NURTURING RACIAL-ETHNIC-CULTURAL IDENTITIES IN ADOPTIVE FAMILIES
by Jane A. Brown, MSW
Recently, I watched from the sidelines as my eleven year-old, Chinese-born daughter learned to make dumplings from our international student, Xiang, and Xiang’s mother, in our kitchen and served them to our family. I couldn’t help but reflect on what an exciting, but complicated journey it has been for me to figure out why birth culture is important, how it is best imparted, and how to connect with those people who can truly help children assimilate the useful parts of their culture-of-origin. We– my husband and I–have been part of the adoption arena for more than twenty five years. We are still learning!
Years ago, the adult Korean adoptees began to suggest to adoptive parents and adoption professionals that learning about culture might help have help them to fit into their ethnic communities, and that that is something adoptive parents could do to empower the children they are raising Today. Ever-eager to act in their children’s best interests, adoptive parents responded with gusto. Soon, we were establishing heritage camps, Culture Days, language and dance classes. Our young children enjoyed these activities and experiences as much as their parents did, and the trend caught on– first across the country, and then around the world.
While these were and are worthwhile intentions, I recognize that much of what we do is falling short of accomplishing the original goal which was to empower our children to find and keep a place within their ethnic communities and develop healthy racial and ethnic identity. I wanted to discover why and what else we could and should be doing to promote our children’s racial-ethnic and cultural identities so that they will not continue to grow up and complain that they cannot fit into the dominant racial-cultural group nor their own racial-ethnic groups. My search has led me on a path of self-education and a journey to make significant changes in my life that are benefiting both my adopted sons and daughters, and those who were born into our family.
What our children need in order to feel a sense of fit, is first and formost, comfort with being immersed in their racial-ethnic communities because that trickles down to their feeling comfortable wearing the skin they are in. If our children feel awkward and uncomfortable in the company of fellow members of their racial-ethnic group and are silently insisting that they are not like them because they are growing up in White families, they are not going to have an ongoing desire to take and use cultural information and cultural competency skills. Racial and ethnic identity is heavily context dependent. I realized, at some point in my parenting, that all the discussions about race and culture, all the celebrations and lessons in "high" culture or language, all of the attempts to integrate birth culture into our personal lives at home (eating with chopsticks, hanging Art on our walls), and visits to our children’s birth countries was not promoting healthy racial and ethnic identification.
While our children had fun engaging with other adopted youngsters at these celebrations, gatherings, classes, and holiday celebrations, they were not gaining the opportunities they needed to be with adults and families from their racial-ethnic group in their everyday lives, nor to be in multicultural environments. The fact that these Culture Days, heritage camps, dance classes constituted "special," occasional events, and that while they involved at least a few adults from their ethnic group those individuals were hand-selected by White parents because they have a positive attitude towards adoption, meant that we were not replicating normal, typical, everyday way of life for members of our children’s ethnic community, nor were we giving our children an authentic connection with their ethnic group. We were also not providing regular, meaningful, positive, ongoing opportunities to be surrounded by and get comfortable with people who look like themselves– the very experiences that counteract the stereotypes they otherwise take in an integrate by which they "other" members of their racial-ethnic group. There were no real opportunities for our children to observe, imitate, and incorporate the ways their ethnic group members tend to interact and relate to one another; to absorb the common ways they work, play, and behave within family roles; to recognize what constitutes polite behavior and be able to replicate that; to figure out what tends to be valued, etc.. which are the very things that bind an ancestral "people" together and add up to "culture."
Those were distressing realities to face, and at first, we felt overwhelmed by what we didn’t know how to do, and by the fact that we were going to have to make some major changes in how we live in order to make a difference in our children’s lives. We had to come to the point where we recognize that our children were internalizing racism through the lack of meaningful, regular connection with adults and communities of color– and that we were responsible for that lack. And that that bears on whether and how they could or could not absorb the culture of "their people" and would want to.
