Why 'Colorblindness' Doesn't Work for Transracial Adoptions — and How to Get It Right

Two experts in the field of transracial adoption — who were both adopted by white families themselves — explain how to best prepare to welcome a child of another race into your family and to have the important conversations

Melissa Guida-Richards
Photo: Courtesy Melissa Guida-Richards

Melissa Guida-Richards grew up in an extended family that cherished their culture and heritage as Italian and Portuguese immigrants.

So as a child, she was confused when outsiders would ask her if she was Latina or "something else." In first grade a girl told her "you're Black. You can't play with me."

"I'd tell them I was Italian," Guida-Richards, 28, says. "But I would be confused. I'd come home and ask my parents and they're like 'You're Italian. You're one of us. Just ignore people."

She believed her parents, who also had dark hair and eyes, that her dark skin came from some past Italian origins. Then, at 19, she found documents proving not only was she adopted, but so was her brother. They were both born in Colombia – and not biological siblings.

Listen below to Me Becoming Mom to hear Jillian Michaels' adoption journey and her unique road to motherhood.

For years, parents who adopted children of other races might have thought the "right" thing to do was to pretend like they "didn't see color," and not acknowledge their children's differences. But disregarding their children's race could have far-reaching impact, and is the subject of her recently released book "What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption."

Guida-Richards and others, like author and international speaker on transracial adoption Rhonda Roorda, assert a colorblind attitude does not serve transracial adoptees in a world where color often defines you.

"Many adopted children of color struggle with their identities and white parents who cling to this narrative [of "colorblindness"] are doing their children a disservice," Guida-Richards says. "What is important for adoptive parents to realize is that their privilege will not protect their children of color as they face discrimination and racism. They need to prepare their children for a world that does see color."

About one-third of all adoptions between 2017 and 2019 were transracial, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. White megastars from Madonna to Angelina Jolie have adopted children of color, their photos gracing the covers of magazines. And the hit NBC series "This is Us" has put the adoption of a Black child into a white family – and his subsequent struggles impacting him into adulthood — front and center in an honest portrayal of the very real issues facing people of color in America compared to their white counterparts.

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Rhonda Roorda. rhonda roorda

Roorda, who worked as a consultant on "This Is Us" and wrote a book on transracial adoption called In Their Voices, was adopted by a white family when she was 2. And though she knew her family loved her, she felt a sense of loss that many transracially adopted children express.

"I had to learn the culture, the language, the rhythm of my new parents — it was a shock to the system," Roorda says. "The trip to Disney World is not going to help ease that pain. A new wardrobe, a new car — money is not going to ease the loss of leaving your homeland, your community of origin, or in my case, my mama."

Roorda was given the opportunity to connect with her heritage through her godmother Myrtle, who had been the pianist and organist at the church Roorda's parents attended.

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Roorda and Myrtle. Rhonda Roorda

"Myrtle worked with my parents, she loved me. She cared for me. She held me and reminded me that I did have value, that I was beautiful," Roorda says. "I don't know if I could have made it in this journey without a godmother who was African-American. I look at the network that filled in where there were large gaps within my family."

At the time Roorda was adopted in the 1970s, the popular research at the time seemed to bear out that "love was enough" — that is, if parents committed to giving their children a loving upbringing, it could overcome some of the challenges of raising children of a different race. But Roorda points out that there are limitations to what love can accomplish once you walk outside of your home.

"I think that because love was married to a colorblind policy saying we don't see color. It has devastated many adoptees … we want to be seen," she says. "I remember wanting to be white and dying to fit in, dying to please my parents, dying to understand the rules and the policies and the culture. It didn't work. … We're not seeing all of our children, we are not seeing the richness that they bring to the table."

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Roorda with her brother. rhonda roorda

Guida-Richards was raised in a solidly white middle class New York suburb with limited diversity. Her father, who came to the United States from Italy at 13, told her the first Black person he ever saw was a student at his high school.

"At first, they refused to even acknowledge I was Colombian, that I was a woman of color. They didn't see me as the daughter they adopted from Colombia. They saw me as their daughter," Guida-Richards says. "I understood that, but it left a big piece of my identity out."

Her family often emphasized that family and heritage matters, but they discouraged her from looking further into her own cultural background.

"I sat down with them and said, we need to talk about race. We need to talk about how I'm treated and how this has affected me," Guida-Richards says. "It's been 9 years and thankfully we are in a very good place."

While her late father came around fairly quickly, it took longer for her mom. Guida-Richards married a man whose mother was Colombian. When she became pregnant in 2016 with the first of their two children, her mom started opening up about her struggle with infertility and the decision to adopt.

And she told her daughter that she was afraid that people, and even members of their family, would treat her differently if they knew she was Latina.

Melissa Guida-Richards Family
Guida-Richards with her family. Adrienne Jasmine Photography

"We did have prejudices that I experienced growing up in a white family who made fun of Latinos," Guida-Richards says. "So when I found out I was Latina, I was like, how could you love me and say those things? They just wanted me to ignore that I was a woman of color and unfortunately, it's not as easy they make it out to be."

Guida-Richards was honest with her mom about how she felt like "this big ugly secret" that her mom could only love as long as she fit into the mold. And she reminded her mother that she would soon be the grandmother to Latinos.

"It took a lot of hard conversations until she understood," Guida-Richards says.

To help her understand her own feeling about being denied her heritage, Guida-Richards started reaching out to other adoptees, finding Facebook groups just for transracial adoption and adoptees from Colombia.

"I realized that I wasn't alone," Guida-Richards says. "Race wasn't addressed [growing up], so we struggled with our identity. We struggled with how to deal with racism because we weren't prepared."

Melissa Guida-Richards
Guida-Richards. Courtesy Melissa Guida-Richards

So how could parents embarking on a transracial adoption prepare themselves better to raise their children to feel seen, and prepared for the world?

Roorda recommends building and strengthening relationships with a diverse group of friends, to ensure your child grows up seeing that those bonds are important to you. "While you're doing that, you're reading books on trans racial adoption, particularly by adoptees. You're talking about race as soon as 2, 3, 4, 5," she says. "Making sure that that child has books with images that look like her or him, toys where they can see themselves. When we see ourselves within our home, we begin to believe we are included within that family."

Guida-Richards eventually connected with her birth mother and her Colombian culture through both her birth mom's family and her in-laws.

"I knew a lot of Italian, I knew how to act Italian, but I had no idea what it is like to walk in the shoes of a Latina," she says. "I just started to integrate a little bit at a time. Since my father was a chef who owned restaurants, food played a large part in my upbringing so I started with that."

Melissa Guida-Richards
Guida-Richards in the oprhanage in Colombia. Courtesy Melissa Guida-Richards

As she started integrating the Colombian with the Italian traditions, she discovered that both her cultures tended to have a lot in common.

"I've gotten to a place where I'm happy to be part of my adoptive family, but I'm also very happy that I have my birth family back in my life," she says.

– Additional reporting by Zoë Ruderman

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