‘I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people’
Adoptees of color with White parents struggle to talk with their families about race
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Growing up, Angela Tucker felt like a racial impostor. She may have looked Black, but she didn’t feel that way.
Tucker, 36, is an adoptee raised by White parents in a city that was 88 percent White when she was growing up. It left her disconnected from music such as jazz and blues music, Black art forms she didn’t discover her passion for until adulthood. She covered her natural hair with wigs and weaves, uncomfortable with how her curly strands appeared in predominantly White environments.
Tucker’s parents were aware that living in the predominantly White town of Bellingham, Wash., where few people looked like their children could be challenging, but felt they needed to live close to some of the state’s best hospitals because one of their children had health issues.
“My parents were also really open to talking to me about why it was that more predominantly White places had better medical care,” said Tucker. But “it didn’t help me to really get a great understanding of my own identity because I didn’t see racial mirrors.”
Transracial adoptees, people raised by adoptive parents of a different race or ethnicity, are experiencing their own racial reckoning as the nation confronts its historical scars. Most of these adoptions involve White families and children of color who, now as adults, are reflecting on the racism they experienced that their parents couldn’t see and rarely talked about. Classmates’ racist comments about their hair and eyes were dismissed as harmless curiosity. America’s racial dynamics were explained in the language of “colorblind” idealism.
The propriety of cross-cultural adoptions has been debated for decades. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers took a strong stand against the adoption of Black children by White parents. Several years later, the federal Indian Child Welfare Act was passed to address the wave of Native American children being separated from their tribes and placed with White families.
The national conversation about systemic racism driven by George Floyd’s death in 2020 has cast a new light on interracial adoption and prompted transracial families to confront the unspoken cultural divides in their homes.
“I mentor a lot of youth who are really struggling because their parents don’t see the racism within George Floyd’s murder, for example, or won’t let their child go march,” Tucker said. “And so for these kids, it’s confusing because they are like, ‘I know my parents love me, but they don’t love my people.’”
The growth in transracial adoptions from foster care in recent years has far outpaced the growth in same-race adoptions, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. The number of such families increased by 58 percent between 2005-2007 and 2017-2019, while same-race adoptions increased by 24 percent. Transracial adoptions are now 28 percent of all domestic adoptions in the United States.
Richard Lee, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota who focuses on internationally adopted Koreans, said many adoptees experience what he calls the “transracial adoption paradox” — the experience of growing up with many of the privileges that come with Whiteness.
“When they leave that sort of smaller network and enter school or move out of the family home later in life, suddenly they're confronted with being perceived and treated as a racial minority,” Lee said.
Tucker made a point during her childhood to vocally identify her mother as “mom” when they were in public to give herself a sense of security amid the confused stares of onlookers.
“That definitely gave people a sense of calm, like, ‘Oh, she's with the White people,’” Tucker said.
But she was also disheartened by her impulse to casually dismiss racism when it came her way, like when students in her mostly White school put pencils in her hair and marveled at the way the texture made them stay in place, she said.
“I remember knowing intellectually that that was wrong but feeling so much peer pressure and a desire to just fit in that I would laugh it off,” Tucker said.
Tucker’s parents, through their daughter, declined to be interviewed for this article.
At one point, it was common practice for adoption agencies to charge less for adopting a Black child vs. a White child, said Liz Raleigh, an associate professor of sociology at Carleton College. As part of her research, Raleigh attended private adoption agencies’ information sessions for prospective parents and was surprised at how little information was given about race.
“By [adoption agencies] taking on if not a colorblind but a color-evasive approach, they signal to White prospective adoptive parents that race does not need to be a significant factor in their decision-making,” Raleigh said. “And then by extension, it might not need to be a significant factor in their child-rearing. And I think that that is incredibly problematic, and it has huge implications for the way in which these parents, later on, approach raising their children.”
Adoptive parents’ good intentions and honest efforts can still fall short, particularly when the conversations are limited to cultural celebrations and discussion about heritage rather than more complex topics such as systemic racism and the lingering impacts of colonialism, Lee said.
