The Dawn of Discovering Racial Identity as a Transracial Adoptee

I grew up in a conservative Christian adoptive home. My white adoptive parents subscribed to a colorblind mindset. Because of that, I grew up feeling uncomfortable embracing my identity as a BIPOC. The same people who claimed they did not see skin color were also those that called attention to how mine did not match. I was not a ”quiet” child. But when it came to my racial identity I was silent. I was afraid to offend my “colorblind” family by speaking about my color and experiences. I was afraid that calling attention to my racial identity would further separate me from my adoptive family. I did not have the courage to consciously think about my racial identity, until I left home.

Before then, I was a shadow in the dark. I felt transparent, unclaimed, and lost. I did not feel like I was allowed to embrace any culture or race. I did not feel I was embraced by any culture or race. I felt stuck between the people around me who did not look like me and the people out of reach who did look like me. Nowhere to move, no way to find myself, nowhere to feel the freedom to be who I was.

Like many transracial adoptees, my racial identity began to consciously emerge in college. College was the first place I could explore all of me, without feeling misplaced. Growing up in a white family was difficult. Adoption in and of itself can be full of conflict and complexities. When we add the layer of race, the complexities becomes that much more pronounced. The question, “Who am I?” runs deep.

The fall of my junior year in my undergraduate program, I attended an informational session for my University’s National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW). I remember bringing along with me my good friend (now better suited to be called my “sister”). We are both bi-racial. We were both struggling with, “Will we fit here?”. I wondered, “Can they see through me?” Although I knew it was impossible, I feared they’d look at me and see my white family instead. I felt like an imposter. I yearned for acceptance.

Acceptance. I know transracial adoptees can identify. Many of us were never taught how to approach and become part of our racial and cultural groups. We were separated from the community that bore us. Our adoptive parents’ culture wrapped around us like a heavy drape. However, as soon as we are out of their sight this drape slips off. We are vulnerable and exposed. The world sees us for how we look – not how our parents look. But they were never able to show us what to do about this world when they’re not here.

Navigating these feelings, my friend and I sat in the back row. I kept my eyes low and scanned the room. I could not shake the sensation of being stared at – despite no one staring. When would they figure out I was not supposed to be here? That I was an imposter? The fact that I was in a room of people who resembled me did not cross my mind. I still could not see that part of myself, nor how I could fit in.

The drape of my parents’ whiteness was not there to make me feel invisible. Moments like these are a reminder. Regardless of our parents’ white privilege, we are never immune to discrimination and racism. But we are unprepared. In my youth, I grappled in my mind to decide what it meant to be biracial and a transracial adoptee without any exposure to the heritage, culture, and family of my birth. As a child, you could say I was lost. I never felt like I fit anywhere. Emotionally, I was in a state of constant limbo.

While the room itself felt foreign, the president was lively and the Vice President felt approachable. She felt welcoming. At the end of the session I walked up to her, shyly. 

“I don’t think you really touched on this, and I hope this doesn’t sound stupid. But I just wanted to make sure I am allowed to be here? I am biracial, and I wasn’t sure if that was allowed,” I said.

A part of me felt compelled to disclose, “And I am a transracial adoptee. I was raised by a white family. Does that disqualify me?” But I didn’t. I was too scared. I was afraid of the answer, and I wanted so badly to belong. I was done feeling invisible while sticking out. That was a theme of my adoption. I stuck out so much because I didn’t match my family. Even when I was with my white family I hoped someone might at least assume I was a relative. I did not want to stick out anymore. Not here.

“Of course! Anyone who has African ancestry belongs here. We want you here and you are welcome!” she smiled warmly.

My mind would not allow me the reassurance that she mean these words. But I felt her acceptance. Like many with childhood trauma, I had a keen sense for her authenticity. Looking at her face again, I think I saw confusion, even. It was as though it had not occurred to her to question that I would not belong in this group for black social workers.

“I am just a little nervous. This is very out of my comfort zone,” I admitted.

“It’s ok. Why don’t you come to a few groups? You don’t have to pay the fee just yet. We need you. We need black social workers and our space matters.”

Those words were life-changing. I went from lifetime of feeling alienated from other black people to feeling acknowledged and seen as a black woman. Her words afforded me the possibility of believing that I have always belonged among the people I resemble. I belonged among the people I came from and the culture and community from which I was systematically. It was surreal. 

