The “Cultural Family”

The “Cultural Family”


Transmitting Race and Culture in Transracial Adoption

In his book The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, Hawley Fogg-Davis explores the way that transracial adoption inevitably requires adoptees to personalize their racial identity. Transracial adoption describes the process of adopting a child whose race is different from that of their adoptive families. Because society links “race” with genetic, familial, and cultural ties, however, Fogg-Davis is arguing that transracial adoptees inevitably experience racial identity in a way that biological families do not have to contend with so directly. The recent Netflix documentary Found is a case study of this phenomenon; Found follows three transracially adopted teenage girls of Chinese birth, who, upon taking a DNA test, learn that they are cousins. All three girls were adopted from infancy and raised by white parents, and throughout the documentary, they discuss how this family structure affects their identity. Eventually, the three girls and their parents take a trip to China with the guidance of a genealogist who also tries to find the girls’ birth parents. Similarly, I had the opportunity to interview my friend Tiana Urey, who was transracially adopted from Vietnam by white parents. Just like the girls from Found, Tiana’s understanding of her identity illuminates a tenuous connection between culture and race as they manifest societally and individually. Transracial family structures ultimately require flexible racial and cultural identities that critique, and even nullify, the bond between race and culture in a globalized world.

Understanding the bond between race, culture, and family requires an assessment of “family” definitions in general. Typically, society associates “family” with a blood relation. As a result, adoptees and their families, regardless of cultural differences, grapple with this societal meaning of “family” differently than biological families. On the one hand, their unions show that people value family members for more than mere genetic similarity—personality, connection, and mutual support are likewise important in relationships. At the same time, many adoptive families still report feeling “stigmatized by, less than, and distinct from biological families.” 1 These worries of illegitimacy are likely connected to societal assumptions that a family is, by definition, biologically connected. Kristina M. Scharp, in her qualitative study, “Making Meaning of Domestic Adoption Reunion in Online Narratives,” explores these feelings of legitimacy and the biological gap between adopted children and their parents through the lens of the adopted children’s desire to reconnect with their birth families. Desire to reconnect varies, but for those hoping to meet their birth parents, “searching for genealogical ties” is the main motivation.2 This implies that shared genealogy “ties” one person to the other somehow, despite their relationship to their adoptive family. Perhaps this therefore eases feelings of illegitimacy.

In the case of transcultural adoptees, starker physical differences emphasize the lack of genetic ties between members of adoptive families, in what Hawley Fogg-Davis pinpoints as both “a racial and genetic ‘gap.’”3 If adoptive families in general feel stigmatized or “less than” biological families due to the genetic gap alone, racial difference no doubt exaggerates those feelings. In America, most parents looking to adopt are white, while most children in need of adoption, both in the U.S. and internationally, are not.4 Adoptive families, however, often reside in majority white areas. This was the case for Tiana, who spent her early years in a homogenous white area of Massachusetts. Despite being a child, she recalled always knowing that she looked different from both her family and the people in the community, but simultaneously, she was always confused about what this meant. She recalled feeling like she was “just an ugly white person.”5 This is in line with Fogg-Davis’ observation that balancing racial identity “is more likely to be triggered when an individual confronts a descriptive gap between her own racial classification and that of her immediate social setting: the family.”6 Tiana knew that in some way, she was distinct from her family. Sociology professor Pamela Anne Quiroz examines this further in her research article “Cultural Tourism in Transracial Adoption.” For her study, Quiroz discusses a set of online adoption forums from 2006-2008 that transcultural families used to share questions, information, and experiences. One of Quiroz’s many observations reveals that white parents rarely reported altering their location or social surroundings in response to their child’s “otherness.”7 Thus, both in their families and in larger communities, transcultural adoptees contend with racial identity in a way that same-race adoptees do not. While same-race adoptees may likewise notice a difference in appearance between themselves and their family, racial phenotypes, in Tiana’s case, were drastic enough to be incompatible with whiteness at all.