“The majority of adoptive families, when raising these children, tend to overestimate how engaged they are in socializing their children around their ethnic heritage and in preparing them for racism,” he said.
In one study Lee co-authored, researchers started following 116 Korean American adoptees in 2007, when the children were between 7 and 13 years old, and checked back with them in 2014, when they were between 13 and 20 years old. The study asked about their level of ethnic socialization and knowledge of their ethnic heritage. While the adoptees said their parents exposed them to things such as Korean restaurants and cultural festivals, they weren’t engaging in more complex conversations about racism as they got older.
“Often we hear from adult adoptees who are reflecting on their childhood that say, ‘What was communicated to me early on, verbally and nonverbally, was [race] is not something my parents can handle’ or, ‘I know if I bring up these issues, it’s going to hurt and upset my parents,’” Lee said. “‘And I’d rather not have to deal with that.’”
About US spoke to members of transracial families about how the national moment of racial reckoning has affected their family dynamics. Many adoptees say they are now, in adulthood, doing work to discover their identities. For some, that has meant reconnecting with their biological parents, while others immersed themselves in the racial justice movement, and still others have absorbed books about their culture — filling in the gaps of their stories that their parents left behind.
Beyond a few Kwanzaa celebrations and being surrounded by books and toys featuring Black children, race was not discussed in Keturah Wik’s family during her early childhood — “at all.”
“Race and ethnicity was something that I was very much alone in processing and educating myself on,” said Wik, who is Black and Korean American and was raised by White parents in the predominantly White town of Walla Walla, Wash.
Wik, 27, remembers a first-grade classmate asking her, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” as he pulled his eyelids back. Others would ask her whether her hair was her “real hair.”
“I do remember asking my mom about that, and she brushed it off and was just like, ‘Oh, you know, they haven’t seen someone like you.’” Wik said.
Keturah’s mother, Sarah, said that she and her husband were aware there would be challenges in raising a child of a different race. But she hoped their support would make up for those different life experiences.
“We believe that God was capable of making sure that the children we adopted would be the ones we were supposed to have,” Sarah Wik wrote in an email. “While we knew it would not be easy, we believed that the deep love we would provide, as well as meeting needs (and to the best of our abilities reasonable wants) would be a far better option for a child than being in the foster care system or passed among family members who may or may not embrace the child as their own.”
So desperate was she to live in a more diverse area where she wouldn’t be the only Asian or Black student that she asked her mom to go to boarding school.
The 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin left an imprint on her. Then there were the subsequent deaths of young Black men and women at the hands of police: Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner.
“I realized that no matter how old or how young or what race and gender you are, my country does not care about me and that they did not care about my life,” Wik said.
In the summer of 2015, she had “the talk” with her brother, who was a preteen at the time, and her sister, who was a young teen; both are also Black. In African American families, “the talk” is a grim rite of passage when parents teach Black youths about the extra precautions they must take in society, particularly with police due to the disproportionate rate of fatal encounters.
Her siblings were open to the conversation, Wik recalls — but her parents were not.
“My dad was mad that I did that because he does not believe that anything like that would happen in our eastern-Washington town … and that I was just needlessly scaring my siblings,” Wik said. “But I believe that that conversation did need to happen because they hadn’t prepared us to deal with any sort of racism.”
Wik’s mother remembers that conversation differently.
“I believe the discomfort Keturah perceived with the conversation (which I understand why she perceived discomfort) was not because of the subject matter, but how her dad believed she was approaching it,” Wik wrote in an email. “Also, she was simply unaware of all the many conversations we had had with her siblings regarding racism, the police, etc.”
Wik’s sister, now in college, is active in the Black Lives Matter movement, while her brother has not been active but is supportive, she said.
“I think my brother is starting to realize … that the police aren’t going to stop to care that he was raised by White parents,” Wik said. This is “something he is going to have to live with and be aware of for his entire life.”
Listen to Keturah
For most of his 60 years on earth, Dirk Uphoff did not know he was Black.
