When Our Daughter Has Racist Encounters

Welcome to the sixth annual acclaimed series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. Designed to give a voice to the many different perspectives of adoption, this series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying experiences.  

By Anne Moody

One thing that can catch interracial adoptive families by surprise is awkward misconceptions by others years later, when the adoption and the drama surrounding it are all but forgotten, and families no longer expect people to remark upon it.

One lovely summer day, for example, Jocelyn — our youngest child, adopted as an infant from Korea — and my husband took the ferry from Bainbridge Island, where we live, into downtown Seattle together. Jocelyn was now twenty-one and they were on their way to the Korean Consulate to get her a passport so that she could spend the summer in Seoul.

It was the summer after her junior year in college, and she had gotten an internship with the city of Seattle engineering department. Incredibly, Seattle was working on a project with a professor at Seoul National University, and immediately upon Jocelyn’s accepting the internship, her boss asked if she would be willing to spend it in Korea.

My fifty-eight-year-old husband — a man with such a kind face that he used to get told he looked like Jesus, and whose appearance once rattled a middle-aged golfer so thoroughly that she gasped at the sight of him and then joked about “meeting my Maker” — was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, typical Northwest garb. Jocelyn, who was planning to meet friends for dinner in Seattle after the appointment, was wearing a bright red summer dress and sandals.

As they boarded the boat, they noticed that a middle-aged woman was glaring at my husband. He turned in confusion to Jocelyn, to see if she noticed, and saw that she was barely managing to stifle a laugh.

My husband realized that the only reason this woman could imagine for a young Asian woman to be with an older Caucasian man was as his consort. She could not envision this lovely young woman as the beloved child that she actually was but instead saw her as the embodiment of exploitation.

Such stares, while not frequent, are certainly disquieting, and this proved not to be an isolated event. There were more such glaring incidents; and one day when Jocelyn and my husband ran into an acquaintance that he had not seen for more than twenty years, the man asked, “Is this your wife?”

When Jocelyn was little, things were wonderfully different. When she rode the ferry with her father, they would both be bathed in the approving attention of strangers. The women who worked on the ferry dubbed themselves her “ferry godmothers” and would gather around to admire whenever she was aboard.

People didn’t treat me that way when I was with her, but something about the father/charming daughter combination drew their affection. My husband used to joke that it was great for his ego to go out alone with her.

So it was a difficult adjustment to find himself an object of scorn –but characteristically, our easygoing Jocelyn thought her father’s discomfort was pretty hilarious. Hopefully, the glaring woman figured out her mistake and learned something about pre-judging; however, in truth, she was statistically more likely to have been right than wrong and, in that light, her disapproval was understandable, even laudable.

Uncomfortable encounters like these are inevitable, and adoptive families need to learn how to deal with them in positive ways. Ideally their responses will serve to inform and educate others.

It would have been great if my husband and daughter could have said or done something (like have her loudly call him Dad) that would have quickly clarified the situation and made everyone feel better. But, one rarely has a great response available just exactly when it’s needed.

During most of Jocelyn’s childhood, people were pretty oblivious to her heritage. A favorite family story is about how her middle-school basketball coach, a Japanese American man who knew our family well, had a serious talk with her about her prospects as a ball player in high school. He concluded that her natural abilities as an athlete would be aided by the anticipated growth spurt “because your dad is pretty tall.” Even after she started laughing, it took him a minute to understand what was so funny.

As with many interracial adoptees, it wasn’t until she left home that Jocelyn started to really be identified primarily as Asian rather than as a member of our family or just as herself.

She went to college in Massachusetts, where Korean adoption is less common than it is in Seattle, and discovered that no one, even upon learning her name, assumed that she was a Korean adoptee with Caucasian American parents. So she spent a fair amount of time educating the people she got to know about foreign adoption. One of her first stories along these lines involved the boyfriend of her first roommate, who recommended a movie to her one day.

“You’ll really like it. It has all kinds of kung-fu fighting and stuff,” he said.

“Well…I may look Asian…”

Things were weirder when she tried out a couple meetings of the Korean Student Association and discovered that she had nothing in common with the people there. In retrospect, this is puzzling, since she had been able to establish a number of good friendships with Korean women during her summer in Korea, but it was nonetheless true, and she felt that her behavior and demeanor seemed boisterous and inappropriate compared to the other female students. (The fact that they were all engineers probably skewed things a bit socially.)

Jocelyn played soccer during her college years and was rewarded for her efforts with Most Valuable Player awards and team captain designation in her junior and senior seasons. She made close friends on that team, and thrived on the competition of intercollegiate soccer.

My husband and I took a five-day vacation to the east coast each fall during Jocelyn’s college years so that we could watch a few of her games. We were able to attend the last game of her junior season, against the team that led her school’s division.

It was senior night for a number of the girls, there was some extra emotion on the field and things seemed a little rougher than normal. Just before the end of the first half, which was scoreless, we were startled to see Jocelyn blatantly elbow an opponent and send her flying. The ball was nowhere near Jocelyn or the other girl, and the referee apparently didn’t see what had happened.

There was some buzz in the stands, though, and we exchanged “What’s up?” glances with the parents around us. A minute later, there was another ruckus on the field and this time the ref ejected one of the seniors, a gentle girl who had played for four years without a single foul. She came off the field in a rage and the whistle blew for half time. The second half of the game was without obvious drama, but clearly something was amiss and, although the other team won, they didn’t seem to be celebrating their victory. Neither team was smiling.

