Shortly after the Michael Brown case sparked the first protests in Ferguson, Missouri, an adoptive parent sat in my office with tears in her eyes as she shared her concern for her son’s safety. She shared her feelings of helplessness to protect him adequately. Her son was adopted from an African country and she was a white, single adoptive mother. Based on his early history of trauma, his behaviors were erratic and challenging for most adults who attempted to care for him. Yet, underneath these trauma-based responses was a loving, tender and intuitive child who lived through unspeakable tragedy before his adoption. She was already receiving expulsion threats from his school and extensive calls from the principal, yet his white sibling, who is also adopted through foster care was not.
When her son erupted into a temper tantrum at the local library, she recounted that a white man intervened by yelling at her elementary-age son to get off “that woman.” The incident rattled her and she realized that one day he could easily become a Trevon Martin or Michael Brown in his own neighborhood despite being adopted into their family. She believed they lived in a diverse area, but realized that her sense of diversity was not the same experience for her son. Not only did he lack a racial reflection, he lacked a role model as he matures into a black man living in a white world. She admitted that she was uncomfortable discussing race directly with her son because there were so many other issues they were dealing with on a daily basis.
In addition, she shared that discussions about race within her own family, which traced back to the KKK, were non-existent. There were portions of her extended family who did not accept her black son, but would her white son, so she made the decision not to engage certain family functions, leaving her isolated. She shared that it was a painful decision, but one that she had to make when she adopted. Curiously, I inquired if some of his reactions and high anxiety might also be related to racial sensitivity in addition to his current special needs. She shared that she had not considered that before. Despite her deep love for her son, she lacked a roadmap to navigate race and racism — and by proxy so did her sons, but she was willing to learn. The vast majority of transracial adoptions are still between white parents and children of color. Though, this is not the case for all, I will be primarily addressing white parents raising adopted children of color.
We live in a racially complex world — and for too many people of color, it is a racially dangerous world. As a woman of color and transracial adoptee, my bones grow weary when I hear the simplistic phrase, “[We] have come a long way when it comes to the ‘race issue.’” I challenge that argument when people of color, or POCs, are disproportionately incarcerated and ware-housed in prisons for longer sentences versus their white counterpart for similar crimes, it is unjust. When race is continually linked to vigilante justice and police brutality resulting in the deaths of Black brothers and sisters, it hurts. When Boston’s Museum of Modern Art pushes a “Geisha” exhibit so that people can “try on” a displaced idea of Asian, or “yellow face,” it is demeaning. When NAACP’s former branch president, Rachel Dolezal, appropriates a black identity, as well as a transracial adoptee identity moniker, it is viewed as fresh and nuanced, but the irony of the privilege that helped her obtain that position of power is negated, it is discomfiting. When the NFL defiantly defends the Washington Redskins moniker, a racially demoralizing term to Native Americans (and should be for all of us), it is exploitive. When #blacklivesmatter is challenged by #alllivesmatter, it dismisses the focus on racial violence and oppression of black lives as equal stakeholders.
When a person of color is told that they are being too sensitive — questioned why everything is about race — or their stories are deconstructed by others through seemingly innocuous questions such as, “Are you sure it happened that way?” or “Well, not everyone does that,” it leaves a person of color with a sense of inadequacy to find a counter-argument for their own experience. Privilege is not having to actively acknowledge injustice or inequality when one does not have to see. Inaction and silence is not philosophical, it is dangerous. Children of color do not have the luxury to become defensive because they are constantly living in a state of defense. Outside a parent’s proximity, many transracial adoptees anxiously prepare for intrusive questions about their race, first, and then their adoption status within their family second. It is one thing to be the parent who must hear and answer intrusive questions, but it is another to be the vehement focus of those questions.
Reality check: TRAs do not hear the PC terms “c-word” or “n-word” first. They hear the full word in all its offense and derogation. I consider those terms to be “main gate” phrases that sparks a TRA’s awareness of racism. However, it is the more subtle acts that wear transracial adoptees and people of color down. Unlike other children of color, transracial adoptees may live within a family who looks like the very people who let them know verbally or non-verbally they are not the same. Children of color begin to internalize that they are inheritably different than their white counterparts. They observe that their white peers may receive more smiles, eye contact, approval or get called on in class more often. Those experiences make it challenging for a transracial adoptee to actively go to their parents and discuss these experiences because racial microaggressions are insidious and subliminal. Those experiences do not come with a vocabulary unless they learn the words to describe discrimination or mature into adulthood and recognize what happened to them later. Over time, their responses may appear to be behavioral, emotional and attachment issues, but what belies these behaviors may actually be a feeling of isolation and alienation from those who should protect and defend them. The cruel irony is that at the heart of attachment is a child’s ability to seek safety in a time of stress, but what if that parent, or loved one, looks similar to the aggressor?
