Transracial adoptees share what they wish their parents had known: 'The color-blind approach is unhelpful and harmful'

Kamilah Newton
·9 min read
The realities of transracial adoption are often more nuanced than what can be explained in a tweet, experts explain in honor of Adoption Awareness Month. (Photo: Getty Images)
The realities of transracial adoption are often more nuanced than what can be explained in a tweet, experts say. (Photo: Getty Images)

“Family isn’t whose blood you carry. It’s who you love and who loves you back.” That was just one of the powerful quotes shared, along with beautiful family photos, in honor of Adoption Awareness Month — a tradition started two decades ago to help quickly finalize adoptions in November, before the holiday season.

World-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson also joined the celebration, tweeting out a childhood photo with his parents and thanking them “for welcoming my sister and me with open arms and unconditional love.”

But often, the realities of transracial adoption are more nuanced than what can be explained in a tweet. And to increase awareness of that, specifically, transracial adoptees have been taking to social media to speak out about their experiences.

Chianna Cohen, a Chinese transracial adoptee and teaching assistant at New York’s Columbia University, tells Yahoo Life that for most of her childhood, she barely understood she wasn’t white like her parents — until a recent incident in her all-white Massachusetts town while out eating breakfast with her family at a diner.

That’s when, Cohen recalls, “an old man approached our table, pointing at me with a crazed look, demanding to know if I was Vietnamese. When I stiffly responded that I was not, he said, ‘Good, because if you were I would have beat you up. I fought them overseas. You can’t trust the Vietnamese.’ I remember looking to my family for support, but they were quiet. As my mother sympathized with a man who just threatened to beat me up, I realized my experience as an American was fundamentally different than my white parents’.”

More recently, she adds, “I learned the term ‘racial gaslighting,’” which is when a person is led to doubt their own experiences of racism. “When I first heard this term, I felt like suddenly much of my childhood made sense to me.”

Writer and transracial adoptee Noelle Chaddock writes powerfully about related feelings on her blog, including in a recent post, in which she notes, “There is a labor to this existence — to being a black transracial adoptee. There is a white expectation of my survival and my persistence despite or because of what they do or do not do to me — or about me. There is the pushing and pulling, skin tearing, soul dying tension from being a white family’s black daughter. … It is the tension of hearing a racist say that they saved you and you should be grateful. … It is hearing your family members saying ‘all lives matter’ and knowing that ‘not yours’ has been etched in your black skin — a branding.”

Chaddock joins many others who have taken to social media throughout the month to call out the mistakes — however well-meaning — that their adoptive parents have made.

“A subtle but much more prevalent effect of interracial adoption is how it leaves adopted children without the ability to comprehend and engage with race in a society where understanding race is vital for survival,” Cohen adds, “and thus leaving interracial adoptees vulnerable to racial gaslighting.”

Despite the fact that Adoption Awareness is typically recognized for a month, the conversation about the complexities of transracial adoption continues year-round through organizations like PACT, with a stated mission to “serve adopted children of color”; a range of podcasts; and books, including the forthcoming What White Parents Should Know About Transracial Adoption. Its author, Melissa Guida-Richards, a late-discovery transracial adoptee (meaning she was told later in life) and mother herself, tells Yahoo Life what’s important for parents or potential parents of transracial adoptees to understand.

“Firstly, listen to adult adoptees and elevate their voices,” Guida-Richards, who hosts the “Adoptee Thoughts” podcast, says, explaining that “a lot of the information is usually coming from other adoptive parents or agencies, while the voices that tend to be ignored are the ones who have actually lived through transracial adoption. We are the experts in adoption because we’ve lived it.”

Guide-Richards and others who speak from experience on the subject have more advice for potential adoptive parents too.

Nix the ‘color-blind’ rhetoric

Transracial adoptee and advocate Hannah Matthews tells Yahoo Life, “I think that it’s important for [parents] to acknowledge that the ‘color-blind’ approach is unhelpful and harmful,” noting that such an approach — sending the message that there is no racial difference to even see — is common within transracial adoptive families.

Guida-Richards agrees, explaining, “A lot of adoptive parents have this ‘color-blind’ mentality where they think that ‘love is enough’ and that race or ethnicity doesn’t really matter.” However, despite their best intentions, she says, “This is problematic because about 70 percent of adoptive parents are white and there’s a lot of transracial adoptions, but there’s not enough education — especially for some of the difficulties that families and transracial adoptees will face over the years.”

Matthews says, “When we walk out of our homes, even if our parents are extremely loving, like my parents were, you realize that you’re being treated differently, and then you don’t have the vocabulary to explain why that is,” adding that, without the proper language, children may begin to internalize the effects of racial “otherism.” She adds that it’s essential to teach that racism exists.

Guida-Richards agrees that this quest for cultural competency may be hard work, but says, “If you’re willing to go through all the work, to pay all the fees to become an adoptive parent, you should be willing to go one step further and do this work as well.”

Promote independent cultural engagement

Matthews suggests that transracial adoptive parents “give their adoptees spaces with people who look like them,” especially those in which the parents themselves are not present. It’s important, she stresses, since “most people who are transracially adopted are adopted into situations where they’re almost always in a predominantly white space,” which can lead to a constant feeling of isolation.

Growing up, Matthews says, she “felt alone,” and that despite both herself and her brother being adoptees, they had “totally different experiences,” as she is a Black woman and her brother is a Korean man. Although she says she didn’t experience a predominantly Black space until she was a young adult, she explains that “one of the most freeing things is when you find community,” realizing “you’re not alone.” As for parents backing off and giving independent space, Matthews says, “There are some places that your transracial adoptees are going to be invited that you are not invited to. And that is OK.”

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable

Guida-Richards explains that because “agencies aren’t going to prepare you for everything that you will have to deal with as your child grows up, you will need to be able to sit with your uncomfortableness, learn from other people and be willing to do antiracism work — especially if you’re adopting a child of color and you are white.” Matthews shares similar feelings, advising transracial adoptive parents to make themselves “familiar with discomfort,” adding that good parenting will be uncomfortable quite often.

“By adopting a child of color, thus becoming a multiracial family,” she adds, “it is your responsibility to do more and not just accept what has been done before. There’s plenty of educational resources out there that have really shown how important it is for adoptees to learn about their culture, and I believe that [claiming] ignorance is no longer a valid excuse.”

Keep it real

These conversations can prove to be difficult in part, Guida-Richards explains, because “adoptive parents are often held on this pedestal where they can do no wrong,” due to their assumed role as a “savior” and because of media portrayals of adoptees. “The thing is, adoptive parents are humans and they make mistakes too,” she says. “And in order to improve the adoption community and get adoptees more help throughout their years, they need to be ready to address the nuances — not just the good things that occur with adoption.”

This is one reason Guida-Richards also suggests that adoptive parents “stop pushing positive adoption language,” and instead “understand that adoption is not this ‘100 percent beautiful’ solution to a family of needs.” Last year, one mom shared similar sentiments in an op-ed for Motherwell, arguing that simply “changing terminology doesn’t change the feelings [she carries] on a daily basis.”

Guida-Richards says that although “adoption is complex and adoptees have experienced trauma, even those of us who are adopted at a very young age,” what’s truly important is that “adoptive parents are supportive of us, and the journeys that we go through because it can really help us with the process.”

While Matthews agrees that there are “no magic formulas,” what matters most to her is “wanting [transracial adoptees] to know that they are unconditionally worthy of being themselves, of love, of validation, of wholeness [and] of feeling confident in their racial identities. That they’re more than enough.”

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