This Is What It's Like to Be Adopted by Parents of a Different Race
Kyle DiMaggio, who was adopted from Korea in 1989 just two months after he was born, grew up in a working-class, almost universally white suburb in Michigan.
"My parents loved me dearly and did absolutely all that they could for me, but that did not make up for the lack of post-adoption resources and the ignorance and xenophobia of my hometown," DiMaggio told Mic. "I spent most of my childhood incredibly uncomfortable, yearning to be something I could never be: white."
His experience is one many children of interracial adoptions experience. There are many individuals in this position: 40% of adopted children in the United States are of a different race, culture or ethnicity than their adoptive parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and parents of interracial adoption are overwhelmingly white, according to one 2003 National Library of Medicine study.
In a 2003 study, Richard M. Lee of the University of Minnesota described how children of color with white adoptive parents experience the "transracial adoption paradox." Lee called it a "set of contradictory experiences." Despite their aesthetic and ethnic relation to minority groups, these adoptees are "perceived and treated by others, and sometimes themselves, as if they are members of the majority culture," which can result in unique "psychological and cultural dynamics," Lee wrote.
While individual experiences with interracial adoption vary and are impacted by a variety of factors, many children of color adopted by white parents frequently grapple with this contradiction — and, subsequently, their very identity.
The paradox: "I was always aware of racial differences within the context of my own immediate family, but it was only when I started leaving the house and was around other kids that I realized racial difference invites questions and curiosity at best, and more often, hostility and bullying at worst," DiMaggio, who is the director of LGA, a multimedia company that has focused on adoptee-centered issues and perspectives, said.
For years, DiMaggio tolerated his schoolmates' "jokes, taunts and patronizing questions about my English ability or 'American-ness,'" he said, adding that he even encountered such ignorant rejection among his own extended family. At the birthday part of a distant relative, for example, DiMaggio's cousins asked their parents "why a 'Chinese kid' was there," he recalled. "I remember asking myself, 'How can my own family not treat me like one of their own?' I cried alone that night before falling asleep."
Chad Goller-Sojourner, a black transracial adoptee and founder of the organization Transracial Adoption and Family Coaching, similarly felt accepted within his own home — and in his community as well. But this acceptance came at a cost: Raised in an overwhelmingly white neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, he had never "been in a room with more than a few black people" and essentially had no meaningful relationships with other people of color until his 20s.
It wasn't until college — specifically, seeing how campus police treated black students differently from their white counterparts — that he had a "moment of clarity," he told Mic. Adopted children of color "are given certain rights and privileges that aren't given to children of color in homes of color," he said, but that privilege "has a shelf life."
Grappling with identity: Despite their parents' love, DiMaggio and Goller-Sojourner found themselves unprepared to handle the disparity between their taught and self-conceived identity and the one projected on them by a still-racist culture, which resulted in personal confusion and distress.
While Goller-Sojourner experienced turmoil, his journey was still relatively smooth: He moved to New York City, immersed himself in communities of color and made "conscious choices" to better embrace his identity.
But DiMaggio struggled. He first went "the 'minstrel show' route, telling people how 'Asian' I was or making fun of my own people or culture," before "going through an 'Asia-centric' phase by writing about race in my Xanga and pasting photos of K-pop stars (BoA, SES, Baby VOX) on my binders," he said. While he eventually researched race and racism to the extent that he felt he had "insight that could rationalize my experiences and how I felt," he also experienced "depression, anxiety and low self-confidence that still lingers today" and even considered suicide.
Through the work they've done since, DiMaggio and Goller-Sojourner have found their experiences are common among transracial adoptees. But both believe a better future is possible for families like these and that change must start with adoptive parents.
"The adoptive parents I have the most trouble with are the ones that lack a self-awareness of their place, power and privilege in society," DiMaggio said. Rather than blindly believe everybody will "love and see your child like you do," he added, "parents need to be comfortable with embracing the unknown" and prioritize exposing "their children to experiences and people within cultural contexts where people look like them."
What parents can do: "By it's very nature, when it comes to transracial adoption somebody is going to be uncomfortable," Goller-Sojourner said. "It's the parents' position to be uncomfortable because they're the ones who chose to adopt" and should embrace discomfort for the sake of their child's self-exploration.
For example, rather than encourage their child of color to attend a predominately white church in which they feel most comfortable, adoptive parents should consider attending a church with a majority community of color, Goller-Sojourner said.
White parents must also be cognizant of their own peer group as well as the community in which they're raising their child of color, he said.
"How can you teach your kids or show the kids the importance of having [interracial] relationships if you aren't loving and valuing people of color?" he said. "So many kids see their parents loving and valuing people who look like them, and kids pick up on it."
But other experiences exist: DiMaggio and Goller-Soujourner may have found their experiences are shared by others, but they're certainly not universal: Plenty of individuals consider their experience with transracial adoption decidedly positive.
"Being adopted by my parents was the best thing that ever happened to me," Rose*, who was adopted from China by white, American parents in 1995, told Mic. "I'll never know what my life would have been like if had not been adopted by them but I can speculate, and I'm doubtful that it would have ended up anything close to what I have today."
The fact that her parents did choose an international adoption process imparted that they "wanted and loved me very much, because how could they not after all the work they went through to get me?" she added.
Even though he struggled, DiMaggio is also ultimately appreciative of his experience, because it "taught the value of knowing yourself, and taught me how to discern and appreciate respect," he said. "All of it gave me a greater empathy toward the hardships of others and a strong appreciation for the value of intersectionality in cultivating relationships."
"Parenting and growing up is difficult regardless of any racial differences," Rose said. "There is no perfect way to parent an adopted child, but being open about the fact they are adopted and letting them explore what that means to them is key in my opinion."
*Last name has been omitted to allow the subject to speak freely on sensitive matters.