This racial gap between the adoptee and their mostly homogenous surroundings often starts the lifelong process of racial navigation, a term that Hawley Fogg-Davis uses throughout The Ethics of Transracial Adoption. He defines “racial navigation” as “creating flexible racial self-understandings in a lifelong process of self-reflection and -revision.”8 Because race is such a pinnacle of identity—as “visible” (sometimes) through the body and as legally defined through history—“racial navigation” implies that we cannot forego the realities of physical appearance. Tiana also described her race as both “a phenotypical thing” and “a political designation”—its phenotypical weight has repercussions in society, as seen through historical and present racism.9 Though “passing” as another race could be considered an exception, the foundation of racial designation and the colorized way we talk about it certainly point to a level of “knowing” who someone is based on looks (i.e. “black” for Afro groups, “white” for Europeans, “red men” to describe Native Americans). Phenotypical difference becomes a classification that further prompts the need for racial navigation to avoid feeling like “just an ugly white person.” “Whether prospective adopters are likely to facilitate racial navigation,” Fogg-Davis writes, “should be part of determining the best interests of a particular child.”10 This includes where one’s family decides to live, since transcultural adoptees undoubtedly notice their visible differences in the similitude of a homogenous community. Adoptive parents are therefore part of racial navigation, even if they have not contended with their whiteness before.

Another aspect of the racial and genetic gap is the implications it has on genealogical thinking and the imagined “ties” of ancestry. In Found, there is a scene where Sadie’s mother flips through a photo album of family ancestors from Ireland, and Sadie says she does not feel connected to them because “they have no ties to me.”11 “Ties” are not always biological, as her adoptive parents are not biologically tied to her either. For dead ancestors, however, “ties” cannot be formed through the same interpersonal relationship as living adoptive families. For genetically linked families, biology has become the tie to people otherwise unknown to us. There is the sense that those ancestors helped create us, however distant they may be. This is not the case for adoptees, as the people who created them are not the ones raising them. One adoptee in Scharp’s study describes feeling as though they were “plopped down on Earth one day” or “hatched out of an egg or brewed in a test tube.”12 If we societally think of family as the vessel through which we are able to experience life itself, then it makes sense why their existence feels somewhat random and untethered. Perhaps genealogy allows us to feel connected to and a product of the world at large.

Though same-race adoptees similarly have no genetic or interpersonal “ties” to their adoptive family’s ancestry, this maps onto transracial adoptees differently. In what Fogg-Davis calls “involuntary racial association,” there is an undeniable racial identity that everyone, adopted or otherwise, receives from their birth family.13 Fogg-Davis is clear that racial identity goes beyond phenotype; it is also a social fixture, conflated with culture and racism. Therefore, genetic links carry with them an assumed aspect of social identity that individuals inherit, but do not choose. Sadie, for instance, says that many of her friends call her “a banana” (Asian on the outside but white on the inside).14 This implies that Sadie breaks the societal racial associations of Asian-ness and instead breaches into societal whiteness. Being Asian must have a preconceived set of associations that Sadie does not match, which both nullifies the connection between race and culture, and confirms it. Simultaneously, genealogically speaking, Fogg-Davis identifies “the presumption of intergenerational racial continuity”—that the child has not only inherited race from the birth parents, but also from the generations of people before that.15 In Sadie’s case, her Asian identity cannot come from her mother or her mother’s ancestors, even if she culturally aligns with their whiteness. Thus, the difference in race between adoptive ancestors and the adoptee makes race a starker difference— while the racial discontinuity of transracial adoption does not necessarily disconnect adoptees from their parents, it understandably disconnects them from dead ancestors. It further creates tension between one’s family, one’s culture, and one’s inherited features.

By comparison, Tiana recounted that her grandmother once told her that because France colonized Vietnam, she hoped Tiana had a bit of French ancestry in her DNA.16 The grandmother herself is not French; her whiteness is comprised of other European nationalities (according to a 23andMe DNA test the family took). Her statement, then, suggests that her grandmother believes in a union of whiteness. At the time of the interview, however, Tiana stated how off-putting such a comment is and wondered if French ancestry in her DNA may imply rape, given the realities of colonialism. Though not necessarily the intention of the grandmother, colonialism, which is an inherently racialized phenomenon, becomes an important, desired staple in the grandmother’s genealogical imagination to provide an “intergenerational racial continuity.” Just as ethnic groups consider themselves “a people” with an origin, Tiana’s grandmother seems to imagine that the distant presence of whiteness would connect them as “a people,” though distantly.

