Two years ago, on vacation in the Great Smoky Mountains, I saw a white couple at a restaurant with their Asian daughter. Though her father told her to quit staring, I felt the girl's eyes on me all through the meal. I smiled at her, feeling a strong sense of kinship, a pang of sympathy. As a child, whenever I saw another Asian person – which I hardly ever did – I used to stare, too, hungry for the sight of someone, anyone, who looked like me.
Adoption has changed in the 32 years since a social worker told my parents "not to worry" about my ethnicity. Thanks to many transracial adoptees who have shared their experiences, there is a greater emphasis on the importance of racial and cultural identity. Numerous books have been written on the subject, and excellent blog posts abound. Transnational adoption has inspired documentary films such as First Person Plural, In the Matter of Cha Jung Hee, Wo Ai Ni Mommy, and Somewhere Between.
While "colorblindness" in adoption has been widely challenged, however, not everyone is convinced – like the adoptive mother who recently told me, "I don't see my son's color. Race is just not an issue for us."
Some people maintain that any cultural loss is unimportant compared to what children gain through adoption. But in both mainstream media and personal conversations about adoption, cultural and racial identity need not be pitted against a child's right to love, safety, and security.
This unfortunate "either-or" framing of the issue finds frequent expression in discussions of transracial adoption. Michael Gerson—whose wife is a Korean adoptee—wrote in the Washington Post: "Ethnicity is an abstraction.... Every culture or race is outweighed when the life of a child is placed on the other side of the balance." In a National Review article criticizing Kathryn Joyce's book The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, adoptive father David French dismissed "the 'culture'" (note the mocking quotation marks) of internationally adopted children as "the culture of starvation, of rags, of disease, and of abandonment."
Another common framing of transracial adoption suggests that America's "melting pot" has made race less relevant. In her NPR review of Somewhere Between, a documentary following four women adopted from China, adoptive mother Ella Taylor wrote: "[T]he 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… are far more nonchalant about racial difference, let alone adoption, than we boomers can ever be." But even if Taylor is raising her own daughter in "a polyglot world," not all adopted youth feel "nonchalant" about adoption and racial identity—nor should indifference be presented as the ideal.
"There's no one way to experience being adopted, or being a teenager, or being a woman of color," says Linda Goldstein Knowlton, director/producer of Somewhere Between and the adoptive mother of a daughter from China. "Being 'race-blind' – saying race doesn't matter – could make a child feel as though an important part of her is being rejected."
Some adoptive parents feel uncertain about how to discuss race with their own adopted children. Taiwanese adoptee Marijane Nguyen says that she doubts her parents were aware of how much she struggled with her identity. "They never asked," she says. "Race in our household was never discussed. Because there weren't many Asians in the community I grew up in, I always felt like I had some deficit because I wasn't white."
Louisville adoptive mother Amy Cubbage says that it is difficult to fully understand the challenges of transracial adoption until you are actually parenting. She and her husband recently transferred their six-year-old daughter to a more diverse school, and are now contemplating moving to a town with a larger Asian population. When they took their child to visit China for the first time since her adoption, Cubbage said, "We have never seen [our daughter] so at ease with herself… we underestimated her need to see where she's from and see a place where everyone looks like her."
Dr. Elizabeth Vonk, director of the MSW Program at the University of Georgia School of Social Work and an adoptive parent, leads a play therapy group for transracially adopted children. She notes that many parents find it easy and fun to introduce their children to their birth cultures, but may be less comfortable helping them
explore their racial identity. "Racial socialization requires pushing beyond parents' comfort zones to acknowledge racism, white privilege, and prejudice," she told me. "I do still meet parents who are convinced that a colorblind approach is best. It is a belief system that makes positive racial identity development more difficult for their children."
Even adoptees whose parents are willing to engage in meaningful discussions about race will inevitably have questions about their identity and needs their families might not be able to anticipate. Angela Tucker, an African American adoptee raised in a large, racially diverse family, credits her parents for taking her to African-American fashion shows and teaching her and her siblings about different cultures. Still, she said, she has struggled with knowing where she fits "within traditional Black culture," a question that led her to search for her birth family. She and her husband recently secured the funding necessary to complete Closure, a documentary about Tucker's adoption reunion.
We cannot have an honest discussion about transracial adoption if we aren't willing to discuss race, prejudice, and privilege. Adoptees need to feel safe when we talk about the instances of racism we encounter. This may not sound easy—because it isn't easy for white parents to raise children of color. But as the mother of two multiracial children, I can say that it's not easy for parents of color, either.
Some people who plan to adopt across racial lines give me blank looks when I suggest that they closely examine their town, their neighborhood, their local schools, their social activities and community organizations before adopting outside their race. They bristle when I emphasize the importance of educating themselves about the persistence of inequality and the experiences of transracial adoptees and people of color living in this country. Sometimes they remind me that my experiences as a transracial adoptee aren't universal—which is true—and therefore I don't actually know what their adopted children will face.
Maybe I don't, and I don't know why adopted Asian kids stare at me. I just know why I used to stare.
Photo: The author, her mother, and their dog in 1983.