Learning from the Lived Experience of Two Transracial Adoptees
With a lunch box in hand and a plaid skirt down to my knees, I entered the gymnasium for my first day of fifth grade. Fifth grade was a big deal at morning arrival and afternoon dismissal-- we got to sit on the stairs of the stage, overlooking a sea of chatty elementary schoolers. As I waited for my new homeroom teacher to corral us to our classroom, a girl sat down on the same step as me just a few feet away. This newcomer stuck out like a sore thumb to the rest of us who had gone to school together since kindergarten. Regardless of this she seemed quite approachable, and I scooted myself down the cold tile step that day with the hope of befriending her.
Fast forward eight hours later and Emily and I are dismissed to our moms in the carpool circle at nearly the same time. As she gets into her family’s minivan, I look through the driver seat’s window and notice something that catches my interest. Emily is of Pacific Islander descent while her mom and two younger siblings are white. In that moment I felt a twinge of optimism in this friendship, enough to uncover my own unspoken past.
Transracial adoption, the type of adoption my childhood friend Emily experienced, adds a layer of nuance to the adoption journey and entire family unit. With this added layer comes a need for increased preparedness of adoptive parents and adoption professionals alike, from training in cultural competency for professionals to adoption-sensitive language use for prospective adoptive parents. Emily Parker and Emma Rady are both young women with lived experiences as transracial adoptees in Caucasian-parent households. Their stories have urged me to introspectively assess the differences between their adoption journeys and my own.
Realizing that you are adopted can create multi-faceted issues for adoptees, let alone adoptees in transracial placements. Some adopted individuals know from a very early age, whereas others are met with a surprise later in their lives. As adoption competent therapist and trainer Mari Itzkowitz from the Center for Adoption Support and Education highlighted, “Information is control.” Itzkowitz’s statement suggests that allowing for open dialogue surrounding adoption gives adopted individuals ownership over their stories; even more so, endowing adoptees with this information transitions ambiguous wonder about their past into a more concrete narrative. Thus, adoption professionals widely recommend that adoptive parents initiate age-appropriate conversations with their adopted children as early as possible.
Emily Parker remembers her first realization of being adopted well, describing a particular moment in her elementary school years that occurred between her and her adoptive father. She said that her definition of adoption until that moment, “...being loved by God [and that we] are all adopted children of God,” was deeply influenced by religion. During a typical book reading with her adoptive father, this definition changed dramatically in one single instance. He told her that while her religious formation taught that all people are adopted children of God, not all children are legally adopted like she had been. After running to her home’s walls adorned with family portraits, she became conscious of the physical differences between her, her parents, and her siblings; she did not resemble them, a thought that might have been hard to dissect at such a young age. Parker went on to explain that the “...innocence of adoption [was not] shattered but [that it] changed [her] perspective of adoption as a whole.”
On the other hand, Emma Rady does not remember a specific instance in which she found out she was adopted. Rady says that “...it was in first grade that I really...realized..., ‘I look different than my parents.’” In her situation, adoption was unspoken but understood as a child. Emma recognized the color of her skin was not the same as that of her adoptive parents; later on, this familial difference would feed into an array of unique experiences Rady has encountered as a transracial adoptee.
Adoptees’ formative years are fraught with consciousness of a complex identity, one that will pronounce itself as the adoptee reaches adolescence. Transracial adoption adds an extra layer of ethnic, racial, and/or cultural distinctions. Adoptive parents are responsible for incorporating conversations around their young adoptee’s origins and to what degree and frequency they invite this into their households.
During her childhood, Emma Rady’s adoptive parents enrolled her in Chinese dance and language classes without much conversation surrounding her adoption inside the home. Emma’s parents continued to involve themselves with the adoption agency through which she was adopted, only a short drive from their home, as well as return to China on trips as she grew up. While Rady’s parents made strong efforts to incorporate her Chinese background into her life, Emma described that at age seven, she entered the “rejecting phase of [her] life” where she felt a sense of “internal hatred for being Asian and for looking this way when...[she] was surrounded by...[her] white family.” This self-identified hatred persisted until Rady reached her junior year of college.
Parker shares that “[her] family was not equipped with the right tools” to talk about her Chamorro Indian and Pacific Islander heritage. Other than books introducing her to these roots, Parker stated that “there were no celebrations” tied to her ethnic origins which resulted from her parents not “know[ing] too much about it themselves.” Parker notes that she wishes she had more exposure to her ethnic heritage as a child, especially as a college student building friendships with other adoptees who did have that exposure.
Each of these young women unraveled parts of their childhood that spoke to the nature of the adoption world in the early 2000s. Minimal resources were available via either the fast-growing Internet or from their respective agencies to aid in raising a transracially adopted child. Since then, agencies and various organizations have significantly expanded their pre- and post-adoption services to care for the myriad needs that the adoption community faces.
Teens approaching their adolescent years characteristically seek a distinct personhood from their parents. Complicating this journey for adoptees could be lack of birth family information, physical separation from birth country, or even the resurfacing of identity issues present in their childhoods. Without a whole picture of who they are, how are adoptees supposed to mold themselves into unique and confident adults?
