October 23, 2021

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Transracial Adoptees Are Tired of TV

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Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

The Cut

A weekly audio magazine exploring culture, style, sex, politics, and more.

On this episode of The Cut, producer Schuyler Swenson discusses her lifelong struggle to find characters she can truly relate to on TV. As a Korean American raised by white parents, Schuyler recounts her frustration with the way television often depicts adoptions like hers, as in her favorite new reality series, Bling Empire. She talks to adoption advocate Angela Tucker, who provided consultation in the This Is Us writers’ room for Randall, a Black adopted character in a white family in the series. Later, writer Rebecca Carroll, whose memoir Surviving the White Gaze is being adapted into a miniseries, discusses how she will better represent her upbringing onscreen.

To hear more about how some of your favorite shows might have gotten adoption wrong, listen below and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen. You can also read the full transcript below.

PARKER: You know when you’re watching TV, and you’re trying to turn your brain off for a bit, and something just gets to you. A story line that pisses you off. A commercial that reminds you to call your mom. The News. And then you just can’t relax anymore. Cut producer Schuyler Swenson keeps having that problem. Here’s Schuyler.

SCHUYLER SWENSON: Whenever I need a little distraction from reality, I watch reality TV. I like shows that let me turn my brain completely off —everything from Survivor reruns to low-stakes British pastry competitions. But there was one show I watched this year that caught me completely off guard and threw me into a low-grade identity crisis.

KEVIN KRIEDER: The first person I met in L.A. was Kane … then I met Kane’s friends and I’m just like … Oh my God. This is real.

Bling Empire clip

SCHUYLER: Bling Empire — it’s the reality-TV version of Crazy Rich Asians. The show follows a group of L.A.-based Asian and Asian American friends who are all wildly wealthy.

“If dynasties were still in existence in China my husband’s father would be an emperor and he would be next in line.”

—Bling Empire clip

SCHUYLER: But it actually wasn’t the grotesque opulence or cringe rich-people antics onscreen that threw me into a state of mental anguish. It was the show’s central character, Kevin Kreider.

KEVIN KRIEDER: This is my first Chinese New Year Party … and I’m just blown away.

—Bling Empire clip

SCHUYLER: Kevin is the outsider on the show. He’s a professional model new to L.A. and is clearly not as crazy-rich as his friends.

KEVIN KRIEDER: That’s the most expensive bowl of soup ever! No, I’m not buying that.

—Bling Empire clip

SCHUYLER: What a win for Asian America. A hot Asian guy with sex appeal who can’t do basic math? On a popular Netflix series? How refreshing. But it was Kevin’s personal background that I found, to use the parlance of our times, triggering AF.

KEVIN KRIEDER: Firstly, I was born in Korea, and I was adopted into a white family.

—Bling Empire clip

SCHUYLER: This was the record scratch moment, just as I was about to blissfully binge-watch a show about terrible rich people, along comes this all too familiar plot point. He’s adopted.

Okay, this is the part where I explain that despite my extremely white guy name, Schuyler Marion Swenson, I am, in fact, Asian. Just like Kevin, I was born in South Korea in the ’80s and was adopted by loving white parents in the U.S.

AMY GINTHER: So, here’s the thing about narratives about adopted people or adopted characters in media: it always feels like a sneak attack.

SCHUYLER: This is my bestie Amy Ginther. She’s also a KAD — that’s
K-A-D, our shorthand for Korean adoptee.

AMY: I’m watching a show and things are happening and there’s a character. Then suddenly it’s a plot point. And I was like, I didn’t sign up for this. I just want to sit and watch and enjoy the show. And now I’m in my feels.

SCHUYLER: Amy’s the one who first told me about Bling Empire while simultaneously adding me to the group chat, Bling Empire Support Group.

AMY: We all felt that we needed some space to process what was happening on the show with people who shared those identities, because I could talk about it with other folks, even people of color, but if they weren’t adopted, it wasn’t the same.

SCHUYLER: Here’s the deal with Kevin as a transracially adopted character on a TV show: it’s not that he’s the best or the worst — the thing that was so triggering for me was just, this is how it always goes.

KEVIN KRIEDER:  Like my whole life I never wanted to look for my birth parents, but now, I’m starting to care because I do think that might be a missing piece in my life.