Born in a home for unwed mothers in 1960 in Peoria, Ill., Uphoff’s adoption paperwork mistakenly listed him as half-White and half-Mexican, an identity he carried through childhood.
“I was put in that category of hard-to-place,” Uphoff said. “So I think when my adoptive parents came looking for a kid, I was kind of a hot potato.”
People pegged “all kinds” of races and ethnicities to Uphoff growing up: Was he Black? Italian? Middle Eastern? He rarely saw “Hispanic” as an option on forms asking for one’s race and ethnicity.
“Even though when I looked in the mirror, I physically saw something different, mentally I always saw myself as White,” Uphoff said. “And growing up in the ‘60s that was — you know, embarrassing to say, but that was better. That was considered better.”
Though Uphoff couldn’t help but notice that he looked different from his White classmates, racial issues were rarely talked about in his home, an unspoken rule he likens to the military’s onetime “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for gay service members.
When he did ask his mother about race, she would say, “Well, you’re Spanish, but you’re our son,” he recalls, and would encourage him to tick the box for “White” on official forms.
Uphoff’s mother, Donna, said via email that she considered herself “very fortunate.”
“No one ever said anything to me about raising a dark-skinned or ‘black’ child. If they spoke behind our backs, we never knew it. I don’t know of any problems that Dirk had at school,” Donna Uphoff said. “If he has some issues, he never told his father or me and the school never called us with any problems.”
Growing up, he felt relatively “unscathed” from the full brunt of racism, protected by his status as an accomplished high school athlete and a member of the popular crowd. But he does remember being called the n-word a handful of times, in incidents he wanted to forget.
“I just wanted to crawl in a hole,” Uphoff said.
In an effort to find the answers he didn’t get from his parents, Uphoff entered his DNA into the Ancestry.com database six years ago, as many adoptees have done in quests to connect with their heritage and find their birth families.
Uphoff sent a volley of email exchanges to possible relatives identified through the database, which eventually led him to his half sister. About six months later, he met with his birth father, who is Black.
As an adoptee, he said, it’s “the wildest thing in the world to see somebody that looks like you.”
Uphoff’s father told him that his biological mother was a White woman with whom he was having an affair. After he refused to get a divorce, the woman told him that she had lost the baby.
“He said he thought that I didn't exist,” Uphoff said.
Uphoff’s mother said that while she was “unhappy” that the adoption agency did not give her the correct information about her son’s background, his race made no difference to her.
“He is my son. I love him. We are all very happy and grateful,” Donna Uphoff said.
He keeps in touch with his birth family and has also reconnected with his roots through reading about Black history. Living much of his life identifying as a White person has given him a unique view on race.
“I think a lot of White people think that they have a good handle on race … and have what they would call a ‘colorblind’ kind of mentality,” Uphoff said. “But I don’t think they understand that when you say the word ‘colorblind,’ what I hear is ‘I see you as White.’”
Listen to Dirk
Laney Allison isn’t sure of her birth date, but her adoption paperwork states that she was adopted in August 1994, at just under 1 year old.
Allison was born in Anhui province in eastern China and grew up some 10,000 miles away, in Dallas. Raised by a single, White mom, she encountered “no Asian role models” growing up. Her violin teacher’s Korean wife was the only Asian woman she consistently encountered during her childhood.
“My mom did not have any Asian friends. She did not seek out any Asian friends,” Allison said. “She just basically raised me like she would any White kid, and in doing so, she was not preparing me for adulthood, in which I don’t have my White mom next to me to shield me from a racist White person.”
Allison’s mother, through her daughter, declined to participate in this report. Allison said that despite those struggles, “I love my mom, and I know she did the best in raising me.”
In school, Allison said that her lack of racial literacy meant that she experienced racism before she knew what it was.
“You just think they’re making fun of you because you look different. And then when you get older, you’re like, ‘Wait, no, that’s racism,’” she said.
As the rhetoric about the pandemic spurred anti-Asian racism and attacks, Allison has had moments in which she has been afraid to leave her home in Washington. She went to stay with her mom for a while in Texas.
“I think I need a White person with me at all times,” Allison recalls thinking.
