move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

“Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present.”

I’ve mentioned Lori L. Tharps’ book in several other articles, but I’ve finally decided that it needs its own feature.

In light of the recent “white woman drives her and her black adopted children off cliff and kills them” story and the “Indian adoptee beaten to death by her white family” event and the many other documented cases of transracial adoption gone horribly awry, I can’t think of a better time to discuss this book.

To be clear, I’m referring to transracial adoption as white families adopting children of color.

When I initially started writing, I took an ambivalent stance on transracial adoption. Specifically, I said

I am “adopt transracially with extreme prejudice.”

But several months ago, I read Same Family, Different Colors and have been sitting with Tharps’ findings ever since, carefully weighing her honest accounts of interfamilial colorism among non-adoptive families with my transracial adoption experience and research. Tharps examines how African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and bi-racial Americans confront color in their own families, questioning her own child’s light skin tone against her own, wondering how society perceives a dark-skinned mother with an almost-white daughter.

Through extensive conversations with ethnic families, Tharps found that even “microscopic” skin color variances can “impact everything from interactions among family members, parenting practices, and sibling relationships to racial identity formation.”

Tharps continues, saying what all adoptees (especially transracial adoptees) know:

[E]ven in the twentieth century, the general public does not understand that families don’t match.

“People expect families to match,” Tharps writes, “despite the fact that interracial marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 1967.”

My aim here is to position Tharps’ work within the scope of transracial adoption and ask: If same-race, non-adoptive families experience colorism, how are transracial adoptive families expected to succeed?

In her chapter discussing black colorism, Tharps states that “[b]lack family parenting might look different than white family parenting.” Specifically, Tharps points out “raising Black children adds an additional layer of responsibility for parents.” This me wonder if white parents are aware of these issues and can adequately prepare transracially adopted children for such survival.

Other academics tentatively suggest that no, white parents cannot prepare black children (or, I’d argue, other children of color) for a racially-colored life. Since, as Tharps makes clear, much of this parental racial “training” is done via “osmosis–meaning most children simply pick up on the opinions and attitudes of their parents–some of the lessons are more overt.” In a transracial family, discussion of race would be anecdotal at best. And, when viewed through a “white” lens, racial attitudes are formed less on colored experiences and more on moralistic views.

One woman Tharps interviewed, Linda, enjoyed playing outside as a child, but recalls her mother’s admonishments that doing so was making her “Black.” Because of the colorism within the family, Linda came to understand that “Black was not something she wanted to be.” Her sisters, meanwhile, were praised for their light skin and straight hair, with her father’s dark skin causing internal family strife so bad it eventually tore the family apart.

In a Latina example, a woman’s lifetime of teasing from her family about her “African nose and springy hair” drove her to straighten her hair and undergo a nose job.

Another interesting finding was that some

“[b]lack parents treat their children differently based on the shade of their skin.”

Current transracial adoptive parents have spoken with me, doing their best to navigate their child’s color and race. I don’t have easy answers but the best ones are those who acknowledge their limitations. There isn’t an easy answer, but my hope is transracial adoptive parents and adoptees read this book now (yes, I’m that excited about it) because it’ll help spotlight the real truth:

  • Color matters.
  • Society will judge non-matching families.
  • You won’t be able to figure it out.

Instead, let’s focus on understanding and admitting our chosen family’s inherent boundaries. Perhaps from within that framework, and with ongoing education, we’ll dispel the hope of a white saving grace, embracing our differences while constantly advocating for deeper conversations on color, family, and the myth of the homogeneous family.

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I can’t emphasize enough how highly I recommend this book. If you’ve already adopted transracially, it’ll give you an amazingly genuine insight into the difficulties color creates, hopefully motivating you to continue learning from, speaking to, and truly listening to transracial adoptees.

If you’re considering transracial adoption, Tharps’ work will prepare you for the intense struggle monoracial and interracial families endure. Consider their perspectives when adding a transracial adoptee to your home.

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Society’s Perpetual Children: An Introduction to the Adoptee Condition (Part Two)

Part One introduced adoptees as perpetual children and their status as invisible minorites. Part Two focuses on adoption insults and the American family.

We might wonder how we arrived here, with so many adoptees divided on the subject of their birth and subsequent adoptions. We’ve established that inevitable myths and maybes are associated with adoptions of all kinds (intercountry, transracial, domestic, etc.), creating chasms among diverse sets of adoptees, but what else created society’s invisible minority?

Two ongoing external factors keep adoptees in a childlike stasis: One, the continued abuse of the phrase “You’re adopted!” and two, misconceptions of the traditional American family.

