Parents tote their children to ethnic restaurants and cultural festivals,but are often oblivious to the biases and racism their children sometimes face.
“What we find is that parents are pretty good about the culture part,but not very good about the race part,” Victor Groza,professor of parent-child studies at Case Western Reserve University,said. “They don’t recognize racism.”
Groza said parents generally don’t create an atmosphere where it’s all right to talk about race as their transracially adopted children grow up in what are typically white communities.
Jane Jeong Trenka,adopted from South Korea as an infant in 1972,has been outspoken on the issues parents need to consider when they adopt since writing her first book,“The Language of Blood.”
Although she no longer talks about her experience,her memoir details her life growing up in rural Minnesota,where her adoptive father mocked her Asian boyfriends,where her parents wouldn’t listen to her talk about the struggle of being different in a white community and where she would later know that she and her sister were second choice to a Caucasian boy – a commodity in adoption.
She was so unaccustomed to seeing Asian faces that she was constantly surprised by her appearance when she saw her own reflection.
Susan Cox,vice president of public policy for Holt International,said the agency,which places about 600 children a year for intercountry adoption,tries to advise parents about potential risks,but the message rarely hits home.
“You could talk about all the things that could be and the things that will happen,but it’s really difficult for a family to relate to that,” Cox said. “When their child is small they think,‘Oh,that won’t ever happen to me.’”
A study released November 2009 that surveyed 179 adult adoptees offered the first quantitative look at the racial issues intercountry and transracial children face.
The findings were published in the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report,“Beyond Culture Camp.”
According to the State Department,17,869 children were adopted into the U.S. from South Korea from 1999 to 2010 – 7.9 percent of the total children adopted internationally during that period.
“Sticking a child in a place where no one else looked like them in a dinky town is,in my opinion,child abuse,” one respondent said.
Philip Goff,47, Kate McGinn,50,adopted infant girls Ning,now 11,and Hilary “CeCe” Qian,now 8½,from China. The husband and wife made their decision while living in Los Angeles,which has an Asian population of 11.3 percent. They later moved to Indianapolis,with an Asian population of 2.1 percent.
Goff is director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis,and McGinn is the denominational archivist for the Free Methodist Church,North America.
Goff said they used Holt,and the importance of ethnic identity was clear in their first meeting. If it hadn’t been,he said,they likely wouldn’t have used the agency.
“Our agency is one that did take seriously educating your kids so that they can live in their own shoes more comfortably,” he said. “Knowing your own culture,who you are from all different perspectives,is,I think,part of being human. That was important to us.”
The Donaldson study revealed the importance of ethnic identity grew for participants as they reached young adulthood.
So far,Goff said,they have had to work through the hard questions about Ning’s birthparents,which he said isn’t so different from the questions any adopted child might ask. Otherwise,the biggest challenge they face is from other parents. Goff said parents ask about whether the girls are “real” sisters or questions about their “real” parents when the girls are in earshot.
Groza said a key indicator of how well parents will incorporate race into their children’s lives is the people they surround themselves with.
Goff said that,although he has Chinese colleagues at the university,his daughters tend to shy away from his colleagues and bond instead with the Chinese counselors at the culture camps they attend and their Mandarin teacher at school.
JaeRan Kim,who was adopted from South Korea at age 3,said culture camps,cultural festivals and even restaurant outings all became popular after her generation of adoptees,which includes Trenka,had grown. She said giving children the tools they need to grow into an adult of color in the U.S. requires more than a restaurant visit.
She said the wide disconnect from language and culture often makes it more difficult for intercountry transracial adoptees to connect with ethnic communities in the U.S. than it is for American transracial adoptees.
“Anyone can go out and buy food or costumes from another country,” she said,“but it’s the feeling like you’re part of an ethnic community as a person of an ethnic background that you don’t necessarily get.”
Kim,now 43,a doctoral candidate at the University of Minnesota-School of Social Work,said culture is the easy part,the beautiful part,but convincing parents that living in a more diverse area might be better for their child’s racial development is a hard sell. Ultimately,she said,parents don’t want to be the ones outside their comfort zones.
Although Holt may make racial challenges clear,Kim said most agencies do not and will not.
“At the end of the day,they don’t want to scare away parents from adopting,” she said. “That’s why there’s not as strong of an effort to push that as there could be and needs to be,at times.”
Nevertheless,Groza said the opportunities adoption offers to children who would otherwise be institutionalized or shuffled through the foster system can outweigh the possible risks.
“The clinical issues for adoptees placed racially are not as profound as kids raised in foster care or kids who had to be raised in an institution,” he said. “A family is really,really important,and it doesn’t matter what country we’re talking about.”
Graphics by Jessica Sabbah.
Reach reporter Hope Rurik at [email protected] or 202-326-9861. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.