What I Learned About White Savior Complex After A Birth Mother Changed Her Mind On Our Adoption

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Race and The Changing Face of Family

2020 was a race to the finish. And, for us as Americans, there hasn’t, perhaps, been a year that highlighted race itself in such a prevalent way since the 1960s. Xenophobia, overt and covert racism, BLM, Anti-Asian sentiment — it all came rushing to the surface, causing a massive tidal wave that demanded change.

Whether we are Latinx, Black, Asian-American, mixed-race, multi-cultural, or white, the places we view and/or are experiencing this tidal wave from are different. My particular view has varied as I often look through multiple frameworks, constantly in flux. One of these is as the Cuban-American mother of two adopted children" a mixed-race 3-year-old-boy and a Guatemalan-American 9-month-old girl. 

My framework wasn’t built in 2020 though — its roots go way back. Before we adopted my son, my husband and I had two “failed” adoptions, one of which gave us our first experience with the complexity of race as it lives inside the adoption process. 

For this adoption, the birth mother was a young Black woman in her very early twenties. The pregnancy had been a mistake, the result of a casual encounter, and she felt she had worked way too hard to get through college to then fall into the trap of single parenting. She truly believed adoption was the answer. 

RELATED: 12 Things To Know Before Adopting A Child

And so, we all planned. Together. One thing led to the other and soon we were receiving a text: her water had broken. Then, she went silent. We were anxious. Was everything ok?

The birth mother had 48 hours after giving birth to change her mind on the adoption — a crucial, gut-churning, yet deeply necessary, part of the process for everyone involved. Eventually, the birth mother texted us and said she was still absolutely wanting to go through with the adoption and we could visit her and the baby in the hospital.

When I saw this young woman’s face, however, it was not the same face I’d seen just days before. The baby was in the NICU (and would, ultimately, be okay), but something had happened to this young woman. Tired, wiser — she was now a mother. 

With every hour that passed, she seemed to take a deeper dive inside. This was my first time going through an adoption process so I didn’t know what ‘normal’ was. The moment that knocked everything on its head for me was when one of the nurses tending to the birth mother got close to me, looked me up and down, shook her head, and sneered. 

The young woman, in the end, did not give the baby up; and that, I believe, is as it should be in this case.

Adoption is about life and family, and it felt as though this young woman had made a decision which she had perhaps not envisioned at the beginning of the process, but one which the adoption process itself had led her toward. I cannot pretend to know more about her internal thoughts and feelings, but the outcome felt right. 

RELATED: I Gave Up My Son For Adoption To My Own Parents — And Now I Want Him Back

What stays with me most about that ‘failed’ (I don’t like that word because I don’t consider it a failure) adoption was the nurse. That nod, the mean sneer she gave me. What was she seeing and trying to say (or, not say)? 

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that, according to the Institute for Family Studies (IFS), adoptive families are usually white, well educated, and financially secure. From this, there’s arisen controversy: a “white savior narrative” — the Angelina-Jolie complex let’s call it — that there are a ton of wealthy, white parents wanting to ‘save’ or, worse, ‘accessorize’ their lives with black babies. It is a criticism that carries with it decades of inequity, pain, and, in essence, the deep marks of slavery’s shackles.

But, adopted children and parents are more complicated than this narrative (and definitely more complicated than meets the eye) and, most importantly, changing. 

IFS statistics point, as of 2011, to only 9% of adopted kindergartners in the U.S. as Black, 23% as Hispanic, 17% as Asian, and 11% as multiracial. I, for instance, fit only part of the leading demographic for adoptive parents. I am older, about to turn 42, and highly educated (I have a PhD, two Masters, and a BA) — that part fits.

But, I am also Hispanic; and depending on who you ask, I am or am not white. I am the daughter of Cuban refugees. My parents literally had zero dollars to their name when they arrived in this country, just the clothes on their back — that’s it. My grandmother bartered rum for food to feed her children on their long journey to the U.S. My personal journey with adoption began in my teens when I volunteered at a halfway house for kids who were about to enter foster care.

Post-adoption, the racial tensions I experience are now playing out toward my children.

My son is mixed race, but so is my family, so people don’t ask as many questions about him, interestingly. More questions arise when people meet my daughter. Her birth mother is Native American from Guatemala. The question I get more often than not when they find out she’s adopted is (get ready: cringe alert): Is she Chinese? This, of course, opens up a whole other window into our internalized biases.

Here’s the thing. The face of adoption is shifting; and, more broadly, the face of the American family is too, in a wonderful way. Our perceptions need to (and will) change with them. The tidal wave that arose will, necessarily, tear down many of our old frameworks.

This means exchanging old reference points for vast and open spaces, which can be frightening for some. It might be a bumpy transition, but the ultimate view is broader, better, more inclusive — panoramic — and rooted in the knowledge of where we are coming from and, most importantly, looking toward the future.

RELATED: 21 Of The Most Inspiring Quotes For Parents Raising Adopted Kids

Vanessa Garcia is a multidisciplinary artist working as a screenwriter, novelist, playwright and journalist whose debut novel, White Light, was named one of the Best Books of 2015 by NPR, and won an International Latino Book Award. She's written for Sesame Street and Caillou (among other TV series), and her radio play Ich Bin Ein Berliner about Cuba and the Berlin Wall launches April 2021.