… of Mature Transracial Adoptees
John Raible, EdD
A few months ago, I received an email from a complete stranger, who found me online. Emily (not her real name) wrote to me after she had read The Significance of Racial Identity in Transracially Adopted Young Adults, a transcript of a speech I gave back in 1990. In those remarks, I attempted to convey to adoptive parents why I felt so strongly identified with African Americans and black culture, even though I am, in the eyes of some, “only half black.” Emily had written to me to say that the speech resonated with her own situation, in spite of our being of different generations, nationalities, and with different family circumstances.
While Emily and I have never met, I sensed immediately a connection, as I read her heartfelt expression of the confusion and longing she is experiencing as an adult adoptee. In her email, she described herself as a mixed-race woman of Asian and European descent. Now in her late twenties, Emily reported feeling estranged from her well-intentioned white adoptive parents. It saddened me to read that Emily feels that her family situation, in her words, has “deteriorated.” I interpreted this to mean that communication lines have broken down, leaving Emily– and I imagined her parents as well — feeling discouraged, hurt, and confused.
Emily went on to write about how tired she feels after years and years of living as the only person of color in an otherwise all-white community. I could certainly empathize with her expressed desire to move to an integrated, cosmopolitan environment, and with her wish to finally find a place where she might fit in. I empathized also with the frustration and heartache she articulated, feeling more and more distanced from her adoptive parents, who simply don’t understand her adult reality, or her adult needs as a woman of color and as an adoptee. Interestingly, I noticed that Emily made no mention of her connection to her birth family, something I, too, have downplayed in my own life.
I admit I felt dismayed reading Emily’s email, for a number of reasons. To begin with, I was frustrated because it sounded like Emily was going through many of the same struggles I went through in my teens and twenties, yet we are of different generations; we were born more than twenty years apart. It bothers me that, even though more than half a century has passed since the contemporary TRA experiment began, too many families continue to find themselves unprepared to deal effectively with the complex issues of race and adoption. Far too many adoptees, like Emily, are left to struggle by themselves through the quagmire of race politics, and with the undercurrent of adoption issues, which can create challenging obstacles to attaining an inner life of satisfaction and contentment.
It has occurred to me that adoption professionals and educators know more now about adoption issues and about multiculturalism, much more than previous generations of professionals and parents were able to know. Yet many white parents still have few opportunities to learn about life from people who are culturally different, namely, adult people of color. For white parents, this results in a general lack of exposure to diverse perspectives, not to mention a concomitant lack of first-hand experience with racism. For adoptees, this means that transracially adopted children of color may reach adulthood psychologically and emotionally unprepared to handle the inevitable harsh realities they will face. Once they grow beyond the cute and cuddly early childhood stage, transracial adoptees predictably will experience racism from various individuals they will encounter. Unprepared adopted children of color may grow up feeling alone, emotionally abandoned, misunderstood, and failing to belong or fit in comfortably in any community, either of color or white.
Emily’s example, and untold countless others, has led me to conclude that the professionals who promote TRA have an ethical obligation to prepare their clients — parents and children alike– for a lifetime of navigating the potholes and hills, cracks and crevices of rough terrain. This terrain is particularly challenging because it is simultaneously racial, cultural, and emotional, as well as unfamiliar. For this reason, I maintain that agencies and adoption professionals would serve their clients well by providing lifetime counseling, multicultural education opportunities, and other forms of post-adoption support to families, long after the initial adoptive placement has been made. I think this perspective is all the more reasonable for agencies that charge clients for their services.
Reading Emily’s email called forth my own ambivalent feelings about my journey through transracial adoption. While it may not be popular or politically correct to admit this, I realize that fundamentally, I regret that adoption had to happen to us in the first place. Don’t misunderstand: admitting genuine feelings surrounding the fact that my birth mother relinquished me takes nothing from the love and gratitude I feel for my adoptive parents and family. But the paradox that is the inheritance of all adoptees, who arguably have been given a fresh start in life, is rooted in the opposite experience of profound loss. Emily’s email reminded me that I am not done grieving my own early multiple losses, specifically, lost connections with my birth parents and siblings, and with the foster family who cared for me for nearly three years, during a crucial time in my development.
