STEVE INSKEEP, host:
When Judy Stigger and her husband decided to adopt, they chose children who very obviously didn't look like them.
Ms. JUDY STIGGER (Adopting Parent): If you're a very private person, this is probably very hard to do because people are curious and do ask how much the baby cost and whether that's one of those crack babies. The questions are amazing that people feel free to ask.
INSKEEP: People asked those questions because the Stiggers are white. And in Chicago - almost three decades ago - they adopted two children who are biracial.
Judy Stigger had to decide on the story she would tell when those questions came up.
Ms. STIGGER: People would say do you have any real children? I would just turn to him and say no, I just have this plastic one, and Aaron would hold his arms out and ta-da!
Mr. AARON STIGGER (Adopted Child): We almost - we were going to take that show on the road.
INSKEEP: That's the voice of Aaron, the Stigger's younger adopted child. He's 26 now.
And this morning, Judy and Aaron Stigger helped us to begin a series of conversations about adoption in America.
We'll hear some of the stories that adopted families tell outsiders and each other. The things that come to define who those families are. Judy Stigger told us the story of the day she picked up her infant son.
Ms. STIGGER: By then, we had our daughter, who was point two and a half. She was sitting on the couch and she wanted to hold him and so we walked over and let him sit in her lap, and she looked up and said he likes me. And I had this image of having a family.
INSKEEP: Why did you decide to adopt?
Ms. STIGGER: We're infertile, and we wanted to have a family.
INSKEEP: That simple.
Ms. STIGGER: That simple.
INSKEEP: And how much did you think about race when you began thinking about adoption?
Ms. STIGGER: I thought about it, but it wasn't the deciding factor. You know, when you adopt, you have to think about age, race and health. And mine was age. I wanted a baby.
INSKEEP: Now, I have to mention that at the time, some years before the National Association of Black Social Workers had issued this statement condemning trans-racial adoption.
Ms. STIGGER: I believe the term was cultural genocide.
INSKEEP: You know all about this.
Ms. STIGGER: I knew all about that.
INSKEEP: Was there a moment when you had a conversation with your husband and sat down and said do we want to do this?
Ms. STIGGER: I don't think we ever had that conversation. I think we had a conversation that said if we do this, this means we will only live in certain kinds of neighborhoods, he's a - at that point - an attorney, a junior partner, so this would limit where we would choose to live. It would color - to use the verb - friends we would have. We understood it had some implications.
INSKEEP: Did you lose any friends?
Ms. STIGGER: We lost a grandma. And I hadn't seen that one coming. On the side, I thought there might be a problem. She was tickled pink to have great-grandchildren, and on the side I hadn't seen it coming. She was embarrassed that the neighbors might see these children in her home.
INSKEEP: And did she refuse, then, to see your children or to see you anymore?
Ms. STIGGER: She was a woman with a bit of tongue, which I had - up until then - always enjoyed. But I wasn't sure I wanted to expose my kids to what she might say. So we didn't involve her in our family anymore.
INSKEEP: Now Aaron Stigger, I'm assuming you don't very well remember that first time that you were put in your sister's lap.
Mr. STIGGER: No. I don't remember much of my colicky babyhood…
Mr. STIGGER: …just the good parts.
INSKEEP: But if I can get you to stretch your memory back a little bit. Is there a moment when you recognize that you were in someway different from your parents, your adopted parents?
Mr. STIGGER: I think it was maybe when I was about three or four. I was looking at the tool that my daddy used to go through his hair, as you guys would call a comb. And the comb really doesn't go through the afro very well. And…
INSKEEP: And you wanted to do what your dad was doing, I bet.
Mr. STIGGER: Yeah. I wanted to have the little waves that white people get in their hair when they get it all wet. And that's when I started to notice the difference. Also, I think it has to do with the age and what you're taught in school and what you're taught on "Sesame Street." You learn that one of these things is not like the other. You learn the difference between color and hair texture and size and all that.
INSKEEP: Was there a moment when that became really difficult for you to deal with or absorb?
Mr. STIGGER: It never became difficult. My dad was always my dad, and my mom was always my mom. The only time that it became an issue was when I'd bring new friends home from school. So your mom's white? I'm like, well, yeah. Oh, so your dad must be black. And, yeah.
INSKEEP: Then your dad would come home and…
Mr. STIGGER: I'd agree with them, because my birth father's black. So I wasn't technically lying.
INSKEEP: What did your mom tell you? And she's here to refresh your memory if you forget. What did she tell you about your race or about her race?
Mr. STIGGER: She told me that white people ate sauerkraut and black people ate fried chicken.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: She did not tell you that.
Mr. STIGGER: She certainly didn't. She made sure that I had black friends, and that they talked with other black parents. You know, every once a while, she like they're on a Kwanza once a year. And it wasn't really celebrating Kwanza. It was more so that they put forth the effort to expose me to these things that they weren't used to doing.
INSKEEP: Judy Stigger?
Ms. STIGGER: Um-hmm?
INSKEEP: How much thought did you put into that effort you were making?
Ms. STIGGER: Actually, I put quite a bit of it into it. This I learned from my daughter. When she was about eight, we spread across the bed all the congratulations cards we've gotten when we adopted her, because now she could read them. And then she looked at me and just got this pain wash across her face, and said, mom, was I supposed to be white? And I looked at the cards and realized every one of them had a little white baby face on it.
And it struck me that this parenting business wasn't going to be about not being prejudiced. It was going to be about being inclusive. So I started sending cards to all the extended family members. So I send one to my mother - I think it was her birthday - with a black woman on it.
And I get this call back from her that says the art was lovely. and I said, oh, good. And I'm waiting and she says, okay, bye. And she's gone. Then Easter comes along, so my kids get an Easter card. And my daughter takes hers upstairs and opens it and comes flying down the steps holding this card out in front of her, and it has what in our tradition is the risen Christ in it, and he's black and he has dreads and he has been working out. And she holds it out in front of me and she says my grandma loves me. And I thought I have to do this in a much more active way than I've been doing it. So all the angels on our tree are now black.
Mr. STIGGER: Yeah, we don't…
Ms. STIGGER: You know, we…
Mr. STIGGER: …have any white angels anymore.
Ms. STIGGER: We do. You brought one, remember?
Mr. STIGGER: Mom segregated the neighborhood and the trees.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Aaron, have you ever had an opportunity to get in touch where you learn more about your birth family?
Mr. STIGGER: Yeah. I met my birth mom when I was about 12 years old. Just wanted to check her out. Just wanted to see if there are any physical similarities since I don't have any in my house.
Ms. STIGGER: The second time we got together with them, I was up at a conference, and she's in Minnesota. She's taking him out for shopping for a couple of hours while attend something. I gotten to know her well enough, I trust that completely. But he and she are walking away from me down the hall and they sort of have the same swing to their walk, and it affected me much more than I thought. I thought, that's part of who he is. And I realized I was still had all these images in my head about my right to be his mom, that I needed to get worked out and not on him - that he was fine and he was mine, and it was okay that he got his walk from somebody else.
INSKEEP: Judy and Aaron Stigger, thanks very much.
Ms. STIGGER: My pleasure.
Mr. STIGGER: Thank you.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: By the way, the Stiggers worked out an unusual way to draw their family tree for school projects, and they talk about that at npr.org. Our conversations on the radio continue tomorrow when we'll hear of an overseas adoption and the distressing story that two girls had to tell when they arrived in America.