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The Family Who Tried to End Racism Through Adoption

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 3/8/2023 Nicole Chung
© Photo-illustration by Trevor Davis. Sources: Courtesy of Matthew Pratt Guterl; Phillip Spears / Gett...

Growing up as the adopted Korean daughter of white parents in a predominantly white community, I discovered early on that my presence was often a surprise, a question to which others expected answers. I soon learned how to respond to the curiosity of teachers at school, strangers at Sears, friends who had finally worked up the nerve to ask Who are your real parents? Why did they give you up? Are you going to try to find them someday? I told them the same story my adoptive parents had told me: My birth parents were unable to take care of a fragile, premature baby. They believed that another family would provide me with a better life. And so I was adopted and became my parents’ beloved only child—a “miracle,” they called it, evidence of God’s goodness. When your family is formed by divine will, who are you to question it? To wonder about the family you never knew?

Like Matthew Pratt Guterl, I know what it is to be raised in the belief that your family represents something far greater than itself. Whereas my parents saw our adoptive family as proof of God’s handiwork, Bob and Sheryl Guterl saw theirs as a new kind of “ark for the age of the nuclear bomb, of race riots, of war,” one that could change the world by example: They would raise a family of white biological children and adopted children of color—“two of every race”—and all would live in harmony behind a white-picket fence. In Skinfolk, Guterl, a professor of Africana studies and American studies at Brown University, assigns himself the task of reckoning with the experiment his white parents confidently embarked on.

He describes them as serious Catholics, loving and “big hearted,” convinced of their own good intentions: Bob, a respected New Jersey judge, was “the wild-eyed dreamer”; Sheryl, a teacher turned homemaker, was “the practical one.” Reading the brief autobiographies his parents submitted to Welcome House, the first international and interracial adoption agency in the United States, Guterl notes that they shared a desire for a large family, concerns about population growth, and the belief that “recycling and adoption are methods of global repair.”

[Read: Rumaan Alam ponders the limits of parental love]

As their firstborn son, he grew up alongside his brother Bug (Guterl refers to some of his siblings by name, others by childhood nickname), who came from South Korea as a baby in 1972, two years after Matthew’s birth; Mark, his only biological sibling, born in 1973; Bear, the son of a Vietnamese mother and a Black American-GI father, adopted as a 5-year-old in 1975; Anna, a biracial Korean girl, who arrived from Seoul in 1977 at the age of 13; and Eddie, a Black child adopted from the South Bronx in 1983, at the age of 6. Guterl details the ways in which the siblings were known, observed, and sometimes fetishized within and beyond their rural New Jersey town. “The whole enterprise, in accordance with Bob’s wishes, is meant to be seen,” he writes:

We are seen, and we see things … I begin to note a troubling public surveillance of our whole ensemble, our various skin tones on display. I watch as cars drive by, and see how quickly the heads turn to see the wide world of rainbow at play in our picket-fenced front yard. A game of catch. A throw of the football. Choosing up teams for Wiffle ball. With Blackness added, our performed comity means something more.

Reading this passage made me think of my own upbringing in white spaces, constantly watched and watchful. My parents believed my race was irrelevant, insisting that people cared only about who I was “on the inside”; I didn’t tell them about the slurs and barbs I heard throughout my childhood. For the Guterls, however, calling attention to the racial makeup of their family was partly the point—how else could they lead by example? Bob’s sermonizing at the dining-room table introduced the children to their parents’ mission and helped indoctrinate them early on: “We understand that our multiracial composition is a critique of the present, our color-blind consanguinity an omen of the future.” The children were expected to acknowledge and celebrate one another’s differences, and also, somehow, to transcend them.

