Humanizing Asians in popular culture will provide racial mirrors for those of us unlucky enough to lack them.
I’m not a singer, I’m not a consumer of pop culture, and I’m definitely not that into music. But when I watched this kid’s amazing rendition of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” I was taken not just by 13-year-old Jeffrey Li’s unquestionable talent but by something else completely.
Through my work as a transracial Korean adoptee, I write a lot about racial mirroring and its importance for children of color. Without families or communities resembling them, many Asian adoptees grow up insecure about, ambivalent toward, or hating everything that makes them Asian, all characteristics–like their adoptions–completely out of their control. Unsurprisingly and without remediation, such attitudes become deeply ingrained in children who grow into adults with complex racial identities.
Subscription boxes are one of those things people either love or don’t care about. I always fell into the latter category, because I found them pricey and/or hard to cancel…until, of course, I discovered ipsy. That’s a story for a different blog!
As a transracial adoptee, I’m flummoxed by the lack of ongoing transracial adoption education provided by adoption agencies. Perplexed and frustrated, but not surprised. What COLORSBIND boxes–lanched by Nedra L. and Bryan K. Hotchkins–nobly set out to accomplish is both admirable and massive; through a monthly subscription box, transracial adoptive families of black adoptees will receive a package of themed items (from t-shirts to books). Opening small worlds and forming community connections is the clear goal, offering education and interactions where societal gaps remain.
COLORSBIND boxes help your children see Black people as beautiful, smart and valuable, exposing your family to things that make you laugh and think. -The COLORSBIND website
Unboxing Transracial Adoptive Families
When I discovered COLORSBIND, my first instinct as a Korean adoptee was a slightly bitter, “Why just black transracial adoptive families?” It’s true Asians are routinely forgotten in racial discourse, and in the COLORSBIND box, it overlooks a key fact: Asians are among the most common transracial adoptee, as well as the most common intercountry adoptee, as well.
I got over my knee-jerk reaction quickly, especially after I offered to review one of boxes. Upon arrival, what appeared as a missed opportunity is actually an open door for inclusivity. The COLORSBIND box is a beautifully simple and scalable idea. Its creators, one of whom is a black transracial adoptee, launched the project in 2018 to promote child-centered culturally-competent transracial adoptive families. For Asians, Indians, Native Americans, and other groups feeling left out, don’t: The founders have loose plans for expansion and I know I’d be willing and able to help create a similar box for Korean transracial adoptive families.
The Beauty on the Inside
I was struck by the care and resources invested in this small, yet powerful, box. Here’s what was under the attractively-printed, full-color box lid (that’s never making its way to my recycling bin–ever):
A beautiful photo of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man printed across the author’s face!
A glossy magazine!
Fancy shredded paper that my almost-four-year-old son adored!
The commitment, love, and care invested in this box’s contents (and its mission) were palpable. Each item was nestled on top of the other, carefully folded and arranged in an organized, professional presentation. I couldn’t believe how much it contained, delivering item after informative item.
A themed cultural experience
Each month’s COLORSBIND box is, as I said before, tied into some theme. For June, it was Juneteenth, an event I’d heard of but (shamefully) couldn’t articulate. As I move through each of the items provided, you’ll learn how they’re connected to the theme and transracial adoption.
Let’s go through its contents and I’ll provide the play-by-play of my thoughts.
Note: Due to my excitement, I forgot the actual order in which the items were packed. Sorry!
An actual full copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth.
“Are you freaking kidding me!? I LOVE books and can’t believe they sent this to me. Holy crap. I never read this book! I still need to read Invisible Man! I’m so behind in my reading! It’s like these people READ. MY. MIND.
“What is Juneteenth though? I’m so embarrassed, I should know this…if I don’t know this, others surely don’t, too. Good thing they sent it.”I wonder if people will take the time to read it. They better.”
“OMG they asked my size and really did send me a t-shirt. It’s gorgeous and actually not some crappy CafePress screenprint. Holy heck. But my readers still won’t get a picture of me in it so here’s a piture of some happy dude wearing it in what looks like a BJ’s.”
