When Lauren Jacobs was seven, she went grocery shopping with her dad. A stranger, in seeing her interact with her father, attempted to make sense of their relationship by asking her dad if he was Lauren’s stepfather. “No, this one’s mine, she’s my daughter,” Lauren’s father said. He pulled her into his arms, and walked away.
“That was the moment I realized people don’t see us as dad and daughter,” Lauren said.
Lauren and her father don’t “match,” in the traditional, phenotypic sense of the word. At five months old, Lauren was adopted from China into a family with a Chinese older sister, a Chinese-Hawaiian mother, and a White Jewish father. She was one of many babies adopted transracially and transnationally in the 1990s.
The rate of transnational adoption peaked around the time Lauren was born in 1995, and today it’s at a low point. But the results from research on the effects of transnational adoption—most of which began in the early 2000s—are just coming back today. Researchers across the country, including those at Tufts, are discovering the harm and challenges transnational adoptees face growing up in the US. While not the case for all individual children, research results highlight racial identity issues many adoptees confront and their parents unknowingly contribute to.
According to scholar Peter Selman, 165,000 international adoptions have taken place since the end of the Korean War in 1953; a watershed event after which inter-country adoptions exploded. Religious groups, specifically evangelical Christian associations such as The Holt Foundation, started programs to bring orphans who had been left behind in war-torn countries to families in the US. Countries like Korea, China, Liberia, and Romania had some of the highest adoption rates. But the “rescue” mentality embraced by evangelicals often did more harm than good: in many developing countries these services were unregulated, and due to the cultural difference in the definition of “adoption,” children were often taken from their birth parents with no informed consent.
Like a bell curve, inter-country adoptions rose rapidly from 1950 to 2000, and then slowly declined in the 21st century. From 2004 to 2014, all inter-country adoptions fell by 70 percent, partially due to the lack of transparency and regulation in adoption practices, which led many foreign governments to shut down these programs.
At The Fifth International Conference on Adoption Research held this January, Dr. Richard Lee of the University of Minnesota described the idea of the “Transnational and Transracial Adoption Paradox.” He explained that the Paradox occurs when families try to balance assimilation into the US with ethnic identity development. According to Lee, this can affect an adoptee’s racial identity. The Donaldson Adoption Institute reports that 78 percent of Korean adoptees saw themselves as White or wished to be White as children.
Research is also being conducted at Tufts by Professor Ellen Pinderhughes about the effects that parents can unconsciously have on their adopted child’s racial identity. She is working with Amanda Baden of Montclair State University to examine microaggressions in the lives of children and families. They and their research teams drew from a typology of adoption microaggressions developed by Baden and a typology of racial microaggressions developed by Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University to create a coding manual. The coding manual that specifies 17 different types of “adoption microaggressions” and 16 types of “racial microaggressions” that people commit towards transnationally and transracially adopted children.
One example of an adoption microaggression called “phantom birth parents” occurs when the adoptive family does not acknowledge birth parents as an equal part of the “adoption triad,” a term that refers to adoptees, the adoptive family, and the birth parents. According to Baden, the loss and pain inherent in adoption goes unacknowledged in an incident of “phantom birth parents.” Parents may not allow adoptees to be curious about their birth parents, and birth families may be seen as uncaring for placing their child in adoption.
Another common microaggression is “colorblindness.” In the context of transracial adoption, an incident of colorblindness could look like the adoptive parents refusing to talk about the racialized experiences that their adoptive children face. As a transracial adoptee experiences their own racial biases that White parents are unlikely to have ever faced before, a refusal to discuss these issues results in an invalidation of their experiences. The incident can be intentional or unintentional; either way, the study claims, the effect on the receiving end is still hurtful, invalidating, and insulting.
However, not all findings of transnational and transracial research suggest that adoptees grow up to be isolated and poorly adjusted. Pinderhughes found that empowering parent-child discussions were happening in some transracial adoptive families. Interviews with certain parents showed that they were aware of the biases harming their children, and attempting to provide them with “a set of tools for how to deal with [bias].”
Conversations with transnational and transracial adoptees here at Tufts reflect the possibility of positive parent-child relationships. Lauren, a junior, said her parents never explicitly discussed the existence of racial bias or adoption bias. Regardless of the lack of empowering parent-child discussions, the teaching moment was there in that supermarket when she was seven. In that moment, her father modeled a behavior that demonstrated to Lauren the legitimacy of her family, regardless of outward appearance. The experience did, however, change the way Lauren interacted with her dad from that moment onwards. She said she began to use the word “Dad” more often than she would normally have, perhaps hoping to ward off further questions and the expectation of an explanation.
Cece Nealon-Shapiro, a senior who grew up in New York City, emphasized the importance of post-adoption services such as Families with Children from China (FCC) and a mentorship program called AKA (named after the fact that many adoptees have a name from their birth country, and are also known as their English name) in her own experience. These services provided opportunities to feel connected to the adoption community.
Cece and Lauren also both said that growing up in diverse areas of the country protected them from racial biases and isolation. Because of the diversity in Lauren’s hometown in the Bay Area, as a child, she believed that half the world was adopted. She “thought it was normal to have two dads, two moms… families were whatever.”
Cece explains the lack of explicit conversation about race in her family by the fact that “New York City is pretty racially diverse to begin with.” The city in its size and diversity offered many support organizations for non-traditional families, which protected her from many racial and adoptive biases.
Somewhat paradoxically, Lauren and Cece also said that religion plays a supportive role in both their lives. Considering that the history of adoption is deeply entangled with evangelical Christian rescue missions, our ideas about the relationship between adoption and religion may be negative. However, the colorful, complex combination of Jewish and Chinese culture in their homes was one of the things that both interviewees articulated in their first introductions of themselves. It seems that diversity, not just in their neighborhoods, but also in their homes, goes a long way in helping children understand how to celebrate and appreciate different cultural values.
“My synagogue has been very supportive from the start about my moms being a gay couple, and the fact that my sister and I weren’t born Jewish,” Cece said.
The common assumption people have about transnational and transracial adoption is that it can never be done right, and much of the existing research agrees. Microagressions and biases make the adoption process fraught with challenges for all involved. But Cece and Lauren know from experience that it can work.
“If you can build a strong relationship with the child that you adopt regardless of the fact that you don’t look alike, then it won’t matter,” Cece said.