For years, U of M psychology professor Richard Lee has studied family dynamics in the United States, and in particular families who have internationally adopted Korean children. While only about 5-10 percent of Koreans nationwide are adopted, in Minnesota that figure is estimated at around 50 percent.
As he became immersed in that community he noticed one thing in particular—that parents “really had a hard time knowing how to talk about ethnic and racial differences in the family,” he says, “and how to help their kids deal with the racism in society that they’re going to encounter, and are encountering.”
He says parents have the tendency to sit back and wait for their children to bring up issues of race and ethnicity when they’re older, but kids can sense that hesitancy, and the conversations either happen too late or not at all.
Intervening early can make a big difference. “Our research is showing that that’s when it plays a really important role in the child’s adjustment and in their identity development,” Lee says. Wait too long, and either the damage is done “or your relationship with your child is so tenuous at that point that you’re not going to be able to connect with them.”
A recent project of Lee’s is looking at how adopted individuals who are now parents themselves are approaching these questions with their own children. “They are beginning to confront these issues and are more empowered, and there’s a trickle-down to that,” he says.
“In the future our society is going to be more racially diverse and mixed in families and in friendships and in the workplace,” he adds. “That’s why it’s so important to figure out how to have these conversations. The issues around race and racism don’t go away because society is more diverse.
Lee remains driven in his work, in part because of its ramifications for the greater community. “I love that the University supports me in the work that I do,” he says. “I also love that we are starting to make more and more connections to the communities surrounding us.”