Beyond Culture Camps part 3: Culture vs. Racism

November is always one of the craziest months in the Harlow's Monkey household. Numerous family birthdays, a holiday, plus gearing up towards the end of the semester (for both me and the kids), plus this year, some added bumps and lumps (some positive, some not-so-much) that all families go through. So I never got to the promised posts about the Evan B. Donaldson report during National Adoption Month after all. And even though it's not intentional, maybe that's just actually kind of perfect for me. As you might expect, I have mixed feelings about "National Adoption Month" in general. It was created to be an awareness/campaign to encourage foster care adoptions and has been co-opted into a flowery, sunshine and unicorns, all-out saccharine pro-adoption free-for-all. I was sick of it, of course, especially the multiple "fundamental Christian-adoption" notices in my gmail inbox thanks to google alerts, and glad that I had too much going on to deal with it. Plus, I've been plowing through the ADOPTION USA: Chartbook based on the 2007 National Survey of Adoptive Parents study just released as well (and of course, I want to write about that too). My head is swimming!

However, I did want to continue with my thoughts about the Evan B. report, so here goes…


One of the stand-out statements that I took my highlighter pen to was this one on page 18 describing a study by Lee (2009) which surveyed 248 adopted Korean American adolescents and their parents.

[Lee] compared parent and adolescent responses on:
  • cultural socialization/pluralism (teaching about the history of Koreans and other minority groups, celebrating Korean culture, developing relationships with other Asian or Korean children)
  •  preparation for bias (educating children about discrimination, stereotypes and racism against Koreans and other groups, discussing how the child's life might be affected by racism) and
  • promotion of mistrust (teaching a child to avoid others who might take advantage of the child due to race).
Responses from both parents and youth indicated that behaviors related to cultural socialization and preparation for bias were only rarely to sometimes engaged in, with parents rating their efforts more highly than did their children. Both parents and youth reported more efforts related to cultural socialization than to preparation for bias.

Of course, I think this is significant and pretty telling. It shows that parents are likely more comfortable with the "cultural socialization" duties, including things like going to ethnic restaurants and attending culture camps or culture schools (especially if the cultural socialization is more about the adopted children socializing and the adoptive parents socializing). What it says in my interpretation is that adoptive parents don't mind so much the fun cultural stuff, what they don't like, and are uncomfortable with, is the preparing kids for racial bias aspect of transracial adoption.

Talking about race is scary stuff. It's scary in my own household, when I talk about it with my teen and my tween, and it always has been. I mean, who likes to tell their children that there are people in this world who might dislike them or even try to hurt them just because of the way they look? But what's scarier to me is thinking that they'll come face-to-face with this on their own without any preparation or understanding of where they can turn to for support. And not only that, I can role model for my kids what to do in situations. When I encounter certain racialized situations, we talk about them at home and talk about my response, and they get the chance to talk about what they would do in those situations.

This is going to be tougher for white adoptive parents with kids of color, since their experiences with racialized discrimination is going to be different. This is why it is so important that white adoptive parents are part of a diverse community, with trusted friends that can help them navigate some of these harder areas of parenting children of color in a racialized world.

When I was working for the County and would attend pre-adoption trainings, I was always amazed at how the prospective adoptive parents were willing to talk about all the potential developmental, cognitive, and mental health needs of children in care, but balked at frank discussions around race. Many prospective parents will acknowledge that they don't think they have what it takes to parent a special needs child, but will rise up in anger if anyone suggests they don't have what it takes to parent a child of a different race or ethnic origin.

Read how the Korean American adult adoptees responded in the Evan B. survey:

  • 78% experienced racial discrimination as a child
  • 48% experienced racial discrimination by childhood friends
  • 38% experienced racial discrimination by their childhood friends' parents
  • 75% experienced racial discrimination by their classmates
  • 39% experienced racial discrimination by their teachers

What were the top actions/activities that influenced a more satisfied sense of racial identity for the adult Korean adoptees in the survey? The top responses were:

  • travel to birth country (74% found it was or thought it would be helpful)
  • attending racially diverse schools (73% found it was or thought it would be helpful)
  • having child care providers, teachers or adult role models of the same race/ethnicity (73% found it was or thought it would be helpful)

And what I thought was interesting was comparing it to what was considered least helpful:

  • having traditional objects (such as dolls, etc.) from birth country (49% perceived this to be helpful)
  • having contact with birth relatives (47% found this to be helpful)
  • studying traditional martial arts from country or traditional dance classes (38% perceived these to be helpful)

Finally, what were the things that Korean adoptees were most likely to have participated in as children or youth?

