race matters

Race matters. Even though there are times when I’d like to think that my transracially adopted identity doesn’t shape who I am – in my family and in the world – my race in relation to those around me influences in a very real way how I see myself, and how others view me.

That may feel uncomfortable to acknowledge. Talking about race and its impacts is supposed to assume a negative and foreboding tone. But I want you to hold on for a moment, because my racial identity is one of the aspects of my identity I’ve grown to appreciate most about myself, and because I believe the implications of transracial identities, as I’ve come understand them, are valid and worth sharing.

Race does matter. And that’s okay.

For those transracially placed (and in many multiracial families) the experience of racial identity for those who do not share the ethnic or cultural background of their parents can at many times be marked by the presence and contrast of experiences with similar socialization to those who do. Oftentimes, the difference is not obvert, but made obvious by the incongruity that takes place if one identity or way of being is assumed (either consciously or unconsciously) that is different from what’s expected based on what one looks like and what that supposedly means. For better or worse, this impacts the abilities of those transracially placed to operate unquestioned within the larger society. And because we may not talk or act as expected, our racial identities may be called into question, and we may find ourselves reconciling what appear to be inauthentic and incongruous ways of being to those for whom the transracial experience falls outside of “the norm”.

Of course, identity is complex, but the likelihood of what I’m describing seems to increase the most against stereotypes of what racial groups are “supposed” to be like, when placed or other folks fall short of expectations that they will act or sound a certain way. This is the difference between how our racially different families raised us to look at and navigate society, versus how society deems we “should” act or sound – based on how we look from the outside. For example, a White adult adoptee raised by Black adoptive parents called into an NPR radio segment, which ran in 2011, entitled The Parenting Dilemmas of Transracial Adoption. He spoke of reconnecting with his biological family as an adult and being “chastised for acting Black” and learning new ways of being in order to attract less attention for the differences he’d acquired throughout his upbringing.

Of course, there is already so much here that I could say. The unique perspectives of transracial adoptees often highlight, in precarious ways, complexities surrounding race, as well as the existence of prejudice in society – and I believe that’s an important and complex part of what it means to be transracially placed.

For those transracially placed, having a different set of cultural markers – other than those of one’s own cultural or ethnic heritage – is felt regardless of its acknowledgement. Much like those with biracial identities, who feel as though they’re prevented from fully identifying with one racial identity or the other, transracially placed folks’ identities may be invalidated (usually by outsiders) when they are told that they’re not really [insert nationality/culture of origin here]. Unfortunately, unless foster and adoptive parents are kept aware of this dynamic, they won’t know why, or understand the impact if their child is called various unkind – and even derogatory – names such as those referring to the fact that they are White on the inside, for example, but a different color on the outside.

The good news is, by remaining aware, adoptive and foster families can support their child by, at the very least, acknowledging the differences in identity and striving to connect adoptees and fosters to opportunities for building stronger connections to their ethnic and cultural heritage. For many transracially placed folks, this exploration is key to developing an identity that acknowledges these incongruities, and which allows them the opportunity to choose how they will identify and operate within society.

As a transracial adoptee, I feel I have the unique advantage of understanding my own racial identity from a context of privilege and difference. I don’t always get to choose how others view me in light of my differences, but I do get to choose how I identify – knowing that identity is complex, and that challenging assumptions about who gets to be this way or that is something I have the power to do – if not just by walking into a room.

And while it’s been a bumpy road to self-discovery, I’m grateful to have found value in my racial experience and identity. The mix of perspectives one encounters in the context of being transracially placed combine to form what I think are some of the most fascinating social and cultural implications of our time. And I think that’s worth considering.

More soon.

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About mirellawarren

social work consultant, transracial adoptee, adoptee rights advocate, writer
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