By JaeRan Kim, PhD © 2018
JaeRan Kim was born in South Korea in 1969 and adopted into a white family in Minnesota in 1971. Today, JaeRan works as an assistant professor at the University of Washington – Tacoma. Her research focuses on vulnerable children, specifically those in out-of-home care. This article is adapted from JaeRan’s keynote presentation at the 2018 NACAC conference. Access a transcript of her presentation and a copy of the slides used here. Learn more about NACAC’s annual conference here.
When I was growing up, the only bit of Asian culture I was exposed to was the occasional can of chicken chow mein.
As the only adoptee and person of color in my immediate and extended family, I was always assured my parents didn’t see color and loved me no matter what, and that was enough. After going to college and being exposed to the racial and cultural diversity I had been missing growing up, I began to explore my racial identity and realized that for transracial adoptees, a parent’s love and rejection of racial difference does not meet the need for racial, ethnic, and cultural identity development and support.
For me, and other transracial adoptees, the development of a racial identity is an inevitable aspect of growing up: in the anonymity of a new city, school, or job, a transracial adoptee’s visibility as a person of color eclipses their visibility as a transracial adoptee in a white family. By helping children develop that racial identity before they’re faced with this reality, parents can help their children develop the tools they will need to fight against oppression, racism, and discrimination. Although it is often uncomfortable and difficult work, implementing racial and ethnic socialization with their transracially adopted children helps strengthen trust and attachment by showing transracial adoptees that their parents care about, and support, their racial and ethnic identities.
Becoming an advocate
Helping a child embrace their racial identity is more than just having conversations about race and culture. Instead, parents need to be active advocates for transracial adoptee justice, a process that requires parents to address their own biases, alter their own mindsets, and take action. For me, being an advocate for transracial adoption justice means the following:
- Develop an intersectional mindset. The multifaceted nature of transracial adoptees’ identity impacts every aspect of their life. For transracial adoptees, finding a safe, permanent family is not the end of the adoption journey. In addition to experiencing the loss of a birth family, culture, and in some cases, country, transracial adoptees may be carrying the weight of colonization, slavery, war, forced immigration, and discriminatory laws and policies. They have experienced and will experience racial discrimination and bullying, too.
This specific trauma is rarely addressed by professionals when a transracial adoption is finalized, resulting in an adoptee struggling to understand their own experiences, history, and place within the community and stunting attachment between the child and the parents. By maintaining an intersectional mindset, parents and professionals can attempt to address these specific traumas through traditional intervention models, parenting strategies, and potential mental health treatment. The key is recognizing that a good home, a nice family, and a stable life does not erase a transracial adoptee’s need for racial, ethnic, and cultural support.
- Believe the experiences of transracial adoptees. Growing up as a Korean adoptee, I lived on the outside of two worlds: I was not a part of the Korean community, and I was not a part of the white community. In my chapter in the book, A Good Time for Truth: Race in Minnesota, I describe this experience: “To be a Korean adoptee in Minnesota…means that people can tell you they don’t see you as Korean as if that is a compliment. Translation: you are not one of those Asians…[It] means having people expect you to say thank you when they tell you how ‘articulate’ you are…[It] means having to explain your personal adoption stories to people you don’t know because no one understands how you can be from Plymouth or St. Cloud or Moorhead or Rochester when asked, ‘Where are you from? No, where are you really from?'”
For me, these isolating and discriminatory comments went undiscussed at home. Under the advice of their adoption workers to assimilate me and minimize my differences, my parents avoided discussing race. In doing so, they missed an opportunity to strengthen their relationship with me, build trust, and understand me more. Asking about and listening to your child’s experiences does more than open the door to discussions about race and culture—it validates a child’s understanding of their place in the world as a person of color.
- Do your own research. In order to help your child develop a healthy racial identity and advocate for transracial adoption justice, you need to better understand how you experience race, power, privilege, and oppression. Read books and articles by scholars, activists, and parents who write specifically on topics of race, culture, and history; have discussions, and learn from the mistakes you make along the way. Push yourself past “not being racist” by trying to be actively anti-racist. In other words, take actions and be part of movements to oppose racism by fighting for systemic, structural, and individual changes in your political and social world.
- Care about the community, not just the individual. Adoption is often talked about in terms of making a difference in the lives of one individual. But if you have a child who has been transracially adopted or you work with transracial adoptions, you must broaden your focus. By supporting the communities that your child belongs to, you support your child. Fight for social and economic justice, participate in activities that address the concerns of these communities, and vote for legislators that demand equity for these communities.
- Acknowledge that adoption is a lifelong journey. For the first decade of a child’s life, a parent’s goal is to keep them safe. For the second decade of a child’s life, a parent’s goal is to help children keep themselves safe. For the next fifty years of a person’s life, I think a parent’s job is to foster a mutually health, supportive, and reciprocal relationship—this last stage might seem simple, but the actions you take in the first two stages of a child’s life will determine the success of this third stage.
Some adoptees choose to disengage with their adoptive parents later in life because their relationships were stymied early on by the parents’ inability or refusal to talk about or support their racial identity. As adoptees enter adulthood, many begin thinking about their birth family, community, and country. This time of searching is amplified for transracial adoptees because they are entering a world where they are seen less as an adoptee and more as a person of color. In addition to asking essential identity questions like “Who am I?” transracial adoptees look at media, their peers, and their environment to learn more about themselves. If they don’t see themselves reflected in their peers or don’t feel comfortable at school or in their neighborhood, it becomes harder to answer these questions. Sometimes adoptive parents wonder why their transracially adopted child doesn’t visit them, but if the adoptive family remains enveloped in racially nondiverse environments, transracial adoptees may choose to stay away, not wanting to experience racially-based discrimination by neighbors, community members, the local police, and others who see us as outsiders.
These five tenets of transracial adoption justice can be supported and strengthened by the efforts you make to address and combat your personal prejudices on a daily basis.
In addition, I suggest these concrete ways to move forward in your advocacy journey:
- Accept that you will make mistakes. Acknowledge where you are and know that there is room to grow: mistakes will be made in your journey towards cultural and adoption competence, like anything else in life. Rather than assuming you’re always right, ask yourself what the other person might know that you don’t, and consider how you can learn from mistakes.
- Understand that you can’t separate the personal and the political. You cannot protect your child from the world’s treatment of them—so when you see news or hear discussions related to race, immigration, and other issues connected to your child’s racial identity, understand that they can and will affect your child personally.
- Respect the voices of the people in these communities. Transracial adoptees are the ultimate experts in what it’s like to be a transracial adoptee, and like any other group, there is a diverse community of transracial adoptees—all with different experiences, opinions, and stories to tell. Listen to and learn from all the transracial voices out there. Read their books and blogs, watch their videos, and make sure they are part of the conversation about transracial adoption.
- Understand that your actions are what make you an ally. You aren’t an ally just because you love a member of the community—you are an ally because you actively fight against racial injustice. This means:
- You seek to understand the experiences and needs of others rather than fighting for what you think they experience or need.
- You act independently of reward or recognition for your actions.
- You work with others who are fighting racism—people who can and will help you recognize and learn from your mistakes so you can grow.
- You actively interrupt offensive jokes and comments. Depending on who makes the offensive joke or comment, you can let them know that what they said is hurtful, ask them what they meant by the joke, or just let the person know that you don’t support their comment. Remember to avoid shaming: find ways to challenge people with kindness.
- You leverage the power and privilege you have to bring about social change.
To learn more about how you can advocate for transracial adoptee justice and help children develop a healthy racial identity, you can find more resources on my blog.