All parents basically want the same things for their kids, right? Good health, happiness, opportunities—to be loved someday by someone as much as we love them right now. We try to teach our children well and raise them right. We encourage them to try their best in school. We raise them to be good little people in the hopes that they will grow into good big people someday.
For transracial families, it sometimes feels as though there is an extra want involved in that we also want our children to be treated fairly—in an oftentimes unfair world—or at least treated just the same as any other kid is treated at home, in the neighborhood, at school, and someday in the workforce by our family, friends, and the people in our neighborhoods.
Not that this want is a bullet point that an adoptive parent would bring up to a friend over coffee or when complaining about the back-to-school cold that’s going around or how much homework Joey has on a weekend, or plotting and planning how to balance the overtime that’s coming up with running the kids to activities. But for some transracial adoptive families who have experienced negativity, the basic want of wanting the world to receive your family like any other family is a real thing.
When we decided to pursue transracial adoption, I had never even heard of the term or probably more likely, I did hear the word, but didn’t process it in that way we do when something impacts us in a direct and intimate way. It may sound naive, but I was focused on the child and not the country of origin or the race. No, I’m not color-blind, nor do I not understand how borders work, but when you’re in the thick of adoption and your heart and mind are thoroughly invested in becoming a family to a child, sometimes the technicalities fall to the wayside.
I certainly never envisioned my children ever being on the receiving end of racially-motivated stereotyping and I certainly never envisioned myself sitting in a principal’s office some 12 years later talking about racism and how to promote positive experiences for transracial adoptees and minorities in a school setting.
The Family Education website defines transracial adoption as “the situation in which a family adopts a child of another race. Generally, transracial adoption specifically alludes to whites adopting African-American children.” However, it’s important to note that transracial adoption is not limited to whites adopting African-American children and that the term can be applied to children adopted of any other race that is not the same as their adoptive parents. Adoption.com’s article “Transracial Adoption” says, “The decision to create a multicultural family is not one that should be taken lightly.”
What better way to break down the walls of racism, stereotypes, and misunderstandings than by people of different races living together as a family within the same four walls? And then to be able to share these transracial experiences with extended family and friends to breakdown myths and stereotypes? You would think anyway, right? But it’s not that simple.
Although often controversial, transracial adoption can be a beautiful thing. It can also be a confusing reality for adopted children. And although acceptance of transracial families has come a long way, depending on what part of the world, country, county, or neighborhood you live in, you may find yourself scratching your head when faced with a confrontation that seems like something that may have happened 55 years ago when black and white children were still segregated to different schools. This head-scratching confrontation smacked me square in the face not too long ago, reminding me that although my family and friends are comfortable with transracial adoption and families—many other people aren’t.
Despite many great strides since the civil rights movement was initiated by heroic Southern blacks in the 1950s and ’60s, discussions about race remain awkward and uncomfortable for many folks, even in 2019. Tension caused by racial, ethnic, religious, and social class remains an underlying and low-boil issue around the world. And despite ongoing social and legal changes, we’ve got a long way to go.
Being the mom of two transracial adoptees, I understood going into our adoption, from the time we began education and training, what we were getting ourselves into (well, sort of), but I don’t think I completely understood (I know now that I didn’t) what we were getting all of us (our children included) into. That’s not to say that I regret our adoption decision in any way or view transracial adoption in a negative way. It just means that like most things associated with adoption—or parenting for that matter—it is a learn-as-you-go situation that sometimes leave you with your mouth hanging open just a little every once in a while. With two tweens in two, I have plenty of non-adoption-related situations to deal with on any given day and am surprised my jaw is still attached at this point.
Early in our adoption journey, when we (my husband and I) first recognized some somewhat carefully packaged racial comments coming our way, I think it’s safe to say that we found ourselves suddenly aware of just how hurtful certain words can be when considered from an entirely different perspective (that of a prospective adoptive parent). The fact that our child’s place of birth, race, or color seemed to stir up, let’s say negative or rude or inaccurate comments from people in our then-circles was disturbing and disappointing. In Adoption.com’s “How To Answer Ignorant Questions About Your Adoptive Family,” author Natalie Brenner talks about responding to ignorant questions with grace and understanding while protecting your family. This is sometimes easier said than done. And that’s not to say that all transracial adoptive families experience ignorant questions—but count yourselves lucky if you fall into that category and do not turn a blind eye to the possibility that your child will not experience ignorance when they’re not safely by your side.