From Tiana’s perspective, though, the discontinuous experience of transracial adoption was emotionally taxing in a way she does not think her white adoptive family can ever understand. She was virtually mute until the age of five. She was likewise reluctant at the idea of public school and asked that her mother teach her instead, leading to her homeschooling for years afterward. These anxieties in her pre-schooling years occurred around the same time that her parents told her that her birth mother passed away when Tiana was born. Tiana herself does not remember, but her parents have mentioned that she would often cry and mourn her birth mother, symbolizing once again the significance of genealogical connections. This was also around the time that her parents tried putting her in “Viet School”—a type of “culture camp” —aimed at immigrant kids and adoptees who wanted to connect with Vietnamese culture.17 She remembers the children speaking Vietnamese, which she, of course, did not know.18

In this period of her life, she felt both hatred toward being Vietnamese and constant sadness and anxiety for a reason that she was unable to understand at the time. During the interview, she referred to the term “racial melancholia.” It is a term from David Eng’s and Shinhee Han’s Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation, which examines the racial experience of Asian Americans through the psychoanalytic lens. The Freudian term “melancholia” describes an “unresolved grief” or “mourning without end.”19 This does not mean that every minority has depression; instead, the authors believe that the term is an accurate framework to describe the experience of racialized people, who constantly battle the pressures of assimilation and racism. As opposed to biological families of marginalized groups, when one is transracially adopted (into a white family in America, specifically), that battle is not shared with the parents. In a community and wider culture that prioritizes eurocentrism, Tiana felt like “just an ugly white person” in a way her parents cannot have ever experienced. 

As a result, many accounts feature situations where adoptees form “cultural families” with people of the same race who understand an aspect of their identity that their adoptive families cannot. As a kid, Tiana knew a half-white and half-Cambodian girl whose Cambodian mother quickly connected to Tiana. (For lack of spelling accuracy, the mother is simply “B”). Because B recognized Tiana as a fellow Southeast Asian, she and Tiana would cook cultural meals together. B would even say Tiana was “more her daughter” than B’s own “wasian” daughter (which is admittedly problematic). The familial connection came not through genetics, but through race. Tiana even remembered liking “the idea of meeting an adult Asian woman,” as if B was a “cultural mother.”20 Likewise, when the girls in Found travel to China, they meet the nannies who cared for them in the orphanages. It is emotional for each of the girls; in one scene, Chloe starts crying, and her nanny hugs her before Chloe’s mother does.21 Toward the end, Chloe describes the bond she has with her newfound cousins as “unconditional” because they know how the other feels in these situations. In all of these moments, there is a connection that bifurcates one’s life between the adoptive family and the cultural family. Sadie even remarks that “it feels like a whole ‘nother past life.”22 The cultural family represents the shadow of what the adoptee’s life would have been.

Some discourse around the ethics of transracial adoption argues that cultural families should be the only families to adopt children of their race because transracial adoption (specifically by white parents) arises out of racial power dynamics. For example, Tiana recently learned that anyone born post-Vietnam War may still carry the effects of Agent Orange, a toxic herbicide mixture that the United States sprayed over Vietnam during the war, causing severe birth defects. Though one cannot say for sure that U.S. intervention alone caused orphaned children, Agent Orange symbolizes the ways that America and the destruction of war are implicated in many of the instabilities that increase the pool of abandoned children: “We [adoptees] are here [America] because you were there,” as Tiana said.23 Even in the present, years after various instances, the repercussions of racial histories are still present and relevant. In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) even deemed transracial adoption “a blatant form of racial and cultural genocide.”24 In Saving International Adoption, even though author Mark Montgomery defends transracial adoption as a transracial adoptive parent himself, he acknowledges that America’s transracial adoption has been a manifestation of systemic inequality. The disproportionate effects of crack cocaine in black communities, for instance, increased the number of black children in the foster system.25 Rather than addressing the structural issues that contributed to the crack epidemic, the solution was to remove children from the home. Racial politics parallels transracial adoption as an invocation of white savior mentality.

Thus, the importance of the cultural family is framed through a sense that support against discrimination is unteachable in white families. “Only a black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perception and reaction essential for a black child’s survival in a racist society.”26 While white families may be anti-racist and support their children, the NABSW still argued that these actions “are worse than useless because they make the transracially adopted child feel different within the family.”27 This opinion makes attempts by adopted families to accommodate their child’s “birth culture” seem understandably odd. Some parents report buying cultural decorations, eating cultural foods, and practicing cultural celebrations, in what is called “culture keeping.”28 They hope this instills cultural pride and connection in their adopted children, but Quiroz discusses these attempts are merely “staged authenticity” that leave adoptees on the fence between two cultures: different from their family, but inauthentic to their “birth culture.” This is similar to Tiana’s experience in “Viet School” versus her experience with B, the Cambodian woman. While she enjoyed cooking cultural foods through the tutelage of a fellow Southeast Asian, her parents’ decision to enroll her in “Viet School” was an isolating reminder of a language she could not speak and by extension, a culture she had no innate access to. The racial gap between one’s adoptive family and the adoptee is an issue that the NABSW deemed unsalvageable, with the only appropriate response being no transracial adoption at all. 