—Bling Empire clip

AMY: I think in the scenes where that was becoming a thing of him searching, I really rolled my eyes and was like, Of course, that’s the hero’s journey, is the search to find the family. 

SCHUYLER: Real adopted heads know the all too familiar cliché of birth-family search and reunion. Kevin didn’t really strike me as the type of guy who’d done the work to emotionally prepare for that experience. Later in the series, there’s a super-hard-to-watch scene where he visits a hypnotherapist to try and unpack his own adoption trauma.

THERAPIST: You may begin. Seventeen. Sixteen.

—Bling Empire clip

AMY: I have also done hypnotherapy to look at stuff in my adoption. That was something specifically that I was like, Okay, all right. That is a thing, but then you get concerned as you watch it, because you’re like, Oh, are people just going to make fun of this because hypnotherapy is, especially in the context of that show, it looks like a silly person doing a silly thing?

SCHUYLER: Being a KAD is complicated. We’re constantly balancing conflicting emotions about our racial and cultural identity, not to mention family histories. That struggle is actually kinda beautiful, but what Amy and I see over and over again are TV shows and movies getting it wrong.

Watching Kevin’s story unfold was the experience of feeling hypervisible all the sudden but in a way that doesn’t actually make me feel seen. Like, finally there’s someone who’s story reflects mine … but not. It’s the same feeling I get every time adoption comes up in pop culture. Like, in Little Fires Everywhere:

“She may look Chinese but she’s our daughter. “

SCHUYLER: Modern Family:

“Hi, Lilly! “Lilly”? Isn’t that gonna be hard for her to say?”

SCHUYLER: Yikes! The whole docuseries about Woody Allen. Big yikes! There’s also Orange Is the New Black and Grey’s Anatomy.

MEREDITH: Is that our baby? 

DEREK: Yes. Yes it is. 

—Grey’s Anatomy clip

SCHUYLER: The earliest memory I have of seeing an adopted character on TV was Arrested Development:

“Well, maybe I’ll get a son who will finish his cottage cheese!”

SCHUYLER: Annyong Bluth is the adopted son of Lucille and George Bluth. He’s this caricature of a Korean adoptee. He’s got the bowl cut, doesn’t speak any English — in fact, he hardly has any speaking lines for the majority of the show. Except, of course …

“Annyong, Annyong.” 

“That’s not getting old.” 

—Arrested Development clip

SCHUYLER: I adored Arrested Development, and even though it didn’t age well like many TV shows from my youth, I still kinda love it. But when Annyong became this running joke …

“Isn’t he great? And he goes with everything.”

—Arrested Development clip

SCHUYLER: I remember feeling like, Oh, this show was not made for me. So, why have I never seen myself in any of these stories? Where am I supposed to find characters that don’t make me feel ashamed of my identity? Because I feel like this has been going on for as long as I’ve been old enough to stare at a screen.

ANGELA: Hearing from adult adoptees is a relatively new concept that most often, and I think this is true in pop culture, we see adoptees as babies, as children, so often it’s other people doing the talking for us, what they think that we’re experiencing, what they think we need.

SCHUYLER: Angela Tucker is a transracially adopted advocate and mentor to adopted people of all ages. She’s gives keynote speeches and workshops for white parents of Black and brown kids about cultivating anti-racist community. She also helps TV writers and playwrights with adoption plot lines figure out how not to completely fuck it up. She worked on the broadway rock musical Jagged Little Pill and …

ANGELA: I’ve also consulted on TV shows like This Is Us where their writers’ room is very diverse but doesn’t have any transracial adoptees in the room writing about Randall, the primary character that I was brought in to support. I really don’t think until This Is Us that I’ve had a really positive affirming experience of being seen.

SCHUYLER: Angela was born in Tennessee and spent a year in foster care before she was adopted by a white couple. She grew up in a small town outside of Seattle.