As if that weren’t enough baggage to carry, I also regret that too often there is not enough time, nor adequate words, for adoptees to explain these conflicting feelings to our parents. As members of mature adoptive families, many of us keep ourselves overly busy in our grown-up lives, leaving no time for such intimate personal sharing. In truth, it is difficult to find the time or energy to talk about these hard facts of life with our adopted loved ones.
For those of us who do make it through the tumultuous years of adolescence and early adulthood (and I encounter too many stories of self-destruction, including suicide, among transracial adoptees), there can be the added developmental task of finding the wherewithal to “adopt” our parents, as adults. Family members should understand that this part of the emotional journey of adoption can take decades.
Finally, rereading Emily’s email leaves me with the uneasy reminder that there are countless transracial adoptees out there, living and struggling in isolation, who feel unable to share their feelings about their adoption losses or their experiences with racism. Breaking through this isolation remains challenging, partly because in our society we get very little practice in how to dialogue openly and honestly about uncomfortable topics. Often, it is simply easier to remain silent. Compounding this difficulty is the vast experiential gulf between individuals who occupy a different racial status or designation, even if we do share loving family ties.
In my travels throughout the adoption community, I still meet far too many family members who remain unprepared to respond appropriately to the unique needs of transracial adoptees. But, at the same time, I find that adoptees — and increasing numbers of parents– are yearning to talk about race and adoption. More and more parents are reaching the understanding that whether adoptees are still children living as dependents, or whether they have left home and are living on their own, transracial adoptees need to talk, and parents need to be prepared to talk, even if at times people feel uneasy.
I believe that dialogue can assist in heading off adoption disruptions. I define disruption as the emotional estrangement between adoptees and their parents, even if legal ties of adoption are not severed, as is the case in adoption dissolutions. For parents and adoptees, an emotional disruption is traumatic, even if the adoptee apparently “caused” the estrangement. Beginning adopters can be encouraged to make a comprehensive “adoption plan” for their family, to head off foreseeable problems. Adoption professionals have an obligation to help adoptive parents plan for their adopted children’s well-being and upbringing well into adulthood. Such long-range planning becomes especially important in the case of TRA.
To finish the story of Emily’s email, my reply included encouragement to somehow keep the lines of communication open with her parents. After all, dialogue is a two-way street, regardless of the races of the parties involved. If I’ve learned anything along my journey, it is that blaming others helps no one find healing or happiness. I also know that reinforcing strained, broken, or missing family ties; adoptive, foster, and biological; is a worthwhile and necessary endeavor. At some point, Emily, like other adult adoptees, will have to find a way to emotionally recommit to her family, by adopting them psychologically, on her own terms.
Let me close by saying that I have come to view adoption as a lifelong journey of self-discovery. I feel a special affinity with and responsibility to younger adoptees like Emily. Moreover, I do believe there are steps white parents can be encouraged to take in order to raise emotionally healthy, culturally competent, and self-confident children of color. This article is offered in the spirit of the ideals of multicultural education and genuine communication, which I believe can offset some of the problems inherent to TRA. I hope that another adoptee reading this will find solace and affirmation in these written words. I hope, too, that adoption professionals will be motivated to rethink their ongoing responsibilities to adoptees and their families. Finally, I hope that adoptive parents will feel moved to take one further, admittedly difficult — but not impossible– step on a precarious, but ultimately rewarding, lifelong sojourn. I trust they will embark upon this multicultural journey with a renewed sense of excitement and purpose, and commit to walking alongside their transracially adopted sons and daughters, as their true partners in dialogue and learning.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Fall 2003 issue of the newsletter of Pact: An Adoption Alliance. It is reprinted here with their permission and that of the author.