What Transracial Adoptees Share: A Conversation with Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Ph.D.

by Mark Hagland

Stephanie Kripa Cooper-Lewter, Ph.D., was abandoned in northern India in the 1970’s, and adopted at the age of two-and-a-half years. She grew up in Aitkin, a small town in Minnesota located more than two hours north of Minneapolis-St. Paul. After receiving her Bachelor’s degree at Bethel College and her Master’s degree at the University of Minnesota, she received her Ph.D. in social work from the University of South Carolina. She lives in Columbia, South Carolina, and is married, with two children. Kripa has been very active in the transracial adoption community since 1994. She speaks, conducts research, and writes about adoption; and provides personal and executive coaching to adult adoptees.

Kripa will be a member of several panels at the 2013 KAAN Conference, being held August 2-4, 2013 in Grand Rapids, Michigan (http://www.kaanet.org/conference.html) which includes “Commonalities Across Countries,” for adult adoptees (of all countries) only, on Saturday, August 2, from 10:30 to 11:45 AM; and then as a general session, on Sunday, August 3, from 10:00 to 11:15 AM. As a contributor to the anthology, Parenting as Adoptees, Kripa will be joined by editor Kevin Haebeom Vollmers and other contributors including Susan Branco Alvarado, JaeRan Kim, Dr. John Raible, and Mark Hagland at KAAN. Recently, Kripa sat down to converse with Mark Hagland about the topic of the two KAAN panel discussions and commonalities among transracial adoptees born in different countries and cultures. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Mark Hagland: When did you get publicly active and involved in the transracial adoption world?

Dr. Kripa Cooper-Lewter: In 1994, I was asked to speak on a panel for Adoptive Families of America at a conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul, with the title: “Cross-Culturally Adopted Teens and Young Adults Speak Out.” My social work internship in the Twin Cities was at a foster care agency with Korean-American adoptee Deb Johnson. This conference was my first exposure as an adult adoptee to the professional side of adoption and post-adoption services.

Mark: And then you got to know other Indian adoptees, too, right?

Dr. Kripa: Yes; the short story is that my mom knew some other adopted parents who had adopted from India, and occasionally we would meet some of them. But these connections were infrequent and very difficult to maintain in my childhood. By my mid-to-late 20s, I actively started reaching out to find other adult Indian adoptees. There are so few Indian adoptees compared to Korean adoptees, only about 14,500 across the United States have been adopted since the 1960’s. I actively support Indian adoptees in various groups, to include Desi Adoptees United (Vice President and Executive Founding Member, 2005/2006), Adopted from India – Missionaries of Charity (Founder, 2011), and Lost Sarees (Co-Founder, 2012). This July, I am leading an Adoptee Retreat for Indian and Nepalese adult adoptees at Heritage Camps for Adoptive Families in Colorado.

Mark: In your experience, are there any special commonalities or situations among Indian adoptees?

Dr. Kripa: Certainly, there’s a range of perspectives. Over the years, I’ve met people adopted from India who don’t identify strongly as an adoptee. I have met others who grew up experiencing a lot of racism and discrimination. There are many who reflect deeply on adoption and their identity journeys. For me, my experience has been a blend; particularly the whole identity aspect, discovering who I am and what that means for me at different life stages.

Mark: Yes, I find that when I meet other transracial adoptees, it feels to me as though we have 99-percent commonality in certain ways.

Dr. Kripa: I agree. I think the journey itself of being transracial adoptees, we often do share that 99 percent. We all come from another ethnic background or country from members of our adoptive family. I think there is power in knowing other transracial adoptees from other countries which gives you a broader perspective on transracial and transnational adoption. In a good way, knowing others makes the experience less personalized; and can help to overcome the sense of isolation we may feel. When I talk to other transracial adoptees, for most, there is a common core of having to make sense of who we are in light of our experiences. And for those of us who have been told, “Oh, you are so fabulous, inspiring or successful,” we know that we’ve had done a lot of internal work to process our adoption losses and gains, and are still working through. And so having relationships of support from other transracial adoptees has certainly helped my journey. Some of my closest adoption-related connections and relationships over the years include adoptees from countries other than India, and I like it that way.

Mark: There are cultural identity aspects and racial identity aspects to the journey, right?

Dr. Kripa: Absolutely. And there are benefits to exploring both. Our culture makes race a priority. When I was recently in DC visiting with Indian adoptee and orphanage sister, Shaaren Pine, we were talking about what it means to “be Indian.” Shaaren created a term, “Undian” to describe an adoptee who is racially or ethnically Indian but doesn’t feel like a real Indian culturally when compared to a person who is Indian, culturally and racially. “Being Indian” for transracial adoptees can be complicated; it’s so much more culturally than learning to dance, or knowing how to wear a sari.

Mark: What do you hope to get out of our session, and what do you hope attendees might get out of it?

Dr. Kripa: I hope people are challenged to think critically, and feel uncomfortable in a good way – to be pushed to beyond our day-to-day perspectives. I also hope that people will connect, so that they can continue these important conversations at KAAN and beyond. The more we have these candid conversations on race and diversity, the more we can equip the next generation of adoptees and our own children, whether they’re adopted or not. Though our society is becoming more diverse and multicultural, there is still so much emphasis around race that shapes how people view others and what’s happening in the world.

Mark: Thank you so much for this conversation, Kripa. I can’t wait to reconnect with you at KAAN!

Dr. Kripa: Same here, Mark. #####

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