Being ‘different’

A white adoptive parent once came up to me after I had given a talk about interracial and intercultural relations.  I had prefaced my speech by explaining that I could not provide suggestions about handling any given situation.  Rather, my goal was to challenge the audience to learn to think about how they would like to respond.

But this parent wasn’t satisfied.  (And I note a number of other audience members apparently weren’t either, as evidenced by comments left on the evaluation form.)  She complained that I did not give her one concrete suggestion for how she might go about creating relationships with people who shared her daughter’s ethnicity.  And then she begged me to tell her just one thing that she should do.

So I told her to move to a diverse neighborhood. 

It’s not like adoptive parents haven’t heard this before.  Prospective adopters have access to a wealth of information provided by adult adopted persons.  Some of the transracial adoptees are in their fifties now.  Over and over we hear the same concrete suggestion for white adoptive parents of children of color:


Yet overwhelmingly the narrative we hear from white adoptive parents not only ignores this advice, but assumes the opposite is true.  It goes beyond simple ignorance, however.  It posits the all-white environment as the unspoken norm.  Like whiteness, this goes unremarked upon and unnoticed.

Because the narrative we hear from white adoptive parents is about how their children of color adjusted to being “different.”  Not only is being different regular and right, but it develops character:

At times you may feel out of place and wonder where you belong. Because you are Asian in a majority Caucasian America, you are more likely to feel the sting of racism at some point. How can you prepare to face these issues?

Be proud to be American, proud to be Chinese. When you are young you might want to be like your friends so badly that you don’t see the beauty of being different, the beauty of your Chinese roots. You can conquer any self-doubts by knowing who you are, the strength of your character, the goodness in your heart, the love that binds you to family and country and the heritage that binds you to China. Learn to love yourself, know yourself and be proud of who you are.

This was forwarded from an adoption parenting list. Here the child is willfully placed in an environment where she feels out of place. It is also one in which racism is not acknowledged. She is “more likely” to feel the “sting” of racism in this situation. How to prepare? Toughen up!

Be proud of your “Chineseness” in an environment where there are no positive role models. Be proud because some white person told you that you should be, even as you ignore the evidence of your eyes and ears and senses. Even as you see that Chinese people are not invited and are not welcome. Even as you see that you are surrounded by people who all look different from you. So when you’re mocked for your looks, when other kids (and adults) make ching-chong noises and yank up the corners of their eyes, remember the beauty of your Chinese roots.

Which have been severed. Except for that love of heritage you’ve been expected to develop in a vacuum. Because ties to culture don’t exist without people. And heritage is about who you are and the people who share those ties with you. How can you love yourself, know yourself and be proud of yourself when you’ve never had the chance to see your own face reflected in another?

In your isolation, in an environment in which you feel out of place, remember that you should be proud to be different and alone in your thoughts and feelings. And remember who brought you there.


33 thoughts on “Being ‘different’

  1. When was that thing off the list written? It sounds so 1950s in tone. I don’t know anybody who talks to kids like that today. But definitely, it’s a useless piece of drivel.

  2. “In your isolation, in an environment in which you feel out of place, remember that you should be proud to be different and alone in your thoughts and feelings. And remember who brought you there.”

    This is one of the most profound descriptions of completely imbalance of the adoptive parent – intercountry / transracial adoptee relationship. Thank you – may I quote this in my sidebar so it’s there permanently, with a link back here?

  3. That letter reminded me of this essay which pissed me off just as much with its good intentions and how it missed the point of advising people how to adjust to living where they don’t look like they belong.

  4. God, I cannot second this enough.

    Raising your POC kid in an all-white environment is to sentence them to a childhood of bullying, erasure, and low self-esteem, if not worse. People are so fucking ignorant.

  5. “Move” is absolutely the best suggestion but it is not being heard. I wonder what the exact thought process is when the person discounts that idea. I’d love to know. Is it that it’s too much work, too much disruption, not practical, impossible, or just something that nobody else has to do so why should I have to do it.

    Here’s another thought. Why couldn’t location in a certain type of community be an int’l adoption requirement? That would place the emphasis where it should be, on qualifying to be an adopter.

  6. My daughter is adopted from Ethiopia, and the suggestion to move to a more diverse area is often made on one of the Yahoo groups I am on when people say they are worried about the all-white nature of their current neighborhood. The response is almost always the same – why should I have to move to a crime-infested area to be a good parent to my black child? It drives me absolutely insane that people hear “crime-infested” when someone says “diverse”!

