Standing at the Intersections: Transracial Adoption
If the four of us were each standing on separate street corners that led to a median island of safety, a respite spot for crossing a busy intersection, there is a common experience that rings true for each of us. We move forward and cross this metaphorical roadway with a childhood family photo where one (or more) things is not like the others.
“Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them,” writes Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term “intersectionality.”
We suggest this metaphor can be more complicated for transracial adopted people, because we are a different racial identity than our parents. As adults who don’t walk around with a childhood family photo on shirts with the label “hidden cultural identifier,” we cross paths every day in our schools, in our communities, in our lives, without recognizing a shared affinity that, when realized, requires few words to meet in the middle of that intersection and embrace. Among transracial adoptees, receiving discrimination is one of the constant variables.
The middle ground for us, and for many of the other transracially adopted affinity group members at the NAIS People of Color Conference (PoCC), is an island of circled-up chairs we go to each December.
Within the circle, there is safe space. It’s not because we look the same (we span every race and ethnicity), not because we have the same familial experience (we span wide racial/class/sexual orientation/gender identification journeys), not even because when we leave the affinity group we each go back to life in independent schools (we rarely talk about this connection, because even though it’s deep, it’s also understood). The safe space comes from the understanding that when giving voice to our stories, rarely do we use “narrative asterisks” to explain our families. Rarely do we use explanatory code-shifting when we speak of biology. What is guaranteed, however, is that when we each draw the classic iceberg of cultural identity, our “transracial-adoptedness” is hiding under those surface waters like a broken Crock-Pot, submerged, but ready to sizzle.
What makes my water sizzle takes different forms each day, and certainly each December, but what I know for sure is that by the end of every school year, there is mad steam coming out the cracks.
Life (in independent schools, et al) as a person of color is hella tricky, to use a California colloquialism. Gloria Anzaldúa’s phrase, “This bridge called my back,” can feel familiar every day and every way. My back has the track marks of invisible roads and obvious intersections.
As a not-so-black, not-so-white, hapa, kinda Hawaiian, woman, spiritually inclined and religiously averse, Japanese American-ish, daughter, only-child, eldest of five siblings, able-bodied except during a migraine, nonvegetarian, nonskinny, educated, teacher, wealthy, over 40, house-owning, shy and introverted, so never presenting at POCC, child advocate, mindful-life pursuing, no kid-having, military-parented, pro-woman, anti-Trump, California-living, writer-poet type, queer-advocating, and transracially adopted person of color, my back is strong (but often closed for pedestrians).
This bridge called my back is closed at POCC affinity space. When the island of chairs is circled up, and hugs have been had, and tissue boxes opened, and there are new faces in the group to listen to as well as familiar people with understood steam from the cracks, the intersections open up, and the only place to go is forward.—Dorian Okano
It’s like when you’re driving down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, early Sunday morning, and you know if you drive about 22 mph you can make it from Albany to Flatbush without stopping, or getting caught in speed traps. This is a simplified metaphor, but what I’m saying is life can be easier because you have access to things or information. That’s what life has been like for me because I am a transracial adoptee.
My birth mother was 19 when I was born. She was alone at a hospital in Boston. She was not surrounded by friends and family. There was no baby shower. I possess the only photograph of me from that day. She was a freshman at Boston University, and he was a junior at Hofstra University on Long Island in New York. They’d met in December of her senior year of high school in Huntington, New York. My birth mother was from a working-class Irish-Italian family. My birth father was from a large African-American family, but he’d lost both parents in unexpected and tragic ways earlier in his life. He came to the hospital when I was born. They didn’t fight on that day, but he didn’t offer to marry her as she hoped and expected. They never saw one another again. Three months later, I was transracially adopted by a single white mother.
I’ve grown up with socioeconomic privileges and access to many things. Some of this privilege is about me being a light-skinned African-American, but most of it is about money and access. Once a year I attend PoCC, where I spend time with an affinity group of transracially adopted people. It’s an amazing, nurturing, and affirming experience. For many of us, it is the only experience in this kind of affinity. We all have different stories but are connected by similarities that come from being a person of color within a white family.
Last year’s affinity group meetings in Anaheim, California, were especially loaded as some of the members’ parents voted for Donald Trump. This is a complete and utter disconnect, because it forces one to hold two opposing views simultaneously: First, that you see and love your child of color, and second, that you believe an openly biased and prejudiced candidate is best for the job of president of the United States. For many, this is unfathomable, but for some of us in the transracial adoption group, this was the reality.
There are times I use my transracial adoption privilege and entitlement to my advantage. There are times I experience discrimination, microaggressions, and racism. But the truth is very few of my counterparts own homes, and almost none got through college without student loans. None of this was earned or deserved, but privilege never is. The bottom line is I know my socioeconomic privilege is because I have access to my white family’s financial resources and generational wealth.—Johanna Aeschliman
Have you ever been stuck in traffic and looked around at the people sitting in the cars next to you? Have you found yourself thinking, “What’s their story?” Trying to figure out a narrative for their lives based on limited information like the make of the car, bumper stickers, or other external decals.
As a transracial adopted person, I often find myself moving through spaces feeling like I’m the person in the other car. Constantly being sized up, assumptions being made about my background and lived experiences, by total strangers and colleagues alike. These assumptions can be around my gender, sexual orientation, race, class, or the many other identifiers that we all travel with. Depending on the geographical location I’m moving though, the narratives can also include the language I speak.
