Angela, I have followed you on social media for quite some time and am always privileged to learn from you. You recognize grief and joy throughout your journey. You have been very transparent publicly as a transracial adoptee, and you have blessed many people’s lives. I am eager and honored to have this space to interview you and hear your experience growing up in a transracial adoptive family.
I’ve got my cup of coffee and I hope you have yours! Shall we begin?
In 200 words or less, give us an overview of your story.
I was adopted under the terms of a closed adoption at the age of 11 months, after receiving a (false) diagnosis of spastic-quadriplegia, and becoming a ward of the state of Tennessee. After one year in foster care, I moved to the most northwestern corner of the United States to join what would become a family of seven (including both adopted and biological children).
After 25 years of wondering about my birthmother and birthfather, I came face to face with them after exhaustive (and exhausting) searches for them. I requested my original documents from the Office of Vital Records in Tennessee, hired a confidential intermediary, and ultimately utilized my own investigative skills to track them down. I showed up unannounced, only to be rejected by my birthmother, and embraced by my paternal birth family – even though they had no idea I existed.
I now enjoy an open relationship with most of my birth family members, and continue to search for one more biological sibling who was also placed for adoption.
Q: What is your earliest memory of feeling like you didn’t belong (if at all), and how did your parents handle that situation? Is there anything your parents could have done differently?
This isn’t my earliest memory, but it is a prominent one. In high school, I went to the bathroom during one class period, and was surprised to find pens, pencils and other objects stuck in my Afro without my knowing. I was mortified, and could not make eye contact with anyone in my class when I returned. I had no idea who had done it, or how long I’d been walking around school that day like this. I believe that this humiliating experience led to me striving towards whiteness, in terms of my external appearance. I began wearing wigs and weaves to cover up my Afro, and in an attempt to fit in with all of my peers who had shiny, sleek European hair that laid flat. Of course, now, I value standing out, more than fitting in (probably a truism of many who note a personality shift between grade school and adulthood), so I confidently wear my Afro, even though I’m still in the minority.
Q: Did people ever ask your parents intrusive and sometimes-inappropriate questions about you while you were right there, and how did your parents respond or how do you wish they responded?
Oh, of course! I haven’t met one conspicuous family that hasn’t run into the intrusive questions as it seems to be [inevitable] for transracial families. The comment that we continue to get is from those who call my parents “angels,” or gush about how amazing they are for “taking in all these poor kids.” My parents typically responded with a definitive “No. No. We are just parents, who love our kids.” I loved this, because I knew, after further exploration of this topic that they don’t feel pity towards any of their children’s biological families, and subsequently, they don’t feel any pity on us. The ever-present White Savior attitude was not a narrative that I was familiar with, until society began to place that label on us. My parents did not feel that they were ‘saving’ any of their children, but rather that we would each be afforded a different life, and different opportunities than we would’ve had were we not adopted by them. My parents’ simple answer “No. No,” felt brilliant and honoring.
It’s easy to think that my birth mom, Deborah’s personal hardships led her to sign documents relinquishing her parental rights and that her “decision” to place me for adoption was because of her less than ideal circumstances, but in reality the necessity for my adoption was predicated on the shoulders of her ancestors. It’s refreshing to have parents who know that none of our choices are made in a vacuum. We are all shaped by our place within the context of our time.
There seems to be an expectation for us adoptees to either shell out our private, potentially traumatic life story whenever anyone asks, or to speak for free as a sort of restitution for having been given a “better life.” In reality, some details don’t even belong to me to share! For example, lots of folks want to know about my birthmother. [I get asked] “Why couldn’t she keep you?” “What kind of drugs was she doing?” Assuming that I knew the answers to these questions (which I don’t), it isn’t my information to share. Those facts belong to my sweet, wonderful birth mom. She should be allowed to decide whether or not a well-intentioned stranger gets a glimpse in to this particular time in her life or not.
Q: How did your family interact with / talk about / treat your biological family?
Growing up, we used the little information that we had to incorporate my birth father and birth mother into conversations. For example, we knew that my birth mother was really short – 4-foot-11-inches! I have a couple sisters (in my adoptive family) who are under 5 feet tall, so I was able to measure up against them to get a sense of my birth mothers’ height. We also fantasized that Magic Johnson was my birthfather, since he and I are similar in three ways – same race, basketball players, and smiles that take up half our face. It was comforting to grow up knowing that I wasn’t alone in my curiosity about my origins. It felt as though my family members were as curious as me, and vice versa regarding the birth families of my siblings.