Perhaps this prompts us to ask what transracial adoption would look like outside of discrimination and racial politics. Fogg-Davis argues that “racism does not capture the full meaning that racial categories hold for individuals.”29 This suggests that discrimination is not the only bond between adoptees and their cultural families and further suggests that racial designations have positive value. For instance, Tiana’s frustration with Agent Orange fostered an investment in Vietnamese literature, culture, and conversation overall. She changed her English thesis at the last minute, from medieval literature to Vietnamese literature.30 Chloe, a girl from the documentary, states that in her childhood, her family dynamic was “a bubble” where she had not thought about being one of few Asians in her community.31 As she grew older, however, that bubble metaphorically “popped,” and she “wanted to find more people [she] could relate to and that look like [her].”32 She asked her parents to enroll her in a high school with Mandarin courses. Awareness of the racialized world around her fostered her desire for representation, and further, cultural markers of her Chinese ethnicity. Discrimination and race politics may not be the only aspects of their race, but even the statement from the NABSW shows that the melancholia of racialization is a primary bond in the cultural family.

Societies certainly have culture outside of discrimination, but once again, to what degree can transracial adoptees authentically absorb that culture, especially when it is not shared through their family? When the girls in Found travel to China, there is a montage where they wear Chinese cultural clothing, visit monuments, bow before statues, and eat cultural foods.33 Technically, they are learning and experiencing Chinese culture at the same time as their white families are. Sadie’s comment that “it feels like a whole ‘nother past life” is more complicated in this context. Perhaps there is the shadow of connection based solely on the fact that her life sat at a fork in the road—had her parents chosen the baby beside her, Sadie’s life would have been very different. At the same time, “cultural tourism,” as termed by Quiroz, may only reinforce the tie between race (exaggerated by phenotype) and some form of endemic culture. Genealogically speaking, this roots the kids’ “roots” in another country, all the time.

 This issue further points to the conundrum of globalized, diverse societies. For homogenous societies, the link between ethnicity and culture is bound by the family and communities around them. This again invokes Fogg-Davis’ term “intergenerational racial continuity,” which can perhaps be applied to location and culture as well, since family and community interact in a specific location: “inter-locational cultural continuity.” Thus, race and culture become connected to one’s location and surrounding peoples. Many nations are still largely homogenous and thus may preserve a stronger bond between location, culture, and race/ethnicity. Diverse, globalized societies, however, constantly disrupt these links and force us to interrogate delineations between race, ethnicity, nationality, and culture. This is clear from the fact that each girl in Found was undeniably born in China, but still does not inherit a fundamental “Chinese-ness” or “Asian-ness” defined through language, certain foods, cultural clothing, or religion. Thus, their Asian “race” cannot be defined through the cultural elements (such as said languages, foods, religions, etc.) that someone living in China may attach to being fundamentally “Chinese.”

Encouraging a fundamental aspect of biologically inherited culture would require the transracial adoptee to be comfortable with the dissonance between their adoptive family’s practicing culture and the adoptee’s practicing culture. Even this, however, is contingent upon the adoptee identifying with a culture separate from their family in the first place—so often, we develop who we are through family, regardless of the possibility of a cultural family. Even though Tiana cooked Southeast Asian foods with B, she was not eating those same foods on a regular basis at home. When adopted parents teach one child something separate from the others, this may only intensify a fundamental sense of difference and lack of belonging.

This is what Bryan Post, a family therapist and transracial adoptee himself, suggests in his interview in In Their Voices. In his hypothetical situation, if parents of adopted children notice behavioral issues, discussing race should not be the target of fixation. Though important, he argues that “the child is rejected at a core level. The child does not feel accepted in the core unit of the family. And so when the child does not feel accepted at the core unit of the family, it doesn’t matter how many black churches you take him to. It doesn’t matter how many black friends he has. He does not feel accepted.”34 According to Post, phenotypic differences do not necessarily guarantee feelings of outsidership, but rather that phenotypical difference may form into a fundamental difference from the rest of one’s family. Again, this is intensified if the racially different child is also culturally different.

