‘The War Babies of Black GIs and White British Women: racism, exclusion and the search for belonging’
Lucy Hopkins, Head of Practice
I recently attended a lecture as part of Black History Month facilitated by the University of Essex history department. The title was 'The War Babies of Black GIs and White British Women: racism, exclusion and the search for belonging', based on the book ‘Britain’s Brown Babies’ by Lucy Bland who delivered the lecture. I attended with my friend and fellow social worker, Lucy Brown.
Approximately 2,000 babies were born to white British women and black American soldiers during World War II. To provide some context, the parents of these dual heritage children met when American soldiers were stationed in the UK in 1942 shortly after America joined World War II; many black American soldiers were stationed in East Anglia, Devon and Somerset. The segregation of white and black soldiers was significant, and the UK government actively discouraged white women from mixing with the American soldiers, but their discouragement was not always acted upon and the women would meet black American soldiers at dances. Some of the women were quite young, some of the women – and the American soldiers – were married, and so there were often additional difficulties regarding their relationships aside from race. In instances where the soldiers sought permission to marry the women they were often refused.
Some children remained in the care of their mothers, or often their grandmothers, when their fathers returned home when their posting in the UK came to an end. However, between 33-50% were placed in children’s homes by their mothers and maternal families because they felt that keeping the child within the family would just be too difficult. Adoption societies did not consider the prospect of these children being adopted to be likely, and therefore very little effort was put into attempting to identify potential adopters. Some children were fostered but these foster placements were rarely successful, and records from children’s homes confirm that duel heritage children were listed in the category of “handicapped” and considered to be “hard to place”.
The Adoption Act 1939 did not allow for adoption to take place outside of the UK unless those living abroad wishing to adopt were British or British relatives. For these children this meant that their paternal families in America could not be approached or even identified because there was no DNA testing available and therefore the fathers were considered to be “putative”. In 1948 this changed and some black American fathers were permitted by the government to adopt their children, however, this did not last long and was banned again shortly after.
As social workers, we understand the importance of children having a true narrative about their history and not being told untrue or incorrect information that will leave them further wondering and questioning the truth. We know that a sense of belonging is important for all children and even more relevant for children who are being cared for outside of their birth families, who need to be able to develop attachments and relationships with their caregivers and adopted or foster family network. It can be unsettling and destabilising for looked after children who do not have a sense of security and permanence and belonging, and this is even greater for children who may also experience an additional feeling of “difference” due to their race and colour of their skin.
The majority of children we heard about during the lecture, who are also featured in Lucy Bland’s book, and those who shared their experiences at the time, did not see other children or adults who looked like them. Some lived in more rural locations, away from big cities where there may have been more diversity, and so their sense of difference was further magnified and likely to have led to feelings of confusion around their identity, not belonging, a lack of social inclusion and lack of acceptance by those around them.
Many of the children did not have a photograph of their fathers and so the reality of a parent who looked like them and from whom they inherited some of their physical attributes may have been difficult for them to imagine. I wonder if having a photo and an understanding of their parentage and cultural background would have assisted in providing some sense of identity and therefore stability, though may not have assisted in addressing the views of others to which they would have been exposed and subjected to.
Prior to this lecture, I had no knowledge of the 2000 babies born to white British women and black American soldiers during World War II, and hearing their stories and understanding the challenges they experienced in trying to understand their identities, particularly during a time where there was a significant lack of diversity, has reminded me about some important factors we need to make sure we acknowledge as social workers when we are working with children and families from black and minority ethnic backgrounds; the need to understand how they feel about their own identity, the difficulties they have experienced regarding the same, and how inequality, lack of role models, and feelings of not being accepted can have a huge impact on their emotional wellbeing, self-esteem, and what they may think is realistic in terms of their future prospects. My learning from this event will ensure that I continue to challenge social workers, in particular the independent social workers who work with WillisPalmer, through discussions, training, and quality assurance of reports, so that they too become more familiar and consistent in thinking about these factors during their assessments and the valuable work they undertake with children and families.