10 Do’s and Don’ts for transracially adoptive parents

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Michelle Myers

Like everyone else who grew up in the 70′s and 80′s, I loved watching “Different Strokes.” Of course, I was enamored with the show mainly because of Gary Coleman and waited with anticipation every episode for him to scrunch up his face and demand, “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?!” In my child’s mind, they didn’t seem like an odd family because Mr. Drummond and his daughter Kimberly were white and Arnold and Willis were black–it just always struck me how rich they were and that they were a happy together. Recently, I have rediscovered the show on cable tv because my 10-year-old daughter loves to watch it, much for the same reason I did 30 years ago–Arnold is just so darn cute! Now watching it with adult eyes and a heightened racial consciousness, I am amazed at how much the show did try to tackle the touchy issue of race and Mr. Drummond’s relationship with and responsibility to the two boys he had transracially adopted. For example, in one episode, Mr. Drummond discovers that he is about to inherit money from one of his wealthy ancestors, but then learns that this man was actually a slave trader and made most of his fortune from it. Mr. Drummond then struggles with what he should do–what’s his responsibility as a descendent of this prominent man, as the father of two black children, as a concerned citizen. In the end, he donates all of the money to open a community center in Harlem and learns a very telling lesson as a white person with money and privilege about legacy and racism. I could go on and on describing episodes that really surprised me in the tough issues that were addressed and then assert how much I now see that this show was ahead of its time with this issue of transracial adoption. But that doesn’t change the fact that usually within 30 minutes, the struggle/conflict was resolved neatly, tidily, and happily.

Unfortunately, real life oftentimes unfolds other stories, stories which reveal a lifetime of struggle. After one of my recent Yellow Rage poetry shows, a woman introduced herself to me and began to tell me that she was a Korean adoptee and had grown up in a white family who really did not give her much support as she struggled to make sense of her identity as a transracially adopted person. She went on to tell me that throughout her childhood and teenaged years, she experienced increasing racial and cultural confusion as a result of being incessantly teased and bullied at school–bullying which was emotionally, psychologically, and physically damaging. As she became a young adult, she was angry, bitter, and resentful. Somehow she made it through enough to now be happily married to a white man and have a joyous daughter with him. But as she told me these things about herself, she was tearful and clearly her pain ran deep–as did her anger. Maybe it was not so much on the surface anymore, but definitely still a persistent presence, her anger emanated as a quiet force. And with the V-Tech shootings still in recent memory, her confession to me that there had been a time in her life when she could have caused great harm to others and herself seemed to resound around me with heavy meaning.

The deeply sad thing for me about this woman is that her voice and eyes have joined the others I have collected in memory over the years. My poetry has put me in a position where I often meet people who pour out their hearts’ fears, pains, and desires to me. And in the past 7 years of meeting people through my poetry, transracially adopted people stand out as a group who have reached out to me because they want so much to be understood.

I don’t want this to be my usual doom-and-gloom post—although I could very easily give a catalogue of all the transracial adoptees I’ve met who have cut off their adoptive parents and families because they felt unsupported, who have changed their names, who are obsessed with regaining some part of the birth family and culture they feel was unfairly taken from them. I also don’t want this to be a diatribe against white people who will engage/have engaged in transracial adoptions. I mean, come on, I’ve publicly defended Angelina Jolie on this blog! (with the disclaimer that though she benefits from white privilege I don’t really consider her white but mixed race. That statement is probably contradictory—but keep reading, white parents! Honestly, I’m not going to bash you!). But while I do have some concerns about white folks adopting children of color, I think parenting is challenging enough without the added insult of being deemed unfit simply because of race, speaking as a mixed race individual of mixed race children myself. However, I think that white people—just like anyone else—have to be responsible for the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of the children in their care and that includes being prepared to deal with racial differences and the resulting complications that can arise. And you, white parents, need to recognize, understand, and accept that the reason why people of color are so hard on yall is that WE as POCs have a difficult enough time getting through the racial muck of the world and preparing our children for it, how can you think you can do it untouched if not unscathed? That being said . . .

Instead of doom-and-gloom (at least for the moment) I want to list some DO NOT and DO points current and potential parents of transracially adopted children should be conscious of, prepared for, willing to consider. Please regard these as lessons I’ve learned from transracial adoptees that I hope to pass on to you (but, of course, these will not just be useful for raising transracially adopted children).

1) DO love your children.
This may seem like a given, but it isn’t. Your child is a gift and they should FEEL that you believe them to be so. This unconditional and unquestionable love will be the fortification for all the challenges you will face together with your children in the future.