Both Parker and Rady shared overlapping anecdotes from their adolescence that address the distinction that is growing up as transracial adoptees. Parker described an instance in which a physical education teacher would make fun of her and her brother saying, “’Aren’t you guys...a little item?’ or ‘Aren’t you guys together?’” Emily said in her interview that people also mistook her father for her partner at a concert, stating that “...the perception of a family is often questioned and people who aren’t within that family do feel uncomfortable at times because of it.” Rady similarly said that “...you always...get looks” when out in public with family. She noted that when she goes out alone with her father, she is aware of what people think of their relationship much like that of Parker’s experience.
These outsiders’ perceptions of each interviewee were likely informed by narrow views of what it means to be a family. Speaking of her college years Rady said, “I don’t really feel Chinese, I don’t feel Asian. I feel...more white but I look Asian and that was really hard in college.” She went on to tell me that during her university’s sorority recruitment, she thought “...[I]s any house [going to] want me because I’m Asian and not a white girl with blonde hair and blue eyes [since] that’s what I always saw beauty as.” Emma reflected on this as a result of growing up in a predominantly white community, convoluting her quest for an identity as a Chinese American woman.
Emily Parker also noted her experience as a woman of color within her sorority, especially as its president this past school year. From a young age, Parker said that “race has always been viewed in a negative light to [her], and [she’s] always felt too brown to be white and too white to be brown.” These competing functions contributed to a harder search for identity, and Emily reconciles this by saying that joining student organizations fed the need for a concrete identity.
Transracial adoptees sit at the intersection of a coupled truth: a search for identity fundamentally complicated by their origin story alongside a racial background different from their parents, a reality that society misconstrues and stigmatizes quite frequently. Emily and Emma have lived this intersection throughout their lives and share guidance below for prospective adoptive parents and adoption professionals.
Cultural Competence, or Lack Thereof
Transracial adoption is distinct from non-transracial adoptions, especially in American society where racism and its microaggressions are still extremely pervasive. In my interview with her, Emily Parker truthfully said, “I think [my parents] were equipped for adopting a child [but] not a brown one.” Emily noted that there were undeniable differences that precipitate how parents raise their adoptees versus their non-transracial adoptees or biological children, including the racism she encounters in a prejudiced world. Emma Rady echoed these thoughts saying, “I don’t think that there was adequate training or education for adoptive parents,” which genuinely reflects the lack of culturally competent resources at the time of her adoption in 1996. Both Parker and Rady understand the tremendous growth in high-quality and readily available materials to prospective adoptive parents, a shift from the insufficient support both interviewees’ parents experienced only a few decades ago.
When asked what she would want prospective adoptive parents to know about transracial adoption, Emma stated that “...it’s so important to have people in [the adoptive parent(s)’s] life that look like your child so that they can form some kind of [healthy] identity.” Rady emphasized this as it connects to her upbringing mostly void of role models who looked like her. Without visible role models, adolescents may struggle to construct an identity with their very first puzzle pieces missing entirely.
Surrounding work in the field, Emma shared that adoption professionals should, “[understand that]...there’s so much grief, there’s so much loss...and it has to be recognized and understood. [I]t’s going to impact the child throughout their life.” Emily spoke a very parallel statement that “...[the] separation right then and there is a trauma that your body remembers although you do not remember [it].” Even though both interviewees were adopted as babies, that one single separation and transfer imprints itself in the brain unconsciously. Building off this, Emily shared with me that mental health is the biggest area she wishes prospective adoptive parents to know about. The psychological aspect of adoption, she explained, impacts every adoptee differently; therefore, each client is “...not going to be a cookie cutter” of the last one, and adoption professionals should recognize the depth of each client’s story.
Emily and Emma have traversed their lives as adoptees in a world hesitant to view their family as valid. They encounter racism, stares when in public, and assumptions that can cause discomfort. To oversimplify the experiences of transracial adoptees is not my intention, but rather it is my hope that these young women offered a glimpse into their lives affected by adoption the whole way through. After all, Emma and Emily are the primary tellers of stories, stories that urge the adoption community to reflect on past practice and plan for an adoption-competent future.
Five Takeaways from Emily and Emma:
- Adoptive parents should consider the importance of openness surrounding their child’s birth family narrative. In doing this, adoptive parents foster a safe space for their adoptees to be emotionally vulnerable and ask questions as they arise. This is especially valuable in raising a transracial adoptee who has lost their birth culture and maybe even their birth country and language as well.
- Adoptive parents should collaborate with their child or teenager in making efforts to preserve their transracial adoptee’s heritage, whether through storytelling at bedtime, cooking traditional meals together as a family, enrolling in language classes at a community cultural center, etc. The desire to engage in this way will vary by developmental stage and by the individual, but adoptive parents can initiate these discussions and model a willingness for the family to be involved.
- Transracial adoptees can benefit from having role models in their lives who look like them. During their search for identity as adolescents, transracial adoptees may be able to individuate more successfully if they can already picture adults who also resemble them.
- White adoptive parents should recognize that their transracial adoptee’s experiences of the world are going to be different than their own. Unfortunately, American society still retains racist ideologies and derived microaggressions that people of various ethnic groups encounter.
- Adoption professionals should acknowledge the grief and loss associated with adoption and the way it manifests in each adoptee differently. Professionals working in this landscape should also pursue ongoing cultural competency training.
- Parker. (Zoom Interview, June 23, 2022)
- Rady. (Zoom Interview, June 28, 2022)