Popular culture likes to believe that adopting kids at a young enough age will guarantee a “blank slate,” and that adoption is only traumatic for those who have experienced neglect and/or abuse in their early childhood. However, psychologists know this not to be true. I felt that my parents intuitively understood this, though much of this research wasn’t widely known during my childhood. I did not experience any abuse while in foster-care, however I have still encountered a deep well of longing to know my roots. This can only be explained through the lens of the trauma of being removed from my birth mom at birth.
For my 30th birthday, my parents gifted me with an Ancestry.com DNA kit, as they truly realized this need for me to more fully know my heritage, and any ancestral information that I possibly can. I know that if this resource were available in my childhood, my parents would’ve suggested that I do it then, to fill in some answers.
My heart is warmed knowing that my parents keep in touch with my birth family. My birth mother was recently able to attend a large family BBQ in Washington State. She was treated as just another member of our family. I loved it.
Q: What was the hardest part of life growing up as a [transracial] adoptee? Did your parents help you navigate through that time and if so, how?
Not having access to information that is rightfully mine has always been an enormous struggle. This is an issue for many adoptees, not just those who are transracially adopted. Having to say or write “I’m adopted” at the top of every medical form, or each time a doctor asks “Does ______ (high blood pressure/diabetes/haemochromatosis run in your family?” Ugh. It feels to be such an in-your-face reminder that I was unlike the majority of people in society, who are not triggered by standard medical office forms. It makes me want to shout, “You are wondering about my medical history!?! You? I lay awake in bed at night wondering if my birthparents can roll their tongues, or if they have Hitchhiker’s thumbs! I wonder about this stuff all the time!”
One document that I’ve always wanted (and still don’t have) is my original birth certificate. The original birth certificate states my birthmother’s name as my mother and I assume the birth father line is left blank, and my name would’ve been listed as “Baby Girl.” Instead, I only have a birth certificate that states my adoptive parents as the people who birthed me, and my current (maiden) name. Gross. And unfair. And, a governmentally approved lie.
I did apply for my original birth certificate through the Office of Vital Records at the State Department in Tennessee. The application along with a couple hundred dollars produced another redacted birth certificate, with my adoptive parents name on it.
Q: Talk to me about racial role models and the importance of them.
Although our community was predominantly white, the inside of our home was racially diverse. Not just in terms of my siblings, but the trinkets, music, literature and decor around the home. It was common for Ebony Magazine to be next to The New Yorker. My piano books contained traditional black lullabies, Black, Asian and White Santa’s adorned the Christmas wrapping paper, and in the pre-internet days, my mom looked through countless shopping magazines to find Cabbage Patch dolls that more closely matched our skin tones. I think she also wrote the Band-Aid people, and encouraged them to consider clear Band-Aids!
I do wish I could’ve been surrounded by more people of color, as my immediate community still looks very similar to what I grew up seeing. Although it was thrilling to finally see my kin, I was shocked and overwhelmed to see a face that looks so much like me. I experienced the effects of culture shock being in the south, and surrounded by people of my same skin tone. I definitely feel more comfortable in white spaces, even though that feels embarrassing to admit.
Q: Did you have kids in your classroom/church/community that were your race? If not, how did that make you feel? When did you begin to notice skin color?
Having white teachers and learning in an education environment of predominantly white classmates made me wonder if some of the history lessons were sanitized in a way that felt a little more comfortable for those doing the teaching. I felt deep skepticism while studying black history in grade school. I remember being acutely aware of my racial difference during these lessons, and experiencing a sort of anxiety – my skin got hot, and my cheeks flush. I thought I’d be called out to explain the entire American history of my race. I’m not sure that this ever happened, but it’s such a distinguished memory, that it might as well have happened.
I suppose, there was never a time when I didn’t notice my own race. That’s part of the definition of being a minority. I know that I questioned early on why there weren’t any black families that stepped up to adopt me. My parents explained that the doctor’s assessments of my potential medical issues deterred everyone from adopting me, which is one reason why I ended up being adopted to the other side of the country. This line of questioning led to further conversations about the disproportionate numbers of kids of color that need adopting, and the number of adoptive parents who are white. Next came a discussion about the American history of race relations, and the criminalization of the black race, leading to the high numbers of black men in prison, and unable to care for their children. Even in adulthood, I continue to explore this question – perhaps I’m also simply curious how life would’ve looked different. I likely wouldn’t have married a white man (so odd/sad/weird to think about).
Q: Did you feel comfortable talking to your parents about racism? Did you experience racism? Why did or did you not feel comfortable talking with them about it?
