The Complicated, Messy Identity of a Transracial Adoptee

In the Atlantic, David French says questioning a white family’s ability to raise a child of color is wrong. I know it isn’t.

Three photos of the author with her parents as a baby on the day she was adopted.
The author and her parents. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos courtesy of Kaylee Domzalski and Thinkstock.

My parents adopted me from Seoul, South Korea, when I was two days short of 6 months old. They raised me in Cleveland and Las Vegas in white communities where most people looked like them, not me. My mom and dad are loving and supportive, and they have been ideal parents in so many ways. But I still have complicated feelings about my race, identity, and upbringing, and moments of doubt about my place in my family, because they never talked to me about race or how to deal with racism. They never taught me anything about my Korean heritage or language or thought to surround me with people who could. That’s left me with a sense of loss, placelessness, and sometimes regret that I will grapple with for the rest of my life as I learn what it is to be an adoptee.

That is the fundamental, complicated truth about my adoption. But according to David French, writing about his adopted Ethiopian daughter this week in the Atlantic, my feelings are really just a product of an America “obsessed with questions of race and identity”—a sad result of a culture that can’t accept adoptive parents are disproportionately white and adopted children are not. French writes that he and his wife “believed that race was no barrier to unity for a family of genuine faith”—he is evangelical—but that his optimism has been shattered because of attacks from the “left” that were “soon to be matched and exceeded by attacks from a racist right.” The attacks from the right included a Photoshopped picture of French’s daughter in a gas chamber. On the left? The audacity to ask “questions about whether a white family’s love can harm a child of a different race.” Even as he acknowledges that they are very different, French draws a direct line between these responses, as if they exist on a single continuum designed to undermine his family.

I know how hard it can be for parents to navigate the emotionally charged process that is adoption, especially transracial adoption. But I wish I didn’t have to read any more myopic, self-serving pieces by adoptive parents that prioritize their struggles over their adoptee’s. French’s focus is misplaced, and his piece shows how naïve he remains about what his daughter’s experience will really be like.

French reaches back to a 1972 statement by black social workers and an investigative book by journalist Kathryn Joyce, who also responded to his piece in Slate, to show how the “left” has come after his family. But it is not hateful to question the implications of transracial adoption. I question my adoption all of the time. The backlash comes from a sense of cultural dissonance, the consequences of assimilation, and commodification­­—all issues adoptees themselves have highlighted. Beyond that, it’s crucial to understand that these children will one day have to negotiate often-conflicting personal feelings about their adoptions, sometimes on their own. It’s an uncomfortable, messy, necessary process; that’s what these supposed critics seek to highlight. That doesn’t mean white people shouldn’t adopt nonwhite children, but it does place the responsibility on those parents to understand how complex an adoptee’s identity can be.

French doesn’t see it that way: Instead, he considers these concerns a lecture on his and his wife’s “inherent inability to meet the needs of” his transracial adoptee, an attempt “to turn child against parent.” His response to questions about his ability as a white man to raise his daughter as a black woman in the United States is not to outline the constructive ways he and his wife have introduced their daughter to her birth culture or taught her what it means to be a woman of color, but to double down, accuse, and dismiss. He believes his family’s love alone is enough to overcome these obstacles. I speak from experience: It is not.

French also seems to believe that cruel comments directed toward him and especially his wife enable them to understand what their daughter will face. But the racism directed at his daughter is not the same as the comments about his family’s decision to adopt. Nor will his daughter’s experiences with racism mean that he too will have experienced the racism she does. I love my family deeply, but they will never know what it’s like to be a young woman of color, and they couldn’t prepare me for it. French’s family can’t either.

In describing his family’s experience, French says he’s noticed a key change:

In 2010, before we left for Ethiopia, the primary response from friends and acquaintances reflected the hope and joy of the moment. “Are you so excited?” they asked—offering the cheerful rhetorical question always asked of expectant parents. Since then, I’ve seen the question posed to adoptive parents change: “Are you ready?”

That’s actually the right question. Not, are you ready for how society will treat you? It’s more: Are you ready to teach your adoptee how to think about race in a way that acknowledges the privileges inherent in transracial adoption? Are you ready to help her navigate being a person of color in a predominately white family? Are you ready to help her accept the conflicting feelings of love, abandonment, guilt, and pride toward her birth family, culture, and you? Are you ready to acknowledge that even well-meaning adoptive parents can make it harder for an adoptee to understand and form her own identity?

French approaches these questions with hostility–and I fear that means he has not really grappled with what adoption means not for him, but for his daughter. Race and identity are not things to overcome.