ANGELA: In my schools, my sports teams and all around me was pretty much all white. It was hard because I certainly was exoticized and fetishized. Everyone always looked at me as the token Black girl in the room. And it made for some really interesting experiences. I think about when my parents and I went to Disneyland and they allowed me to bring one good friend. And so I brought my best friend, who is white, and I remember trying to get on a ride and the ride attendant cutting me off between my family because they said, “This is the last family to go on this ride. Can you wait? You’ll get on the next one. No problem.” And they had my parents and my best friend as that last family. And I was yelling like, “Those were my parents. I’m with them.” And my parents of course were like, “That’s our daughter,” but just being, visibly so different, a different race than my parents, it was often a conversation like that.

One of the biggest comments that we typically got, as people certainly would stare, but the next thing would be coming over to my parents and thanking them for “what an amazing thing they’ve done.” Just that assumption that, I, this Black girl needed a savior, needed white saviors, and other folks would consistently be praising my parents for that.

SCHUYLER: Ah yes, the white savior trope. Think Sandra Bullock’s Academy Award–winning performance in The Blind Side:

“I think what you’re doing is so great. To open up your home to him? Honey, you’re changing that boy’s life.”

“No, he’s changing mine.”

SCHUYLER: The frustrating part is that’s just not how it feels to be somebody who has lost their parents, was in foster care, then adopted. It’s troubling to be looked at as a success story, or to always be seen as somebody who was resilient and made it when in reality, we’re missing such a big complex part of the story around, the difficulty being completely cut off from your original culture. That sadness that comes from not knowing your roots. Those pieces are so left out that the stories can seem so linear and so exciting, like there’s a resolve. Like, Yay. We did it! It worked, kind of thing. Like it’s an experiment, instead of actual people’s humanity.

SCHUYLER: What are the common adoptee, archetypes or character tropes of adopted people in pop culture?

ANGELA: Typically, we see the poor orphan so the child who is abandoned, I think This Is Us started that way. We might also see some folks coming out of foster care, which typically when they come out of foster care, they’re depicted as almost feral and in complete need of restitution and assimilation back to becoming a member of society.

SCHUYLER: You just reminded me of a movie I watched a lot as a kid. It was Free Willy where the boy, he’s white and is ultimately adopted by white parents, but there was such a need for the parents to save this kid off the streets, and for the kid in turn to behave well. Right? If he hadn’t learned how to train this orca, then maybe he wasn’t going to be loved by his foster parents.

ANGELA: Such a great example of that “zero to hero,” that savior [trope]. That narrative perpetuates because we need to see that it worked. Many adoptees in real life struggle with performing. I’ve talked to my youth mentees, 12, 13, 14 years old— they’ll talk about this need for perfectionism because the feeling is, If I’m not perfect, will my parents leave me? Will they abandon me? Will they no longer want me? In pop culture, we view those behaviors as total success. They’ve made it, they’ve risen above. In reality, it’s actually quite scary.

We know that many adoptees struggle with thoughts of suicide and self-harm because of this feeling. Not only do I want to make my parents proud and some adoptees have even used the words, “Make sure they got a good return on their investment,” but some adoptees, especially international adoptees, have talked about wanting to make both their biological families and their adoptive families proud of them. The amount of pressure that puts on, to just be perfect. We see that in movies, I think Superman, Spider-Man, Batman — all of those have similar story lines of, Lose your parents, but look at what you’ve become. It’s hard because it doesn’t leave a lot of space for adoptees to be ourselves, to wonder who we would have been, if we weren’t adopted. This perpetuates that idea that we need to be grateful for the fact that anyone adopted us at all.

SCHUYLER: All of this really hit me hard because I can definitely relate. I grew up within this broader cultural narrative that adoption is this beautiful act of charity. That I got lucky that I ended up where I did, and TV and movies definitely reinforced this idea. There is so much loss within our experience that is too often left out of the picture, but it doesn’t need to be that way.

ANGELA: It’s complicated because our narratives are complicated. We’ll say things like, We love our adoptive parents, but also really wish we were never adopted.

SCHUYLER: Transracial adoptees finally get a seat at the writers’ room table, to set the record straight. After the break.

SCHUYLER: Transracially adopted people I know usually have a few specific traits or specific details about our past that reveal to the world how we were raised by white folks. My dead giveaways are that I learned how to rock climb from a really early age, and I listened to a lot of Phish in high school. For Rebecca Carroll …

REBECCA CARROLL: I had the Preppy Handbook.