The full-color, glossy magazine, COLORSBIND Us Magazine
“Wow, this is legit. There’s a table of contents, a feature story, an Editorial section and…wait? What’s this? They actually featured an area of the USA and represented upcoming black cultural events? That’s a TON of effort. Go them. Respect.
“Let’s see, what else…book recommendations for kids and adults, definite plus. Shows they’re thinking more deeply than ‘make this recipe and call it a day.’ An art section featuring drawings by black adoptees, pretty cool. Way to generate inclusion.
“But what’s this Feature? An article by a white man calling transracial adoption ‘interracial’ adoption? Hmm…okay, common error. But wow, he’s admitting adopting black doesn’t make him ‘woke.’ I wish more people were like him. I hope the COLORSBIND people feature more parents like this, but you know what’s missing? A feature about a black transracial adoptee. That would slay.
“Totally digging their thoroughness here. And…wow! They explain Juneteenth to me! They honestly did their work here to make sure nothing would be missed. Wow.”
A mission statement and contact card Totally fridge-worthy. Should be sent to transracial groups all over.
“This is going on my fridge so anyone who comes over will ask me about it. Do they make car magnets? I’d totally rock a car magnet.”
This gorgeous image
“I don’t know how decided to make this picture of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man transposed over his face, but this is awesome and I hope someday someone creates a portrait of my face with my words. I’m framing this.”
The official Juneteenth flag!
“Have they literally thought of everything I needed to decorate my barren home office? I didn’t even know a Juneteenth flag existed. COLORSBIND is education and functional. These people are so invested in this project. I freaking love it.”
Is a COLORSBIND Box subscription worth it?
I’m a discerning person, but this is an easy (literally, all transracial families have to do is subscribe) way to involve your entire family in your child’s racial tapestry. I
It’s not condescending, it’s not preachy, it’s not corny. And a portion of the proceeds go to the Think Positionality Education Foundation, an organization offering adoptee-led transracial post-adoption education (finally!).
It’s modern, it’s applicable to families no matter where they’re residing in the USA, it’s interactive, it’s accessible.
But again, it’s currently targeted at transracial adoptive families with black children. This limits its reach and might turn off families who already feel isolated. Obviously, with its co-founder being a black adoptee this totally makes sense. On the upside, COLORBIND’s attention to detail and reproducible model makes easily expandable for transracial adoptive families of all colors. And I totally wish I’d thought of it.
Is a COLORSBIND Box enough?
Like other post-adoption education and cultural trainings, signing up is voluntary. The folks who really need COLORSBIND likely won’t ever consider this (or anything else) as a resource, but for those families in the middle–you know, the ones who don’t know it all but are open to learning–will benefit and should subscribe (prices here). So, it’s an excellent start.
I want this idea to take off. I want it to work. I want others to initiate similar projects, not to steal COLORBIND’s thunder but to emphasize and fill in the gaps where adoption agencies leave off. Adoption is filled with memoirs and blogs and social media accounts promising and working for change, but COLORSBIND is taking that activism offline and bringing transracial adoptees’ voices to life through tangible objects and valuable keepsakes.
Receiving a box for review was an honor and I hope to review their future boxes. This is a novel concept, whose creators embraced a monumentally difficult task (making cultural immersion family-friendly, informational, yet fun) and are, so far, doing it right.
No matter where you’re at in the adoption community, I urge you to purchase at least one box and support the COLORSBIND mission and a transracial adoptee’s work. And please let me know when you get yours–I’d love to hear from you!
Want to order a July 2018 box? They’re taking orders until July 5! New subscribers get 5% off.
On Father’s Day weekend, my husband and son took a trip out to see some family, planning on staying overnight so they could attend a Sunday baseball game. I went out to the car to say goodbye to Liam and as I pulled away from his sticky preschool boy hug, he said
Mommy, please come!
For many mothers, this is a standard, heartwarming child’s plea: “Mommy,” our children urge, “don’t go!”
Another example: At Liam’s end of school year party, he refused to participate in his class’s end of year show. Once he sees Mommy, he breaks down completely. He’s always the group’s only child unable to join in when Mommy’s around, needing me instead of his friends. This is a habit formed since he was two years old.