We recognized that what is most important to the adoptees is gaining a sense of comfort with people who look like themselves, seeing themselves as authentic members of their racial-ethnic group, and feeling confident in how to "act their race" (as young people describe this). We shifted our focus from providing what amounts to "high culture" that has little practical application, to connecting our children with members of their racial-ethnic group on a regular basis so that they could see for themselves that there are any number of ways of being a member of "their people," and deciding what to incorporate into how they think, behave, value, and can find and keep a place in their racial-ethnic community.
Once we faced up as parents, we began to look differently at the lives we had plunged our children into and at what we could do differently. We moved. That was– for us–overwhelmingly scary, complicated, and challenging– for it meant changing jobs, selling and buying homes, taking our children out of the only home, schools and social circles they knew, and starting over. All the while not knowing whether this would bring about what we hoped that it would. While the cross-country move did immerse us in a community where there is more racial diversity, we also found that our new community is more transient, so while people come here from all over the world to do research and work, they do not stay long and our neighborhood– which we hoped would be racially diverse-is constantly and continually undergoing change. We also chose to move to an area in which there are lots of different racial-ethnic minority groups, so that its multiracial and multicultural, but there are not a large number of people who are of the same race and ethnicity as our children, and the majority is still White. We live in Arizona, where those who are Hispanic and Native American comprise most of the racial minority population, and only a limited proportion of the population is African American or Asian American. So we have to work hard to help our sons and daughters make and keep a connection with their own racial-ethnic groups. One of the most positive outcomes of the move was that my husband and I experienced and had to learn to face and process loss again– which helped us to connect in a more experiential way with the feelings our children will be processing all their lives as byproducts of having moved from one family, country, racial-ethnic group to another.
We began, in a much more conscious way, to focus on race, ethnicity, and adoption in our family discussions. My husband and I devoted more of our time and energy to understanding the lifelong ramifications of adoption loss, trauma, race and ethnicity, and then discovering and implementing practical ways to use what we were learning– to fine-tune our communication style so that we were better attuned to "hearing" the unspoken feelings, self-theories, beliefs in our children (mostly expressed through their behavioral cues); how to approach and gently explore the potential for friendships with adults and families of color; how to connect with people who could sensitize us to cultural cues (what is polite and what is not, what various ethnic groups tend to expect in terms of how people interact and behave) and start to build cultural competency. We also had to learn about racism– and face that we were neither as aware nor as sensitive as we had imagined ourselves to be.
We had to face and accept the reality that because we were born with White skin, we have been given the privilege to take much for granted and to not have to see many of the inequities or the power differential between groups, and thus, benefit from racism even though we would never have wanted that. And face, too, that our children do not have automatic entitlement to those privileges just because they live with us. We had to learn to really, authentically "see" racism, and as our eyes began to be opened to it, we "saw" more and more.
What it means and what it takes to help our children acquire cultural competency so as to be able to feel comfortable within their own skin, and gain a sense of connection to and confidence with being a part of their racial-ethnic community, plus feel kinship with the wider population of people of color has been a long, complicated, but wonderful journey for us, as parents.
We are now, as parents of a mostly-grown-up adoptive family, able to really see the benefit to our sons and daughters. They identify in a variety of ways– all of them normal. One has married a man who emigrated with his family as a teen, from her country-of-origin. They keep a bicultural household, their kids are bilingual, and they have strong ties to their ethnic community. One has married a woman of the same race and ethnicity and they are living, working, and raising their child in his country of origin. One married a fellow adoptee with shared racial and ethnic heritage. Still another has married a woman who is multiracial and multicultural, and that is their primary identification. Their extended family and friendship circle reflects that, and he has developed a career path for himself in which is familiarity and comfort with a multicultural social circle, and his ability to straddle a variety of racial and cultural groups works positively for him. We also have three children who were born to us, two of whom are now adults. They date cross-racially, and their friendship circles show us that they have deeply incorporated multiculturism into their personal identities. One has married a young man who is ALSO the non-adopted sibling in a transracial adoptive family and has a family member who is a birth parent of a grown child who grew up in Central America (was adopted transracially and internationally).
Jane A. Brown, MSW