Her mother thought she was overreacting. And no one from her family thought to reach out to her amid the spreading reports of anti-Asian hate.
In March, Allison wrote a post on social media encouraging her followers to check in on the Asian American people in their lives. She has found some support with other adoptees through an organization she co-founded, China’s Children International, which hosts chat groups and in-person meetups for adoptees such as herself.
She tried to talk to her mother about how she was affected by racism and the attacks on Asian Americans. But despite her mother’s liberal politics, Allison felt she didn’t empathize with the experiences of the broader Asian community.
“You can care about that one Asian in your life and still not see the rest of the Asian American community as being worthy of your protection,” she said.
Her mom later tried to make amends by taking bystander intervention training, which is meant to train onlookers in what to say if they see an Asian person harassed or attacked because of their race. But by then Allison felt it was too little, too late.
“I am choosing not to talk to her or any of my other White family members about it because I’m just over it,” Allison said. “I don’t want to have to explain myself and my situation to them because it took them 26 and a half years to be like: ‘Oh, yeah, she’s Asian. She experiences racism.’”
Listen to Laney
Growing up, Black transracial adoptee Rebeccah Carlson hated the color of her skin. She hated her hair and her lips. She would dress in the dark to avoid looking at herself.
“I was so disgusted with the body that I was born into,” Carlson said.
Carlson, 29, grew up in St. Paul, Minn., with White parents and her older brother and younger sister, who are also Black. She wasn’t interested in learning more about her birthparents.
“Adoption is a trauma. … And so every adoptee has a different response to their trauma,” Carlson said. “Mine was to just completely disengage from my origin story and have no interest in where I came from.”
Her parents exposed her to books and documentaries not only about adoption and foster care but about slavery and segregation.
“From a very early age, they explained that based on the color of my skin, I was going to have a very different experience in America than they would,” Carlson said.
But they couldn’t prepare Carlson for the lack of connection she felt with other Black children. She said she also experienced Black people mistreating her parents when they were together in public, expecting them to prove that Carlson wasn’t being “stolen.”
“The bullying that I experienced growing up was largely from being adopted and having White parents, and the Black community viewing me as less Black because of that,” Carlson said.
She said other Black kids would make fun of her for the way she spoke and hobbies that were perceived as not stereotypically Black.
“I feel Black, definitely, because I inhabit a body that is Black, and I’m treated Black when I leave my home and interact with the public,” Carlson said. “But I also feel White because I understand what it’s like to be White and to have privileges that White people have [after being] raised by White people.”
Carlson has struggled with self-loathing throughout her life, with her mental health struggles becoming most acute from 18 to 26 years old. She cut and burned her body and became addicted to prescription pills.
Through extensive therapy, she’s been able to better understand the trauma she experienced as an infant and how it continues affecting her, and not feeling “defective because I was adopted.”
Carlson’s mother, Janet, said that she and her husband tried to surround their children with Black art and literature to help build their self-worth.
“Kids are just a huge blessing, and I just loved being their mom, but I wish I could have done better,” Janet Carlson said. “If we could’ve afforded it, I wish we could have started therapy for Rebeccah at a younger age to address some of her self-esteem [issues].”
Rebeccah Carlson said that she was “disgusted” by the murder of Floyd and attended protests where she provided first aid and water to demonstrators. But because of her disconnection with the Black community, she’s had complicated feelings about the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I believe that Black lives matter, definitely. I also have been bullied my entire life by Black people, and so it’s not as easy for me to feel like I can support a community that has significantly damaged me throughout my entire life,” Carlson said. “Does that mean that I think police brutality against people of color is okay? Not at all.”
Janet Carlson said she and her husband have had conversations with their children about how to interact with police. Her family lives within walking distance of the intersection where police fatally shot Black motorist Philando Castile in 2016.
“We talk about making smart choices and also being aware … that because of their race, they could be held with higher suspicion and … how to, you know, be prepared if they have any kind of confrontations,” she said.
Rebeccah Carlson notes that her neighborhood in St. Paul was hard-hit by uprisings last summer, damaging longtime businesses and leaving the community looking like “a war zone.”
