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Chinese like You: White Adoptive Mothers and the Reality of Racial Privilege

By Guest Contributor Sara Erdmann

Cover to “Forever Lily: An Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption in China.”

Despite the fact that international adoption has become commonplace — most recent studies show that over 70,000 Chinese girls were adopted into the United States between 1991 and 2010 — Beth Nonte Russell’s path to motherhood was a nontraditional one. In her 2007 memoir, Forever Lily: an Unexpected Mother’s Journey to Adoption, Russell describes accompanying a friend who intends to adopt on a trip to China.

This book, while almost 7 years old, is continuously recommended across the web for adoptive mothers — it’s pinned on Pinterest and a regular on the book club circuit. In an era obsessed with memoir, it seems only natural that Russell would choose to chronicle her journey as such, particularly considering the major surprise (read: book sales) that characterizes her trip: Russell’s friend changes her mind. Quickly becoming the heroine of her own story, Russell looks down at the little girl she has only just met and begins conceiving a history in which the two of them were meant to be together. Eager to substantiate her sudden role as Lily’s mother, Russell proclaims that “there was a past life connection between [her] and Lily,” and that her “longing brought [Lily] into being.” To suggest that this child living in an orphanage in China exists because Russell willed her into being is problematic to say the least, but Russell goes one step further in her desire to feel permanently and unalterably connected despite her and Lily’s cultural and racial differences.

White adoptive families are regularly challenged by the idea of incorporating their child’s birth culture into their family. Researchers have long questioned whether an adopted child’s birth culture should be ignored, as in cases when families essentially raise their child of color as white, or whether it should be embraced, even to the point of trying to mimic a Chinese upbringing in the United States (think Chinese New Year parties and Mandarin lessons). In Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s, sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant observe that “there is a continuous temptation to think of race as an essence, as something fixed, concrete, and objective. And there is also an opposite temptation: to imagine race as a mere illusion, a purely ideological construct which some ideal non-racist social order would eliminate.” Because Russell sees Lily’s race as an essence, something unalterable, and she needs to feel she was meant to be Lily’s mother, she relies on personal epiphanies and memories that confirm that, in some way, she is also Chinese.

Upon her return to the United States with Lily, Russell talks with her sister who recalls that, during a family trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown years ago, Russell awoke in the middle of the night, waving her arms around and saying something about a baby. Russell’s sister said she was quite scared and that “she was sure [Russell] was speaking Chinese.” From this story, Russell’s sister concludes that she “always knew [Russell] was Chinese.” Russell is immediately validated:

A chill of recognition rippled over me as she spoke those words, and I thought, Yes, I am Chinese. [...] I forget at times that when [the Chinese] look at me, they see someone different, someone separate; and when I remember that, it feels like a betrayal.

Because Russell had a dream after a family trip to Chinatown, and later fell in love with a Chinese baby girl, she is now Chinese. Yet, Lily, who was born in China, is Chinese as well. Lily, who will be raised in the United States and likely know no more of China than any other tourist, will remain Chinese no matter what. It is never considered that Lily will be entirely American, because the idea that someone crosses national borders and loses their “ethnic heritage” is no longer accepted. Yet, what Russell fails to acknowledge is the fact that, if Lily is unalterably Chinese, Russell is unalterably white. To allow herself a flexible ethnicity implies that Lily’s racial essence conflicts with Russell’s racial illusion: in other words, one can add Asianness to whiteness, but not the other way around.

Much as maleness is considered the blank slate of sex, whiteness is essentially a racial blank slate to most Americans. In Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison articulates the problematic tendency to portray whiteness as “‘universal’ or race-free.” Morrison describes a character from a Hemingway novel who we know is white “because nobody says so.” In other words, whiteness is what we assume when given no other information, and anything else is a shift to non-white, or raced. This mentality of white people as “race-free” is pervasive among white Americans and is a large part of the adoptive community’s tendency to see little girls born in China as unalterably Chinese while their adoptive parents’ identities are more flexible. (Of course, this mutable identity is not allowed to Chinese women, who, when they choose to go by American names for professional reasons, sadden Russell. She projects that these women “cannot be who they really are with us; they must alter their identities in an attempt to bridge the cultural gap [...]. It must be a strain to do so.”)

In the recent past, it was acceptable to pretend adopted Chinese daughters were no different from white biological children: colorblindness was the politically correct stance. Only twenty years ago Morrison wrote that “the habit of ignoring race is understood by most to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture.” In other words, to ignore someone’s race was considered an act of benevolence. Today, with a trend toward multiculturalism and a fascination with the exotic, the idea that these young girls cross the border and immediately become “American” is both outdated and unfashionable.