I went on to become active in the organization. I found my voice and my identity. I examined the experiences I shoved away growing up. I unpacked my experiences of racism, discrimination, and being “othered” within my own family. I dismantled colorblind mindset of my adoptive parents.

At last, I saw how colorblind ideology created a framework in my thinking of not seeing myself. I was taught that color was best left unseen. This created an internalized feeling of not being seen. Memories emerged of how this framework pervaded throughout my childhood.

I grew into my identity as a black woman. And then, I grew into the role of leader in this multi-cultural organization on campus. The following year, I became the 2nd Vice President of the NABSW. I felt comfortable in my skin for the first time in my life.

I remember how excited I was to tell my adoptive parents about my membership within this incredible organization. They met my excitement with pause. And then, they questioned why there need be a group “just for black social workers.” I don’t know if their inability to see me also kept them from seeing the pain this displayed across my face. I am sad to say that I never brought it up again.

During childhood summers, I wore long sleeves and stayed inside to stop myself from getting darker. I anticipated the comments from aunts about my skin color. They remarked about my “tan” and how they wished they could be “that dark.”

“I have to go to a tanning salon to look like you. You’re so lucky!” I despised these comments.

I hated my curly hair and could not understand how to tame it. I remember learning about “edges” when I was in my late 20’s when people called attention to them. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I never learned how to style and care for them.

I was called an “Oreo.” I was asked questions about why my parents were white and I was not. I never saw any representation in the books I read or the toys I played with. Most importantly, I had no exposure, no racial mirror, to the communities and people that looked like me.

I remember grown adults questioning my adoptive parents as if I was a commodity, a cute little “colored” trophy. “Is your daughter adopted?”

Today, I still wonder if my family sees me as biracial or if they see me as white. This was something that was true growing up. Recently I have stumbled across paperwork. My parents filled in over and over again that my race was “Caucasian”.

I still don’t feel comfortable having conversations with my family about race. They are not safe conversations to have. This is why I am happy I have built a community around me. I have built a safe community for myself of sisters, friends, other transracial adoptees, my husband, and organizations like NABSW. Despite this, I am deeply saddened that my adoptive family is no shelter for me during this current political climate of unrest. They are just as unsafe as the world around me.

Today, I work closely with transracially adopted and fostered youth. I use my expertise and my experiences to guide them away from the dismissiveness of “colorblindness.” I help prepare them for the world outside of their white parents. I help parents see their children. I impart skills, resources and education. As a poster hanging in my department summarizes perfectly, “Love sees all colors”.

I teach my own children everything I was never taught. The most important lesson is to love their skin. I teach them that they are beautiful, powerful, and loved. I teach them that they will face things in their lives that others will not. I reassure them that this is not fair, but that they will rise up and overcome it all.

They are learning to persist and resist against racism like their ancestors, like their mother and father, and like our entire community. I teach them that they will change the world and that they will be equipped to do so. I teach them that no matter what, their dad and I, will ALWAYS be the safe space to come back to. No matter what.

I am happy for those I do have. For the family (however small it is) that I can be myself with. For my husband, for other transracial adoptees, for friends and for communities that accept me even though it took me years to accept myself. Thank you.

Published by Stephanie Oyler

Stephanie is a Licensed MSW professional who specializes in the area of adoption and foster care. She is also an adoptee herself. Adoptee LIT is a space created for education, advocacy, personal insight/experience and guidance in the sphere of Adoption.

One thought on “The Dawn of Discovering Racial Identity as a Transracial Adoptee

  1. Stephanie, every word felt like I could have written it myself, except that I wasn’t as brave as you. I applied for and was accepted into a rigorous social work program and then quit after the first year, because I was so afraid of hurting my parents’ feelings. I do desperately wanted to provide education for other WAP and guidance for their TRA. I’m so proud of you for pushing through all of those conflicting emotions and becoming a voice so desperately needed.

    Not so ironically, I want to share your blog post and in my 50s, I STILL worry about hurting feelings, that I’ll be seen as a shit disturber attacking my family, especially now while my AMom is sick. This conflict is so exhausting, always having to weigh my words and who might be hurt by them. So many of us TRA’s put white fragility above our own needs and suffer greatly for it…in silence.

    Like

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