Tag Archives: Race

transracial parenting

When I was a very young girl, I didn’t think much about being adopted. I didn’t think about the physical differences between my white parents and I. Since my parents and almost everyone around me were white, I thought of myself in the same way – white. This became a problem when I entered kindergarten and realized that my physical appearance was different than the other kids around me. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I grew up in a predominantly white area, Bossier City, Louisiana. Our neighbours were mostly white, middle-class families. There were African American families, too, but I knew that I wasn’t black. There was prejudice and discrimination all around me. I was too young to understand the implications of such bias. In my family, we never talked about race, my race, my adoptive parents’ race, racism, prejudice, etc. But I perceived very early that whites were “superior” to other races. It makes me very sad that such racism existed (and still does) where I grew up and, furthermore, within my own family. I often wondered how my adoptive mother felt about me when I heard her make racist remarks toward others of a different race. It made me struggle and lose respect for my mom. I thought silently that she was a hypocrite.

At my current internship, I spend time with families who adopt children transracially through the child welfare system. These are typically white families who adopt African American, biracial, or Hispanic children. Maybe it’s me, but I am always surprised at how little time is spent discussing with adoptive parents issues of race, culture, and identity. Couples in the process of adopting seem to minimize the importance of these issues often thinking that because the child(ren) who will be placed with them permanently are so young, they have time to plan how to manage such issues. I would dare say that parents of internationally adopted children receive even less education on race, culture, and identity (less overall required training in general) than families who adopt through child welfare. Prospective foster and adoptive parents must complete a 10-week training at many Arizona adoption agencies called PS-MAPP (Model Approach to Partnerships in Parenting). Arizona is a little more diverse than Louisiana, but still mostly White at 84.3% of the population (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/04000.html). I would hope that White adoptive parents would want their adopted black or Hispanic children to grow up with a strong sense of identity and connection to their cultural heritage. I personally believe that, in the best interest of the child, children should be placed with families of the same ethnic/racial background. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, African American and Hispanic families who adopt children from the child welfare system, at least here in Arizona. I wish that we could recruit families of African American and Hispanic descent who are financially able, willing, and have the emotional/psychological capacity to adopt children through child welfare. I do believe it’s better for a child to be adopted into a family capable of providing the kind of love and care necessary regardless of race rather than languish in the system.

We would like to think that racism does not exist. We would like to believe that love is enough. Some would like to embrace the idea of being colorblind – that we are all human beings and that the color of one’s skin doesn’t matter. But in our society it does matter, and being colorblind does not really work. Racism is alive and well, granted that some areas of the country hold to racist views more than others. There are potential risks inherent in transracial adoption. Adoptive parents must develop cultural competence and the tools necessary to help their adopted child(ren) manage and integrate cultural differences. There are children’s books that discuss race at a level meant for very young children. Family discussions held regularly on issues of race and culture are another way to prepare children for racism and/or discrimination and to help children develop a sense of ethnic pride. Proactive is better than reactive. Studies show that adoptive parents who demonstrate a high regard  toward their adopted child’s race foster within their child(ren) a greater sense of ethnic pride.

Transracially adopted persons will explore their ethnicity sooner or later. Familial support, especially during the adolescent years, will help transracially adopted children develop a greater sense of self and ethnic identity. It may seem insignificant, but how race, culture, and identity are negotiated in a transracially adopted child’s developmental years will undoubtedly affect his or her psychological and emotional adjustment across the lifetime.

 

stereotypes and labels

In between overindulging on Halloween chocolate and preoccuation with the holidays, I watched two brief film documentaries, Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption (released on VHS in 1998) and a follow up to Struggle: A Conversation 10 Years Later (released in 2007). In the first documentary, we meet six adult transracial adoptees of different ethnic and racial backgrounds: John, Michelle, Josh, Allison, Martin and Seujan, who each speak on various  issues related to transracial adoption. In addition, we hear from some of the adoptive parents and siblings. Both documentaries are short, 20 minutes each, yet pack a punch. As a transracial adoptee, I could relate fully to many of their insights, feelings and experiences and was literally moved to tears in some instances. As the month of November is “National Adoption Month,” I thought I’d share some of the highlights of the documentaries and things that resonated with me over the course of this month.