No longer do parents pick up their adopted children at the airport, give them American names, and imagine they have lived here all along; as Toby Alice Volkman observes in Cultures of Transnational Adoption, no longer is “racial assimilation the goal.” When Russell is going through the final stages of bringing her daughter home from China, she describes her discomfort with the name her friend had originally chosen:

It is a quintessentially American name, and would have given no hint or nod to [the baby's] Asian roots. It is a label, an American label that would have been slapped over the MADE IN CHINA label that was Baby herself, in an attempt to obscure the truth.

In Russell’s mind, Lily is Chinese regardless of what her future brings, so much so that Russell imagines a physical label on Lily’s body. Indeed, Russell ends up choosing the name Lily, which apparently hints at her “Asian roots” (despite its Latin origin and immense popularity in English-speaking countries). Anthropologist Barbara Yngvesson acknowledges in Cultures of Transnational Adoption that, while children aren’t free-standing, nor are they necessarily rooted. She counters the pervasive myth that an adopted child “naturally” belongs somewhere, and yet she is simultaneously adamant that there is no such thing as a motherless child. Like Omi and Winant, she sees two extremes that adoptive parents cling to, unable to find the balance that exists in between.

Russell, like many mothers, adopts both extremes: her daughter’s race is permanent, hers is not, and thus they can be joined by her own transition to a Chinese identity. Vincent Cheng’s Inauthentic: The Anxiety over Culture and Identity notes how this fascination with (or fetishization of) Asian culture leads many adoptive parents to dress their daughters “in clothes they had bought in China and decorate her room with artwork from her homeland.” It leads to families who are “not only learning to cook Chinese at home but are learning Mandarin in order to speak Chinese to a little girl who was probably never able to speak it to begin with.”

This enthusiastic adoption of Chinese culture excites many white mothers and provides them with the connection they desire: Volkman cites “one white adoptive mother [who] laughed as she described how a highly educated Chinese American friend sought her advice on books about things Chinese for his young children.” It seems as though this woman considers herself more authentically “Chinese” than her Chinese-American friend. Like Russell, many adoptive parents are determined to provide Chinese culture for their children, even if it means learning to make mooncakes, a Chinese food that most Chinese people never cook themselves (how many Americans make their own bagels?), or replacing family trips to the aquarium with Chinese culture excursions.

While the desire for connection is understandable, this identification leaves Chinese adoptees that much more isolated, simply because their mothers actually appear white and thus benefit from white privilege adoptees can’t access. Whether being teased for what Cultures of Transnational Adoption calls “small noses, flat faces, yellow skin, or short eyelashes,” Chinese children are tempted to seek solace from their parents. Yet, in response to this, one adoptive mother asks, “What can I say to her? I speak with long eyelashes.” This one acknowledgment, it seems, is what Russell never accepts, and what many white adoptive parents so desperately need to hear in their quest for information about parenting children of color.

The desire of an adoptive mother to see herself as her child’s ethnicity in order to better relate to the child is not unique to Russell, nor do I intend to use her as the scapegoat for all white adoptive mothers struggling with the realities of race. Indeed, many more memoirs have been written about adoption, and Russell’s is not the only one to make dubious claims about race, nor the only suspect text that swims around in the adoptive parent circuit.

For Russell to see herself as Chinese, she may be creating what she believes is a closer connection to her daughter, but what it comes down to is that no amount of imagination will rid Russell of her privilege as a white woman. Inevitably left behind in this discussion are girls like Lily, who are never asked whether they prefer Catholicism, Thanksgiving, and Irish step dance to Buddhism, the Chinese New Year, and gymnastics (did I mention Russell also becomes Buddhist?). They are not allowed to grow up as they are, a product of two cultures. As she grows older, Lily may be unaware of the debate surrounding cultural assimilation, but she has the unique perspective of an adopted child whose mother’s identity as a white woman seems to have been replaced by hers.

So book groups beware: insofar as transracial adoptive parents can find answers to what is best for their children, it is not Russell’s voice but the voices of those who are adopted, those who are the subject of this continuous debate, that deserve our undivided attention.

  • Alice

    Ok, admittedly the author of the memoir sounds ridiculous insofar as claiming the Chinese ethnicity for herself, but as a Korean girl adopted by white parents I wish they would have taken me on ‘cultural excursions’ or celebrated a uniquely Korean holiday or even just told me a little about where I came from. It would have meant a lot to me to know that they cared enough to learn. And now, looking Korean but having absolutely no knowledge about the culture where I was born is a huge struggle. I would self-identify as white, except that everyone else identifies me as Asian. So before you write an article universally proclaiming that white parents educating themselves and their children in a foreign culture is inherently offensive, please research or at least admit that your point of view is only your own.

  • http://angryadoptivemom.blogspot.com/ Margie Perscheid

    Excellent. We white adoptive parents can be bat**** crazy sometimes, can’t we?

  • Antonio Reyes

    Great article!

  • moridin

    Very good article. I didn’t know some adopted mother’s insanity went so far.