Rachel Hatzipanagos, Washington Post, December 13, 2021
Growing up, Angela Tucker felt like a racial impostor. She may have looked Black, but she didn’t feel that way.
Tucker, 36, is an adoptee raised by White parents in a city that was 88 percent White when she was growing up. It left her disconnected from music such as jazz and blues music, Black art forms she didn’t discover her passion for until adulthood. She covered her natural hair with wigs and weaves, uncomfortable with how her curly strands appeared in predominantly White environments.
Tucker’s parents were aware that living in the predominantly White town of Bellingham, Wash., where few people looked like their children could be challenging, but felt they needed to live close to some of the state’s best hospitals because one of their children had health issues.
“My parents were also really open to talking to me about why it was that more predominantly White places had better medical care,” said Tucker. But “it didn’t help me to really get a great understanding of my own identity because I didn’t see racial mirrors.”
Transracial adoptees, people raised by adoptive parents of a different race or ethnicity, are experiencing their own racial reckoning as the nation confronts its historical scars. Most of these adoptions involve White families and children of color who, now as adults, are reflecting on the racism they experienced that their parents couldn’t see and rarely talked about. Classmates’ racist comments about their hair and eyes were dismissed as harmless curiosity. America’s racial dynamics were explained in the language of “colorblind” idealism.
The propriety of cross-cultural adoptions has been debated for decades. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a strong stand against the adoption of Black children by White parents. Several years later, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to address the wave of Native American children being separated from their tribes and placed with White families.
The national conversation about systemic racism driven by George Floyd’s death in 2020 has cast a new light on interracial adoption and prompted transracial families to confront the unspoken cultural divides in their homes.
“I mentor a lot of youth who are really struggling because their parents don’t see the racism within George Floyd’s murder, for example, or won’t let their child go march,” Tucker said. “And so for these kids, it’s confusing because they are like, ‘I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people.’”
The growth in transracial adoptions from foster care in recent years has far outpaced the growth in same-race adoptions, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of such families increased by 58 percent between 2005-2007 and 2017-2019, while same-race adoptions increased by 24 percent. Transracial adoptions are now 28 percent of all domestic adoptions in the United States.
Richard Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who focuses on internationally adopted Koreans, said many adoptees experience what he calls the “transracial adoption paradox” — the experience of growing up with many of the privileges that come with Whiteness.
“When they leave that sort of smaller network and enter school or move out of the family home later in life, suddenly they’re confronted with being perceived and treated as a racial minority,” Lee said.
Tucker made a point during her childhood to vocally identify her mother as “mom” when they were in public to give herself a sense of security amid the confused stares of onlookers.
“That definitely gave people a sense of calm, like, ‘Oh, she’s with the White people,’” Tucker said.
But she was also disheartened by her impulse to casually dismiss racism when it came her way, like when students in her mostly White school put pencils in her hair and marveled at the way the texture made them stay in place, she said.
“I remember knowing intellectually that that was wrong but feeling so much peer pressure and a desire to just fit in that I would laugh it off,” Tucker said.
At one point, it was common practice for adoption agencies to charge less for adopting a Black child vs. a White child, said Liz Raleigh, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton College. As part of her research, Raleigh attended private adoption agencies’ information sessions for prospective parents and was surprised at how little information was given about race.
“By [adoption agencies] taking on if not a colorblind but a color-evasive approach, they signal to White prospective adoptive parents that race does not need to be a significant factor in their decision-making,” Raleigh said. “And then by extension, it might not need to be a significant factor in their child-rearing. And I think that that is incredibly problematic, and it has huge implications for the way in which these parents, later on, approach raising their children.”
Adoptive parents’ good intentions and honest efforts can still fall short, particularly when the conversations are limited to cultural celebrations and discussion about heritage rather than more complex topics such as systemic racism and the lingering impacts of colonialism, Lee said.
“The majority of adoptive families, when raising these children, tend to overestimate how engaged they are in socializing their children around their ethnic heritage and in preparing them for racism,” he said.