It is inexcusable for adoptive parents of transracial adoptees to forego discussions about racial relations in the United States with their children. In an effort to shield a transracial adoptee from painful feelings or reminders they are different from their adoptive family by not addressing race, is to instill an unnecessary sense of abandonment as transracial adoptees are forced to navigate their racial status separate from their family. Yet, transracial adoptees know they are different from their families. They just want parents to openly acknowledge that difference, not hide or silence it. When adoptive parents share that their children never discuss race or adoption, it may not necessarily be due to indifference, but fear and discomfort. On a developmental level, transracial adoptees do not have the life experiences, words, or parents of color to help frame those experiences thoroughly and consistently. There is an expectation that a child of color will have the words and awareness to tell them about most racialized events — this can be true for more overt racialized events. However, when they are more covert, it puts a burden on transracial adoptees to both decode and identify a racial experience without vocabulary modeled for them. Without words our children cannot make sense of those experiences which will compromise their over-all ability to accurately perceive and protect themselves. Transracial adoptees must learn to live in racial tension, and know what to do when confronted by racism and discrimination that is most often embedded institutionally within school systems, government, places of worship and others.
Progressive attitudes and open-minded thinking will not eclipse tough discussions involving race — for example, discussing racial justice while clutching a purse or briefcase when a person of color enters an elevator sends mixed messages. White adoptive parents must confront internalized and/or generational racial divides within their own family system, amongst friends, and the community at-large to protect their child. Transracial adoptees are afforded selective privilege for a brief period of time transmitted through their white adoptive parents. However, as they mature this privilege dissipates. A black son, who was once adorable and precocious, is now seen as the aggressor, calculating and menacing as he enters pre-adolescence. An Asian daughter becomes the object of sexual fantasy and lust in the eyes of men, particularly white men, called “Yellow Fever” as she matures. A Latino son is now relegated to “illegal” status and considered threatening to America’s way of life as he reaches young adulthood. A biracial daughter is subtly encouraged to claim “a racial side,” when she hears her adoptive parents talk so lovingly about their Irish-Italian roots without access to her ethnic roots, and quickly recognizes that white identity is more acceptable. Conversely, when a white adoptive father walks out of his home, he does not worry about the police being called on him or being shot for trespassing at his home, but his transracially adopted children may not be treated the same way in their neighborhood. Transracial adoptees cannot opt out of these experiences. They cannot change their visage, though they may feel white internally and respond as their white counterparts, but not recognize that the broader society will not view them the same way — or treat them as such. When a teen of color is pulled over by police or followed by a vigilante civilian, they must know what to do to stay safe — and alive.
In addition, many transracial adoptees have complex trauma history and neurobiological impacts that have impacted social cueing prior to adoption that makes recognizing racial attacks more convoluted, but no less significant or impactful for that child. Professionals and researchers have deconstructed the impacts of complex neurodevelopmental trauma, but the topic of race and the longitudinal impacts of racism has yet to be fully integrated. Transracial adoptees and persons of color who experience daily racial microaggressions will have a heightened level of anxiety and stress when they leave the safety of their home to remain proactive within society. Due to past trauma, trauma responses may be triggered quicker. When transracial adoptees react, it may appear aggressive, disobedient, willful or “attachment-related,” when in fact it may have been linked to racialized situations. However, there may be less tolerance by adults and peers when a child of color responds. There is a disproportionate number of children of color, particularly black and Latinos, who are threatened with expulsion, detention and punitive discipline than their white peers. They will have the privilege of white parents to advocate for them in ways that their peers of color do not; however, their parents’ advocacy is only as effective as their parents’ awareness and proximity. Their peers of color may have parents and extended family who can actively model racial awareness, pride and safety. That is why it is critical for adoptive parents to be educated and attuned to their child’s racial experiences. To merely recognize racism and racial microaggressions within society is not enough, parents must actively respond. It is a matter of safety and protection for transracial adoptees.