    I do live in a relatively diverse area, but I notice that many of the activities I do with my daughter do not include as many people of color as I would like…something I still need to work on…

  7. I would add that even if your neighborhood is multicultural, if your school is not, your child still may have problems. School is where a child is for 8 hours a day. For some it may feel like prison. Surrounded by Asians everywhere else but school was still miserable to my daughter. She also needed not only other people of color in her school but other Asians as well.

  8. For too many people white = safe, Black or Latino = dangerous, Asian = diverse. No one asks why the white neighborhood is safer (if it actually is. Let me see the statistics, controlled for income). They don’t ask why the schools aren’t up to standard in non-white neighborhoods. They don’t advocate to make the non-white neighborhoods safer nor the schools better.

    I don’t think that raising a non-white child in an exclusively white environment automatically makes a child with low self-esteem who will be bullied and erased. Raising a child who is a TRA in that environment does. Non-white people raising their own biological children do it all successfully because they’re role models for their kids. They can relate to their kids. It’s white parents who adopt who have to make the extra effort. Or they should, anyhow.

  9. I spoke to a friend last night who told me she and her husband are planning to move (they are both white). She explained that they are considering adopting, and want to adopt a non-white child from within the U.S. and that they want to live/work/worship in a more diverse environment (they specifically mentioned changing churches — they are both committed Christians and had been attending a very white mega-church). To my knowledge, they haven’t even begun the adoption process yet. They just want to get it right and provide a comfortable environment for their future family. I really respected that. I immediately thought of this blog — I think I will pass it along to her.

  10. Moving is one thing, but being an active part of the community is key. If you’re a white AP and move to a community where the culture of you TRA son or daughter exists but do little more to involve yourself what message do you think that sends your child? Show some honest interest. Get them involved but involve yourself as well. No more dropping the kids off at a one-hour weekend culture class while you go get a haircut. If you can’t do that, don’t adopt internationally or pretend you care. When will AP’s get it, how many adult adoptees need to scream until they’re hoarse for them to be heard?
    Adoptees are not blank slates. And colorblindness doesn’t mean anything.

  11. You want to know what the thought process is? I will attempt to briefly explain it. I don’t speak for all white APs but I know I speak for more than just myself.

    In the ramp-up to international adoption, there are many requirements you go through by various governmental bodies and adoption agencies. We had to attend an 8-hour transracial workshop and take xxx hours (35? can’t recall) of online courses. (BTW, the workshop was led by two white APs.) You think you get it. You understand the issues that are involved. Then you adopt your child. After the initial shock to the family that a new addition brings calms down and you are able to do more Internet surfing, you come across sites like this one. You follow the links. You read the stories. You check out the blogrolls. You gradually begin to realize “Shit. This is a way, WAY bigger deal than I was led to believe.” And here’s where I’m going to get into trouble. But I want to be honest: moving is not that easy. There are many, many factors involved in where to live, where to raise your family, including such biggies as the only job you could find is there or your entire family lives there. In many if not most cases, that decision pre-dates the decision to adopt and is not something easily undone. ** So …. you try to do EVERYTHING BUT. You become friendly with the two Asian families in your town. You get involved with the Korean (in my case) student group on the local campus. Make regular trips to places that aren’t so damn white. Subscribe to Korean or KA publications. Plan a vacation to a US Koreatown. Plan a trip to the homeland. Make sure your child has playmates who look similar, even if they are adopted too. Incorporate Korean food and words into fabric of your family. Attend every single cultural event you can find. Get an Asian student to babysit. Continue to read and learn.

    And then you pray that that’s enough, and you hope that this at least makes you better than the families who ignore or downplay racial issues. The ones who say the Miley Cyrus thing was no big deal, kids will be kids. You know you’re not THAT family, and you hope that falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum will be good enough.

    So that’s why, when asking for advice and being told “Move,” the reaction is, eh, what else ya got?

    ** That’s why I definitely agree, some kind of demographic test must be done to allow folks who live in certain areas to adopt across racial lines. I would have failed that test. Maybe I should have adopted domestically. But to adopt domestically usually means a child of color anyway, so that does not solve this problem. I guess a private domestic adoption could have guaranteed a white child, but private adoptions arranged by lawyers give me the heebie-jeebies. The Eastern European countries’ kids are usually white, but I find their adoption systems downright frightening. So basically, APs get to decide what adoption system they are comfortable with and that’s it, end of story. If we, the parents, are OK with raising a child of color, if it works FOR US, then it is allowed. There is currently no requirement to make sure it’s going to work FOR THE CHILD.