In one study Lee co-authored, researchers started following 116 Korean American adoptees in 2007, when the children were between 7 and 13 years old, and checked back with them in 2014, when they were between 13 and 20 years old. The study asked about their level of ethnic socialization and knowledge of their ethnic heritage. While the adoptees said their parents exposed them to things such as Korean restaurants and cultural festivals, they weren’t engaging in more complex conversations about racism as they got older.
“Often we hear from adult adoptees who are reflecting on their childhood that say, ‘What was communicated to me early on, verbally and nonverbally, was [race] is not something my parents can handle’ or, ‘I know if I bring up these issues, it’s going to hurt and upset my parents,’” Lee said. “‘And I’d rather not have to deal with that.’”
About US spoke to members of transracial families about how the national moment of racial reckoning has affected their family dynamics. Many adoptees say they are now, in adulthood, doing work to discover their identities. For some, that has meant reconnecting with their biological parents, while others immersed themselves in the racial justice movement, and still others have absorbed books about their culture — filling in the gaps of their stories that their parents left behind.
Laney Allison isn’t sure of her birth date, but her adoption paperwork states that she was adopted in August 1994, at just under 1 year old.
Allison was born in Anhui province in eastern China and grew up some 10,000 miles away, in Dallas. Raised by a single, White mom, she encountered “no Asian role models” growing up. Her violin teacher’s Korean wife was the only Asian woman she consistently encountered during her childhood.
“My mom did not have any Asian friends. She did not seek out any Asian friends,” Allison said. “She just basically raised me like she would any White kid, and in doing so, she was not preparing me for adulthood, in which I don’t have my White mom next to me to shield me from a racist White person.”
Allison’s mother, through her daughter, declined to participate in this report. Allison said that despite those struggles, “I love my mom, and I know she did the best in raising me.”
In school, Allison said that her lack of racial literacy meant that she experienced racism before she knew what it was.
“You just think they’re making fun of you because you look different. And then when you get older, you’re like, ‘Wait, no, that’s racism,’” she said.
As the rhetoric about the pandemic spurred anti-Asian racism and attacks, Allison has had moments in which she has been afraid to leave her home in Washington. She went to stay with her mom for a while in Texas.
“I think I need a White person with me at all times,” Allison recalls thinking.
Her mother thought she was overreacting. And no one from her family thought to reach out to her amid the spreading reports of anti-Asian hate.
In March, Allison wrote a post on social media encouraging her followers to check in on the Asian American people in their lives. She has found some support with other adoptees through an organization she co-founded, China’s Children International, which hosts chat groups and in-person meetups for adoptees such as herself.
She tried to talk to her mother about how she was affected by racism and the attacks on Asian Americans. But despite her mother’s liberal politics, Allison felt she didn’t empathize with the experiences of the broader Asian community.
“You can care about that one Asian in your life and still not see the rest of the Asian American community as being worthy of your protection,” she said.
Her mom later tried to make amends by taking bystander intervention training, which is meant to train onlookers in what to say if they see an Asian person harassed or attacked because of their race. But by then Allison felt it was too little, too late.
“I am choosing not to talk to her or any of my other White family members about it because I’m just over it,” Allison said. “I don’t want to have to explain myself and my situation to them because it took them 26 and a half years to be like: ‘Oh, yeah, she’s Asian. She experiences racism.’”
“I think first acknowledging that your child is not White is, like, a huge step for a lot of White adoptive parents is to, like, see outside. Because a lot of parents see their child as, this is just your kid. They don’t see them in racialized terms. But in seeing them in that colorblind way, you are not protecting them.You are not preparing them to grow up and be an adult.”
Much of the narrative around adoption centers adoptive parents and frames their actions as selflessness that helps save a child, Tucker said. But she hopes to refocus that narrative so more people consider how adoptions are affected by race and class.
“The savior-ism is so prevalent, and it’s really just a deep-seated belief that White people can take care of Black people better,” Tucker said.
Tucker holds out hope that White parents of children of color can learn to be more race-conscious in their homes. Through their daughter, Tucker’s parents declined to participate in this story, citing privacy concerns.
What Tucker wants most, in helping parents and adoptees, is for White parents of children of color to have honest dialogues with their children about race.