“What I wanted to do last summer and what I will continue to do if any civil unrest occurs in the future is just to be supportive of my community,” she said, “which means being supportive of everyone that lives here, no matter their skin color.”
Listen to Rebeccah
Lara Provencal Capuano
Lara Provencal Capuano was as “prepared as a White lady could be in the 2000s” to adopt her son, who is Black.
She had already been a social justice advocate. She had a diverse friend group. She had consulted with transracial adoptees.
But “the reality is, as a White woman, I cannot ever fully know or be prepared to have conversations with young Black boys of what they will experience as Black men in America,” Provencal Capuano, 40, said. “There is no book to read.”
Provencal Capuano, lives in Irondequoit, N.Y., with her husband and five children ages 8 to 17, including three White biological daughters and two adopted boys who are both Black.
Long before the protests of summer 2020, their family had discussed racism in America, conversations that Provencal Capuano felt were essential “because they’ve already experienced racism.”
When her 14-year-old son recently kicked his soccer ball into a neighboring yard, he did something to which many kids wouldn’t give a second thought: He hopped the fence to retrieve it. But his mother wished he hadn’t because the societal allowances given to her White daughters don’t apply to her sons in the same way.
“There is no just generosity of spirit that is applied to young Black teenagers climbing a fence,” Provencal Capuano said. “The world perceives Black men as a threat, and they perceive them to be up to no good.”
Provencal Capuano has talked to her son about what to do if he were to be pulled over by police. She also taught him that when he is old enough to drive, he should keep his car registration taped to the top of his dashboard so that he doesn’t have to search through his glove compartment — an action she worries an officer could mistake for reaching for a weapon.
She’s also concerned about her 8-year-old son, who is hearing-impaired.
“If a police officer gives him a command and he doesn't hear it, that could cost him his life,” Provencal Capuano said.
Provencal Capuano declined to make her sons available for the story due to their ages.
Over the summer of 2020, as protests continued, Provencal Capuano participated in the demonstrations, which felt like a “no-brainer.” But she recognizes that for many White adoptive parents, they “had to confront this stuff for the first time.”
Provencal Capuano said that what has helped her sons is having them connect with other adoptees in Tucker’s network. Tucker serves as a mentor to them.
“We have to just sort of check ourselves in our ego, making sure we’re realizing that we aren’t the center of it,” Provencal Capuano said. “The adoptee needs to be the center of their own life and story.”
Listen to Lara
Tucker wants to make this clear: She’s grateful to have been adopted.
“If you don't say that first before you say anything else, you will automatically be put into this box of an angry adoptee,” Tucker said.
To help parents of adoptees and other transracial adoptees like herself, Tucker founded the Adopted Life, a website where adoptees can sign up for virtual mentorship and connect with other adoptees. She also holds anti-racism workshops for transracial families.
“I’ve had extended families, up to 80 people, come together and work on anti-racist training for the sake of the child in their care,” Tucker said. “And that’s been really exciting.”
After the training sessions, she has had White adoptive parents tell their extended family that if they aren’t willing to discuss white supremacy and racism, they can’t be in their child’s life.
“And I've been so excited to see that because I think that's what is needed,” Tucker said. “Drawing the line in the sand is absolutely necessary for the health of an adoptee.”
Much of the narrative around adoption centers adoptive parents and frames their actions as selflessness that helps save a child, Tucker said. But she hopes to refocus that narrative so more people consider how adoptions are affected by race and class.
“The savior-ism is so prevalent, and it’s really just a deep-seated belief that White people can take care of Black people better,” Tucker said.
Tucker holds out hope that White parents of children of color can learn to be more race-conscious in their homes. Through their daughter, Tucker’s parents declined to participate in this story, citing privacy concerns.
What Tucker wants most, in helping parents and adoptees, is for White parents of children of color to have honest dialogues with their children about race.
“Adoption is unique because there is a triad — the adoptee, the adoptive parent and the birth parent — and the running question is, like, who has the right to know what?” Tucker said. “Whose story is it?”