For adoptees-turned-mothers, these events are harsh skips in our daily soundtrack, forcing us not into the quiet reverie of motherhood but into that complicated place called abandonment. What, I wonder, have I done to reveal my life’s secret anxiety?
I consider all of this in context of not just my own personal history, but the history of the many adoptees who become parents. Is our heightened sense of loss, our prescient understanding that at some point our children will grow into adults who may or may not reflect our parental failings, so tightly wound into our interactions that we pass it on to our children?
I can’t speak for others, but to me, it’s a fascinatingly painful fear. My son’s innocent pleadings for a Mommy he never realizes could leave both confound me and, somewhat embarrasingly, generate a deep sense of envy toward my own son. Because of my simple decision to not give up on him, I’ve constructed for him a foundation unshakeable–unless, of course, I walk away.
Seeing its utter simplicity, seeing just how easy it could have been for my life to not be marred by adoption’s persistent complications, repulses me. I know for a birth mother, adoption isn’t easy.
Still, when I consider this notion of presence equaling simplicity, my memories rewind themselves like a tape playing backwards. School plays and insults and Christmases and harsh words and smiles become garbled together in frenzied reversal. As I begin with my birth–the only thing my son and I have in common is that we were born–I start my life over, trying to replace my son’s experience with my own. Eventually I give up, unable to write a story that never existed.
At that point, I wonder: Is being a “a good mother” one who merely sticks around? Does that mean I get a pass to be as mediocre or terrible as possible, simply because I know that no matter what, a child almost always wants nothing but his birth parents–regardless of skill?
Obviously, parenting takes far more effort than just described. As an adoptee, however, the innocence of motherhood–the innocence allowing moms to make mistakes and forgive ourselves–was taken from us when we ourselves were taken away.
Like other parents, we know how carefully children watch their parents. But unlike the unadopted, we have a full appreciation of the long-reaching impact our presence has on a child. Adoption ends the childhood innocence of believing our parents will never stop wanting us. It destroys the myth of family as safe haven. Adoptees, unfortunately, know how untrue that can be, how carefully we tread the line between good and bad parents. Despite it not being an easy choice to walk away (I wouldn’t–ever), I don’t think we can ever fully believe that, since it happened to us.
Because of adoption, the joy of motherhood–one I’m owed–has been destroyed.
As Liam grows older, articulating his desire for Mommy’s closeness is becoming stronger and more frequent. With his developing sense of self and familial bond–that of which I still struggle to experience–he unintentionally and continuously highlights a permanent space between us. I actively work on closing it while remaining aware of our life’s distinct path, a path chosen not by either of us but by those who swore to love us forever.
Do a search for adoption in the news (human adoption–NOT pet adoption; Google likes to lump those two together) and you’ll be overwhelmed by the number of adoption “journey” stories told not by adoptees, but by adoptive parents.
But that’s not all! Countless books have been written on what it’s like to adopt, from the financial hardships, the invasive home studies, the marriage strain, and the pseudo-enwokening of transracial adoptive parents. Most conclude with a happy tale of a family formed, love gained, and a child destined for greatness.
Why is this a problem?
For adoptees, these parent-centric narratives have several unintended consequences:
Parents’ voice overrides the child’s before the child can articulate their side
By the time the child can speak up, the community’s already defined the kid’s life, so any adoptee-generated criticism is automatically discounted
Weird photos and personal details of a kid’s life are shared without the child’s permission
As a mother, I’m hesitant to share my son’s um, birth journey. I guess the biological kid equivalent would be his story starting from conception to the push out the womb and all the details in between.
First of all, sharing that would be awkward. Second, he’s going to grow up one day and probably direct teenage angst at me for a zillion reasons and my oversharing of his trip from being the sperm that won to a disgruntled teenager doesn’t need to be complicated by my inability to keep my mouth shut.
Why is that any different for adoptees?