I remember attending my first PoCC in Chicago, in 2002. I was in my first year at an independent school, and I was the only faculty member of color. I could not wait for the first affinity group session where I could proudly claim my Latina identity in a room filled with other Latinos/as/xes. Upon entering the ballroom, the facilitators welcomed the members in Spanish and then proceeded to facilitate in Spanish. In that moment, I was heartbroken. I was able to pick up a few words here and there and understood the general idea of what was being said, but I immediately felt like an imposter. Another conference participant asked me a question in Spanish, and I had to explain that I didn’t really speak Spanish, and then I had to justify why I was occupying the space by going into my speech about my background as an adopted person.
In that moment, I began questioning my own authenticity as a Latina. Asking myself the question often asked of me by others. “What am I? Am I not really a Latina if I can’t speak Spanish? Can I claim Latina as part of my identity without it?” My engine quickly began flooding with memories and experiences of justifying my Latin-ness at work and on the street. In the faculty room, where my coworkers wondered why I was participating in PoCC. Parents in my school community asking why I don’t have an accent or assuming I must be able to speak Spanish. On the subway, unable to explain in fluent Spanish to a lost rider that I can’t help with directions because I don’t speak Spanish. Isn’t this space made at PoCC so I can find reprieve from all of this?
The formation of the transracial affinity group at PoCC has been a sanctuary for me each year. I look forward to a space created for educators from across the country who all have individual identities, yet we have all traveled on similar roadways, navigated familiar roadblocks, and traffic jams that can come with the intersectionality of the transracial adoptee experience. A space where I can be a proud Latina adopted from an orphanage in Colombia, with no known biological siblings, three biracial children (my only known biological relatives), an Irish surname, who speaks mediocre Spanish. The shared language in the room being a knowing smile, nod of the head, a hug, tears, and laughs.
Back on the roadway of my day-to-day life, I once again become that driver who endures curious stares, quick judgements, and superficial conversations based on my exterior. However, with the support of my transracial adoptee network, I have refueled my engine, taken a much needed pit stop, and I am ready to continue on the journey.—Christina Fox
“This is all together,” my mother would say through a sigh, as the cashier at the local Safeway confidently went to place the checkout divider between a box of Kellogg’s Froot Loops and a family size bag of Uncle Ben’s Rice. “Really?” I would think to myself. “What makes you think an 8-year-old boy would be at the grocery store alone buying a five-pound bag of rice?”
My parents transracially adopted seven children between 1976 and 1986. I have two black brothers, two Korean brothers, a Korean sister, and a Hispanic sister, and I am biracial (black and white). I don’t know much about my biological family, other than that my biological mother had me when she was 30, she was not in a relationship with my biological father, and she is of Italian descent. I learned from an Ancestry.com test a couple years back that my African ancestry is Cameroonian.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I was blind to the privileges I acquired simply by having white parents. When that cashier knew my mom and I were together, her demeanor changed. It was as if she thought at first that this little black boy was trying to sneak his groceries into a middle-aged white woman’s purchase, then take off running after they were bagged. When I got in trouble in elementary school and my parents were called in, somehow the consequences just didn’t end up being as severe as some of my classmates of color. I could walk through the convenience store, make it very clear that my parents were my parents, and be left alone to browse without being followed by the store clerk. Benefiting from my privileges and my white cultural identity, as I later discovered, led to my experiencing discomfort with other people of my own race: a very normal phase of transracial adoptee identity development.
Growing up, I often used to morph both physically and mentally into someone I wasn’t, so as to avoid being judged. When it came time to get my haircut, I would make my parents wait in the car at the barber shop because I knew I had to cross through this intersection and walk this road. I would wear baggy jeans, an extra-large FUBU T-shirt, Timberlands, and a do-rag. “Hi, how are you?” would turn into “Yo, what up?” and “Could I please get a regular cut?” transformed to “Hit me up wit a fade, about a .5 on top, skin on the sides.” I counted down the seconds until the barber was tracing my hairline with alcohol, a sure sign that the end was near, and I could soon change back into my Abercrombie cargo shorts and Hollister T-shirt.
There was something about being immersed in black culture, one that was completely foreign to me, that made me so uncomfortable being myself. It wasn’t until I discovered John Palmer’s Transracial Adoptee Identity Development Model at the NAIS Diversity Leadership Institute (DLI) that I was able to clearly articulate exactly what that cultural disconnect was all about.
Attending DLI was a transformational experience for me personally and professionally. It was the first time I reflected on childhood experiences through the lens of my identity as a transracial adoptee, and it answered so many questions I had about myself, about race, about family, about my life. As I read through the descriptions of my white cultural identity, my racial identity, and my transracial identity, I found myself nodding furiously as though this one piece of paper in front of me was my very experience.—John Bower
We are each standing on separate street corners because no adoption story is exactly the same. We travel in your schools, in your classrooms, on your playgrounds, and in your communities. You can’t necessarily see us, but we are there hoping for a space where judgments are suspended and assumptions withheld. Lanes open for us to be our authentic selves and to grow. The intersections of identity as they relate to race, class, language, and family structure affect each of us differently. Our journey is filled with peaks and valleys, left and right turns, as well as U-turns, reversals, and of course, forward progression.