race and adoption: the most important conversation I won’t stop having

When I first came to the public transracial adoption space, I was only tangentially aware of the “us versus them” mentality. It’s “adoptees versus adoptive parents,” “transracial adoptees versus same-race adoptees,” “everyone versus the system,” etc. I initially set out to discuss only transracial adoption, saw how interwoven transracial and same-race adoption traumas inevitably are, and thus started speaking on both transracial and same-race adoption, scared to rock the boat too much on race.

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I’m not scared anymore.

I’ve received vicious online assaults ranging from the relatively tame:

“You’re a heartless shrew!”

to the typically condescending:

“Please get help.”

to the hilariously bizarre:

“You useless amoeba!” and “You’re the Jim Crow of adoption.”

When I wrote the infamous Think Adopting Children of Color Makes You Woke? It Doesn’t piece, I was quite clear that I’m not against adoption of any kind; in fact, I recognized there indeed are white parents getting it right with their children of color and understand that yes, many are doing their best.  My experience with adoptive parents is the same as with any other group. There are excellent ones, terrible ones, and many in-between. I appreciate all of them and hope to reach most of them.

This struck a nerve that continues to sting today. When I say, “Let’s ensure cultural competency and racial awareness informs transracial adoption, so children’s racial identities are harmed less,” others hear: “You’re terrible, white people just want to help kids, or else they’ll starve in Ethiopia!” (yes, really).

“Helping” kids of color isn’t “rescuing them.” Many adoptees have said this before, but it bears repeating that rescue is a supremacist-rooted term implying the “greatest country in the world” is the best place for transracial/intercountry adoptees (yes, really, someone said that to me). Is that true? Is the West really best? I’ll let you decide, but consider this: The opposite of helping children of color is ignoring their color.

Far from being racist or Jim Crow of adoptionesque, questioning a system that places kids in colorblind yet loving homes has little basis in segregation. In fact, people of color were systematically excluded from adopting in-race because of exclusionary criteria, usually masquerading as economic, financial, and religious “qualifications.”

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My critiques are founded in historical policies, the social history of family, and race. And yes, my personal experience. Circling back to the accusation that I “make adoption all about race,” there’s truth in that statement. Adoption, like so many other government institutions, is about race. Race, power, and control. No matter how hard some push back on the issue, race matters. Denying its existence and influence on power structures denies the experience of people of color, adopted or not. As a person of color, I feel obligated to speak of color in this space and I won’t stop.

Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications.

Regardless of transracial adoption’s obvious minefields, there has never been a call–from myself, anyway–that all white people should stop adopting kids and instead let children of color simply rot away in the system. Or, even more puzzling, is the interpretation of my work as calling for “same-race only” adoptions, which again doesn’t exist in quantity due to reasons already stated.  I’d love for more POC to adopt children of color. As always, nothing is that simple.

Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications. It’s that sentence’s second clause that offends and touches nerves of would-be or current adopters; the awareness of love’s inability to protect against societal racial bias, and the idea that perhaps you can’t save a child of color by simply giving them a loving home.

Adoption, it would seem, is far more complicated. It should be, because a child’s life is at stake. Is it naive to believe transracial adoption can be done in the child’s best interest, aside from simply taking extreme “banish it” stances? I don’t think so. Parents, adoptive or not, exist on a continuum of shared flaws and toxic values. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the existence of open minds and open hearts, both of which all good parents embrace.

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“AFWM,” the online debate all Asian adoptees should know about

There’s an incendiary topic burning with both racial pride and community outrage and it’s one my fellow transracial Asian adoptees and their families should acknowledge. I’ve refrained from speaking on it because the Asian internet’s reactions range from ambivalent to enraged, but I no longer want adoptees–already suffering racial identity crises–unaware of what possibly awaits them.

Many transracial adoptees and their white parents seek Asian communities to mitigate cultural and heritage loss. They do this throughout the adoptee’s lifetime, or later when the adoptee becomes an independent adult. Most adoptees hesitantly approach Asian online communities and in-person gatherings, fearing “not being Asian enough” or confronting–sometimes for the first time–groups of people who “look like them.”