One of the most challenging issues transracial adoptees encounter is that of stereotypes and labels, the first topic of discussion in Struggle. John, a bi-racial adoptee adopted by white parents, stated,

There are so many societal expectations, and every time I walk into a room, people react to the way I look or dress, or the way my hair is, or the color of my skin, and that can make you crazy if you don’t have some sort of frame of reference, which is why identity or this label becomes so important.”

John continued to discuss how he “rejected” the idea of labels during his first couple of years in college. He expressed,” I thought of myself as brown for a semester or maybe yellow. I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m just going to be brown.”

The problem is, as John pointed out, society doesn’t work like that. Society wants you to make a choice. John continues, “It was never a choice to be white because it was clear, you’re not white, but what are you? Are you black?” John shared later that around the age of 22 or 23, he finally came to accept and say, “yes I am black” (John Raibles has become a nationally-known adoptee, speaker and author on transracial adoption).

I understood well this identity confusion. My adoptive parents were also white, and I lived in the South. Obviously I didn’t look like my parents and I didn’t talk as most people assumed I might. In fact, I had a southern American accent just like everyone else in Louisiana. One of my most vivid memories of stereotyping occurred when I lived in Florida. I was waitressing at TGI Fridays and one of the other servers expressed his initial surprise at my southern accent. He said, “I didn’t expect this little Asian girl to have a southern accent.” At the time, it was laughable to me. But I realize now that any kind of stereotyping can be hurtful and damaging.

Martin, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, discusses another  example of stereotyping. In this incident, he was listening to his Walkman when another black youth came up to him and asked what he was listening to. Martin replied, “Pearl Jam.” The black youth said, “that’s ‘white’ music… can’t be listening to that. You have to listen to rap, reggae, all this other stuff.” Martin’s response was, “it’s what I like.” In answer, he received this remark, “you’re double-crossing the black community.”

The expectation to embody a certain way of being according to your outward appearance is confusing for transracial adoptees because we have roots in two cultures, maybe even more. For a long, long time, I rejected any link to my cultural roots. Surrounded by mostly white and African-American peers, what I learned at an early age was that it was not cool to be Asian, to look the way that I did. As a result, I tried to change the way I looked via makeup, hair coloring, what I wore, my attitude, etc. When a friend advised me to take a look in the mirror one day, not maliciously, to point out that I was, indeed, Asian I was affronted. To say that I minimized my ethnicity is an understatement. Identity was a confusing matter to me growing up. I was not able to define myself with any confidence until much later in my life.

The other adoptees in the documentary also shared personal experiences of stereotyping and marginalization, as well as how they came to eventually define themselves culturally speaking. Suffice it to say that identity for anyone is a process, but frequently a process of struggle for transracial adoptees. To confront “societal expectations,” we must learn to define ourselves from the inside out.  As Michelle, an African-American adoptee, stated in the documentary the question of who we are, our identities, must eventually turn into a statement, “I am ____”. When that happens is different for each adoptee. For some of us, it can take half a life time. When I finally grasped a sense of identity and could say, I am Taiwanese-American (not just American), I did it with confidence, not based on anyone’s approval or disapproval, but it came after a lot of inner conflict, introspection, and searching.

You can purchase a special edition DVD of both documentaries at Photosynthesis Productions (a friendly fore-warning, the DVD is expensive. I was able to get mine on Amazon for half the price). Also, from November 12-16 as part of the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival, you will be able to stream the documentaries via Watch Adoptee Films for a very small fee.

Tune in next time as I continue to discus the two film documentaries.

Watch the trailor for Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption

on transracial adoption

The following is a guest post by blogger, Nikki. Nikki is a transracial adoptee, born in the U.S. to Korean immigrant parents and adopted by white parents. She is a contributor to Somebody’s Child, a book of essays about adoption. This post was originally posted at A Small Song. Nikki also blogs at Irene’s Daughters. The article below is in response to an NPR review of the new film, “Somewhere Between,” a documentary following four teenaged girls adopted from China and now living in the United States. Many things in Nikki’s article deeply resonated with me, and I wanted to share it with all of you in hopes that it will provide some insight from the perspective of adoptees.