Let’s go back in time by briefly recapping American family history, starting with the 1950s—the time when adoption (especially intercountry/transracial adoption) became more common. Then we’ll look at the media’s use of adoption as an insult and tie the themes together to understand adoptees’ current condition.

Remember, this article only briefly summarizes a deeper conversation—my work-in-progress dives further into the literature and its greater impact on adoption. For simplicity’s sake, I’m focusing on the period between 1950 and 1980.

Be sure to follow me for more sneak peeks!

Leaving “Leave it to Beaver” Behind

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Children of the 1980s watched reruns of “Happy Days,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Donna Reed Show,” often alongside parents for whom these programs elicited nostalgia for the good old days. Dads knew best, making fathers all-knowing beings who created and supported progeny with guaranteed good futures. Moms were usually smiling dress-wearing chefs.

Younger generations criticize these whitewashed shows, mocking the racially and gender-role limited representation of the all-American household. But popular culture is a pervasive creature, weaving its way into fading memories and creating reality out of potentially unhappy fictions. What we end up with is a pervasive idea that families must match and anything else—especially a white family with a non-white addition—symbolizes failure or distrust.

Adoptive parents raised in the 1950s absorbed a culture that newly encouraged “men as well as women…to root their identity and self-image in familial and parental roles.” What with Cold Wars and World Wars, an emerging middle-class of white Americans were ready to embrace their latest post-War economic gains and make the nuclear family “the most salient symbol and immediate beneficiary of their newfound prosperity.”

These financial freedoms weren’t available to non-Whites, but that’s no matter: The rising racial divides and battles for equal minority representation were mostly hidden from families nestled in homes behind white-picket fences and cul-de-sacs. As a result, the ideal family was neighborly, homogenous, and conformist.

Today, it’s easy to see the consequences of such self-imposed sheltering, but how did it impact adoption?

Adoption: the Ultimate Non-Conformity

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At the same time monoracial middle-class family units prospered, Korean adoptees—brought to the United States beginning in the 1940s and continuing en masse through the 1980s—matured alongside this budding American dream. Their existence, along with black adoptees (adopted less frequently than Koreans), was set against a backdrop of sameness. But transracial adoptees represented to liberals a social progression; proponents for racial equality could point to transracial adoption and proclaim that we’ve achieved success.

But for others, adoption may have been a blight on American achievements. Since non-white persons still retained “other” status, their unmistakable presence among their adoptive families may have led outsiders to question the stability of the so-called traditional American family.

And, despite the 1960s and 1970s notable progressiveness, adoptees whose appearance differed from their families remained polarizing symbols: either progressives were doing something right or they took equality too far. For adoptees who matched, their existences became a sometimes shameful secret—what damage could an unwanted child bring to a family?

The Adoption Insult

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With the nuclear family tantamount to success, adoptees symbolized failure: Someone failed to care for these “orphans,” someone failed to take advantage of the economic prosperity available to middle-class Americans, someone failed to adhere to the country’s still-pervasive Christian values.

It’s then that adoption became an insult since adoptees represented an affront to “proper” society. On one hand, optimistic people viewed it as another American achievement; we can afford to take care of others as well as ourselves. But ultimately, less-informed or more traditional folk may have viewed it as a serious decline of moral values.

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In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan declared

[T]he family has somehow become less important. Well, I can’t help thinking just the opposite: that when so much around us is whispering the little lie that we should live only for the moment and for ourselves, it’s more important than ever for our families to affirm an older and more lasting set of values.

In Reagan’s conclusion, he wistfully noted that “there is a certain quietness, a certain calm: the calm of one still night long ago and of a family—father, mother, and newborn child,” leaving very little room for adoptees and plenty of space for stubborn adherence to so-called societal norms.

With so much optimistic fervor surrounding family traditions, it logically follows that “Mom and Dad don’t really love you—you’re adopted!” and “Don’t mind Johnny’s taste for eating paper plates; he’s adopted!” would result.

Unfortunately, Hollywood love(s) this trope, prominently featuring it in 1990’s Problem Child, where even considering adopting a troubled child creates a black mark in an entire neighborhood. (Not to mention the “He’s not even a real kid. He’s adopted!” quip.) The implication seems to be that orphans are dangerous cat-throwing pyromaniacs who worship prisoners in the guise of Michael Richards. And the overarching sentiment lies solely with his poor, well-meaning parents–Junior’s issues are only barely acknowledged.

This movie—and countless other media representations—made adoption a punch line, a stigmatizing condition that’s either all good or all bad. And despite the rise of charities supporting children’s needs, it was best to philanthropize at a distance; inviting stranger children into our homes overstepped boundaries, highlighting unsolvable societal problems.