Over the years, we have found ourselves forced to make split-second decisions—when a stranger or someone who doesn’t seem to know any better has inserted their foot in their mouth. Thankfully, this has not been the norm, but even a couple of times can feel like too many and I’ve found that you have a choice to take the bait and bite back or take the time to educate another person in the hopes that they will recognize that what they have just said may, in fact, be hurtful or rude or both. One of the most important pieces of advice that I was given as a parent of an adopted child is that it is us who provides an example to our children on how to deal with negative people and negative situations. I would rather show my children how to calmly and coolly ignore or walk away from someone with bad intent than to allow negative people and negative situations to influence my well-being and self-worth and certainly, I want the same for my girls.
I’m happy to say that my girls are proud of who they are and where they come from. They are confident in a room full of peers no matter the level (or lack thereof) of diversity. That is not to say that I am not 100 percent aware that they know they have different features than many of their friends and that unlike their friends’ families who resemble one another, when we walk into a school function it’s pretty clear that my girls did not inherit mine nor my husband’s dashing good looks (that’s a joke, people) or that there are people out there who could use my kids’ transracial adoptee status against them in some way or another.
I am also well aware that an adoptive parent’s experiences with transracial adoption are completely different than that of an adoptee who finds himself living with parents who cannot possibly understand what it feels like to be a transracial adoptee, as author MK Menon writes in her opinion piece, “This Is Us Gets The Complexities Of Transracial Adoption.”
Despite the fact that our district was mainly “white” when we enrolled the girls as kindergarteners, we had heard good things from other adoptive families and felt certain our family would do okay, too. Interestingly enough, since the girls started school way back when, the diversity among classmates has changed and grown pretty dramatically.
Early on, we followed the advice of fellow families in our adoption support group and made sure to be open about our children’s adoptions, their birth country, their culture; and we did our best to inject their birth culture into our daily lifestyle through music, art, and food, as well as holidays and special days. We were told this would be good for them in that instilling a sense of pride leads to self-confidence and higher self-esteem—two things no school-aged child should leave home without. I have to say that it was good for us, too—good for all of us, really, to come together as a family. We have always encouraged our kids to know and learn as much about their birth country and heritage as is possible and do our best to participate in community events just as much as we encourage and share with them stories of both sides of our families joined by marriage—relatives no longer with us, traditions, and stories of days gone by. We are a proud melting pot family.
Our oldest took it upon herself at age 5 to present to her kindergarten class about where she was from after a couple of classmates began asking why she didn’t resemble me (I would occasionally visit the class to help with art projects). Although I don’t think she was hurt or offended by this at 5 years old, I know it annoyed her to “stick out.” No kid wants to stick out. So, in response, she put the fire out by proudly wearing her birth country’s flag as a cape and talking to her entire class about how she went from living there to living here with us. A few years later, our youngest created and presented her classmates with a sort of FAQ quiz about her birth country as an assignment, sharing important historical facts, famous figures, and pop culture “Did you knows?” We’ve had many conversations about color and race and ethnicity over the years based on the subject matters they’re learning about. One of the more serious discussions I’ve had with my youngest came right after her second-grade class watched a movie about Ruby Bridges. The story had made quite an impact on her and left her feeling very upset for Ruby as well as anyone else who has ever been treated less than simply due to skin color. She was moved a couple of years later to write a story about race and color and being comfortable in one’s skin on the heels of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
And although these are positive and hopeful facts, my girls know that if something does come up (as a few minor things have), we are here to listen and help. We are thankful, too, that they have many peers to turn to through our adoption support group who understand and know better than anyone what it feels like to live the life of a transracial adoptee.
Because of the curriculum and assignments, as well as a pretty transparent faculty and staff, we never felt that our children were at risk for feeling out of place or facing discrimination from teachers or students. Still, as mentioned earlier, I experienced an incident not too long ago near their school over the summer that left me scratching my head and second-guessing what year I was living in and more so, made me question my children’s comfort and safety in school.
Without going into detail, because I’m not giving credence to what was said, I will say that it was threatening in nature, I decided I’d check in with our school to hear their thoughts and requested a face-to-face to see what sort of policies and measures are in place to support transracial adoptees and every other group of kids who face a higher risk of discrimination and bullying.
What I discovered is that the faculty and staff were well ahead of me and shared all of my concerns. I was told that any child who happens to find themselves in an uncomfortable or threatening position due to racial or discriminatory issues can and should approach any authority figure at the school and direct action will be taken.