Conclusively, the culmination of these arguments means, at the very least, that diverse communities are central to racial navigation. Post argues that having black friends and black churches does not matter in the overall conception of family belonging, but this is likely linked to the stark binarism that Tiana experienced in “Viet School.” Experiencing either her white home life or an intensely Vietnamese cultural space (or in Post’s example, a black church) was jarring rather than constructive. When adopting from birth, the child has no conception of their “birth culture,” yet these instances of cultural keeping indicates that culture is biological, and can be stamped on, “bought at a store, or learned in a book instead of nurtured by a community,” as Quiroz writes. Rather than living in homogenously white environments but immersing their child in their “birth culture,” transracial adoptive parents may better foster healthy racial navigation through racially diverse areas. This allows children to see representations of themselves and navigate their racial understanding in a more flexible way. 

Avoiding transracial adoption completely is not a helpful solution for the many children who still need homes and the disproportionate number of white parents in America looking to adopt. In the present world, a transracial adoptee’s experience is inevitably complex, as they break both the genetic continuity and the racial continuity in our definitions of family. Perhaps it is best that adoptees are not immersed into one culture or another, as this bifurcates the body. For Tiana, “dissociating from the body” through race seems like a mistake—she does not think it healthy to deny her race, which she defined as Asian.35 The body is part of the self and often, our internal identities are shaped by outside perceptions. Tiana described the body as “text” that is inevitably read by society.36 Rather than viewing her body’s text reluctantly, she tries to make room to accept how her physical appearance ties into how she is seen and the current racial politics. Her authentic racialized experience fueled a genuine interest in Vietnam, rather than the constructed Vietnamese identity of “Viet School.” Tiana said that being adopted means that one must “interrogate racial categories for your own survival,”37 but her experience also means that many times, because of globalization, race lacks cultural bonds in all of us. In other words, our racialized traits are with us from birth, but they do not implicitly determine who we are or what culture we absorb in our lived experiences. Even though transracial adoptees seem to experience this multiculturalism at a more drastic level, they are only a microcosm for the ways that rigid associations of “race” are illegitimate when confronted by mulicultural life.

  1. Kristina M. Scharp, “Making Meaning of Domestic Adoption Reunion in Online Narratives: A Dialogic Perspective,” Qualitative Communication Research, vol. 2, no. 3 (2013): 303.
  2. Scharp, “Making Meaning,” 302.
  3. Hawley Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption (Cornell University Press, 2018), 5, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  4. Abby Bundiman and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Amid Decline in International Adoptions to U.S., Boys Outnumber Girls for the First Time,” Pew Research Center; Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 4.
  5. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  6. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 17.
  7. Pamela Anne Quiroz, “Cultural Tourism in Transnational Adoption: ‘Staged Authenticity’ and Its Implications for Adopted Children,” Journal of Family Issues, vol. 33, no. 4 (2012): 546, SAGE Journals.
  8. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 2.
  9. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  10. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 13.
  11. Found, directed by Amanda Lipitz, Kindred Spirit, 2021, 09:35.
  12. Scharp, “Making Meaning,” 312.
  13. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 97.
  14. Found, Lipitz, 11:00.
  15. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 98.
  16. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  17. Quiroz, “Cultural Tourism in Transnational Adoption,” 530.
  18. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  19. David L. Eng and Shinhee Han. Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation: On the Social and Psychic Lives of Asian Americans (Duke University Press, 2019), 35-6, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  20. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  21. Found, Lipitz, 1:14:50.
  22. Found, Lipitz, 1:08:40.
  23. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  24. Powell, Irene and Mark Montgomery. Saving International Adoption: An Argument from Economics and Personal Experience. Vanderbilt University Press: 2018, 83. Project MUSE.
  25. Montgomery, Saving International Adoption: An Argument from Economics and Personal Experience, 86-87.
  26. Montgomery, Saving International Adoption: An Argument from Economics and Personal Experience, 84.
  27. Montgomery, Saving International Adoption: An Argument from Economics and Personal Experience, 84.
  28. Quiroz, “Cultural Tourism in Transnational Adoption,” 528.
  29. Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption, 95.
  30. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  31. Found, Lipitz, 13:50.
  32. Found, Lipitz, 13:40.
  33. Found, Lipitz, 1:03:00.
  34. Rhonda Roorda. In Their Voices: Black Americans on Transracial Adoption (Columbia University Press, 2015), 236, ProQuest Ebook Central.
  35. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  36. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
  37. Tiana Urey, in discussion with author, New York, New York, December 16, 2022.
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