Cross-posted at Irene’s Daughters and Are Women Human?

Sometimes I kind of find myself wishing that adoptive parents would stop writing about adoption. Particularly if the subject is transracial adoption.

I realize that probably sounds a bit harsh. It’s not that an adoptive parent cannot have plenty of good, worthwhile things to say about adoption. But there is SO MUCH of THIS out there. And this, an NPR review of a new documentary about adopted Chinese-born teens, Somewhere Between:

…all four girls are thoughtful, moving and imaginative on the subject of their split identities. Haley thinks of herself as a “banana,” yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Describing herself as “stuck between two countries,” Fang laments that she’s always trying to compensate for the fact that she was abandoned because she’s a girl.

Watching the tears roll down Fang’s otherwise cheerful face, I wondered whether she’d be this sad if she wasn’t facing a camera. On the plus side, Somewhere Between is refreshingly free of the cloying, one-size-fits-all dogma that sometimes bedevils the adoption community. (I parted company with my chosen adoption listserv when I got tired of hearing about “the holes in all our daughters’ hearts.”)

Inevitably, though, the film makes it seem that these girls’ lives are dominated by worry about who they are and whether they’ll be emotionally crippled by conflicting allegiances. Adopted or not, few of us develop our identities in the abstract — least of all today’s adolescents, who try out their ever-shifting multiple selves with their friends in every social medium, and are far more nonchalant about racial difference, let alone adoption, than we boomers can ever be.

Oh, yes, because being “nonchalant about racial difference” should be the gold standard to which we all aspire. And why is Fang so sad? It’s awfully telling that journalist/adoptive mom Emma Taylor confesses she can’t bring herself to stay on her adoption listserv because they talk too much about adoption loss and grief and all that downer stuff.

Notice how, in this “review” of a documentary featuring the voices of adopted teenaged women of color, Taylor just can’t help but make the whole thing about her own feelings and opinions? It’s not that I think every adoption-related story needs to be written by an adopted individual or birthparent. I know some wonderful adoptive parents, and their perspectives are important, too. But the traditional adoption narrative in this country is so completely dominated by adoptive parents as a group — THEIR experiences, THEIR emotions, what THEY believe to be “the truth” about their children’s adoptions. And that is especially problematic when you have white people clearly looking to take the easy way out and not think about race too hard. Could NPR not have found, oh, I don’t know, a Chinese adult adoptee to write about this film? There are a ton of them out there. I’m sure they’ve got opinions.

Emma Taylor, meanwhile, sees the film — and the young women featured in it — through the filter of her own form of white adoptive-parent magical thinking, and makes it all about her:

My Chinese teen was bat mitzvahed last year; she celebrates the Jewish, Chinese and any other New Year that comes with a party. On Facebook, she brands herself as “Jew Crew,” “Asian, so deal with it” and a Yankee Brit, among others. Accustomed to a polyglot world, she takes it mostly in stride.

Her only visible adoption crisis came when she was about 8, just after we’d watched the excellent movie Stuart Little, about a mouse adopted into a loving family who nonetheless has an “empty space” in his heart. A couple of hours later, my ordinarily sunny, unflappable child burst into tears and asked piteously why her mommy had let her go.

Caught off guard, I opted for honesty and told her it made absolutely no sense to me, and who wouldn’t want to be the mother of a great kid like her? After a moment, she asked for her drawing materials and drew three female figures with Chinese features (“You, me, and my other Mommy”), then said firmly, “Okay, let’s play something else.”

First of all, why was she “caught off guard” when her child brought this up? Why hadn’t they discussed it before? Why hadn’t they been discussing it all along?  I can’t even tell you how much it bothers me that Taylor is so obviously relieved and almost triumphant about the fact that she and her daughter have only had the one conversation about abandonment in her entire thirteen years. One conversation? ONE? Oh, good then, I guess you’re off the hook!