Adoption-sensitive dialogues surrounding birth family, placement, grief and complex trauma cannot replace race-related awareness, but must be integrated. White parents can align with their child’s needs and become their strongest and fiercest advocate. They need their parents to actively champion change. This is a cornerstone in identity formation for a transracial adoptee. It is never too late to start this process — so long as you start.
Addressing the Complexities of Race with Transracial Adoptees
The following are recommendations from transracial adoptees and persons of color when addressing the complexities of race. This list is definitely not exhaustive, but common recommendations to consider as a starting point:
• Recognize your privileged status as a white adoptive parent, in that, you will experience your child’s world through a unique paradigm. When you are with your child, the world will not treat your child the same way. It is not an indictment on whiteness, but an awareness of what persons of color experience within a broader context.
• Become more aware of your personal biases and triggers (we all have them). What makes you uncomfortable? Angry? Fearful? Overwhelmed? What were the silent messages you learned about race when you were growing up? When you become aware of your biases, it frees you to be more present in your child’s experiences and less fearful. Colorblindness does not exist for your child.
• Learn about the history of race in the United States. Educate yourself about the historical racial struggles within your child’s racial group so you can better discuss these issues with your child and others. Find books authored by persons of color. Read about transracial adoption through the lived out experience of transracial adoptees in addition to adoptive parent’s perspectives.
• Actively engage and befriend people of color. Children need a reflection of their race as they grow up. They should not be the only person of color within their family system. As a transracial family, transracial adoptees need to see their parents model engagement and active involvement with other people and communities of color. Parents need to be able to ask questions of persons of color regarding race and racial experiences to advocate for their child — and learn how to keep them safe.
• Recognize that in certain situations, in which your child is one of the few kids of color, that they may be uncomfortable, anxious or more hyper-responsive — particularly, if there is a background of complex neurodevelopmental trauma. Parents can both acknowledge that they are aware they are one of the few children of color — and then ask their child how that makes their heart and/or body feel? Be prepared to listen and act upon their statements.
• Know your surroundings. If parents are bringing their transracial adoptee to an area where symbols of racial hate or openly hostile responses to their child are evident or a known issue in that location, parents need to be proactive and aware. Asking will they be safe? Will they be safe as a family? Do other persons of color frequent these areas or would they avoid them? This still exists throughout the United States . . . there is a state law allowing law enforcement to pull over suspected illegal immigrants in Arizona.
• Consider your community. Living in diversity is not the same as living within diversity. Living amongst persons of color is not the same as living within relationship — as friends, mentors and teachers. Examine your friends (not just acquaintances), doctors, therapists, teachers and administrators, place of worship, political leaders, etc. If your child is one of the few of color, then consider moving to a more diverse area that will allow you to actively plug into the community, not just live there. If your child appears like the people your place of worship “helps” or does missionary work, what message is that constantly sending to your child? No child or adult wants to feel like a project. There may be tough questions regarding moving to a more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic area.
• Consider your immediate and extended family: Would you feel comfortable allowing your child unsupervised visits or time with a specific family member due to racial intolerance or bigoted comments? Would they be protective and advocate for your child when they are with them? Toleration of a family member’s racial comments about a minority group should not be dismissed as “that generation.” Your child needs to see parents actively confronting statements. When parents are silent — they are sending a message that the statement, “is OK in our family.”
• Discuss newsworthy events by sharing what you felt was discriminatory, biased or unjust openly. Sharing your feelings and opinions about a particular situation helps frame a discussion with your kids — and acknowledges that you see racial microaggressions, too. This begins to give them words for experiences. Ask them their thoughts. What would they do? Address what they need to do should they get pulled over, followed in a store, accused of an action they did not do, etc.
• Repair missed opportunities to advocate for your child. Once you become more aware, you can more readily pick up on those events. If possible, intervene when you notice a racialized experience, but if the situation is not safe for you and your child — leave the situation immediately. Discuss with your child soon after. Let your child know you saw what happened. Share with them how unjust, unfair, frightening or sad it was that it happened to them. Ask them what they would like you to do. This allows both of you opportunity to learn together — and lets your child know that they are not alone.
• Remember you are learning along the way. Continue to lean into discomfort. Racism and discrimination of any kind, is not comfortable and should not be. These discussions are similar to building muscles — the more you do, the more comfortable and fluid it becomes.
This article was written by Post-Adoption Clinical Director Melanie Chung-Sherman and was originally published in the October 2015 issue of AdoptionToday. For more articles like this, visit adoptinfo.net.