NBC’s Parenthood and the Importance of Cultural Citizenship in Adoption

Dr. Nicholas Hartlep

My wife and I frequently watched Parenthood on NBC this past fall. Recently the fourth season’s finale aired. As a Korean adoptee, from my perspective, Parenthood portrayed transracial-adopted families inadequately, misrepresenting their experiences from the perspective of the adopted child, Victor. Despite the competing viewpoints of the realities of adoption, the majority of the memoirs that I have read written by adoptees share one common element: being adopted is not always a pleasant experience. I believe that Parenthood promotes superficial understandings of how race, culture, and language impact the lives of adopted children. Julia and Joel Graham, Victor’s adoptive parents socialize him in what can only be considered white environments. Julia and Joel may have adopted Victor, but it was Victor who was forced to adapt.

When Victor wanted to visit his friend who lived in a poorer and mainly minority community, the Graham’s were hesitant and did not want to allow him to go. Later on Mrs. Graham relents and allows Victor to play with this friend. She overhears Victor speaking Spanish with his friend, and shortly thereafter, Parenthood viewers see Mrs. Graham in her living room attempting to learn Spanish by listening to teach-me-Spanish audiotapes. It was as if Mrs. Graham suddenly realized that she adopted a Latino boy who spoke Spanish.

As an adopted child my adoptive parents never encouraged me to learn my heritage language, Korean. Instead, I was encouraged to learn Spanish. The rationale to learn Spanish, instead of Korean, according to my adoptive parents was that in the United States I would have more opportunities to speak Spanish rather than Korean. Their decision impacted me in ways that I am still recovering.

While watching Parenthood, I was saddened that the thoughts of Victor were frequently minimized and regularly marginalized. I was also angered that minority characters were often times demonized, while white characters were many times redeemed. For instance, in early episodes of Parenthood Mrs. Graham, a lawyer, develops an enduring friendship with the young Latina who delivers her morning coffee. This girl gets pregnant and is compelled to give her child up for adoption. Mrs. Graham informs the girl that she and her husband would happily adopt the baby. Meanwhile, subsequent episodes demonize the Latina for allegedly requesting money for her baby—a practice that is illegal. As expected, Mrs. Graham and her husband refuse to pay money to adopt the baby. I feel that this narrative of Julia, a white woman, being a law-abiding citizen and the Latina mother being selfish, privileges the perspective of the adoptive parents and shortchanges the experiences of the minority biological mother.

It is my view that Parenthood narrates its episodes in ways that resonate with its largely white middle-class audience. This no doubt is logical, especially for prime time television whose sole motivation are its ratings and advertising opportunities. Nonetheless, a consequence of such one-sided storytelling is that it perpetuates NBC viewers’ ignorance of adopted children’s experiences. My personal perspective and experience inform me that adoption can hurt children, especially when (and if) their adoptive parents raise them in colorblind ways.

A recent news story published in The Christian Science Monitor and The Chicago Tribune[1] is noteworthy. An interracial—Korean mother and White father—family from Evanston, Illinois, recently was informed that they might need to return their 7-month-old Korean baby. Why? Because Korean authorities allege that the Duquets adopted the Korean baby girl illegally. This is a powerful counter-story to the ones aired on Parenthood because adoptive parents are typically constructed to be law-abiding, while biological minority mothers are characterized to be irresponsible and even selfish.

As an adult transracial Korean adoptee, a husband and father of three young bi-racial girls, I believe that there is reasonable evidence that NBC’s Parenthood does not do enough to educate its viewers about the lived realities that adoptees face daily. In effort to educate prospective adoptive parents about the experiences of adoption from an adoptees point of view, I have argued that adoptive parents should strive to be good cultural citizens for their adoptive son or daughter by understanding that colorblindness is potentially damaging to them. Cultural citizenship demands that adoptive parents learn about their child’s cultural experiences, which are important for healthy development and well being.


Dr. Hartlep is an adoptee and the author of The Model Minority Stereotype: Demystifying Asian American Success (2013, Information Age Publishing). Follow him on Twitter @nhartlep and read his writing on the following three websites: http://hartlep.tateauthor.com, http://ilstu.academia.edu/NicholasHartlep, and http://redroom.com/member/nicholas-hartlep.