Every family through transracial adoption has experienced inappropriate comments by onlookers in mundane, public settings like the grocery store, small shops, or like in this video, a restaurant. The nature of transracial adoption makes these families hypervisible, because it is immediately obvious just by looking across the room that not all of the members of this kind of family are not connected biologically. I remember feeling uneasy when I was younger that it seemed like just being with my parents made us a walking advertisement for transracial adoption and welcomed comments or inquiries by strangers.
While I have never been harassed at a restaurant with my parents like this, I have been embarrassed and questioned and told how lucky I am to be adopted. There was that unforgettable dinner where I was mistaken for my father’s girlfriend (read here: I Am Not My Dad’s Girlfriend) and an early morning coffee where an older gentleman told my parents that I “was a keeper,” implying that certain behaviors or qualities would have made me not “a keeper” (read here: “You Got a Keeper“).
I recently watched the above clip from one of last season’s episodes of the show What Would You Do? on the ABC website with intrigue and have several critiques about how this mock situation unfolded.
The scene begins with an actor named Rachel playing the harasser. She immediately notices the adoptive mom and daughter a few tables away. What at first begins as idle curiosity turns insulting as she asks, “so you adopted a black baby on purpose?”
Rachel continues, “Are you one of these white women who are trying to rescue all the black babies?” It’s interesting this comment is given with disdain because many adoptive parents do see adoption as a form of redemption and salvation. Further, many parents who are sponsored by churches use adoption as a method of evangelism, a tool of “saving” children who would otherwise not know God. So Rachel’s question is not based out of nothingness.
In one conversation, Rachel inserts, “I just don’t think you can give her what you need. You’re white; she’s black.” And when conversing with diners who interject, Rachel conveys her worry that “she’s not going to have the same experiences that a Black family would have.” And the truth is, Rachel is absolutely right about this. The first set of onlookers shown in this clip passionately address how inappropriate it is of Rachel to make these kind of comments in a public setting, and especially in from of the adopted child, but the pro-adoption bias of the show What Would You Do? is evident from their inability to realize that there are some experiences that can’t be replicated for a child once you take them out of their first family and even more if the adoptive family is a different race.
The What Would You Do? team then ask if people would have the same reaction if the harasser was a black woman, so they have an actress named Jazelle fill the role. She says many of the same lines as Rachel, prompting the mom to say, “I’m not trying to rescue anyone. I don’t see color in my family.” There have been decades of transracial adoptees telling the world how damaging colorblind ideology has been to the formation of their racial identities, so it is an odd line to have the protagonist actor say for this situation.
Jazelle rebuttals, “You might not see color, but believe me, everybody else does.” And what Jazelle says is true. My parents’ unconditional love for me can’t protect me from those who see me just as an Asian woman to leer at or from a woman walking down the street who tells me to go back to where I belong. Parents who subscribe to colorblind ideology can’t best prepare their children of color for the racism they will experience and provide the tools to effectively address it. Further, I want people to see my tan skin and dark eyes. If people deny my Chineseness when they look at me, they dismiss a large part of who I am and the experiences (both good and bad) that I have based on who I am.
She says, “Look, I’m a Black woman, I understand,” but goes into beyond abhorrent territory when she says, “You’ll never be a real family.” The other diner in this case remarks that she’s a rude Black woman, which is perfectly appropriate in this situation and complains to the manager.
But Jazelle does make some valid points. She mentions Black hair upkeep, which most White folks don’t know how to manage, and she says, “I mean there’s a lot of stuff she’s going to have to deal with. . . I mean honestly, this young child, she’s going to face some discrimination and some situations that her mom is not going to be able to help her prepare for or know how to deal with.” And she asks of the mother, “when that little baby begins to experience discrimination, what is she going to do?” I feel really lucky because I have such open parents who did prepare me early on for racism that I might experience from schoolmates on the playground, but there are some things they didn’t even know about, issues like Asian fetishization or Asian flush, and therefore couldn’t make me aware of how to handle these situations before they happened unlike if I had grown up in a Chinese household surrounded by Chinese American family friends.
Jazelle expresses that “she’s taking away our black children.” This, too, is a completely valid concern as Black youth are disproportionately in the foster care system in the United States. A fellow diner responds to this sentiment, “No, she gave a home to a child for people who couldn’t take care of her.” We don’t know if this girl is supposed to be adopted domestically or internationally, but this overly rosy line negates that many Black children adopted internationally do have family in Uganda and Ethiopia (African adoption hotspots) who are still alive and were raising these children.
I do agree with the diner who says, “that child has a mom who loves her. It’s none of your business.” and the points made by the last man in the clip, an adoptive father, who jumps into the conversation. What I find problematic about this clip from What Would You Do? is having the harasser raise perfectly legitimate questions alongside downright offensive comments. By raising questions similar to, “how will you handle racism with your daughter,” “have you considered the losses and cultural components you won’t be able to give to a Black daughter, and how do you plan to compensate for that,” or “can you stylize black hair?” paired with the rude commentary presents these questions as illegitimate, too, and part of the problem. Though the setting and tone of questioning is extremely inappropriate in a restaurant like this and in front of the child, these questions have merit and, in fact, should be asked of adoptive parents before they adopt transnationally and again during post-adoption service workshops for parents.
What Would You Do? is a feel good show that touts a progressive attitude and shows viewers good samaritan situations of others stepping in for the benefit of strangers. But because of the lack of understanding about important issues within the adoption community, it is clear that no transracial adoptees were consulted in the filming and idea formation of this episode. Presenting these difficult, but honest questions as offensive, What Would You Do? really missed the mark with this episode.