On Culture Camp


September 16, 2007 by multiracialsky

Last summer, a friend of mine ripped a few pages out of her Adoptive Families magazine and mailed them to me (I don’t subscribe). “I thought you might like to share this on your site,” she said. What she sent me was the Summer Heritage Guide–a list of ‘Heritage’ and ‘Culture’ camps specifically designed for children who have been transracially adopted.

The idea of Culture Camp has always troubled me, but I had never really thought about it in depth. As I read, parts of the articles made me wince. Here are some of the most noteworthy statements (my comments are inside the parentheses):

Summer vacations are perfect for celebrating culture. (As opposed to the rest of the year?)

For many families, especially those who live in less diverse areas, camp is a good way to expose a child to his ethnic culture. (If there are no other more normal, daily alternatives.)

Biggest camp benefit? 84 percent of families say it allows their child to spend more time with children of his own ethnicity. (Does the child have any local friends who share their ethnicity or race? Do the parents have any friends of their child’s race or ethnicity?)

Camp gives [Emma] a chance to spend time with kids who look like her. (Why do parents think it is acceptable to raise a child in a community–or a social circle–where nobody looks like her?)

A parent might think, ‘How else are we going to learn it?’ (Teach yourself. Read a book. Learn from a new friend.)

A mom who adopts a Korean child might say, ‘I’m not making kimchi.’ (Is this the parent’s attitude about everything that is not a part of their own birth-culture? Why did they adopt transracially and transnationally?)

Culture Camp seems like an inadequate band-aid attempting to cover a much bigger issue–White adoptive parents are raising thousands of children of color in virtually (or completely) all-White communities. The parents’ circle of friends is not multiracial. Many of these parents do not know an adult of their child’s ethnicity. Some of these parents have never known, beyond a causal acquaintance, any person of color. Some have known literally zero people of color in their entire lives.

Beyond the disconcerting need for Culture Camps in the first place, is the catch-22 these camps create. Adoptive parents who have an inkling that their child is not learning/experiencing enough of their birth-culture at home have a ‘solution’ marketed directly to them–send your child to Culture Camp. Instead of addressing the family’s cultural deficiency at home, the children (or sometimes the whole family) go somewhere else to ‘experience’ the child’s birth-culture. An important portion of this child’s birthright has been relegated to a three-day Culture Camp weekend, usually designed and directed by other White adoptive parents.

Parents should not adopt transracially or transnationally if they are unprepared to incorporate their child’s birth-culture into the family’s culture. For an adopted child to be an integrated part of the family, the heritage of their birthfamily must be integrated into the adoptive family’s heritage. Even the most in-depth week-long whole-family Culture Camp experience is inadequate.

To pre-answer two likely questions:

  1. Isn’t Culture Camp better than nothing? (Yes, of course, but not much better. The parents are saying, we know there is a discrepancy in our family plan, but we are counting on someone else to take care of it, to address it for us. All children need role-models and mentors who share defining parts of their selfhood–such as gender, race, or sexuality–and sometimes these mentors cannot be the child’s parents. However, an annual weekend immersion is not remotely sufficient to meet this need.)

  2. Are you saying White parents who live in White communities shouldn’t adopt transracially? (If these parents have no plans to educate themselves about their child’s heritage and birth culture, and to substantially alter their lives to accommodate their new child–then no, these parents should not adopt transracially.)

This past summer, I attended a Multicultural day camp designed for transracially adoptive families. I was emailing with one of the camp planners about leading a workshop with parents on Talking About Race. Eventually, the director of this program decided that the parents attending the camp were already knowledgeable about the basic topics in transracial adoption and multicultural family life (which has not been my experience with transracially adoptive families here). So the day was just for fun activities with other ‘like’ families. I balked, but Jaja and I decided to make a mother-daughter day of it.

Many of the other families were already there when we pulled in. I led a suddenly shy Jaja up to the deck where the families were gathering. A woman approached me almost immediately. (I thought she might be one of the camp directors.) “Where is she from?” she said, ignoring my daughter, who was now trying to stand behind me.

“Excuse me?” I said.

“You know, where is she adopted from?” she asked again, jutting her chin in Jaja’s direction.

“The U.S.” I replied flatly.

“Oh,” she said, surprised. “What is she, you know, what’s her background?”

I could barely believe this interrogation. I was weighing my options when one of the camp planners arrived and saved me. But of course, we ended up at the same activity with this woman only 30 minutes later. Jaja was climbing the rock-wall and the questioning continued. “What did you say your daughter is?” she asked. By now I knew she was mother to several Asian children.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

“Oh, you know, she looks Southeast Asian,” she replied.

“She’s not,” I said.

“South American?” she speculated.