Often, adopted children talk about issues only if they feel safe doing so. Generally, adopted kids learn at a young age which adoption-related topics are “safe” in their adoptive families, and which are not. It is up to parents to create an environment in which everything is on the table. Adoptive parents can’t cringe and fluster or express zero empathy with placing birthparents or spout platitudes about how it all worked out great anyway, so there’s no reason to ever feel less than 100% positive about your adoption, honey. Adopted children need more than that. Because, at some time or another, and probably throughout their lives, they will feel more than that. Adoptive parents, like all parents, need to be able to admit when they aren’t enough.

I’m a parent, and I know how difficult it is to face the fact that you can’t meet your child’s every need every moment of the day. But I think it’s crucial to look ourselves squarely in the mirror, and really look at our children too, and see areas in which we may be ill-equipped or even totally helpless to fix a problem or answer a question or meet a deep-seated yearning. We can try, but it might not be enough. We can’t pretend to be their end-all and be-all, the answer to all their questions, the fulfillment of all their hopes, because their lives are not about us or filling some hole in our lives. At some point, they will need something we can’t provide. They might need to look elsewhere for it, and that doesn’t mean their bonds with us are any less important or strong.

I feel this point is often lost on adoptive parents, especially those who have waited a long time to become parents. They want so much to feel like the “real parents” and meet all comers, but there are things some adopted children face — such as not knowing anything about their family history; or being Asian but feeling/being treated as white — that adoptive parents cannot fix. And instead of facing that fact straight on and asking what they can do to walk alongside their children, even if they can’t take away a particular burden, they instead deny that it exists (italics are mine).

Taylor ends her “review” by expressing gratitude for the fact that her daughter is “lucky enough to live in a hybrid world,” and will, like the girls in the film, find a way “to make a virtue out of being somewhere between.” Never mind what her daughter might feel in the future, when she’s not eight or thirteen. Never mind if she doesn’t think of being “somewhere between” as a “virtue” all the time. She’ll just have to figure it out for herself. Her mother certainly considers the matter closed.

who am I

I guess I felt the first inkling of being “different” around the age of pre-school when we lived in Westover, Massachusetts. Although I don’t remember very much about pre-school, I do remember at that early age feeling out-of-place, distant from the other kids. I was extremely shy and hid behind my peers. I was perfectly content to read a book alone in a quiet corner or spend time listening to music. When I look back at school pictures, my face stands out among all the others. Mine was typically the only Asian one. I was a minority once we moved to the states from Okinawa, but I never knew or understood that term until much later.

The teasing began in kindergarten. By then we’d moved to Bossier City, Louisiana, where my father completed his military career. There was very little diversity in this small town, and we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood full of military families. Typically, I tried to downplay any teasing and brushed it off as though nothing had happened. Mostly, people did the same tired stereotypical thing, pulling up the corners of their eyes with their fingers or talking sing-songy. Occasionally I’d hear the word, “chink,” as I passed by. More than once, I was asked, “where are you from?” “No, where are you really from?” Once, on the school bus, someone I thought was my friend shoved me off the bus seat. At first, I thought she was joking around, but then realized she meant it. I didn’t understand why she would treat me in such a way. It was embarrassing, but I tried my best to act like nothing happened. It was a long ride to school that morning.

As I got older, feeling accepted by peers became increasingly more difficult. I’m sure some of that grew from my own insecurity and social awkwardness. Around junior high, I wanted desperately to be part of a particular group of girls who were considered “popular.” I craved acceptance. I began hanging out with them for a while, yet felt I had to fight to feel included. One day, one of the girls said to me, “Why don’t you find another group to hang out with?” Ouch. I was speechless, embarrassed, ashamed. I didn’t understand what I’d done to cause such rejection, but I got the message as confusing as it was. It didn’t occur to me that perhaps these events happened because I looked different from them, was uncool. I kept these incidents to myself and never talked to anyone about them. Back then, I wasn’t sure what to think of it all, and it was very difficult for me to put my feelings into words. Mostly, as I mentioned before, I felt embarrassed and confused. I was ashamed that I looked different from everyone around me. My parents seemed oblivious. I don’t think they ever clued into the teasing. We never talked about how things were going in school or any difficulties I may have been experiencing, and we never talked about my birth heritage. Sometimes I wonder if they had been offered education or cultural training, would things have been different? They were of a generation where families did not talk about problems openly, but rather swept them under the carpet. My parents were unaware of the pressures I felt to “fit in,” that it was compounded by my outward appearance. They did not know the sense of dread I felt going to school everyday during those elementary years and of the racial discrimination I experienced from both peers and teachers – mostly white male coaches.

