When I was twelve, my mother – who loved surprising me with books – brought me Black Like Me. Until then, she’d never shown any interest in racial studies.
Because of her unusual book choice, the story stuck with me. Although John Howard Griffin’s experiment gets the side eye today, at the time his work validated my struggle. Griffin felt the stares, got asked the probing personal questions, and experienced society’s subtle way of disenfranchising minorities. To me, he was the first White person who got it.
Of course, minorities can speak for themselves now, eliminating the need for a White male translator (though some still try). However, transracial adoptees occupy a unique space in racial conversations. Since we’ve lived as racial others within our families and communities, we know that sometimes it is what’s outside that counts.
But what does being Asian feel like? Or White? Does it feel like…anything? I believe the question should really be: What does not being White feel like?
Dr. Anna R. McPhatter, Dean of Social Work at Morgan State University, suggests that “[w]e are all burdened with the Eurocentric bias that is the foundation of our formal and informal education.” I’d also apply this to family structure: We assume that families in the United States are racially homogenous. Anything different still raises eyebrows.
Transracial adoptees, though, challenge that belief: We take on our White family’s identity despite our visual appearance.
Korean adoptees desire to perform a White identity, but these performances are disrupted when others initiate communication about their Asian identities. – Sarah Docan-Morgan
But identities are fragile. In 2010, Sara Docan-Morgan reported that adoptees often find their family status challenged. Questions like “Now who is this?” and “Is she really yours?” frustrate adoptees; as noted above, these remind us of the “exclusive conceptualization of families as biologically related and also [cause] confusion about how people could question the bonds between [the adoptee] and the only people [s/he] knew as family.”
Intrusive interactions, defined as “interpersonal encounters wherein people outside the immediate family question or comment on the adoptee and/or the adoptive members’ relationships with one another,” threaten an adoptee’s sense of security, as both a family member and an ethnic individual.
As McPhatter says: “People of color are adept at reading the slightest nuance or cue that carries even the most carefully concealed message of disapproval, discomfort, or nonacceptance because of one’s race, culture, or ethnicity.” Transracial adoptees are no different and in fact, may be slightly hypersensitive because of our constant racialization by others.
In any case, transracial adoptees spend their lives as outsiders, regardless of how well-accepted they were by their families. Our status as both immigrants and racial minorities makes us particularly vulnerable to how others perceive us.
I think this is an important start to a larger conversation that could truly benefit transracial adoptive parents. Many TRAps ask how they can support their children in racial identity development, so I’ll be continuing this topic in my next post!
All references can be found here.