Drive-by Culture

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim, originally published at Harlow’s Monkey

People ask me all the time for a “top 10″ list of suggestions or rules that are must-do’s regarding transracial adoption, and I’ll admit that I have a really hard time doing this.

Mostly, it’s because there is no easy prescription or formula for getting it right. This was pretty clearly demonstrated in the adult adoptee panel I spoke on this past weekend. The other two panelists and I had three very different experiences growing up. I am the only Korean child, with two younger siblings biological to my parents, and I grew up in a small town with no diversity at all and parents and a community that did not understand racism or the effects of being the only person of color in a community. One of my fellow co-presenters is a mixed race adoptee with two white siblings (like me) but in a diverse setting with parents who understood the importance of diversity and actually pushed “culture” on her. And the other presenter was adopted with his biological brother and spent parts of his childhood in rural, suburban and inner city settings with liberal parents.

And yet – all three of us as adults had come to the same conclusion. It was not enough. We all struggled with our racial identity. We all felt like outsiders within our family and outsiders within our racial communities. It’s not that we didn’t feel loved, because I know that each of us on the panel never felt excluded or differentiated in that sense.

Understandably, this is confusing for prospective adoptive parents and adoptive parents. One audience member asked with clear frustration – what are they to do? Where is the balance? They don’t want to push too much, like my co-presenter’s parents nor ignore completely, like mine did. And I wish I could have given this prospective adoptive parent a more satisfactory answer.

The advice I can give is that each child will be different and their needs will be different over time. But, the choice to be involved in the child’s community should never be dependent on the child.

What do I mean by that? Well, I mean that there will be times that the child won’t want to attend culture camp, language lessons, or have tacos on Tuesday and egg rolls on Wednesday. But being part of the child’s community is more than those things, which amount only to cultural tourism. Being part of the community is dependent on the adults. The parents. It’s that the parents attend a Korean church or a Black church for themselves. Because they value it. It’s not about “dropping the kids off at the curb” and coming back to pick them up later. That suggests that culture and diversity is the kid’s job.

Sue at My Life Postponed has a great post about why she has her kids involved in culture school. My favorite part is this:

I don’t take my kids to culture school for the things they will learn . . . I take them there for the relationships. If I cannot model comfort with people of their own origin, then they will pick that up very fast and feel and reflect my own discomfort. I am not always comfortable but I have kept faking practicing comfort, as best I can, until it becomes more natural and it truly has. And once in awhile, in the midst of what feels like a whole lotta posing, an authentic connection just happens.

Remember my previous post where I mention how in the film Outside Looking In, none of the prospective adoptive parents did their “homework” of spending time in a community of color? I thought of this when I read the following from Sue:

Sometimes I have to be the first to say hello, and have to smile a few times before the ice gets broken and sometimes the ice remains regardless of my effort and I take the cue to step back. I am also learning that just because someone is not immediately smiling and opening their heart to me, that does not mean they are hostile. Maybe they are shy, maybe they don’t know what to make of our family, maybe there is a language barrier, maybe they have a headache, maybe they have mixed feelings about the environment or someone else nearby and I am taking a vibe–not meant for me–personally.

Community building is not easy for any of us. But we sure can make it easier for each other, if we keep trying. It requires vulnerability, and it requires persistence, and a lifetime commitment. Oh and a thick skin. It all starts with some basic manners, which can be difficult to remember when we are feeling plagued by all kinds of discomfort that systemic racism has taught us.

It’s a responsibility that for our childrens’ sake, we transracially adoptive parents should not evade. If we want our children to know that we accept them for exactly who they are, a genuine desire to be with and respect people who share their ethnic background is an important aspect of showing–rather than saying–how we feel.

For the adoptive parents reading this blog, I have a question that you don’t have to answer – but please think about. When was the last time you participated in your child’s community without using your child as your emotional crutch? That is, for you and you alone – not to “expose” your child to his/her community. Just for you. When was the last time you placed yourself in your child’s community and left your child at home? Or do you feel more comfortable going into “their” community only when they are with you? Do you see it as “their” community, or is it truly the whole family’s community?

There will likely be a time when Junior will say “forget it” and will refuse to go to culture camp or culture school. But he’ll be watching. Watching to see if your involvement with “his people” ends if he decides to take a break.

Please read Sue’s post. I thought it was honest and heart felt and a great example for adoptive parents.

Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/

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