I was happy to hear that they begin programs as early as fifth grade and are working to start even earlier into elementary school to promote positive experiences for children of all racial backgrounds. And I do believe that all races should be included in this mix—if we focus all efforts on one group over another then we are, essentially, doing nothing to move forward together. The school explained that talking at kids and facilitating formal programs didn’t seem to pack as much of a punch or have much of an impact and so they’d initiated a more hands-on program of encouraging kids to take part in small group sharing circles where each child has a few minutes to talk about themselves and get to know one another in a setting designed to help classmates see beyond color and other potential social barriers—to get to know a person from the inside—breaking down stereotypes and preconceived notions about the outside.
“People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Additionally, the school invites speakers and high school students to address their younger peers with personal stories of being a minority through elementary and middle school in the hope of learning and growing together through shared experiences.
And while the district is still lacking in the multicultural staff to student ratio, they are aware of that fact, too, and looking at ways to ensure all students feel welcome, comfortable, and understood in their school surroundings.
How Can We Promote Positive Experiences In The Classroom?
While I didn’t and still don’t expect my kids’ school to have all the answers when it comes to promoting positive experiences for all students, I was encouraged to hear about what is already in place and that they are open to and willing to do even more with so much on their plate already. I do think all schools need to make an effort to incorporate inclusive programs to minimize any form of discrimination (as much as that is possible) in our places of learning, where our children should feel safe, welcome, and inspired—not made to feel less than, scared, or demeaned.
And I hate to use the word discrimination or the “R” word, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist or doesn’t happen does a great disservice to all of the children who may not be in a progressive district or who do not have the tools to handle themselves in uncomfortable situations.
And so while it’s important for parents and schools to work closely together on the school front, it’s even more important for parents of transracial adoptees to take the lead on the home front as early as possible—to arm your children with understanding, confidence, and instruction on what to do should it happen to you.
Building your transracial child up with self-esteem overload—showing them their self-worth and that it’s more than okay to be proud of their history, culture, color, and what they bring to the table as an individual will last longer and go further than any temporary program.
That said, probably one of the most important steps a school can take in promoting positive experiences is to acknowledge that racism and discrimination is occurring—perhaps not blatantly enough that it is called out for what it is, but that there are kids on the receiving end of negative remarks as a result of the way they speak, what they eat, or how they dress. And accepting that a problem exists is a strength, not a sign of weakness or failure. We have only failed our children and our students when we do nothing.
The blog post that addresses talking about race and disability recommends having “courageous conversations” as dialogues that engage others—in spite of interpersonal discomfort—in order to challenge the assumptions, biases, and accepted structures of racism. Adoptive parents may also consider having these conversations at home, which involve staying engaged, expecting and accepting non-closure, speaking your truth, and experiencing discomfort.
It is only by having discussions that we can find the best solutions.
The blog post “6 Way To Prevent Racism In Schools” offers straightforward advice to educators, including topics such as self-awareness, professional development, culturally relevant teaching, explicit lessons on race and conflict resolution, awareness of how racial bias impacts discipline, and community partnerships.
I was especially interested in the importance the article placed on building community partnerships because our children’s experiences with racial adversity don’t stop on graduation day. Inviting community organizations into our schools to take part in shaping racial equality and molding culturally diverse settings early on forces us all to put our money where our mouths are—not just to K through 12th grade, but to graduates and young professionals, reinforcing the whole point of the 1964 Civil Rights Act guaranteeing equal access to education that so many worked so hard for. Schools and families alike must continue to work together to support and promote through our actions and not just our words, the promotion of positive experiences and equality inside and outside of the classroom.
It’s my wish that transracial adoptive families never have to read articles on how to respond to rude questions and statements or that parents don’t need to prepare a child for the backlash they may receive simply for being a transracial adoptee. However, having spoken to many other families of transracial adoptees who have found the need to do both, I highly recommend that all parents check with their school to see what measures are in place in your child. If you’re not satisfied, don’t be afraid to push for more work to be done. Whether or not you’re satisfied, make sure to talk about these issues at home, early on, and to take the necessary steps to build up your child from the inside out. What’s most important is that the adoptive community and school community continue to collaborate to make positive progress to promote positive experiences for all students at school.
“Don’t follow the path. Go where there is no path and begin the trail. When you start a new trail equipped with courage, strength and conviction, the only thing that can stop you is you!” – Ruby Bridges