SCHUYLER: What’s that?

REBECCA: Oh my God, you’re so young. So the Preppy Handbook was this book that came out around 1985 and everybody was obsessed with it because it was all about Izod Lacoste, and L.L.Bean, and J.Crew. and how to live as a preppy person.

SCHUYLER: Okay, that makes sense.

REBECCA: It was a very, very specific symbol of the moment. You had to have it in the same way you had to have white leather Nike sneakers with the red swoosh.

SCHUYLER: Rebecca is one of my favorite writers on race, culture and adoption. Earlier this year she published her memoir, Surviving the White Gaze.

REBECCA: It is about my experience being adopted into a white family at birth and raised in an all white rural New Hampshire town and the ways in which I navigated racism that I experienced starting at a very young age and didn’t have any kind of context for my parents were quite liberal, good white liberals, who didn’t have any conversant in race and, or Black culture.

SCHUYLER: Early on in her memoir, Rebecca remembers the first time she thought she saw a glimpse of her identity on TV.

REBECCA: The Electric Company was this great TV kids show, and Morgan Freeman played this character, was Easy Reader, and he was a guy who was really cool and wore dark glasses and you know, this short cropped ‘fro and wore these swanky cool ’70s clothes.

“It’s Easy Reader! 

Top to bottom left to right. Reading stuff is out of sight!”

—The Electric Company clip

REBECCA: It was the first, like Black, male. adult person I’d ever seen. All I knew was that I had a Black father and a white mother, birth parents. I immediately thought, that’s my birth father. That’s got to be my birth father. I mean, as a child, thinking that. I felt like we locked eyes. Of course, he couldn’t see me, but I felt like he did. That was validating in a way that I didn’t get from my parents

My mom sewed me a Black doll. She reminded me that she wrote a poem about a Black princess, but there was no connective thread, right? There was no, Let’s talk about the way in which your identity is going to interface with the real world.

My parents created in the good white liberal way — they’re not dumb people, they’re smart people — but they created a bubble where I can’t survive. I can’t live in that bubble. In fact, it’s really dangerous for me to be in that bubble. 

SCHUYLER: As a kid I totally felt this way too. My parents tried as best they knew how to include Korean culture in the house when I was growing up. I remember a book about Korean folk tales, a ninja toy set. But in suburban Denver, there was no one around who looked like me, so the TV was the only place to escape from that bubble — to form a sense of a racial identity or maybe even Korean parents but I’m pretty sure Margaret Cho’s impression of her Korean mother was probably the closest thing I could find.

But since then, TV has gotten a little closer to reality. That’s partly thanks to adopted and fostered people like Angela, who consults for shows like This Is Us. In season one, two white parents take home an abandoned Black baby from the hospital.

 “I like to think that you took the sourest lemon that life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade.”

—This Is Us clip

SCHUYLER: It just felt a little too Hallmark, an easy plot point. And I stopped watching the show. It wasn’t until this past year, after Black Lives Matter became mainstream, that the show really addressed racism within transracial adoption. Angela’s work in the writers’ room is what’s helped make Randall a much more complicated and nuanced character.

ANGELA: In season five, Randall begins really exploring his own personal emotions and connecting some of his perfectionist behaviors to the adoption. So, he attends like an adoptee support group where they talk about things like their ghost kingdoms, which is this concept about how many of us adoptees would just fictionalize and make up who we felt our birth parents to be, because we didn’t have any truth.

RANDALL: Since I never knew who my birth parents really were, I imagined that the nice librarian from the neighborhood library and the Black meteorologist from the local news were my parents. 

—This Is Us clip

ANGELA: Randall also confronts his siblings in season five, about what it felt like to be the only Black person in their family. That was really nuanced conversations that mirrored what we’re having in culture right now, conversations Black folks are trying to have with white America about you don’t see us for us.

RANDALL: And the last thing I needed man was for my brother to use my Blackness to other me also. You had racial blindspots, Kevin. 

—This Is Us clip

ANGELA: He was having conversations about how there were times when he felt tokenized by them and the responses from his two siblings, who are white twins, were responses that echoed what I hear. Things like “Why aren’t you just grateful for all that you’ve got? Look what you have. This beautiful life you have. You probably wouldn’t have had it if you weren’t adopted by our parents. What’s your problem?”

