For as long as I can remember, my looks were a focus of conversation. As a transracially adopted child, growing up, a wide range of individuals (family members, church members, friends, classmates, and even teachers and professionals) commented on my hair, my facial features and my body. I grew up in a predominantly white space, white family, white schools and white neighborhoods. The way I looked was different then what people were used to. The way I look stood out from the way my family looked when we went out in public. This made me an interesting topic of conversation.
I was exotic (in comparison to those around me), I was different. Individuals took this as an open invitation to speak candidly and put me in uncomfortable situations. This started earlier then a time I can really pinpoint. It did not help that while I lived in a world and family that subscribed to a colorblind mindset, my difference in looks and my “beauty” was still a hot topic and separated me from those around me. The same people who told me that my skin color did not matter, were the people who pointed out the way my features and skin color stood out.
The fetishization BIPOC experience from white peers and even romantic partners is well-documented in the United States. Adoptees of color are no exception, and may even experience fetishization within their adoptive family system. In her article “The Globalization of Love,” Noonan gave multiple examples of how white adoptive families minimize their differences with their transracially adopted child. Fetishizing, for example, allows white adoptive parents to feel as though they are embracing a whole race or entire culture by reducing their child to a stereotype.
When white folks, including adoptive parents, make a point to emphasize how beautiful they think a person of color is, I often wonder why. Are they surprised that they found beauty within dark skin or coiled hair? Are they aware that the standards of beauty fail to meet us, and expect that we are starving for such a compliment? Maybe how I look is really the best thing about me to someone who doesn’t understand me or is capable of seeing.
Of course, this fetishization extends from inside our homes and into our services and therapy offices. My medical and social services files throughout my entire childhood are full of fetishization. When asked to name my strengths, my adoptive mother clearly struggled with this. She was challenged to find positive language to describe me saying that I should “be a lawyer” and am “manipulative.” She even noted a weakness – my fear of crowds. At the end she wrote “beautiful” in emphasized letters and underline.
As a clinician, this is where I ask the parent to explain in more detail what they mean by “beautiful.” I provide psychoeducation about showing a child that their worth is not tied to their appearance. I encourage parents to demonstrate to their children that they know and invest in them so deeply that they can proudly list strengths without resorting to appraising their looks.
This is important. Ultimately, children will develop their own internal thought process about themselves based upon feedback from their parents. To teach children to know their true value, we have to demonstrate that we know their value first.
I have a holistic approach to the work I do with my clients. I make it a priority that I examine all of the social factors of their life. I view from a lens that includes examining the living environment, the history, the family system, the culture, the community and the client’s lived experience. I take into account information provided by those around them. I examine the root and cause; not just the presenting problem. I never examine their “beauty.”
Today, I’m sad that my mom struggled so much to think good thoughts about me. Dear little black girl, you deserved so much more than “beautiful.”