As I got older I realized that being shy wasn’t cool. I longed to be liked and accepted by my peers just like any other pre-teen or teen. I downplayed my Asian features and rejected any association with my birth culture. In middle school, I wrote a biography report and lied about where I was born. In the report, I said that I was born in Hawaii, as I felt that was more “acceptable.” Many students questioned me afterwards, but I stuck to my ‘story.’ I wrote another paper about a girl who was teased by others and read it in class. My teacher, who was a black male, asked me, “does that happen to you?” or something like that. The conversation never went beyond that though.

In 8th grade, I became friends with some girls who were more accepting. Still, I struggled with insecurity. I was obsessed with wanting to look like everyone else. I used eye makeup to make my eyes appear rounder. I curled my straight hair every morning before school with hot rollers. By the end of the day, the southern humidity caused every last curl to go flat, which was incredibly annoying. In high school, I used Sun-In to lighten my hair. I pursued hanging out with the “popular” crowd. At home, I became increasingly disrespectful towards my parents. They were very strict and old-fashioned. One Christmas, my dad gave me a special present. I was horrified when it turned out to be a license plate for my car with the words “Oriental Express” inscribed across it. I refused to put it on my car and was upset with my dad. I know that in his small way, he was trying the only way he knew how to reach out to me. He had no idea how offensive the gift was. I felt conflicted that I had hurt his feelings by rejecting the gift, but was simultaneously mortified and ashamed. He and Mom were both so unaware. They were simply uneducated. I’m sure that Dad thought the gift was something special and was completely boggled by my reaction. The license plate sat on my dresser collecting dust. I didn’t want to get rid of it because I didn’t want to hurt my dad’s feelings any more than I already had. Eventually, I hid it. I’m not sure what happened to it over the years.

After college, I moved out of Louisiana. It was extremely difficult for my mom. Dad didn’t say much, but I know it was hard for him too. Mom wanted me to stay close to home, but I had other plans and ideas. I ended up in Florida for a couple of years and took acting classes. I partied with friends and enjoyed living independently out from under the control of my mother. I purposely did not go home to see my parents that first year, but stayed in Florida and worked. Eventually, I moved to California to pursue acting, which was really such a joke. That’s another story. Again, I struggled inwardly because I knew that staying away from home hurt my parents, yet I had to get out from under my mom’s control.

When I moved to California, the first thing that struck me was the large population of Asians. It was shocking. I’d never seen anything like it. Naturally, I avoided associating with anyone Asian. As time went on, I developed some close relationships with a group of friends and began to overcome my old insecurities, although, I still rejected my cultural heritage.

Last year, I began a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State University. I enrolled in a class called Diversity, Oppression and Change. This class forced me to re-examine the issues I struggled with related to culture, identity, and race-relations. I chose to write a research paper on ethnic and racial identity in Asian-American adoptees, a topic obviously close to my heart. To my surprise, I found much literature written on cross-cultural and transracial adoption. These research studies focused primarily on issues such as racial and ethnic conflict and confusion, the role of parenting and nurturing cultural identity, and the development of ethnic identity across stages of life. I also interviewed two other Asian-American adoptees, which was the best part. The whole process of researching and writing was inspiring. I became increasingly interested in learning more about other Asian-American adoptees and discussing our stories together. A desire to connect to my birth heritage took root and has been growing ever since.

For many years, I struggled with my identity and a sense of belonging. It never occurred to me that other internationally adopted persons experience similar feelings. I feel certain now that I’m not the only one.