  12. Oh this should be required reading for every AP. Kris Pak you are dead on why I think some white parents do not get it.

  13. Note to Kris Pak. Not automatically, but can be. Being the only Asian or Black or Persian kid has been a major issue for some kids I know but not for others.
    Really depends on the school. Even if they are not bullied, sometimes it makes them ashamed of their heritage and they want to be white like everyone else. I was warned about my daughter’s school by two Persian friends. Said the same thing happened to their kids in first grade (not bullied but wanted to be white like the other kids) and sure enough, it happened to my kid, too. All moved to a more diverse school, and things are fine. Sometimes kids are bullied- sometimes kids just don’t like the feeling of being different. Some parents are just going to send their kid to the place they want the kid to go regardless. And sometimes the kids don’t complain because they think it won’t do any good.

  14. hm, this might be too far off topic but I would say there is a general expectation for many minorities to adhere to a white standard in order to succeed, especially in America. It’s still fairly uncommon for many POC to see positive representations of other people of their race in the media. Especially when the same media is still reenforcing a lot of negative stereotypes. Whether TRA’s or 1st or 2nd gen immigrants or POC who have been in America for generations there is a very strong sense that you just can’t make it if you’re not white.
    I think maybe what Kris is saying is even when faced with these difficulties it’s harder for TRA’s because even at the core of their presumed safest place, their family lack the support system of people who can relate to and provide advice for these situations through direct experience.

  15. to bets-
    what if it were you in your child’s place? what if it were you that had to grow up confused by your identity, going to whatever cultural events you can scrounge up in your area, getting babysat by a person that looks like you (knowing your parents did that on purpose)? it sounds like homework.

    culture is not something you scrounge up. it’s your lifestyle.

    if it were you, i think you would move to a place that better fit a diverse lifestyle.
    like you said, you live where you live because of a decision to make it easier, to have a job and security. this is your convenience.

    now what if that workplace everyday made you feel like you were shit? made you feel like you wanted to be ONE OF THEM. even though they are a bunch of assholes, you know they are better than you. the magazines say so, the community says so, and worst of all, your parents say so even though they try not to, they say it in their lifestyle that excludes you. what is home? what is community? they cannot help you.

    i think you would leave. if you had the guts.
    what’s being asked of you is to have guts for your family.

  16. Except, jlie, you don’t know how exactly it’s working out for Bets or how her daughter feels. This may be a seemless orchestration of events that her daughter is unaware of. Or it may feel awkward. Only she can answer that.

    But I think we might have all treated the issue in a different way had it been part of the qualifying process.

  17. osolomama, your right, only bet’s daughter can tell us for sure. The thing is, she’s a child and often most adoptees don’t realize things about their upbringing until much later. How many adoptees as kids didn’t want to go to culture class or have other adoptee friends (these are just examples, there are many others) because they were afraid it would make them stand out more? The child may say they don’t want to involve themselves and the AP says, ‘ok, you said so!’ but later they regret it. This is why I believe it’s important to listen to adult adoptees point of view.
    All adoptees are different and no one can ever say for certain how they will deal with these issues, but I would wager there are enough adult adoptees out there playing the same tune that it shouldn’t be dismissed.

  18. White people and non-adopted persons who visit this blog are reminded that while people of color and adoptees often are very familiar with the majority experience, the opposite is not true.

  19. We have intentionally moved to live in a diverse community that has a large population of people from my kids’ country of origin. After the first year of sending our daughter to an all-white preschool, I would never turn back. When white AP’s say it is too hard to move, they are not looking at how hard it is for their kids to be in white communities. And their own kids are not going to be reliable reporters since they are so invested in protecting their parents. Now when I feel wistful about some of the white privilege I have given up to live here and fantasize about moving to a prettier place where more people look and talk like me, I only have to think of how socially successful my kids are, how willing to take risks, how unashamed they are of their own appearance to convince myself we that it would be too hard to move OUT!

