China dolls and violin virtuosos


Lynn Gidluck and Sonya Corbin Dwyer
Focus on Adoption magazine

Do adoptive parents' conceptions of race and racial identity change after adoption?

Raising a child of a different race than yours probably means that you’ve discussed comeback lines for all those unwanted grocery store comments with other adoptive parents.

If you’re like us, you’ve probably felt at a loss for words at times and worried how some of these misconceptions and misguided views might affect your children who are often standing next to you. 

Each of us has two daughters adopted from China, and we live in small communities where our children are highly visible minorities. We met through our children and it didn’t take long for us to discover that, aside from our daughters, we had a lot in common. We shared a love for academic research, so soon after we met we were writing grant applications in the hope that we might get some funding to see how other families like ours were dealing with the issues we were facing.

We were ecstatic on the day we found out that the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada awarded us funding for our research project. It allowed us the rare privilege of being able to combine our professional skills and personal lives.

In our study, Examining Issues of Race, Racism and Racial Identity in Families of Asian Children Adopted by White Parents, we set out to examine what white parents in Canada who have adopted children from Asia think about race, racism, and racial identity. We were interested in knowing what their awareness and conceptualizations of race were before they built their family through transracial adoption and whether it changed once they had become an adoptive family. What anxieties, if any, did they have in raising their children and responding to issues of racism? Were they concerned about their ability to assist their children develop healthy racial identities? What strategies did they employ to deal with these concerns?

To get at some of these questions, we convened six focus groups with a total of 32 parents; all self-identified as white and had adopted at least one child from Asia. Of our participants, 27 were female and five were males, and 29 had adopted from China. Three children were from Vietnam and one was from Korea.

What parents told us

Many of the parents we spoke with worried they might not be equipped to help their children deal with racism. “I’m about as white and as privileged as a white privileged person gets,” said one woman. “The only discrimination I have ever faced is gender-based discrimination.”

Another mother expressed how becoming an adoptive parent had changed the way she thinks about all of this: “I guess I always thought that people would have the same attitude that I do—that we’re all the same inside. But it’s pretty naïve in a way. Adoption really opened my eyes to just what it means to be a minority and how our children have to be strong when we’re not there to help.”

We found it interesting that even parents who had worked in the child welfare system for many years and had a good theoretical background in identity development and issues of race spoke about an “awakening” to these issues after adopting their children.

One woman who had adopted her daughter from China also had a Caucasian son whom she had adopted domestically. She observed that with her son, “We could go out in public and nobody asked questions and, naively, I thought that race would not play as big an issue as it does. I had no idea how much those questions would undermine the validity of our family and how much it could hurt my daughter’s self-esteem.”

The distress parents felt in being asked insensitive questions about their child’s adoption was a common theme in our focus groups. Another common theme involved stereotypes of Asians that they and their children had encountered, though most did not consider these to be “racism.” Most ascribed stereotypical comments they’d heard to “lack of awareness,” and one person said: “I don’t think we’ve really encountered racism per se. I think what we have encountered is people’s preconceptions … people saying things like ‘you know she’ll be musically inclined or very good at mathematics.’”

Parents were often troubled that “the world sees all of [their] girls the same … as gifted China dolls.” What happens, they wondered, when their daughters did or did not match these stereotypic expectations? Too often, they worried, their child’s personality and family background were being overlooked. As one parent declared,  hearing the words “You’re Chinese, so you’re brilliant,” are particularly difficult to deal with when you have a child with a learning disability. Another parent, who had worked for many years with children who have special needs, expressed concern that some Asian adoptees “are taking longer to be diagnosed [with a learning disability] than the average ‘Canadian kid’ because they fit the stereotype in which they are expected to be brilliant.”

Advice for other parents

Asked about advice they’d pass along to families choosing to adopt an Asian child, or any child of a race different from them own, it was to educate themselves about the societal stereotypes their children will face. It is also important, they cautioned, to examine their assumptions. “We do our kids a disservice if we’re looking for giftedness behind every little Asian face,” said one mother. “Our job, above all else, is to protect our kids and that means we should be getting ourselves educated … exposing them to as many other kids like them and families like theirs as possible. And all of that will give them tools and the armor--just from exposure and osmosis.”

Other guidance included urging these families to take the opportunity to learn from the previous generation of transracial adoptees. It was hearing an adult adoptee speak about his experiences with racism that opened one woman’s eyes to the issues her children might face. “We had an awakening after hearing some adult adoptees talk, and we realized that we really were not doing enough to address the issue of race,” she said. Another participant said, “I thank God that I went to that [adult adoptee panel] because it opened up this whole new aspect of adoption and interracial families.”

A number of parents indicated that the “W.I.S.E. Up! Program” was something they felt was very helpful. This program helps children realize that they know more than their peers about adoption and it provides them with tools and strategies for dealing with difficult questions or situations.

Parents spoke, too, about the benefits of finding role models for their children and broadening their environment to increase diversity in their lives. “I know when my daughter was teased a couple of years ago she wanted to talk to Auntie Mona—my friend who happens to be black—because, said explained, ‘Auntie Mona understands and that would never happen to you.’ She’s right. Auntie Mona has dealt with racism and Mommy hasn’t.”
The need to educate those closest to them--family members and close friends—was also something a number of the parents spoke about. “It is important that everyone in your family is using appropriate language because if that inner circle isn’t tight, how do we expect the outer circle to be accepting?” Ensuring that the schools are knowledgeable about adoption and racism was also seen as important to these parents. Many parents indicated that it wasn’t until their kids started going to school that they encountered their most challenging problems. 

The key message delivered by these parents was that it is not enough to just celebrate Asian culture, dress children in fancy ethnic outfits, and go to Chinese restaurants every so often. Racism, whether it is overt “in your face” encounters that can “pull the rug out from your feet” or the so-called “positive” stereotypes, must always be addressed. It is our job as parents to educate ourselves and our children--and then take our message out to larger and larger circles of our and our children’s community.

Lynn Gidluck works for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Sonya Corbin Dwyer is an associate professor of psychology at Memorial University, Newfoundland.

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