I have touched on this issue before, but it has surfaced again today as the government publishes its new guidance to social services departments. The guidance states that “race should not be a factor” in adoption decisions provided that other welfare considerations indicate that the prospective placement is in the child’s best interests. Radio 4’s Today programme carried an interview with a black man who had been adopted by white parents who, he said, had struggled long and hard to overcome the racially informed objections of the adoption authorities. He was adamant that such considerations were entirely misplaced. His adoptive parents had provided him with a loving and stable home, which he compared against the horrors of being in care. He dismissed all ideas of there being such a thing as “black culture” on which he might have missed out, and stridently asserted that his culture was “English”. He ridiculed any other approach by sarcastically referring to the idiocy of suggesting that, because his antecedents were African, he should have been “running around in an animal skin wielding a spear”.
It’s not often that someone demonstrates so powerfully by their arguments exactly those dangers that they claim do not exist. I have rarely heard a more disturbing example of the emptying of cultural content, and the negation of identity. This man’s contribution also exemplified the dangers of extrapolating from one individual’s experience to a policy for society at large. It is not for me to say what would have been better for this man than the cultural annihilation that he appears to have suffered, and it’s clear that it is not his view that he has suffered at all. He is welcome to his point of view, and it is equally clear that the social and economic status of his adoptive parents have brought enormous benefits alongside this dubious cultural solipsism. But I do not believe that this man’s individual experience provides a sound, nor indeed a healthy, perspective from which to consider the fraught issue of inter-cultural adoption.
The argument is usually framed thus: that the need of all children to have a loving and stable home life is much more important than the politically correct concerns of social workers obsessed with race and culture. To this basis is usually added the fact that because relatively fewer ethnic minority parents offer themselves as potential adopters, the children’s homes that still exist are disproportionately populated by black young people for whom no adoptive parents can be found, but only because willing white adopters are forbidden from offering the family life those children desperately need. In this way it is suggested that concern about cultural identity is actually having the perverse consequence of discriminating against black children and blighting their lives in a way that white children are spared.
We need to cut through this Gordian knot with the knife of dialectic balance. The positions that claim on the one hand that cultural identity between children and their adoptive parents is the be-all and end-all of the matter, and on the other that all we need is love, are both wrong, simplistic, and inadequate. Denying the existence of a racially connected cultural identity is demonstrably wrong-headed and idealistic. It cannot be true whilst racism remains an everyday experience for black people in Britain; whilst application forms from Leroys, Abegundes and Mohammeds are routinely less successful than those from Peters, Philips and Davids; whilst fascists and racists still march on our streets. Simply leaving black children in an inadequate and damaging care system as if their cultural health was the only aspect of their health worth worrying about is equally wrong-headed.
What should we do? We should continue to try and attract parents from across the cultural spectrum to offer themselves as adopters. We should redouble our efforts to remove the stain of racism from our society. We should do something about the scandal that complacently accepts that being in care is somehow inevitably, inexorably damaging. It is not. What is damaging is a care system that underpays and undervalues its staff, that offers the work to the lowest bidder, and that treats children as clients to be “looked after” rather than offspring to be valued and developed. What we should not do is deny that culture exists, or that it is of any significance. We should not pretend that there is a single culture in this country called “being English”. We should not allow the privileged experience of one “lucky” black child adopted into rich, middle class society, to blind us to the realities that afflict the far greater number who are adopted in inter-racial families that then break down, or which do not adequately prepare those children for survival in Britain as it really is, not as we would like to imagine that it is.