What an adoptee might find is not a welcoming brother or sisterhood, but one who offers acceptance based on two nuanced things:

  1. If the Asian adoptee is dating or married, their partner’s race, and,

  2. If the Asian adoptee–due to a proximity to whiteness they didn’t choose–is Asian enough to speak as a member of that race.

The dominant Asian community isn’t issuing such superficial judgments, but if someone’s Google search takes them far enough, it might dishearten them when uncovering such hatred lurking among a tiny vocal percentage. Deemed Asian Female/White Male (or AFWM/WMAF), it’s a divisive topic claiming any Asian woman dating or married to a white person is self-hating, suffering from internalized racism, anti-Asian male, anti-Asian, or, in extreme cases, fair targets for hate mail and death threats.

I tried addressing this from an academic and fairly neutral perspective, framing it within the narrow confines of transracial adoption. I tried exploring partner selection from a cultural perspective, citing studies examining how a white family’s influence over a person of color’s identity more related to unconscious absorption of family values and general attitudes toward race, not self-hate. I also say:

When examined through a…lens where Asianness isn’t so much denied as casually accepted and maybe feared, a child will be less likely to attach to their outward racial presentation.

For this perplexing AFWM debate, I suspect that even Asians who were “raised Asian” in diverse communities take away the media’s portrayal of the white standard and shape definitions of attractiveness. While this isn’t excusable and more ethnically diverse media representation is necessary, this theory doesn’t imply self-hate as a catalyst for partner choice.

My informal and brief analysis was predictably met with scorn, because how could I, an Asian adoptee raised by whites, be anything but brainwashed into internalized racism and a strong desire to emasculate Asian males? Also, I am married to a white man but not because I worship my white parents (actually, for anyone following my work, it’s the complete opposite)–I married him because I am an independent-minded, grown adult who lived with racists, so why would I allow that into my life once again?

The AFWM argument insults an Asian woman’s ability to perceive racism. It implies there couldn’t be any other reason, aside from Asian hate, a woman could ever marry outside her race. The notion itself implies ethnocentrism, something minorities have spent decades overcoming. Yes, it’s true some Asian women excuse white male racist behavior but as humans, we’re all saddled with the same insecurities, racial confusion, guilt, low self-esteem, and other personal issues as any other race. To paint an entire community of couples, including their half-Asian children, as hateful forces ourselves back into oppression instead of forward into truth-seeking.

For adoptees, this hurts when we discovering this mostly online battle, as some of us were conditioned into internalized racism from the very people expected to love us. For others, it’s simply a matter of partner availability. Relocating to a more Asian region isn’t always realistic or feasible. Doing so while confronting their own conflicted racial identities and ensuring they choose a racially appropriate partner is even harder. Adoptees are especially sensitive to such isolation as it wasn’t self-imposed (though many anti-WMAF members imply it is) since our parents–like many parents of minors–controlled the majority of our life choices.

Any person of any race can racially “marry up” and not tarnish the reputations of every other person who dates interracially; those outliers exist everywhere and aren’t reflective of an entire group. People will worship whiteness while others campaign against such toxic behaviors, but adoptees must understand their proximity to whiteness isn’t automatic white worship or negative. We have enough identity issues; who we pick as partners should be our least concern. It also doesn’t mean we’re intending to emasculate Asian males or supporting any negative portrayal of them.

The second issue, that Asian adoptees aren’t “Asian enough” to campaign for our rights or activism, implies our losses exclude us because we haven’t enough lived Asian experience. But we still experience racism, we experience prejudice, we experience identity issues–and we do it completely without, for the most part, any support from the Asian community. We lost a heritage, the heritage non-adoptees have that we desperately seek, while living alongside the dominant racial group. Absorbing those white values wasn’t a choice, but we have the ability to make room for and care about our group’s causes. Perhaps because of our parallel lives we’re more powerful than we think because we have lived in two worlds and are ready to share our experiences.

One interesting related note is female Asian adoptees reporting accusations of “not being Asian enough” to date Asian men. One Chinese adoptee pursued an Asian partner, but because of her background and his strong cultural connection, he rejected her. This scenario is worth considering, as it involves being turned away once again, potentially driving some Asians to white (or other races). Again, it’s not assumed to be the situation in every case, but it questions why a person may date interracially (and why is this even a bad thing nowadays?).