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Maybe my definition of adoptees as invisible minorities needs a revision. Adoptees may be more accurately described as “society’s shameful open secret,” especially when leaders declare that “in recent decades the American family has come under virtual attack.” Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address also perpetuated adoption misconceptions, firmly entrenching adoptees in a state of inertia.

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Part Three will conclude this series, wrapping up with discussion of adoptees’ current efforts to undo these misconceptions. I’ll disuss the challenges they face, as well as what else must be done if adoptees are to change adoption’s public perception.

In the meantime, I recommend reading The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. She breaks apart the so-called traditional family myth and shows that no such thing really existed.

I encourage you to comment or contact me–we can’t grow without a good discussion!

Thanks so much for reading and remember: Share this article so non-adoptees can be drawn into our cause.

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Society’s Perpetual Children: An Introduction to the Adoptee Condition (Part One)

The mismatch in expectations versus reality for adoptees and non-adoptees is obvious. To expand adoption’s relevancy, this ongoing longform series provides a high-level view of adoptees’ current perspectives. I’ll attempt to uncover why adoptee writing stays relegated to niche groups or newsletters; why adoptee mistreatment and abuse makes ripples only amongst those affected; and what we can do to simply care. By moving away from adoptee-as-child terminology and welcoming non-adoptees into the conversation, we can begin taking their experiences seriously.

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Dear Adoption–great site with amazing perspectives.

There exists a group of people, foreigners within their own families, who form kinship from strangers’ blood. Adopted as babies and children and teens, they mature into adulthood yet remain forever frozen as society’s adopted children.

It doesn’t matter how assimilated adoptees become, into their new families or into new cultures if immigrating from another country. For some reason, they’re referred to — even by government representatives — as children. Adults adopted as a result of wartime conflicts, like Amerasians of the Korean War or the Vietnamese left behind after that war, have clearly aged into adults. Many, like Lynelle Long, become activists who meet with country officials to voice their concerns with the practice. Despite their accomplishments, though, they’re still viewed as the children sent away.

Why are we categorizing a subset of our adult population this way?

Adoptees have known two mothers, two lives, and migrated within two worlds, sometimes jarred violently from a womb to a stranger’s waiting arms. Adoptees survive this and develop into mostly capable adults, but then have their frequently traumatic experiences buried under childlike descriptions.

There is a reason for this stasis.

Society still devours happy endings. Adoptees are the ultimate humanitarian symbol: Presumably unwanted, a willing family took a child in and saved them, imbuing an aura of childlike wonder around them. Refugees and orphans become a parent’s act of charity and love. What could be better than that?

But admitting the adopted child grows up means acknowledging that we may have objectified a human being. To remedy the mistake, adoptee experiences that don’t align with our expectations are discredited.

It’s time to #JustListen.

The Curious Phenomenon

Ending the story once an adoption’s finalized creates a curious phenomenon: We tune out the object of fascination, hearing from them only what validates our values.

In an era where hasty generalizations are eschewed, the population most impacted by adoption — adoptees —  remains largely overlooked.

Some adoptive parents make cutesy videos about their adoption announcements, garnering thousands of views, shares, and outpourings of financial and emotional support. (Note: I do not support that video. At all.)

Once the object — the child — is obtained, the story ends. At least for the adoptee.

The parent’s journey continues. Their struggles raising a child with predictable attachment and other behavioral issues become the parent’s burden, not the child’s. Here the parents are at an advantage, getting to tell their story before the child has the vocabulary necessary to speak out.

The adoptee doesn’t get the opportunity to speak, at least not until they’re older, when their disgruntled blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses are overshadowed by their parent’s love and selfless devotion. By then, the child has become trapped in a sort of suspended animation; always adopted, yet expected to accept — without question — their circumstances.

Yet — and here’s where it’s really curious — many kids, especially adolescents, experience turbulent, ragey years. As a natural reaction to the dichotomy of budding independence yet still dependent upon parental financial and emotional support, teens rebel. But adoptees, already hampered by origin issues and (for transracial adoptees) racial identity confusion, act out even stronger, filtering frustration from a place more primal than simple teenage rebellion.

They’re expressing grief. Deep, traumatic grief, couched in abandonment issues that manifest themselves as relationship difficulties, drug or alcohol abuse, or — in some cases — suicide.

And even so, reports focus on how much the parents struggled with the child’s behavior, how much effort was wasted on someone who was selfishly unreceptive to love.