2) DO NOT tell them or make them feel that you “saved” them.
This is a huge mistake some adoptive parents make, one I’ve heard from adoptees time-and-time again. For example, a Korean adoptee once told me that she hated her white parents for telling her that they had saved her from a backward country and from living the rest of her life as a prostitute. Even if these children come from a country that is experiencing a great deal of social and political turmoil, even if they were living in abject poverty before you adopted them, you should never make them feel as if you were on some missionary kick. You are not living out Kiplings’ “White Man’s Burden.”

3) DO accept that racism–both racist love and racist hate–are everywhere
Especially in the United States where race is so tied up in our national history, identity, and consciousness, and you will not be able to understand it much of the time. For example, do not be so naive to think that because the school you are sending your transracially adopted child to is “diverse” that he or she will be accepted. I went to a racially diverse high school and was still referred to as having “chinky eyes” and was given the nickname “Hung Chow.” Also, do not be so condescending to your child that when he or she tells you about a situation of name-calling or teasing or bullying that you respond by saying not to take it to heart or to ignore it or that it’ll pass or those people are ignorant–and that’s it. This ultimately will be retranslated by your child as you don’t understand or are not taking him or her seriously, and it does not arm your child on how to feel whole again.

4) DO recognize when your love is not enough.
Your love will probably not be enough when your child is bullied at school or if he or she is called, for example, a “nigger” or even if other black children call him or her “white.” Your love will be the foundation, yes, but recognize that this is going to set off a whole series of questions centered around identity that you might not be equipped to answer—or that your child won’t even ask you because his or her assumption is that you won’t know. In other words, you have to prepare for a time when race comes between you and your child. It may be that you will have to accept that someone else may be better suited to help your child than you are.

To give you a better idea about what I mean, I offer this short excerpt from Jane Lazarre’s essay “Raising Black Sons: A White Mother’s Meditation.” Although she is the biological mother of her sons, the idea and actuality that they live their lives as members of a different race is applicable to the present discussion. I hope it is illuminating:

“I am black,” Khary explains to me repeatedly during the first year away from home when he has to find and take his place in his own world. . . .
When I say, “I understand,” he tells me carefully, gently, “I don’t think you do, Mom. You can’t understand this completely because you’re white.”
At first, I am stunned, by his vehemence and by his idea. Perhaps even more than most mothers, I have identified with my children. A motherless daughter since early childhood, I have experienced difficulty but also real reparation in mothering myself. Now, standing in the darkened hallway facing my son, I feel exiled from my not-yet-grown child.
What is this whiteness that threatens to separate me from my own son? Why haven’t I seen it lurking, encircling me in some impenetrable fog? I want to say the thing that will be most helpful to him, offer some carefully designed permission for him to discover his own road, even if that means leaving me behind. On the other hand, I want to cry out, “Don’t leave me,” as he cried to me when I walked out of daycare centers, away from babysitters, out of his first classroom in public school.

5) DO arm your children by giving them a strong identity.
This includes exposing them to their native culture, language, and food early on their lives. This means enabling them to have some time and space to be with people from their original culture. In order to do this, you will have to fight off the “You’re in America now” mentality that so many people have—only speak English, Don’t mess with the U.S., etc. This will help—not completely—when they wonder where they come from, who their parents are/were, what would their lives have been like if they had stayed there. These questions will always arise, even to the point where they may want to visit the country or search for their birth family. You have to be prepared for this and be supportive.

6) DO respect your children’s native culture and try to know as much about it as you can.
Why shouldn’t you learn the language? Why shouldn’t you learn to make the dishes? Why shouldn’t you visit the country? Why shouldn’t you learn how to do those hairstyles? You can and you should—your children will find something hypocritical in you saying you love them but then you don’t respect or try to know more about their native culture. But you shouldn’t become fetishistic or seem like an appropriator. It should come from a genuine place of wanting to know your children and where they come from. And this should be done for your children, not to show off to others.

7) DO make yourself and family as much a part of their life as you can.
If you have biological children as well, your adopted children may feel like you favor your “real” children and that they aren’t really considered a part of the family. Every effort should be made for them to feel like your home and your history and your hopes are theirs as well—how you grew up, where your family came from, that their future is your future. Hopefully, you have an extended network of family members and friends who will help them to feel this way too. But this also means that you should be willing and able to step up and protect your children when addressed or treated inappropriately by anyone, including friends and family who may think, for example, that their ethnic jokes are “all in fun.”