Being adopted, I get the process of obtaining me was fraught with complications, paperwork, stress, and probably heartache. Sharing that over several decades ago, however, was limited to conversations over wall-mounted corded phones and maybe a Christmas card. Today, I get that instant Facebook likes and blog post shares offer a validation more addicting than those provided by an adoptive-parent support group.
We get you love your adopted child.
We understand the process was difficult.
And we acknowledge infertility sucks.
But please remember your child will inevitably become an adult. An adult who, upon reflection, will want freedom of expression without being chained to their parents’ pre-existing portrayal and public back-pats.
There’s one other less obvious side effect of these stories and that’s the continuation of adoption as a practice without consideration of an adoptee’s experience. The sunshine-and-roses narrative–while realistic for some adoptive families–means prospective adoptive parents will use these articles as mirrors for their own experiences, leading to potential horror and disillusion when their child grows up and doesn’t fulfill these pre-existing stereotypes.
To borrow a slightly cliched and Biblical saying, pride comes before a fall. In this case, I ask adoptive parents to restrain themselves a bit for their child’s sake, remembering their kid grows up and deserves to tell their adoption story themselves. Adoptees own their adoptions story. You don’t need the validation of thousands of strangers to justify your decision to adopt your child.
“Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present.”
I’ve mentioned Lori L. Tharps’ book in several other articles, but I’ve finally decided that it needs its own feature.
In light of the recent “white woman drives her and her black adopted children off cliff and kills them” story and the “Indian adoptee beaten to death by her white family” event and the many other documented cases of transracial adoption gone horribly awry, I can’t think of a better time to discuss this book.
To be clear, I’m referring to transracial adoption as white families adopting children of color.
When I initially started writing, I took an ambivalent stance on transracial adoption. Specifically, I said
I am “adopt transracially with extreme prejudice.”
But several months ago, I read Same Family, Different Colorsand have been sitting with Tharps’ findings ever since, carefully weighing her honest accounts of interfamilial colorism among non-adoptive families with my transracial adoption experience and research. Tharps examines how African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and bi-racial Americans confront color in their own families, questioning her own child’s light skin tone against her own, wondering how society perceives a dark-skinned mother with an almost-white daughter.
Through extensive conversations with ethnic families, Tharps found that even “microscopic” skin color variances can “impact everything from interactions among family members, parenting practices, and sibling relationships to racial identity formation.”
Tharps continues, saying what all adoptees (especially transracial adoptees) know:
[E]ven in the twentieth century, the general public does not understand that families don’t match.“
“People expect families to match,” Tharps writes, “despite the fact that interracial marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 1967.”
My aim here is to position Tharps’ work within the scope of transracial adoption and ask: If same-race, non-adoptive families experience colorism, how are transracial adoptive families expected to succeed?
In her chapter discussing black colorism, Tharps states that “[b]lack family parenting might look different than white family parenting.” Specifically, Tharps points out “raising Black children adds an additional layer of responsibility for parents.” This me wonder if white parents are aware of these issues and can adequately prepare transracially adopted children for such survival.
Other academics tentatively suggest that no, white parents cannot prepare black children (or, I’d argue, other children of color) for a racially-colored life. Since, as Tharps makes clear, much of this parental racial “training” is done via “osmosis–meaning most children simply pick up on the opinions and attitudes of their parents–some of the lessons are more overt.” In a transracial family, discussion of race would be anecdotal at best. And, when viewed through a “white” lens, racial attitudes are formed less on colored experiences and more on moralistic views.
One woman Tharps interviewed, Linda, enjoyed playing outside as a child, but recalls her mother’s admonishments that doing so was making her “Black.” Because of the colorism within the family, Linda came to understand that “Black was not something she wanted to be.” Her sisters, meanwhile, were praised for their light skin and straight hair, with her father’s dark skin causing internal family strife so bad it eventually tore the family apart.
In a Latina example, a woman’s lifetime of teasing from her family about her “African nose and springy hair” drove her to straighten her hair and undergo a nose job.
Another interesting finding was that some
“[b]lack parents treat their children differently based on the shade of their skin.”
Instead, let’s focus on understanding and admitting our chosen family’s inherent boundaries. Perhaps from within that framework, and with ongoing education, we’ll dispel the hope of a white saving grace, embracing our differences while constantly advocating for deeper conversations on color, family, and the myth of the homogeneous family.