I wanted this guessing game over before Jaja was out of that harness. I gave my ‘short’ answer. “She’s African American . . . ,” I began.

“She doesn’t look it,” the woman interrupted.

I continued with my shpiel as if she’d said nothing, “Actually, all four of my children are multiracial. Our family has Native American, African American, and European American heritage.”

“Who’s Native American?” she asked.

I have Cherokee heritage,” I volunteered.

“Cool,” she replied. “Come’ere,” she called to one of her daughters. The girl came over. “This woman is part Native American.” The mother pointed at me. I felt like a museum display.

“Wow,” her daughter said. Clearly she was supposed to be impressed, or something.

When Jaja had a second turn rock climbing, I heard about this woman’s plan to adopt again. She had been considering Ethiopia because you don’t have to travel. “You can just pick the kid up at the airport,” she said. (“Why not use FedEx?” quipped Jaja’s godmother–herself internationally adopted–when I relayed this part of the conversation.) But the woman’s children were pressing for a baby from their birth-country, so that was the family’s current plan.

The whole day didn’t go this way. If it had, I probably would have left. Overall, it was okay. I made a point to talk to all the parents present; there were families from four states. They are (all but one family) raising their children in virtually all-White communities. (By virtually all-White, I mean maybe 4-5% people of color, at most.) Their children were often the only child of color in their class at school. None of the parents had moving on their agenda. (I tried to be quiet about our family’s plans because I’ve found that talking about moving–which inevitably leads to the reasons why we plan to move–makes local transracially adoptive parents anxious.) There were certainly some very kind parents present. There were also no visible adults of color. (A 20ish counselor from the camp staff was around for one activity in the morning–so I take it back. There was, briefly, one.) There were also the sad negative stereotypes of White parents with children of color: ashy skin (you don’t have to be Black–just brown), unkempt hair.

Jaja stayed close to me most of the day. In retrospect, I probably should have brought Rico or Gretel as well (my kids are so used to a sister or brother for comfort and company, and I didn’t realize most of the kids there would be a few years older than Jaja), but we had a peaceful one-on-one day. Jaja got to choose all our activities for a change (rock-climbing, canoeing, swimming, drawing, cooking, and bracelet making). She already knew a couple girls who were there, and she warmed up to them in the afternoon.

The only ‘Camp’ in this vein I could be persuaded to attend in the future is PACT Family Camp. The camp’s goal is to explore adoption, race, and parenting in transracially adoptive families. The camp staff talks with parents about race and racism. They have adult transracial adoptees as mentors for the kids and teachers for the parents. Just the fact that this camp is supported (and attended) by John Raible and Lisa Marie Rollins gives it credibility in my book.

The one great part about this day was Farm and Wilderness, the location of the camp. The camp programs (run by F&W) are rooted in Quaker values. In the ‘What to Expect’ section of their brochure, under the heading ‘Diverse Community’ it reads:

Your child will live closely with children and staff from different backgrounds, cultures, and races. We teach respect for differences and expect campers to interact at all times in ways that are respectful and inclusive. Prejudice, discrimination, and oppressions on the basis of class, race, gender, and sexual orientation are discussed in a variety of forums during a camper’s time at F&W.

My kids aren’t going to school yet, but maybe we should start thinking about (F&W) camp.


5 thoughts on “On Culture Camp

  1. Susan says:

    Yes! Come to Pact Camp!!!

    And all the points you raise about culture camp (and its limitations) are right on.

  2. lori says:


    I never thought about Culture Camps in this way. As they probably aren’t going to go away, but probably proliferate, I can only hope that the agenda changes and the people that attend use it as a jumping off point to get educated not a cure all for what’s lacking at home.

    Thanks for the knowledge.

    And for real about the ashy skin? Lotion is so easy to come by.

  3. Amy says:

    Thinking about Good Summer Camps… I know you probably don’t live very close to this wonderful Quaker camp in North Carolina, but as a former camper and counselor, I wholeheartedly recommend it. The camp really makes an effort to include a diverse group of kids and staff members and the cooperation and nurturing that is emphasized is wonderful. It is also located in a beautiful and peaceful setting in the NC mountains. The camp has been open since 1955 and I don’t think much has changed as far as how it’s run – still so simple and lovely. Some of my most cherished memories are from my time as a camper here.


  4. egypt4 says:

    Thanks for your comments on this. I’m a white adoptive mom of two boys from Ethiopia, and my kids are around other black kids and Ethiopian kids often. But I have still wondered if a culture camp might be a good place for them to spend some time in the summer, when they’re older. I certainly don’t want them being the two black kids at an all white camp. But maybe culture camp isn’t what we need after all.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

  5. Allison says:

    Are you a Quaker? How was the camp?

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