Yes, discussing race was simply another topic of conversation at the dinner table. Not just black and white race relations, but since my family was so racially diverse, we were prompted to discuss many different cultures, ethnicities, heritage, cultural practices etc.
Although never stated explicitly, I don’t feel that my parents partook in the “color blind” parenting approach. When I see parents employing this style of parenting, what is actually being communicated is that they don’t see that bad, ‘colored’ part of the child. AKA, the black part. Assuming these parents are well intentioned, it still occurs to me that one of the basic tenets of anti-racism is to understand that although one has not chosen to be socialized into racism, no one is neutral or exempt from it. To not act against racism is to support racism, thus the color blind philosophy cannot remain. Since true human objectivity is impossible, parents must reject the urge to avoid sounding prejudice by making this statement.
My dad was/is a history buff, so it was comforting to know that I could ask him about topics like voting rights, or the history of interracial marriage, and this would not scare him away. There wasn’t any shame in approaching these truths of our American racial history, and the role that we play.
Q: What kinds of loss are associated with being a transracial adoptee?
Loss is inherent within any type of adoption. By definition, transracial adoptees lose their birth culture. In addition to losing our culture, there is an unspoken rule that adoptees should be grateful to [likely] climb the social ranks simply by being grafted in to a new family. However, we cannot leave our birth families lifestyles, class, race, and culture and simply enter another without confusion, anger, along with some pieces of thankfulness or gratitude. Transracial adoptees have to learn how to hold the privilege and burden of our many complex and crisscrossing narratives. It’s the ever-present awareness of more than one self. W.E.B. du Bois called this “double consciousness.” Being a naturally gifted athlete, and one of the few black people in my school resulted in a growing fear of fulfilling a stereotype bias. I wondered how I could be both an introverted, book-lover in a city that saw me as a black athlete who was saved from a life of poverty?
Another loss I feel is being unable to easily converse with members of my birth family. Even though we all speak English, we struggled to understand each other. She, [my birth mother], feels that my language is whitewashed, while I struggled to understand her southern slang. We both felt this barrier to be unjust, confusing and unfair as we feel a simultaneous magnetic pull and genetic link to each other.
Q: Lastly: what is something you hope all transracial [adoptive] parents would hear, listen to, and know? If you could sit us all down and tell us something you wished your parents knew or that they did practice, what would it be?
Once transracial adoptees enter adulthood and leave the home, and can no longer be easily identified as part of a transracial family (AKA, associated with safe, white people), they/we are just black people in a racialized world. For me, my choice to attend a predominantly white, small, Christian college did not make sense to my college peers. I received lots of questions, such as, “Where are you from!?” Or offers to be placed in the university marketing material, AKA, the token black person. However, for me it was quite natural to fit in amongst a community of white people. But, my new friends at the university wouldn’t know that unless they learned about my adoption story. And this is where the oppression begins. Feeling the need to share my full story in order for people to make sense of my existence is infuriating, and the source for many transracial adult adoptees’ identity crises.
Time and again I hear from white adoptive/foster parents who had not heard of or believed in white privilege until they adopted or fostered a child of color. They cite how different they were treated once their child joined their family. I feel it to be incredibly problematic that folks adopt kids of color prior to understanding their own place in American culture, as that means they are placing the burden of being educated on their children, but passing it off as their experience.
Also, I strongly encourage transracial adoptive parents to seek out the voices of those who have the lived experience. There are many adult adoptees that are lending their voices, and bravely sharing their experiences, via film, blogs, books, public speaking etc.
Angela Tucker is a nationally-recognized thought leader on transracial adoption and is an advocate for adoptee rights. She was recently named “Seattle’s Smartest Global Women.” In 2013, at the age of 26, Angela’s own story of adoption and search for her birth parents was featured in the groundbreaking documentary, CLOSURE, which is available on Netflix, iTunes & Kweli TV. Angela earned a B.A. in Psychology from Seattle Pacific University and currently works as the Post-Adoption Program Manager at Amara.
The Adopted Life (www.theadoptedlife.com) began as a personal blog that allowed Angela to process publicly her emotions and experience as a transracial adoptee; a means by which she hoped to build a community of other adoptees growing up in closed adoptions. Since its launch in 2009, The Adopted Life has grown in readership and purview, and is now the name and platform for The Adopted Life miniseries.
Angela’s work has catapulted her into her becoming a sought-after keynote speaker for adoption and child welfare-based organizations. Elements of her story have also been featured on Slate, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360, HuffPost Live, Huffington Post, New York Times, and Washington Post.