I can’t emphasize enough how highly I recommend this book. If you’ve already adopted transracially, it’ll give you an amazingly genuine insight into the difficulties color creates, hopefully motivating you to continue learning from, speaking to, and truly listening to transracial adoptees.
If you’re considering transracial adoption, Tharps’ work will prepare you for the intense struggle monoracial and interracial families endure. Consider their perspectives when adding a transracial adoptee to your home.
So, I have some amazing friends and collaborators and one of them put me in touch with an even more amazing person and ran my article on Nextshark. Forever grateful and lots of joy here! It’s my first no-holds-barred piece and I’m nervous and scared but it had to be said. Read an excerpt below then take a look at the full piece!
“Transracial adoption is about knowing a good home and a loving family aren’t enough. Kids of color need connections with people who resemble them and not just a few token times a year at culture camp. They need adults who’ve been called a chink and told to go back to their own country and asked to stop barbecuing in public places because those are the people who’ve experienced their reality….
…The white adoptive parents doing it right by their children of color acknowledge their privilege, admit they won’t be able to fully relate to their child, and constantly engage. They engage — deeply — with their child’s ethnic community. They talk to other adult adoptees who don’t just spin happy endings for rainbow families, and most of all, they know transracial adoption means love can’t transcend the loss of racial identity.”
to push for better pre and post adoption supports by our governments who facilitated our adoptions; to ensure those of us already adopted, have improved options to enhance the possibility of better outcomes, throughout our life long journey.
If you or another adult intercountry adoptee (ICA) is interested in attending, please comment below or send me a message.
When I was just about to turn 26, the ovarian cancer savaging my mother’s tired internal organs finally completed its violent mission. My mother died on Thursday, July 15, 2010, after a three-year fight she knew she’d lose.
It was a humid summer day and my room was a mess. My brother–or was it my aunt?–knocked on my door that morning, to tell me my mom was gone. Several hours later, I was told there was something left for me on her nightstand. It was a card, addressed to me, while her body still lay in her bed and the hand that penned the message still and limp.
It took me several moments to open the card, but when I did, the message was clear. Full of love and persistent motherly concern. In a shaky hand, she gently urged me to
Find out why you’re so angry all the time.
Before she died, my mother would hug me gently, a body wrapping me in the medicinal scent of chemotherapy drugs and holistic remedies. She’d whisper
I’m sorry I couldn’t help you.
It’s been many years since I received that card, a memento framed and hanging in my hallway outside of my son’s bedroom. It’s displayed in its angel-fronted glory, in a custom frame underneath my son’s first foot and handprints and a portrait of my mother as a preschooler.
Back then, I took her message as a sign that yes, I was angry and her efforts to help had failed. I still attributed my anger to overall jealousy and discontent with the world–I hadn’t yet discovered my rage related to a lifelong history of abuse, racism, and adoption.
The most difficult thing in re-reading her inscription–so lovingly writ!–is acknowledging that she, as well as my father, was a source of that anger. That her choices in adopting me, her inability to progress and open her mind to color, and her inadvertant support of my father’s racist-abusive behavior caused my problems. That my mother, to whom I experienced an unhealthy over-attachment as compensation for adoption-related attachment issues, wasn’t the innocent, well-meaning idol I knew.
A disheartening reality, one most people who lose their parents young must face: Confronting the possibility that your parents weren’t perfect, but unknowingly failed you in many ways.
It’s a complicated love. I love my mother and wish she were still here, playing with her grandson and existing not as a playground ghost but my friend and mom. But realizing her errors and her misconception that my anger was due to anything but her actions cements the wound adoption wove into our relationship.
She died believing she did right, which I suppose is the best way to go. But with her absence, I’ve slowly unfurled her imperfections, not out of disrespect to her but in an effort to free myself from a life chained to grief.
Perhaps this article’s title is misleading. I have yet to “find myself.” Actually, I dislike generic terminology. Maybe a better way frame this, for myself and other adoptees suffering through loss without their mothers, is