 

When any child has serious troubles, it’s a tragedy for that child and the family. When the adopted child has problems, it’s personal. It’s a direct insult and a bitter truth: Love isn’t always enough. That truth manifests as resentment on a parent’s and greater society’s behalf; after all, if a practice so rooted in love and selflessness could be so easily dismissed by the “saved,” it’s easier to blame the victim than address the problem’s roots.

The Invisible Minority

There’s another reason we need to pay attention to adoptee voices.

Adoptees are the ones with first-hand experience in a system that took away their control, but no one seems to hear what they’re trying to say.

They live and work alongside you, but you’d never know their secret. They’re part of a population with life stories that began with true uncertainty and unwant. They encompass all races and hail from a plethora of countries.

They began their lives with loss and gains, asked for and about but never just asked.

Still, adoption remains an uncomfortable topic for some, an insult for others, or, in its extreme, a divine act proposed by God. Even as adoptee activists write strongly-worded missives against the practice, create catchy hashtags (#BeingAdoptedMeans and #JustListen are the popular ones), and maintain well-trafficked blogs, they only garner mass attention when something ugly happens.

Take, for instance, the South Korean adoptee who was deported then committed suicide in his “home” country. Or the recent article about the three-year-old girl murdered by her adoptive parents. Obviously these incidents belie any happy ending, though some are still inclined to believe these are one-offs in a largely beneficial system.

When adoptees speak out about the practice — mind you, they’re not doing it as a reactionary measure but in addition to these tragic events — they’re ignored or challenged:

This was actually said by an adoptee to another adoptee — the cannibalism is real.

If this were any other group clamoring for attention, I believe they’d be much more successful. Instead, it remains easier to cling to myths and maybes about a practice than systematically change our opinions. And when adoptee protests are drowned out by kitchsy videos and GoFundMe requests by prospective adoptive parents, adoptees are seen as ungrateful bitter jerks.

With minority status, perhaps their activism will be taken more seriously; rather than being viewed as ungratefuls rebelling against their saint-like parents, they’ll hopefully emerge into mainstream conversations as a marginalized group long misunderstood by stereotypes and stigmas.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Facing Forward

As families change shape and form, as reproductive technologies and the definitions of motherhood and fatherhood blur, adoptees cannot and should not be overlooked in these discussions.

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Courtesy of Confessions of an Adoptee

After all, adoptees asserted their space in a society that still prioritizes biological relations. Adoptees, perhaps, are society’s pariahs. They don’t deserve that status. Adoptees were among the first to rewrite our country’s perception of the traditional family, yet are assigned passive roles. It’s the notion of the adopted child that keeps them ignored.

Part Two of this series will look at America’s role in creating adoption insults and America’s historical relationship with the traditional family.

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adopting motherhood

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Adoptees talk about birth moms and adoptive moms and make up clever names like “first moms.” Some of the angry ones call them worst moms.

But we don’t talk about what happens when adoptees become moms. What do we call them?

Our children call us Mommy or Momma or Mom, but I just call myself Lost.

I relate the following as my example of an adoptee’s complex relationship with motherhood, an already challenging position. I encourage adoptees to share their stories so others realize how our inauspicious beginnings follow us to parenthood.


My mother died when I was twenty-five. She endured three anxious years of surgeries and blood tests while I watched the only mother I’d ever known slowly leave me.

Wait–that’s not right. I knew another mother, but only for two-and-a-half months. And then we parted ways. When I sought her out, I discovered she died less than ten years post-me.

So I’m again mom-less, raising a son with only memories for guidance. Like any mother, I’m doing the best I can. But there’s a difference:

I envy my son.

I envy my son because at three years old he knows something I don’t–the privilege of having a consistent caregiver, one who never questioned his existence. He carelessly plays his days away, taking for granted a woman who spirits pretzels and juice and raisins to his side, knowing no different.

Apologies, but the piece I adapted this section for HAS BEEN SELECTED FOR PUBLICATION! I will link to this story once it goes live, but the overall message here will stay 🙂

For adoptees, parenting is a declaration: We survived.  We carry traumas from our abandonments, yet we’re using them to make us stronger parents.  Simply being present means we’ve done more for ourselves and our children than was ever done for us.

Adoptees are rewriting adoption’s definition.  The literature rarely looks at adoptees as parents, making our insights invaluable to the practice. Let’s start sharing now and give  them something to talk about.


Be a part of the future! If you’re interested in sharing your adoptee-turned-parent story, feel free to contact me.  I’ll use our stories to weave together a long-form article on adoptee parents. Thanks!

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white like me

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.

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Photo by Nicole Mason on Unsplash

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?

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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.

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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.

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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!

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All references can be found here.

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