The reality, of course, is that transracial adoption has no intrinsic power to heal racial prejudice, and Guterl and his siblings were never going to neutralize or escape its effects, much less undo the harms of white supremacy. Young Matthew discovers firsthand that the world won’t be changed by families like theirs: He is cornered and terrorized by a group of white kids because he has a Black brother; he later notices that their parents apologize to him, not to Bear. In middle school, he is so distressed at being called “N—— Lips” (again, he is targeted because he has Black siblings) that he takes the shocking step of getting cosmetic surgery on his lips. By the time he is in college, he knows that he can rebel, play pranks, even get caught speeding, and not worry that the hammer will fall on him the way it might on Bear or Eddie—not that his parents give the boys “the talk,” precisely: “Racial disparities in policing … are regular subjects of conversation at the breakfast and dinner table. Bob feels, though, that there should be no formal, separate syllabus” for his Black sons.

Throughout the book, the sibling we learn the most about, and the one Guterl seems closest to, is Bear: near enough in age to be his “twin.” Bear comes to the Guterls with a small bag of belongings and a photograph of the family he was separated from after leaving Vietnam—his older half brother’s arm on his shoulder, his mother and half sister to their left—an image that leads Guterl to reflect on “the great sorrow that he has been ripped from that set of relations with such tremendous and severing force.” By high school, Bear is a popular football player and solid student—unlike Guterl, who is aware that he lacks his brother’s star power yet also has an unearned advantage in his whiteness. Bear may be loved and widely admired in their small town, but neither his own successes nor his adoptive family can exempt him from the racism of their fellow residents. Bear “is a Black,” one of Guterl’s white friends says to him during senior year—and then comes Eddie’s turn: “But your younger brother is a n——.” Guterl freezes at this “detour into American racism,” unexpected but not unfamiliar to him.

[Read: America soured on my multiracial family]

The family meets crises that further highlight their disparities and test their bonds. An adolescent Eddie begins to “act out” in escalating ways, and Bug nurses growing anger toward Bob and Sheryl. One night, violence erupts between Eddie and Bug, and is “handled” by Bob alone—he calls Eddie’s therapist, who arranges for his admission to a nearby psychiatric institution. There, Eddie is observed, tested, medicated: “He fights it, of course, but the plot has grabbed hold of him,” Guterl writes. “And never, ever lets him go.” Eddie is in the pipeline, and moves through one disciplinary institution after another—“reform schools give way to jails and then prisons”—while Bug’s alienation from the family intensifies.

Many years later, Bear is the one who assumes primary support of Eddie, even while himself recovering from a violent assault by two white racists. By then, Bob is dead, having spent years consumed by “the need for repair and reconnection,” confused and crushed by Bug’s resistance to being reincorporated into the family. Guterl writes that his father regretted how his choices affected Eddie, and never stopped questioning what might have been had he never called the therapist and enlisted “the world—as uneven, as broken, as treacherous as it is—in the disciplining of his son.” Yet though racked by “considerable, late-in-life anguish,” Bob remained indefatigable in another sense, a firm believer in the power of their family until the end. Guterl describes his farewell letter to them all as a “paean to the foundational, even generic ideas of family, togetherness, and solidarity, in which he encourages forgiveness and begs us to stay together.”

I was interested in reading Skinfolk in part because I believe that the stories of those who have lost or gained siblings through adoption have much to tell us about families—their inner workings as well as the social expectations and tensions that shape them. As a child, Guterl had no more ability than his adopted siblings to determine the structure of their family; his life, too, was remade and ruled by Bob and Sheryl’s experiment. When I began reading his memoir, I did not think that I would find in him, the white son of white parents he has always known, a fellow seeker. But his urgent need to probe choices that he had grown up being told to believe were uncomplicated felt unexpectedly familiar.

Questioning the family mythology, that bedrock you share with those you are closest to, is no easy task. For years I had denied my wish to know more about my birth parents and my own past, and when I finally admitted it, the depth of my need and curiosity staggered me. So did the fear: How could I tell my adoptive parents that the story they had steadfastly believed, the story they had given me, was likely untrue and no longer enough? Who was I if not their contented, loyal daughter, their gift from God? I might never have searched had I not gotten pregnant with my first child, someone who I imagined would one day have her own questions about our missing history: If I could not look for answers only for myself, perhaps I could search for the two of us. Once I had begun, I found still more company in a long-lost biological sister who had believed me dead, and craved the truth even more than I did.