Transracial adoptees, please know that many of us are working hard to raise our voices and your partner choice doesn’t diminish your value as an Asian or a person. But know this dispute exists, and know our warm receptions into the community may be absent from a small sector of people. Still, we will keep talking about this and adding our perspectives, so we can transcend hate, whether self-directed or external. We must unite against racism and fear. As blogger Eliza Romero says:

“While people in interracial relationships obviously shouldn’t be the only voice for a community, their voices and opinions should be heard because there is plenty of valuable insight to be offered.”

move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

“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 Colors and 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.”

Current transracial adoptive parents have spoken with me, doing their best to navigate their child’s color and race. I don’t have easy answers but the best ones are those who acknowledge their limitations. There isn’t an easy answer, but my hope is transracial adoptive parents and adoptees read this book now (yes, I’m that excited about it) because it’ll help spotlight the real truth:

  • Color matters.
  • Society will judge non-matching families.
  • You won’t be able to figure it out.

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.

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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.

i’m not your model

I read an article from the 1990s that confirmed my long-standing suspicions: People in the eighties didn’t believe racism against Asians existed, thanks to the (now dissipating) model minority myth.

…[T]he erroneous belief that Asian Americans do not face discrimination cloud and mask the oppression of Asian Americans. We must tell our stories and our history again in order to shatter the myth and other mistaken beliefs about Asian America. – Robert S. Chang

Robert  S. Chang, law professor, wrote an awesomely-angry-ish paper examining the role Asian Americans played in the legal system. Unsurprisingly, Asians were not major characters. Chang explains the hidden-in-plain-sight prejudices launched against Asians, starting from the laws written by our very own United States government.

For example, he raised my eyebrows more than once when he shared tidbits like, oh, the fact that the official quota on Chinese immigrants was lifted less than 25 years before my birth. And those same early immigrants faced harsh discriminatory laws that “[l]ater arrivals, trying to avoid this discrimination, distanced themselves from earlier arrivals….In essence, the discriminatory laws…not only hurt the Chinese…but, by encouraging each group to be more ‘western’ than the next, also prevented the building of coalitions among different Asian American groups.”

 

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Photo by Vance Osterhout on Unsplash

Following the natural progression of institutionalized racism, White government officials excluded Asians from minority representation almost entirely, believing Asians chose to only socialize with other Asians – despite laws forcing separation.

Chang drops another bomb: It wasn’t until 1992 that language diversity – a feature of many Asian American cultures – was introduced to voting ballots, effectively banning some Asians from political participation.

In my book, I argue that racial attitudes during and before my adoption explained my negative reception. Insular town notwithstanding, I suspected what Chang confirmed: Asians were harbingers of foreignness and the insults (“Go back to your own country!”) reflected the belief that Asians didn’t belong; not in the town and definitely not the United States.

Chang argues that it’s the “portrayal of Asian Americans as successful [that] permits the general public, government officials, and the judiciary to ignore or marginalize the contemporary needs of Asian Americans.” Then, “when we try to make our problems known, our complaints of discrimination…are seen as unwarranted and inappropriate.”

So that’s why no one cared when someone threatened to kick my eyes straight.

And that’s why action wasn’t taken when “chink” mysteriously appeared on my school poster.

And, most upsettingly, that’s why the so-called affirmative action officer in my middle school told me that the kid who tried to light my jacket on fire while I was wearing it “needed a friend,” and never addressed the racism.

So, what does this have to do with adoption? I share this (thank you Mr. Chang, if you ever read this, which you probably won’t) because a large section of my book argues that the rapid rate of Korean adoptions were proportionate to the growing anti-Asian sentiment in the US, and steps could have been taken to prevent the inevitable racism I – and many others – experienced. Knowing this would have also maybe helped prepare my parents and possibly led others to self-select out of the adoption process.

Surviving in a multiracial world is challenging, but parents who are unable or unwilling to help their transracial child navigate it are dangerous.  It shouldn’t take this much work to prove racism is real.

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