The trouble had apparently started early in the game with a lot of trash talk but the defining moment came when a pretty little blonde snarled “Get off me, you Chink!” at Jocelyn, who reacted with the thrown elbow. She had then told an amazed teammate what had been said and that girl had reacted with anger that quickly spread to the whole team. When I heard all this, I was furious and wanted to confront the girl, but Jocelyn assured me that that would be unwise.

The tension was alleviated by an African American friend of hers, who ran up to Jocelyn as we were leaving the field, “You are so lucky! So lucky! I’ve waited all my life for someone to call me ‘N*****’ so I could take them out!” Jocelyn and the teammates around her laughed heartily, while the parents…well, none of us knew quite how to react, although the tension in the air had immediately lifted, for some reason.

Jocelyn’s coach and the athletic director asked to meet with her the next day, after my husband and I would be on our way back home. Jocelyn called just as we were boarding the plane to tell us that the incident was being taken seriously, that a report was being filed with their athletic conference, and that the other school would be expected to discipline the offending player, who was also a team captain. Jocelyn was surprised—and, ultimately, gratified—at the response.

Eventually, she received a letter of apology from the girl, who was suspended for the rest of the season—a suspension that may have caused her team, which had been favored to win that year’s conference championship, to suffer a season-ending loss in their next game.

I don’t know what sort of long-term effect these punishments had on that girl or on her teammates. I don’t believe for a minute that she hadn’t used racial slurs before, as she claimed in her letter, or that she wouldn’t be using them again.

But I do think that the girl and her teammates, as well as the girls on my daughter’s team and any other soccer players who heard about the incident, would now think twice about using racial slurs in a college game. It also sent a message to anyone on those teams who might have thought that using racial slurs wasn’t a big deal. And the aftermath meant a great deal to Jocelyn.

There were other lessons for her to learn as well. The nicest one was seeing how immediately and thoroughly her teammates, her coach, the athletic director, and various other friends and acquaintances had come to her defense.

It was also nice to learn that those little platitudes the refs say before games about the importance of sportsmanship actually mean something. And it was nice to learn that, this time, bigotry and thoughtlessness were trounced.

But there was also a lesson to be learned that wasn’t so nice, because most of Jocelyn’s life won’t be happening in a well-regulated soccer game. The next time someone says something rude to her, it’s more likely to be on the street or in a bar. Not only won’t there be a ref, but if she throws an elbow, she’ll be the one who ends up in trouble. Her friends will probably (and probably wisely) urge her to calm down and there will be no procedure for airing her grievances.

We did not bring our daughter up to expect racist encounters, nor did we give her any more than the most rudimentary information or advice about how to handle them. As Caucasian parents, we know that we were limited in these areas and our efforts no doubt fell far short of ideal.

We had the good fortune to raise our daughter in a community that valued her Asian heritage but, at the same time, rarely acknowledged it. She had to be the one to assert an interest in identifying herself as Korean, to embrace both the genetic and environmental influences in her life, and to understand that they have been equally important in making her who she is.

One argument against interracial adoption holds that Caucasian parents can’t adequately prepare their minority children for life in a racist society—and I agree that we have a deficit there. We don’t have personal experience or family tradition from which to draw lessons.

In addition to being an adoptive parent, I am an adoption counselor, and when I’m working with a Caucasian family who wants to adopt a child of a different race, they often tell me that they don’t care about race or “don’t see race.” I know that they think they are saying that they are not prejudiced against any other race and that they will love and welcome any child they are fortunate enough to adopt. I don’t doubt at all that they will love their child, but families need to understand that “not seeing” race is not a quality that will make them good adoptive parents for a different race child, or good citizens in a multi-racial society.

It is vital that they not only see their child’s race but that they embrace it and understand that it is an important part of their child’s identity. “Not seeing” race is essentially to dismiss its importance, a stance that may prove relatively comfortable for most of the family while the child is young but will be far less comfortable for the child as he or she interacts with the outside world, a world that does, and should, not only see but appreciate and celebrate racial diversity.

It’s clear that the sort of counseling prospective adoptive parents get about this issue, which is a required part of their preparation for adoption, cannot possibly replace a lifetime of experience as a member of a racial minority, but it can help to make parents more informed and competent in the face of racial insult. Adoptive parents won’t handle things in the way a parent of the same race would, but that doesn’t mean their approach will necessarily be insensitive or ineffective. As is true in so many aspects of life, the fact that something is different doesn’t make it inferior.

By this standard, I’m not sure how we measured up as parents. But Jocelyn did say something that seems both revealing and troubling in this regard. At the beginning of the conference process with the athletic director, while updating us on how it was playing out, she suddenly said, “They picked on the wrong Asian this time—the one with white parents.” There are many layers of meaning to interpret in that statement, but she might also have said “The one with white privilege.”


Anne Moody is an adoptive parent and the director of an adoption agency specializing in in-country infant adoption. Her youngest daughter, Jocelyn, came from Korea in 1987 when she was three-and-a-half months old.

Go HERE to read the complete set of posts in the 2016 series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days!

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Carrie Goldman is an award-winning author, speaker, and bullying prevention educator. Follow Carrie’s blog Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook and Twitter

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