Guterl’s search, perhaps undertaken on behalf of his siblings, does not shy away from challenging their parents’ mission. That entails examining not just the failure of their experiment, but also the limits of their father’s ability to grasp why and how the “endeavor begins to unravel.” When Bob blames Bug’s estrangement from the family on the adoption agency, the Korean orphanage, everything and everyone beyond the white-picket fence—“Not us. Not this place. Not what has happened at our home”—Guterl suggests that this picture is incomplete: For Bug, being part of the Guterl clan, and especially accepting Bob’s overpowering vision of what the family represented, seemed to require a painful and, in the end, impossible denial of self. The historian of the family, Guterl wants to convey his perspective on the tangled truth of what has happened to him and the people he loves, aware from the start that his search—and what he uncovers—may cause him and others pain.

Though at times I felt held at a bit of a distance—Guterl is a careful writer and has clearly tried to respect his relatives’ wishes regarding their privacy—he rarely tries to protect or exonerate himself. In a late chapter, he, his brothers Bear and Mark, and their sister, Anna, reunite in 2002, a year after their father’s death. They spend the day together, and return to the house filled with a sense of camaraderie; as Guterl notes, “some of the old magic is back.” But by now, we understand that this family was never magic.

Later that night, the usual racial banter has returned, one of the comfortable grooves from our past. Anna says something in her sometimes-imperfect English—a habit when she is speaking fast, or emotional, and the sort of thing we all made sport of before. I jokingly correct her, the kind of move I made—we all made—for years without a thought. And that night, when we are all so saturated with feeling and drink, the familiar joke lands all wrong. Anna leans forward, finger pointing—at me and also at what I signify, at the vast edifice behind me.
“That is racist, and I can’t take it anymore.”

The Guterl parents’ view of adoption as an “engine of ‘reform,’ ” strong enough to override racism, set up an assignment their children couldn’t possibly fulfill. For all that Guterl has learned by the time his sister confronts him, and for all that he has come to question about how they were raised, he, too, still needs to be disabused of some assumptions. His thoughtless jibe and her pent-up hurt testify to the complexities and contradictions of the endeavor their parents enlisted them in. And he finds the encounter especially distressing because of that tension: His deep love for his sister—for each of his siblings—is what sometimes prevents him from seeing the chasm between their experiences. “As children in a family meant to undo racism, we were asked to learn—and to unlearn—race,” he writes. “To see one another as siblings—to see beyond our skin—but also, dissonantly, to see one another as color-coded … Those parallel lessons are, in the end, impossible to suture together.”

The scene made me think of my own family, and one night in particular, when my father and I were watching the 2015 Women’s World Cup. My mother joined us and asked if the athletes on-screen were Korean or Japanese, and my father replied: “Does it matter? Who can tell the difference?” I had been their child for 30-odd years. I was accustomed to biting my tongue for the sake of family cohesion. I don’t know why I couldn’t do it that day, but I still remember the trembling anger and anxiety I felt as I called someone I loved, who loved me, to account. My father, shocked, eventually apologized, but not before he told me, “It’s just hard for me to see you as Asian.”

Transracial adoption will never empower adoptees of color or our white family members to sidestep the realities of privilege, bias, and racism; as Skinfolk shows, we will meet and experience these things in the most intimate of ways, within the microcosm of our own family. Reading Anna’s challenge to her brother, one that may have been decades in the making, I knew where all my natural sympathy as an adoptee lay. My response to Guterl’s description of his agonizing confusion and self-doubt, which kept him awake for hours that night, took me by surprise. It made me catch my breath and wish that I could see or speak to my adoptive parents, both of whom are now gone, and simply feel close to them again. I know what it is to confront a painful and unwanted distance between you and those you love; to want to believe, if only for a moment, that your will alone can bridge it.

This article appears in the April 2023 print edition with the headline “Two of Every Race.”


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