Friday, October 23, 2009

Seeing in Color: Two Takes on Race and Adoption

By Lisa at Pack of Three for Adopt-a-tude

This past September, I attended a viewing of the Point Made Films' documentary "Adopted." The showing was organized by a Korean adoptive parenting group (Korea Focus) and our local FCC (Families with Children from China) organization. The film, produced in 2003, has proven controversial.

The majority of the footage focuses on an adult adoptee, Jen Fero, a 32-year-old Korean-born woman who was adopted and raised in a small Oregon town in the late '70s and '80s by a loving Euro American family. Jen describes in painful detail her long struggles with the loss of her birth family, her connection with her adoptive family, her tenuous sense of belonging.

She raises a number of blunt, difficult questions not only for her own adoptive parents but for all adoptive parents, particularly those with children of differing racial backgrounds:
• Do white adoptive parents really understand the issues and challenges involved in transracial adoption?

• Can white adoptive parents overcome their own losses and vulnerabilities in order to acknowledge and embrace the whole child—her race, her birth country, her birth family—including the painful loss of that first family?

• Are white adoptive parents willing to stretch beyond their comfort zones and help children of color navigate life as minorities in a predominantly white world?
The trailer shows Jen trying to explain her struggles to her mother, who in the film battles a terminal illness.

Jen's story is enough to keep any parent of a transracially adopted child awake—long into the night. To be fair, I’m guessing Jen's parents followed the accepted beliefs of their generation. Once you adopted, you treated your child as if she or he were—and had always been—your own. Love and acceptance trumped dislocation or difference. To acknowledge the rift or difference threatened the fantasy that the bond could be re-made, perfect and whole.

Thirty years ago, families didn’t discuss abandonment, adoption, or race. Korean adult adoptees like Jen continue to teach us the price of this denial.

As difficult as it was to watch, "Adopted" heightened my own awareness. As an adoptive parent to a child of a different race—my daughter was born in China—an essential part of my job is to acknowledge and address the challenges that come with being a mixed-race family.

Thankfully, in my wanderings and search to learn more, I've also come across another video that offers both insight and inspiration. Judy and Aaron Stigger's story is a different take on the transracial conundrum, one with a far happier outcome. That's not to discount Jen Fero's story. But Aaron Stigger's perspective on his dual identity makes me smile and gives me hope.

This four-minute video was originally aired on MSNBC in October 2008 as part of "Growing Up Black in a White Family." [Correction made 10/26/09.] It was then posted by Adoption Learning Partners (ALP), an educational organization whose primary goal is to have a "positive measurable impact on adoption outcomes." ALP offers a variety of web-based courses for adoptive parents and professionals, but there's also a wealth of free information and other resources if you dig about on its site and "Community" page.

I love the message that adoptive mother and son offer in this video. Perhaps just as important as what they say is their body language, which reveals the clear, easy affection between Judy and Aaron Stigger.

Judy, by the way, was one of ALP's founders (which officially makes me a fan.)

Judy and Aaron also did an earlier interview with NPR's Steve Inskeep, back in July 2007, sharing their experiences and insights on transracial adoption. There's a great summary of the interview on the NPR website. Better still, you can listen to the interview or read the transcript. (NPR has done a number of pieces on transracial adoptions, and there are several terrific links on this site.)

In the on-air interview, Judy shares one of the ways she used to respond to the classically intrusive comments adoptive families so often encounter: "People would say, 'Do you have any real children?'" She'd turn to Aaron and say, "No, I just have this plastic one."

Aaron, playing along, would hold out his arms and sing, "Ta-da!"

Judy taught her son by example, defusing an otherwise potentially awkward moment with humor while also communicating the idiocy of the question. Aaron describes his memories of growing up, of not wanting to stick out, not wanting to be different. He says he appreciated the opportunities he had to make friends with other kids and people of color.

This prompts Steve Inskeep to turn to Judy and ask how much thought she put into transracial parenting. Judy credits one experience with her daughter (also adopted, also biracial) as being an ah-ha moment:

"When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we'd gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face [sic], and said, 'Mom, was I supposed to be white?' And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it. And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive."

In time, Judy began sending holiday cards to family and friends featuring people of color. One day, her daughter received an Easter card from Judy's mother. Her daughter took the card up to her room to read it in private—but returned, flying down the stairs, holding the card out in front of her for her mother to see. The card showed a risen Christ, black, muscled, with dreadlocks. Judy's daughter declared, "My grandma loves me!"

Further on in the interview, Judy describes another moment of heightened awareness. She’d gone to attend one of Aaron's performances when he was part of a black theater group his freshman year in college. Walking into the theater, Judy realized she was one of the few white people in the audience. She realized how she stuck out, how exposed she felt—and then she thought this is how her children must feel, as minorities, living, moving, and breathing in a predominantly white world.

At this point in the interview, Aaron can't jump in fast enough. He explains, eagerly, emphatically, that this is an issue for all transracially adopted kids—for that matter, for all minorities.

"Thank you! Thank you!" He exhales. "That right there needs to be on every program nationwide!"

