As we head into National Adoption Awareness Month this November, I wanted to share a personal anecdote that illustrates the impact of transracial adoption on adoptees throughout our lives. I hope sharing this story helps validate the experience of transracial adoptees, and gives adoptive families, adoption agency professionals, and mental health professionals some things to consider.
In October, my family experienced the loss of one of our family members and I attended the funeral held in another state. My experience at this funeral was opposite to my experience at the last family funeral I attended, and both highlights the ways transracial adoptees are othered at family events. At this most recent funeral, I was consistently overlooked as a member of the family. As the only Asian person at this service, people would mistake other white folks I was standing with as family members, and most of the time the other person would have to explain that they were not part of the family. Or, although the person who passed was part of my extended family, my husband would be acknowledged as a family member, but not me. I had a very different experience at the previous family funeral I attended. My aunt introduced me to everyone as my parent’s “adopted child.” At the time I was upset about the disclaimer but in retrospect, it did serve to inform others that I was part of the family.
I’ve talked with other transracial adoptee friends and colleagues about these types of microaggressions we experience – not intentional for sure, but still painful. These types of incidents serve as yet another reminder that society does not see us as a family and that we don’t belong. And in addition, most of us don’t share how this hurts because then we are seen as trying to center ourselves or taking attention away from other family members.
As I reflect on these two events, I think about how often transracial adoptees are overlooked or outed, and in both cases how hurtful this can be. Adoptees should not have to be identified as adopted to be seen as part of the family – but without that explanation or context, it’s not surprising that those who don’t know the family well would make assumptions otherwise. Weddings, funerals, family reunions, birthday parties – when talking with other transracial adoptees we often share these examples of being the only one that looks like us, and constantly having to explain who we are. As my parents age, I know at some point I’ll have to explain to medical professionals and others that yes, I am the daughter, even though I am Asian and they are white. I haven’t experienced this yet personally, but friends have shared their experiences of being refused visitation with their parents who were hospitalized or in assisted care because the providers don’t believe they can be related. When relatives with dementia are unable to recognize their family members it’s painful – for adoptees this could take on an additional underlying feeling of non-belonging.
A few months ago my parents were re-telling how, when our family visited Mexico when my siblings and I were kids, no one believed my sister and I could be siblings. My response to that was, “that’s pretty much every day of my whole life – not just in Mexico.” Because my parents don’t see me as Korean unless I remind them, it isn’t surprising they assumed everyone else would just see me that way too. A good reminder that there is no such thing as being color-blind. People do notice racial differences. And as much as it can make me wince, in a way those who do not take a color-evasive path, those who actually name the differences, are truth-tellers. The part where this makes folks uncomfortable is that in naming and pointing out the reality of racial difference, the ways society doesn’t understand is made visible. Truth-telling isn’t the problem; the fact so many adoptive families are unprepared to acknowledge racial differences is the problem when it leads to minimizing, erasing, hiding, and not preparing for these scenarios. The privilege of assuming everyone is going to understand why that lone Asian person is at the family gathering.
I don’t know if there is a good way to address this broadly, given how much “matching” factors into how families are identified. Talking with other transracial adoptees, we agreed we don’t like being outed, but at least it provides context. Is there a way family members can be more proactive and support their transracial family member? One way we agreed is not the way to do it is by centering the parent (i.e. “we adopted them” or, “they’re my adopted child”).
How about, “they’re my __________” (child, sibling, etc.)?
Transracial adoptees – what are your thoughts?