  20. Thanks for this excellent discussion. I like the idea of requiring prospective parents to already be living in diverse areas. How about also being able to demonstrate that they are already long-standing active participants in social networks made up of people that look like the kid they are hoping to adopt? One problem with our brainstorming is that half of all adoption are private, so agencies can’t always mandate compliance. If some pastor or “facilitator” matches a birth mother with a kid behind closed doors, who’s looking out for the “racial” interests of the child? And what if a birth mother chooses a wealthy-appearing suburban family with a white picket fence to place her kid with, and passes over urban dwellers? A complicated issue all around. LOVE hearing from APs who moved. Anecdotally, 90% of the time they report positive results for their kids.

  21. As important as it is, I find it a strange thing to be engineering our lives around this issue.

    We have and always will live in a very diverse place – not white majority – but a few years ago we looked at moving for other reasons, and the demographics at the other end was foremost on our minds. In the end, killing the idea of moving there.

    But my only regret wasn’t that I must care about this, and I do, but that I do feel a need for my children to have wide and varied life experiences as I did because I believe that aspect of my own life is what led me to believe I could achieve what I have. Which was a substantial amount of success, change and growth.

  22. I guess my thought is that parents make many choices about their lives with thoughtful regard to what is best for their children. But for white parents, they have not previously considered race (consciously).

    In any event, if your children are in an environment where other families share your same values, going to language school (as an example) wouldn’t make the kid stand out.

  23. That’s a Great post as always, it is great to have the chance to read a good quality article and Interesting topic with many great points.

    I wanted to say thank you for taking time to share this information.

  24. “So when you’re mocked for your looks, when other kids (and adults) make ching-chong noises and yank up the corners of their eyes, remember the beauty of your Chinese roots.

    Which have been severed. Except for that love of heritage you’ve been expected to develop in a vacuum.”

    Yes, this.

    If someone tells me to be proud of being Chinese, what does that mean? I can barely read. I can’t write. I can speak at the level of a 2-year-old. I don’t know any traditions. I don’t know any customs.

    What am I told to be proud of? My appearance? My roots? But I’m *culturally* white – my appearance is merely what I look. I don’t “know” my roots. I don’t “know” my heritage. The inside is what counts – except when other people view me.

    Which is – ALL THE TIME.

    Yes, I went back to see what it really was like beyond a textbook. But that didn’t entirely help me because I have never fully lived the experience of living as a native in my “motherland” and I will never truly have that experience.

    It’s very, very easy to feel as though your parents bring you to language classes and cultural events because of obligation rather than sincere interest.

    Or maybe it’s a bit of both, entertwined and blurred. I don’t know.

  25. Exactly – I would love for all adoptive parents to read this. I wish I would have had to chance to consider this pre-adoption! Never happened. We moved (against the advice of an ‘adoption’ therapist) and I don’t think we have made another parenting decision that could have a bigger impact.

    Interesting now, that same therapist is holding a ‘Raising a Transracially Adopted Child’ Parent information night. Gag. Guess she’s done some more reading, too late for us I guess…

  26. The only caveat I would add to this is that living on a diverse area does not unilaterally protect or prepare your transracially adopted child from/for racism. I know too many APs who live in our diverse community (white APs perceptions of what is “diverse” are subjective as well) who think that a diverse community will exempt them from having to deal with racism overall. “We live in a diverse community” becomes the defense against really reaching out and forging real cross-racial/cultural relationships.

  27. My husband and I are beginning the adoption journey now, we plan to adopt older siblings from the foster system. We are focusing on siblings because I believe having a connection with biological family is important and older children are the ones who really need families. I had thought about the “race card” before since we live in a mostly rural, mostly wealthy area, and it’s much less diverse than other places we’ve lived, but when the adoption coordinator asked us about race, I thought “well, we are principally colorblind, having lived in black communities, but I am concerned with being able to instill “ethnic culture” in the child”, but I said, “race doesn’t matter”. And for me it doesn’t but this article has made some very good points and vocalized the things I have been afraid of. Foster kids are already starting out behind, placing two black children with two white parents in a rural-ish area really might not be the best idea. It has given me food for thought. oh, and people that claim “diverse” or “predominantly black” neighborhoods are crime-infested just need to do more research. Our old neighborhood was a black middle class neighborhood that had whites, gays, hispanics and asians in the minority. It was a wonderful community but we moved for work/career to another state. I hate the thought of discounting a child because of race but it comes down to what’s best for the children, I need to focus on that.

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