Learning Curve: Transracial Adoption, what I wish I knew
Transracial/Transcultural Adoption. These are terms that I’ve come to use typically in my family situation, but there are many others that are commonly used, such as Cross Racial, Cross Cultural, “Rainbow Family” ect. In any event, these terms came to embody a big part of our family identity, when all we originally set out to do, was to grow our family through adoption.
Admittedly, in the late 1980’s when we began our adoption journey, we were a bit wide-eyed about the whole thing. As an adoptee myself, I felt we had a little leg up in the journey on that accord, but I was adopted into a same race family, and our decision to adopt, first from South Korea, and then domestically, but racially different, definitely added an aspect to things that we both were a bit naïve about.
We had wonderful role models that had gone before us in the transracial adoption arena, such as an active support group for international adoptees, mostly from South Korea and other Asian countries. But later when we branched into the domestic programs, it didn’t fit as comfortably. It was though, very helpful in assisting us with all things Korea, such as cultural fairs, weekly Korean dance class and language class, international potlucks and the like. We went to countless trainings and especially panel discussions with teens and adults who had been transracially adopted, and all of this was helpful. I wept at hearing stories of prom dates shut down when the young man went to the front door to pick up his date, I was angered at hearing the racial slurs that young adoptees heard at their predominantly Caucasian schools, I enrolled in racial sensitivity trainings and tried my best to anticipate every potential pitfall my children may face. All of this was important, and I would do it again, and advise other parents of transracially adopted children to embrace any and every community resource to educate and train them.
What was naïve, was thinking all of this would somehow reduce the pain my children went through. It did not. We did not get a free pass from racial discrimination.
We know developmentally that children begin a pretty solid racial identification around the age of 3, more or less. They may start to realize they don’t look like other siblings their parents or peers. Yet and still, our brains are wired to “belong”, racially, culturally, with our family and people groups. I’ve been in trainings where adult adoptees who are different from the majority race in their community, even as adults, feel a bit of surprise still when they look into a mirror, because they “feel white” inside- if the majority racial make up of their family or community is Caucasian. It’s a natural thing to identify with our parents, no matter the outward differences.
While we worked diligently by having talks, reading books that modeled open discussion about racial differences, yet and still my children held back. If I had not done any purposeful “digging” as they aged, I could easily and happily feel that they had by in large avoided racial discrimination in their younger years, almost certainly by my diligent education, planning, and having them in as diverse experiences as possible, through school of choice selections, church attendance, and even moving our family into an extremely core-city diverse neighborhood from the more predominantly “white” suburban neighborhood we formerly lived in.
The veneer started cracking the day I shopped with them in a local supermarket, and another young mother, with her older mother, passed by me in my cart full of toddlers and the older woman warned her daughter to “watch your purse!”. A few years later, a woman from a nearby wealthy neighborhood rang my doorbell one evening to apologize for her son’s behavior toward my 3rd grade son. Her son, (unbeknownst to me) had called my son “Burnt toast” on the bus ride. As she asked for my son to come to the door, so her son could apologize, she puzzled that her son would say such a thing, when “after all, the help at our home in the Bahama’s is all black, I just don’t get it!” The look on MY son’s face, when called to hear the awkward apology, said it all. He clearly didn’t want me to know this had happened, and there was almost a sense of shame that it had.
I didn’t expect that. Shame from the victim? Now we are getting into some deeper waters.
Some adoptee waters. Those, I have a bit of understanding about. Not wanting to hurt our parents, not wanting our parents to know we have times of hurt about not only our adoptee status, but now the addition of racial differences calling attention to our adoptee status. This is beyond a third graders comprehension, and might take an adult some deep soul searching to start to grasp.
As my children grew, and as most are young adults, I now hear the stories of name calling and racial discrimination they experienced as children at family gatherings. These are stories I never heard as they grew up, yet, these are stories that I encouraged them through open dialogue to share.
So, what can be the lesson here, , for those of you who may be raising a child, or consider raising a child who happens to be racially different than you. I believe it is to assume that things are happening and WILL likely happen, that you didn’t expect, anticipate, or probably even dreaded having to do with racial discrimination. The lesson is that you need to continue to do all of those things taught in trainings by the experts in transracial adoptions, the children, and especially grown children who as adults can talk now about what went right, and what did not go right. To continue to keep conversations going, and while your kids may not share any more with you, than mine did with me, to perhaps give a bit more of grace and love when they seem to have had a hard day, but when you press, say “nothing” happened.
It might have. And it may have been extraordinarily hurtful. This is where a spontaneous trip out for a treat, or an unexpected fun activity can be the most healing, Even giving the permission NOT to tell you, that you might not TRULY understand, but reassuring that you are there in every season in their life, and you have their back no matter what will ultimately help keep the relationship strong.
Knowing your child may struggle with something, ANYTHING is so hard as a parent. Transracial adoption will bring you on unexpected journeys of the heart, and support from other parents who have walked the road, and who are walking the road will help bring you strength. There WILL be joy in the journey and so many beautiful families have been created by walking this road. Be encouraged. Your family will be unique and wonderful. Know that your children were meant to be, and that with openness, and willingness to learn, if your family make up includes transracially adopted children, help will be there, if you reach out. Family Blooms includes experienced and knowledgeable staff who intend to support our adoptive families through all of the good AND hard times.
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