Holiday Adopt a Family – Does it Perpetuate White Supremacy?

Christmas, Presents, Gifts, Xmas
Picture of three wrapped gifts with fir sprigs on a white background, picture from Pixabay, credit Nietjuh

A friend asked what I thought about holiday adopt or sponsor a family programs. Until she asked me the question, I hadn’t really thought about it. I asked her what she thought, especially as a white ally, she shared she thinks they perpetuate white supremacy culture. When she said that I understood what she meant. Images of the old television charity infomercials with a white person in a third world country or at a hospital asking for people to sponsor a family in need popped into my head. We’re hopefully past these white saviorism charity pieces, but some of the legacy of white saviorism in giving still continues.

Adopt/Sponsor a Family Programs

Adopt or sponsor a family programs are abundant during the holiday season. Many of us with economic privilege want to share our largess whether out of duty, guilt, wanting to feel good, or some other compelling reason to give.

The adopt or sponsor a family programs usually work with receiving a list of items a family is requesting – clothes for the kids, a few toys, maybe some household items (e.g. cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc.). Sometimes the organizers share a little about the family – first names, what the child likes, family circumstances (i.e. mom recently lost a job, family is doing well – they just moved into a new house and need XXX, child is in preschool and loves Paw Patrol, etc.). The unifying characteristics is knowing you are purchasing something and it will be given to someone directly to help them out. The direct aid aspect makes many of these programs appealing to donors. Yet, who benefits from this charity? The underlying question is this perpetuating white supremacy and who benefits? Short answer is yes, and at least for now maybe we still should participate with care.

White saviorism and giving

I am not asking everyone to stop giving to these programs. There is still an immediate need and until we can shift culture to find other ways to take care of people we shouldn’t hoard our money and leave others out from receiving items they may really need. I will advocate that we do so thoughtfully and understanding there are ways to lessen white supremacy culture in doing so.

This year I’ve given to a few different adopt a family like situations. In all of the cases I have a personal connections to the people asking and I don’t know the recipients. If I’m being honest with myself, I gave to these because it felt good to tangibly select something and to think a kid will feel good about receiving the gift. I also invited my kids to select a few items from the wishlist and to use their money to buy something for another kid. It was easy, I could do it COVID safely from the comfort of my laptop, and I was done within minutes. My self-interest of feeling good, not doing hard work of understanding issues, or having to volunteer long term, is tied within my adopt a family gifts. I don’t have to exert any additional effort to help – find the wishlist, choose a few items, hit pay, and the gift is sent to the organizers who actually do the harder work.

There are extensive articles about how giving charity versus other forms of support are not helpful. Having outsiders come in and give without understanding a problem then leaving is ripe for perpetuating cycles of poverty and white supremacy culture of leaving a mess behind. Often, adopt a family programs are a one-time holiday help – important to make sure families are taken care of especially during a time of year where we want everyone to celebrate and feel good. But remember there is need year-round and these programs don’t solve underlying problems of poverty, inadequate resources, unemployment, underfunding of critical services, etc. These problems need to be acknowledged when we give in these ways.

Cash Aid, Trust, and Systemic Reforms

One of the reasons I’m not advocating for stopping adopt/sponsor a family programs is we still need to shift culture and put programs in place that build towards more systemic reforms. If you purchase items from a wishlist or giving tree, I hope you will also consider supporting families through cash aid programs through trusted partners as the intermediary. Working through a nonprofit or an intermediary adds a layer of safety for both sides. Earlier in COVID a friend passed through money to me with the instructions to give it to others in need, no strings attached and no reporting. I worked with colleagues to make several $200-400 donations to people — no strings, I didn’t even know the names of the recipients, just trust between me and my colleague to get the money to the right place and people. Many direct service nonprofits know families who would benefit from cash aid or other similar cash aid programs such as rental assistance, utility assistance, food vouchers, gift cards, etc.

Cash is the best form of support since it allows families to have choice and self-determination in what they need. Many of us with economic privilege take the ability to choose for granted. Choice gives us flexibility to do what we feel is best and this isn’t the same across economic levels. Such as, as a gift giver how much pride do you feel when you choose the ‘just right’ gift for someone you care about? Shouldn’t a parent have that same joy in choosing a gift for their own child versus picking up gifts chosen by others and being told to feel grateful. (Many programs ask families to provide wish lists, but that is beside the point of allowing true choice.)

Many times, the cash aid can also help to boost the immediate economy around the person since the money can be used to shop at local stores and within the recipients immediate networks. This has an added bonus versus over giving a one-time toy or item that is already purchased outside of the recipient’s area.

We also need to trust the people we are giving to, whether it is through a non-profit or in the rare cases directly to a person that they will do what they feel is best. When we give, we need to give freely and trust the recipient to know how to use the money even if the decisions might not match how we envision it being used. This is very counter to the Western/paternalistic beliefs of white people knowing best and imposing the white dominate culture of directing Black and Brown or poor people how to live their lives (for more on this read the book Caste by Isabel Wilkerson).

If you are adopting/sponsoring a family, I also hope you’ll take some time to learn about tax reforms (sounds boring, but is so important), direct cash aid programs, voting rights, etc. All of these, and many others, provide systemic changes impacting many more people then buying for one family can provide. These policy changes take long to pass through legislative bodies, but it is important to see them through. This is why I’m saying continue to give as you can at your local level, being aware of how privilege and potentially saviorism can play into it, and at the same time advocate for systemic changes.

Finally, if you have the means to give, please continue to be generous. Right now, especially with COVID continuing, there are many families who need support. Many POC families who were ok a year ago have had their hours cut due to the pandemic (i.e. Uber/Lyft drivers, housekeepers, etc.) and need financial relief. Find a POC led and embedded organization, contact your local public school, food bank, or ask around and I’m sure you’ll learn of the needs in your community. Once you find the need make sure you are giving in ways that support POCs and not perpetuate white supremacy.


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