8 ) DO NOT think that transracially adopting children will give you a “pass” among any POC communities.
Do not expect POCs to congratulate you or praise you for adopting one of “their children.” And if you do get the praise, humbly deny it. If you want your “generosity” acknowledged, then you adopted for all the wrong reasons—we are talking about children here, not badges of honor. Adoption, like parenting in general, is a selfless responsibility. You should treat it as such. Furthermore, adopting a child from China or Russia or anywhere else does not give you the right to get on your political soapbox and tell folks what needs to be done in their communities, culture, or countries. To do so will just affirm you as part of the continuing problem, and may cause your children to be conflicted, confused, or insecure. You should try to be objective when talking politics or religion in a country and among a culture to which you are an outsider.

9) DO NOT allow your children to feel that you love them and support them out of guilt.
Do not try to make up for the loss of their birth parents or the feeling of rejection that they may feel. Children are children and they will emotionally manipulate you if they can. They may even try to punish you because they cannot punish their birth parents. Therefore, you should try to set boundaries and gain their respect in a way so that you both can maintain your dignity. If they can’t be reached, then you have to know when it’s time to bring in a counselor—when the situation and your relationship are beyond anything you yourself can positively change.

Let me share with you one of the worst stories of transracial adoption I’ve ever heard about. I know of a Korean adoptee who was adopted by a white family when he was 4 or 5 years old. Much of his life, he was angry, bitter, and sad that his birth mother gave him up, and as he recalled what he could remember of his former life, he became very dissatisfied with his new life in an unfamiliar culture. The adoptive white mother, feeling guilty and trying to placate the boy as he grew up, was very permissive with him, and he just took more and more and more—emotionally and financially. Eventually, he engaged in self-destructive behavior, including taking drugs and developing a compulsive gambling habit. He is now in his early 20′s, is in tens-of-thousands of dollars of debt, is dying of full-blown AIDS, and verbally abuses his adoptive mother constantly, laying blame on her for his misery. And all she does now is listen to his screaming, take his anger and blame, and watch as he dies.

10) DO acknowledge all of your own shortcomings, prepare for all the potential and unforeseeable challenges ahead, and offer yourself wholeheartedly to your adopted children.
For parents, too, are a gift—we are not perfect, but we are a gift nevertheless. Do everything in your power for your children—not your neighbor, not the PTA, not the mothers’ group, not the POCs in the park—to accept you as such. Give them the opportunity to love you back.

I leave you with one final story—it’s a happy one. Well, as happy as I can get, but most of all it’s a lesson about receiving and accepting gifts.

My friend, Dan (with whom I perform as part of Asians Misbehavin’), and his wife adopted a little girl from China almost 3 years ago. Because his wife is Chinese American (Dan is Korean American), their application was expedited due to the Chinese government’s priority of placing Chinese children with parents of Chinese descent.

Dan recently wrote and performed a new dramatic monologue in which he describes his and his wife’s journey to China to get their daughter, Melody. He honestly expresses his misgivings at all the white people from America and Europe who are there to adopt Chinese children, and he wonders if international adoption hasn’t become a new form of imperialism with Chinese girls becoming a kind of commodity to be exchanged and objectified. These are his thoughts during the first few days as they and the other families wait to meet their children for the first time.

When the families are given their new child, Dan begins to wonder about the Chinese parents and why they gave up these children–”throw-aways” they seem to be. He observes a little boy and begins to get angry that his birth parents would give him up because he is blind, a “throw-away.” He also notices that many of the girls have cleft palates. He explains that it’s the first time he’s ever seen a cleft palate in real life, and no amount of pictures could have prepared him for the actual sight of a child whose jaw appears missing–of being able to see directly into her mouth when it’s supposed to be closed.

Dan ends his monologue emotionally, his words following one particular white woman as she circles the room carrying a Chinese girl with a cleft palate. With unmistakable joy in her voice, this woman approaches each person in the room and declares,

“Meet my new daughter. She’s perfect.”

Michelle Myers holds a Ph.D. in English from Temple University, specializing in Asian American Literature. She is a founding member of the spoken word poetry group Yellow Rage, which was featured on HBO’s RUSSELL SIMMONS PRESENTS DEF POETRY, and which recently released its second CD: HANDLE WITH CARE, VOL. 2. She is also a founding member of the performance collective Asians Misbehavin’. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Community College of Philadelphia and Grants Coordinator at SEAMAAC (Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition). Michelle lives in NJ with her husband, Tyrone, and their three children: Myong, Victor, and Vanessa.

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