  • 84% had cooked or dined on Korean food -  68% rated it helpful
  • 80% had siblings (although note that the survey did not ask if siblings were adopted, or if they were also adopted from Korea) – 63% rated this helpful.
  • 79% had read information about their country on the internet, 71% found it helpful.
  • 74% were in regular contact with people of same race/ethnicity – 67% rated it helpful.
  • 73% had books about adoption – 68% found them helpful
  • 72% had traditional objects (dolls, etc.) from birth country, only 49% found those helpful.

The Evan B. report summarizes this portion of the study by stating that:

External aspects of culture – such as having a Korean doll/traditional object or studying traditional dance or martial arts – were considered by a minority of these respondents as being helpful in fostering positive identity.

Overall the majority of Korean adoptees (61%) identified opportunities to engage in experiential supports – including culture camps, but particularly to build ongoing relationships with adopted adults and other minorities – as being helpful.

I want to end with this quote from the study (p.48):

Much of the work related to parenting transracially adopted children has focused on the socialization experiences for these children. However, we must recognize that fostering cultural awareness or ethnic pride does not teach a child how to cope with racial discrimination (emphasis mine).

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

5 thoughts

  1. Jae Ran – beautiful job on summarizing the study findings. When I read the study results, these points hit me hard too. Adoptive parents needs skills to prepare their kids for racism. Hearing about any resources or trainings you come across to this end would be greatly appreciated!

  2. Jae Ran, Thanks for the summaries! This stuff seems obvious to me (and many others), but it’s great to have hard numbers to support us.
    Allison, check out the organization I work for We might not be able to serve your family due to geography, but it might give you an idea about what to look for. And to let you know that there are people out there who are trying to teach white APs the most useful tools, instead of the easiest.

  3. Honestly, I’m not surpised by this study’s results. I’m an African American lesbian and culture to me isn’t going to Pride or attending a rap concert.
    Culture connectiing is being around other Blacks and lesbians who have positive relationships with their partners and are proud of their racial hertitage. Plus, its being in a environment where I’m not marginalized for my sexual orientation or my race.
    With that being said, I’m surprised most of the adoptees didn’t think that contact with their birth parents was important to them. Thats a big sigh of relief for us since we don’t know our daughter’s genetic parents nor do we plan to every “search” for them.

  4. Delia, I would just caution about the birth parent thing – for this sample, the interest in birth parents wasn’t as high, but anecdotally, I would say the majority of the adoptees I know – and that’s a lot – are very interested in searching for birth family. There is no guarantee your child won’t be one of those that wants to have contact or who will feel something is missing without contact with birth parents.
    The report also surveyed white, same-race adoptees and for that sample group, the interest in birth parent contact/information was very high. 45% had contact with their birth families (compared to 30% for the Korean adoptee sample) and 72% said it was important to them.

  5. Thank you for posting a summary of the report! I read about the report in NY Times but it was nice to read about it here w/ some analysis from an adoptee.
    I would have to agree with Jae Ran that birth parents are still important to many adoptees out there! I would hope that if your daughter has questions in the future or even wants to start a ‘search’, that there’s space for openness, listening, consideration, and support!
    At the same time, Delia, I do relate to what you are saying about having a strong sense of who you are by being around other Blacks and lesbians who are proud of their identity.. It’s definitely more than a rap concert or Pride fest.. As a transracial adoptee, I feel like having a strong identity for me does mean being proud of being asian american and korean, knowing about my history (of transracial adoption, korean history, korean american history, and asian american history), and being around others who also are proud of their heritage.
    At the end of the day, transracial adoption is just super complicated! There are so many factors and layers in place that might impact the adoptee. At the same time, every adoptee is different and internalizes their experiences differently too.

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