The message from both Judy and Aaron is that no child growing up likes or wants to be different. Children of color need friends, neighbors, and role models of color, both in their immediate world and in the imagery that surrounds them. As white parents with children of color, we need to support them, to be as inclusive as we can. We can't limit ourselves to the world of white privilege.

As Judy Stigger puts it: "You need to see the world in color."

So, I'm curious: If you're reading this, and you're a white adoptive parent with a child of color—what things do you do to support your child and see the world in color?

This post was adapted from several pieces that originally appeared on the blog Pack of Three.


Martha Nichols said...

There's so much pain in that opening shot from the excerpt of *Adopted*. The interview with the Stiggers comes as a relief for us adoptive parents of transracial kids--yes, it *can* be OK, it's not all tears and misunderstanding--but I think we have to be watchful even of our relief.

The impact of race on identity never lets any of us off the hook. That said, I want to believe, badly, that honest discussions in our families about racial differences can lead to the ease the Stiggers display in being with each other. It's probably one of the things that matters most for all kids: accepting them for who they are and acknowledging the ways they are different from us.

David Biddle said...

What a great post, Lisa. Fabulous videos and I'm going to the NPR interview for the Stiggers as soon as I finish this comment.

I must say, for me anyway, being one of them mixed race adoptees growing up 30 years ago, the issue of difference was swept under the rug. My case is odd because there was no information on what my mixed heritage was. All that said, my parents, Bruce and Ellen, trumped anything even remotely negative with absolute and unequivocal love. I think especially for my dad this was a very important lesson that would help him unwind his emotions as a father well before many of his peers (1950s/1960s fathers).

My advice to all adopting parents is trust your gut and understand that Love is all you need (this goes for all parents of course).

Lisa @ Pack of Three said...

Thanks David and Martha for the comments. Since viewing "Adopted" and writing this post, I've made a much more concerted effort with my daughter to find books and films that feature or include characters of Asian descent. My daughter's reaction has been markedly enthusiastic. ("Look Mom! She's just like me!" "Isn't she beautiful?!" "I love this film, Mom." "Can we do more movies like this, Mom?")

It's not as if my daughter doesn't have friends and a rich variety adult role models of Asian descent. 20% of her 4th grade classmates are Asian American. There are no less than 6 daughters within a 1/4 mile radius of our home who were born and adopted from China. Her best neighborhood friend is Japanese American. The girl's parents are distinguished physicians and academics. My daughter's dentist, orthodontist, and a number of her teachers are also of Asian descent.

So.. my daughter's pronounced reaction to seeing Asian faces in the books we read, in the films we watch, has only reinforced for me how important it is to *continue* providing her with an image of the world that includes her, that tells her she is beautiful and that she belongs.


Ella said...

Lisa, thanks for this post. We adopted our daughter from China as an infant; she is now five. We lived in an urban area, but not one with a great deal of Asian people. So we moved to suburban (ack!) Boston, back to my husband's hometown, where we would live in a diverse environment for our daughter--and for us. It has been life-changing in all good ways. We have Chinese neighbors with whom we celebrate New Year. Their gunggung and po po live with them, so my daughter has in a way acquired Chinese grandparents. Her school is 20% Asian. It is my mission in life to make sure my daughter sees people who look like her in our magazines, on our TV, and in our home. We took a long time to find and join a synagogue simply because I swore that she would not be the only Asian Jewish kid in the building. It matters; much of it learned from older adoptees who are making plain their pain such as in the first movie. We talk about how we don't look alike, and then we talk about how there is no rule that says we have to. She is brown-skinned and I am super-white, and we talk about that too. She is (thank god for the moment) secure in her brownness and proud of her Chinese heritage. I know we will have journeys to go on and mountains to climb as she gets older, but I do hope that our total openness and ease (combined, it's important to add, with work and diligence and learning) will give us a future like Aaron and his mom's.

Lisa @ Pack of Three said...

Ella, thank you for writing and sharing your story. It sounds like you're being incredibly thoughtful in doing everything you can to support your daughter, and provide her with a healthy, nurturing environment.

It's interesting too now to see other voices joining in the chorus, emphasizing the importance of connecting a child with her birth culture and past, but emphasizing too, the importance of connecting a child, in healthy ways, to meaningful cultures of the present. Mei Ling Hopgood, author of "Lucky Girl," touched on this same subject this past week in the New York Daily News. (Note: the editors' choice in title is more inflammatory than the article itself which is both balanced and clear.) Here's the link:

Thanks again Ella.


Martha Nichols said...

So interesting that you bring up Mei-Ling Hopgood, because I reviewed her book for the Women's Review of Books (see link below and the list of print articles on the home page), and I've also spoken with her as a source for her pieces, especially an earlier one in the Boston Globe.

Her view is not that culture-keeping is "dangerous" for adoptees (the media, the media) but that white parents often emphasize fake elements of culture or simply stress about it too much.

I'd say it probably makes far more of a difference to Ella's daughter that she's living in an area with a higher Asian population (and isn't it interesting that the Boston suburbs, of all places, are 20% Asian? I've observed that in action, too). Those kinds of daily connections with people who look like her are really at the core of establishing a solid identity. Anyway, it's so wonderful to hear how other parents are handling these complicated isues.

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