Posted on March 31, 2023

The Family Who Tried to End Racism Through Adoption

Nicole Chung, The Atlantic, March 8, 2023

Growing up as the adopted Korean daughter of white parents in a predominantly white community, I discovered early on that my presence was often a surprise, a question to which others expected answers. {snip}

Like Matthew Pratt Guterl, I know what it is to be raised in the belief that your family represents something far greater than itself. Whereas my parents saw our adoptive family as proof of God’s handiwork, Bob and Sheryl Guterl saw theirs as a new kind of “ark for the age of the nuclear bomb, of race riots, of war,” one that could change the world by example: They would raise a family of white biological children and adopted children of color—“two of every race”—and all would live in harmony behind a white-picket fence. In Skinfolk, Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, assigns himself the task of reckoning with the experiment his white parents confidently embarked on.

He describes them as serious Catholics, loving and “big hearted,” convinced of their own good intentions: Bob, a respected New Jersey judge, was “the wild-eyed dreamer”; Sheryl, a teacher turned homemaker, was “the practical one.” Reading the brief autobiographies his parents submitted to Welcome House, the first international and interracial adoption agency in the United States, Guterl notes that they shared a desire for a large family, concerns about population growth, and the belief that “recycling and adoption are methods of global repair.”

As their firstborn son, he grew up alongside his brother Bug (Guterl refers to some of his siblings by name, others by childhood nickname), who came from South Korea as a baby in 1972, two years after Matthew’s birth; Mark, his only biological sibling, born in 1973; Bear, the son of a Vietnamese mother and a Black American-GI father, adopted as a 5-year-old in 1975; Anna, a biracial Korean girl, who arrived from Seoul in 1977 at the age of 13; and Eddie, a Black child adopted from the South Bronx in 1983, at the age of 6. Guterl details the ways in which the siblings were known, observed, and sometimes fetishized within and beyond their rural New Jersey town. “The whole enterprise, in accordance with Bob’s wishes, is meant to be seen,” he writes:

We are seen, and we see things … I begin to note a troubling public surveillance of our whole ensemble, our various skin tones on display. I watch as cars drive by, and see how quickly the heads turn to see the wide world of rainbow at play in our picket-fenced front yard. A game of catch. A throw of the football. Choosing up teams for Wiffle ball. With Blackness added, our performed comity means something more.

Reading this passage made me think of my own upbringing in white spaces, constantly watched and watchful. My parents believed my race was irrelevant, insisting that people cared only about who I was “on the inside”; I didn’t tell them about the slurs and barbs I heard throughout my childhood. For the Guterls, however, calling attention to the racial makeup of their family was partly the point—how else could they lead by example? Bob’s sermonizing at the dining-room table introduced the children to their parents’ mission and helped indoctrinate them early on: “We understand that our multiracial composition is a critique of the present, our color-blind consanguinity an omen of the future.” The children were expected to acknowledge and celebrate one another’s differences, and also, somehow, to transcend them.

The reality, of course, is that transracial adoption has no intrinsic power to heal racial prejudice, and Guterl and his siblings were never going to neutralize or escape its effects, much less undo the harms of white supremacy. Young Matthew discovers firsthand that the world won’t be changed by families like theirs: He is cornered and terrorized by a group of white kids because he has a Black brother; he later notices that their parents apologize to him, not to Bear. In middle school, he is so distressed at being called “N—— Lips” (again, he is targeted because he has Black siblings) that he takes the shocking step of getting cosmetic surgery on his lips. By the time he is in college, he knows that he can rebel, play pranks, even get caught speeding, and not worry that the hammer will fall on him the way it might on Bear or Eddie—not that his parents give the boys “the talk,” precisely: “Racial disparities in policing … are regular subjects of conversation at the breakfast and dinner table. Bob feels, though, that there should be no formal, separate syllabus” for his Black sons.

Throughout the book, the sibling we learn the most about, and the one Guterl seems closest to, is Bear: near enough in age to be his “twin.” Bear comes to the Guterls with a small bag of belongings and a photograph of the family he was separated from after leaving Vietnam—his older half brother’s arm on his shoulder, his mother and half sister to their left—an image that leads Guterl to reflect on “the great sorrow that he has been ripped from that set of relations with such tremendous and severing force.” By high school, Bear is a popular football player and solid student—unlike Guterl, who is aware that he lacks his brother’s star power yet also has an unearned advantage in his whiteness. Bear may be loved and widely admired in their small town, but neither his own successes nor his adoptive family can exempt him from the racism of their fellow residents. Bear “is a Black,” one of Guterl’s white friends says to him during senior year—and then comes Eddie’s turn: “But your younger brother is a n——.” Guterl freezes at this “detour into American racism,” unexpected but not unfamiliar to him.


Guterl’s search, perhaps undertaken on behalf of his siblings, does not shy away from challenging their parents’ mission. That entails examining not just the failure of their experiment, but also the limits of their father’s ability to grasp why and how the “endeavor begins to unravel.” When Bob blames Bug’s estrangement from the family on the adoption agency, the Korean orphanage, everything and everyone beyond the white-picket fence—“Not us. Not this place. Not what has happened at our home”—Guterl suggests that this picture is incomplete: For Bug, being part of the Guterl clan, and especially accepting Bob’s overpowering vision of what the family represented, seemed to require a painful and, in the end, impossible denial of self. The historian of the family, Guterl wants to convey his perspective on the tangled truth of what has happened to him and the people he loves, aware from the start that his search—and what he uncovers—may cause him and others pain.