. I felt it in the comments people made when I was coming of age: ‘You’re pretty for a black girl.’ ‘Clever for a coloured girl.’ ‘I don’t see you as black.’ ‘You’re the same as us – underneath.’ My foster family loved me and tried their best: they’d drive around the South Coast trying to find afro products for my hair. My white foster-sister even taught herself to cook the popular West African dish joloff rice. And yet I still grew up utterly despising being black and feeling ashamed of my ethnicity.

“It took me years and years to undo the damage to my sense of self. I wish my foster family had said, ‘You’re a black girl and that’s great’ instead of ‘We don’t see you as black – we love you’. But, hey, at least they loved me and told me so every day. Love may not be enough and racial identity is important. But it’s got to be a lot better than growing up in a children’s home.”

Precious: A True Story by Precious Williams is published by Bloomsbury

This article is published in the 29 July issue of Community Care magazine under the heading ‘I grew up despising being black and ashamed of my identity’

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