Transracial Adoption and Growing Up White

By Holt’s vice president of policy and external affairs, Susan Soonkeum-Cox.

The recent NPR report, “Growing up White—Transracial Adoptee Learned to be Black” is an illuminating story of the complexities and challenges of transracial adoption.  This is certainly not a new topic, or an easy one, but it is a critical reminder for everyone involved in transracial, domestic or international adoption, not to minimize the importance of race and identity as a life-long part of the adoption journey.

When Holt first placed children from Korea with adoptive families in the U.S. in the 1950’s, it was during the era of physically matching children and parents.  This ‘matching’ made it possible for the adoption to be secret, hidden, as if the child was physically born to their adoptive parents.  Adoption of Korean children into white families split wide open the notion of secrecy. It was impossible for adoptive parents to pretend that their Korean children were born to them.

The wisdom of the day was for parents to ‘Americanize’ their child as quickly as possible.  “Fitting in” was given priority over understanding or maintaining connection to race, culture and nationality.

That was nearly sixty years ago.  It took only one generation of adoptees becoming adults to understand clearly that acknowledging and embracing differences was equally important as ‘fitting in.’

I love that Chad Goller-Sojourner was aware that his parents were ‘in his corner.’ But for children struggling to learn and understand their place in the world regarding race and identity, they need more than just parents in their corner.  Chad expresses this with great insights from having struggled through on his own.

I appreciate Chad’s courage and grace sharing his experience to inform and educate others.  It is the individual and collective voices of those who live the experience that will help individuals, organizations and institutions evolve with the ever-changing times.

Thanks to the pioneering work of individuals like David Kim, who, as a Korean, wanted children adopted from Korea to know and embrace their cultural identity and history, Holt has a long history of commitment to the importance of these issues.  But these issues are also fluid in the challenging and dynamic times we live in.  We can never be content or complacent that we are doing enough.

Holt offers a number of programs and services to  encourage positive conversations and experiences related to race and culture.  Prospective adoptive parents are required to participate in classes to understand the importance of race, heritage and culture for the child who will become their son or daughter.

Holt pioneered heritage tours to Korea in the early 1970’s and Culture Camps for adoptees, and these tours  have evolved and expanded over the years to be current and relevant for adoptees and their families. You can read more about these programs here, here and here.

However, just offering services isn’t enough. The conversation about race, culture and identity must be ongoing. Thank you NPR for bringing individuals like Chad Goller-Sojourner to us. His story will resonate with other transracial adoptees who will be strengthened knowing they are not alone.

6 Replies to “Transracial Adoption and Growing Up White”

  1. Thank you, Susan, for speaking about this. Terrific share. We share this story, through our Holt Adoption.

  2. Holt International has led the way with transracial adoptions that encourage and support us adoptive parents in keeping our adopted children connected to their birth country and culture. The Korean Heritage Tour our entire family participated in 1986, and the culture camps our Korean son attended in subsequent years were invaluable in this process. A sincere “Thank You” to Holt International.

  3. We adopted our Nathan from Korea in 1978. He was almost 1 and so adorable. He had his bro and sisters wrapped around his finger in no time. Then in Kindergarten/first grade I noticed that he didn’t want me in school with him stating it very frankly ‘you can go home now, mom’. We had encouraged him in learning about his heritage but he didn’t pay that much attention to it. I think perhaps adopting another child would have helped but in the process of going thru a local Agency working in Taiwan, we found out that our 17 yr old was pregnant. After the shock we prepared to welcome our first grandchild. Adoption was put on hold and we took in 2 Vietnamese teen boys. Grandchild was born and Nathan loved her….still does as well as her 3 siblings which came along after marriage to the dad. In the meantime costs went up for adoption. I’m not sure but maybe Nate got lost in the shuffle. We certainly paid attention to him but he started not wanting us to. after H.S. Graduation he tried college but it wasn’t for him. School has always been hard. He moved out for awhile but then moved back in to take care of the house while we went to take care of our older daughter and family in a nearby state during cancer treatment . He and other siblings would come to visit and he arranged our last Thanksgiving together. Her death crushed him. There were other things going on too thruout those years….things very emotionally upsetting for me. He also had a serious accident with head injuries. I don’t know if that has caused his negative attitude toward us or the fact that he still lives at home at almost 37. He also has had testicular cancer which may mean no kids for him. That really saddens me. He has a good job & friends. He enjoyed taking his nieces especially out to movies and dinner. One now has a brand new baby boy. Is he feeling pushed away? He gets along well with everyone but us, it seems. Is it due to heritage or him feeling trapped at home due to medical bills, and a new car, perhaps. We never make him feel unwelcome because he isn’t, but he prefers to stay in his room mostly. He doesn’t eat nor enjoy T.V with us and we usually get a look or a grunt when we say hi. We never hear anything about his personal life….is there a girlfriend? What does he do with friends besides snowboarding?we often feel like we are walking on eggshells around him. I think he tries to make up for it by getting really nice Chr gifts for h’s, like the IPAD I’m using and seemed to enjoy showing us how to use it. I’d much prefer a hug or conversations tho. We love him so much. He’s tall and keeps himself fit.
    Our oldest Viet boy is married with 4 grown kids but we hardly ever see him. He suffers from depression but has a good job, tho not a good marriage. It’s difficult for him. Our other one is in Texas and calls a lot…not married but sure wants to be.
    Did we make a mistake in not adopting again right away?….a child close to Nate’s age? What did we do wrong? He used to work at a nearby ACE hardware and everyone told us he was great so he’s a good person. We know very little about his factory job but he’s been there a long time.
    I just needed to tell someone about this. Adopted thru Holt was my dream since first seeing the story of Harry Holt on T.V. As a teen And we don’t regret it a bit but maybe he thinks we do. Talk to him? That’s like pulling teeth.
    Thanks for reading this. Mary Ann Chase

  4. I so appreciate the insight and impact that the one generation had to include the rich heritage of being adopted from Korea – or including opportunities to learn about Korea as a homeland and its rich culture.
    I am an adoptee who took advantage of the Motherland Tours Holt offers to Korean adoptees. I can only say it was an amazing journey for one who accepted both the challenges of growing up in a very small white community and having attended a handful of Korean picnics in Iowa.
    It cultivated an opportunity to experience first-hand my culture and meld the differences I had in being “different.” I have gone back now several times and each time I feel at home. At peace.
    I think questions every adoptee from a different country/ethnicity can gain is illumination as to “who am I,” “what does it mean to be Korean,” “who are my parent’s,” “why was I given up.” It may not mean specific answers but it does provide a deep sense of self-worth and can cultivate gratitude.
    I appreciate the efforts Holt does now to support “the importance of race and identity as a life-long part of the adoption journey.”

  5. How I wish our son could’ve gone on a trip to Korea. I wish I knew if he cared. He knows that he was left at the Holt reception center and that there’s no known info about his bio parents. Still, I want him to see his birth country. Perhaps he doesn’t want to since he’s American thru and thru. His first word was Pizza and he practically lives on it. He hates veggies except salad. I wanted him to try Kimchi but no way. Oh, the wonderful memories of when he was little. I wish he would talk about memories to us. Maybe he does with his siblings or their kids. Their closeness warms my heart.
    When we took a train trip for our 50th anniversary , he arranged the dinner before we left. On the train we met a Japanese lady who had lived in Korea. She told us that a radio station would try to find birth parents for adoptees. I have the web site but for some reason I’m afraid to get in touch with them. Nate has all his papers so I don’t have the info. M.A.

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