KEVIN: Your childhood, Randall, was glorious. I was there for it, you were the golden child. Your adoption, everything. it made you more special. Not less. 

RANDALL: I never wanted to be special, man. I just wanted to blend in like everybody else. 

—This Is Us clip

ANGELA: Some of the comments I read after a couple of the episodes were similar. Like “Can’t Randall just be grateful. He’s got great parents.” It’s really hard for transracial adoptees to speak the truth, because there’s always a risk that you’re going to offend somebody .

SCHUYLER: Absolutely. I’m low key terrified of making this episode because society is so conditioned to think of us as having to be grateful and having to be high-achieving to earn our keep and to not question the benevolent white savior parents, right?

ANGELA: Yes. 

SCHUYLER: Talking to my white family members about racism is something I still struggle with. I don’t always have the right words or the emotional capacity. So the fact that this major network TV show is starting to show these conversations feels like a huge leap. Like, thanks TV, for doing the work!

But something that keeps coming up for me is why transracial adoption is always presented as a thing that just happens. I’d love to see my experience represented onscreen, but is better representation for adoptees the full picture? What’s still missing for me are stories that question why children, especially Black and brown children, are separated from their birth families in the first place. Here’s Rebecca again.

REBECCA: In the very few shows and films with story lines with transracial adoption that the Black parents are always hyper stereotyped. In This Is Us, Randall’s birth parents are drug addicts. I do think, however credible or plausible these story lines are, they are also perpetuating this idea that Black folks are disenfranchised, that they can’t possibly find a way to keep their Black children. It feeds into, of course, the idea that that adoption and particularly transracial adoption, is inherently good and is inherently benign and better. Here’s the other thing, and I have to keep myself in check a little bit because I’m a creator and because I’m a writer and as somebody who wants to see these stories and put these stories out there. But just that, the show can exist. But it’s not the only adoption story. I think that if there was one thing that I really wanted to make clear in writing my memoir and now adapting it for TV is that we’re bigger than our adoption stories. We’re bigger than our adoption.

SCHUYLER: Rebecca now has the opportunity and challenge of deciding how her own adoption story is portrayed onscreen. Earlier this year, her memoir got picked up for a limited TV series, and it wasn’t Hallmark.

REBECCA: It’s a little bit daunting because I’m setting a very high bar for myself. My bar is I May Destroy You, which I think is one of the most extraordinary pieces of media and television I’ve seen in a decade, at least. I think that she deals with trauma and and humor and complexity. It’s daunting, but I am excited.

SCHUYLER: Are there parts of your story, your identity as a transracially adopted person that you want to be seen the most?

REBECCA: That I have always felt drawn to finding and being in community with Black folks from before I even knew how to recognize what that urge felt like or what that longing really is, what it is. I absolutely have always felt that. I want for Black adoptees and transracial adoptees to know that their urge to be in community with folks who look like them is not a betrayal, but it is the most visceral and instinctive thing.

SCHUYLER: For much of my adult life, I’ve searched for that feeling of community; turns out it’s called the Bling Empire Support Group.

After we collectively processed Kevin, the group text became a space where we post pictures of Korean food we’ve eaten recently, gossip about other KADs, and share recommendations for Korean scalp-scaler products for our transracially adopted scalps.

Bling Empire Support Group is where we go when we feel like no one else in our family gets it, when we’re sick of our non-adopted friends asking us if it’s okay to adopt kids, and where we’ll definitely go to process season two.

AMY: My dream plot point for Kevin in season two would be that he starts running with the adoption activists, the radical adoption activists who we know, and starts reading critical adoption studies books. I would watch him just being in Korea.

I get worried about thinking about him reuniting with his family in the sense that I feel like that’s potentially exploitative. So I, I’m not so much interested in this climatic character-building moment of him meeting family for the first time, but I am interested in him being in Korea, just like roaming around the streets of Seoul. I would watch a whole cooking series of him going to different parts of Korea and learning to hate Korean food less. Maybe a combo of like Anthony Bordain meets Mukbang, just sitting and eating things and a little Korean officetel.

SCHUYLER: I would watch that.