While race has always been a difficult yet relevant conversation in the history of the United States and adoption, this conversation has become extremely prominent in recent months. I am not here to talk about all the ways in which racism affects Americans (and even non-Americans) in the United States today because a quick google search would be more effective at making that point. However, I can talk about how growing up in a transracial family has affected me personally, as well as advice I have for conversing about race in an effective, productive way.
Recognizing the Reality of Racism
This past year, I got into a brutal argument with my seventh-grade teacher (not one of my finest moments). The argument was over her belief that racism in the United States is no longer a problem. She claimed that I would never experience racism the way she did in the 1960s. She also asked me why I hated White people when I was raised by two Caucasian people, simply because I was arguing that racism is still alive and well today. As a transracial adoptee, that comment really bothered me. I kept thinking: “She would not have said that to me if I was biologically connected to my parents.” The fact that my parents’ races were weaponized against me in an attempt to make me deny racism was not one of the nicest moments I have experienced as an adopted person. My seventh-grade teacher does not know how many times I have been nicknamed things like “Ling Ling,” how many times someone has told me to go back to my country, and especially right now, how many times I have been personally blamed for starting the coronavirus. Denying racism, especially to a person who has experienced microaggressions and prejudice for being non-White, is one of the most invalidating experiences. I truly recommend that if you are not going to acknowledge that your child may experience racism, even if they grow up with two Caucasian parents, that you do not adopt a child of color.
Being a Chinese person with white parents has a lot of subtle racial nuances. To a lot of people, I was the helpless orphan from the savage country, and my parents were the heroic White civilized Americans who saved me. This is called White Saviorism–the idea that White people rescue non-White people from dire situations. While I am thrilled to be adopted and thankful for my parents, I hate this trope. I was not/am not uncivilized just because I was born in China, and the idea that my parents “saved” me is one that I think is inaccurate and, frankly, a little rude. Understanding how adopting a child of color can be construed as White Saviorism is the key to shutting it down and ensuring your child never feels like you adopted them solely because you wanted the ego boost of “saving them.”
Parents, but especially the white parents of children of color, should recognize racism in the forms of microaggressions, prejudice, and full-blown hate crimes and stress how wrong it is. My parents talked to me about it when I was in elementary school (because it affected me in elementary school). Still, some parents wait until middle school, high school, or just whenever the child starts asking questions like “Why do I not look like you or some of my friends?” By explaining to them that there are hateful people in the country who judge people by their appearances, hopefully, if the child does face racist comments or microaggressions in the future, they will understand that these comments do not reflect on their character but rather, the ignorance of other people.
White Parents Need To Acknowledge They Will Not Fully Understand
My sister and I went to a small private school from Kindergarten to 8th grade. While my hometown has gotten more diverse in recent years, my sister and I were two of about four or five non-White children who attended our school of about 300 students when we first started there. The first time one of my classmates pulled his eyes back at me, a racist gesture which “mimics” Asian people’s eyes, I remember being confused because he was this slender White boy who had smaller eyes than I did. Seven-year-old me never registered that that gesture was rude until I was sitting in the principal’s office with my classmate after our teacher had caught him pulling his eyes back at me again.
However, the second time I wound up in the principal’s office for this same issue was much more memorable because I was older and angrier about the situation. My sister, a maybe third or fourth-grader at the time, was truly the only fully Asian child in her class of 36 students. This rich White girl, known for being a bully, used her thumbs to pull back her nose and index fingers to pull back her eyes. While doing this, she looked straight at my sister and called her “a Chinese pig.” Obviously, my sister was hurt by this. Even if she did not understand the eye gesture (which she likely did because it had happened to me before), she did not appreciate being called a pig. I remember finding her in the principal’s office with my parents and the girl. The girl’s parents apologized, but no disciplinary action was taken against her because “she was too young to understand the implications of what she was doing.” However, I completely disagree. If a child can understand racism because they are the target of it, other children can understand not to be perpetrators of it.
One thing that is important to know about being adopted by two Caucasian parents as a non-White person is that I know for a fact my parents never have and never will experience nearly a fraction of the racist microaggressions I have experienced already. My parents are not racist in the slightest: they both work in neighborhoods labeled as “the ghetto” that are notoriously populated with Black and Latinx people, and they have seen racism within these communities for decades. However, my parents themselves have never experienced racism in the way that my sister and I have or how the people of color in the communities they work in have. Because of this, they will never truly understand how racism affected my sister and me growing up. They do try, though, and that is important. If my sister and I got picked on at school for something, my parents wanted us to fight our own battles and ask the classmate to stop. Only in cases where the kid refused to stop and the bullying really got out of hand would my parents step in and speak to school administrators and other parents. However, in any instance where my sister and I were picked on because of our race, both my parents would be in the principal’s office that same day, demanding that the administrators confront the parents and ensure that it never happens again.
In retrospect, I think my parents got so upset when we were bullied based on our race because they were overcompensating. They almost felt bad they would never be able to understand and wanted to make sure we knew there was nothing wrong with being Asian, so they would make a big deal when other kids made us feel lesser. I do not think they ever needed to feel bad because I think they did everything right. They are both actively anti-racist, but more importantly, neither of them tells me how to act or how to feel in situations like the ones I mentioned above. They never told me what to do or how I should react because they respected that I was going through something they never personally experienced. Even though it was hard sometimes to process it alone, my parents’ more passive support helped me deal with it better.
Passion and Understanding
As an Asian person, I have always been “the model minority.” Unlike the other minorities, I was hard-working, intelligent, unproblematic, and reserved (this stereotype is also racist to other minorities, by the way). Growing up, most of my friends were White. They were good friends, but I still received my fair share of microaggressions, even from them. They used to call me “banana” because I was yellow on the outside, white on the inside. They also used to call me “Panda Express” because I was an inauthentic Asian. When I started driving, they made jokes about how I would be one of those Asian women drivers who constantly get in car accidents because I could not see through my small eyes (my driving record is clean, for the record). Little things like that bothered me slightly, but not enough to confront them or tell my parents. Of course, I did not want my parents to blow up at my friends or their parents. And to be honest, I probably said things back to them that were equally prejudiced (such as making fun of their dancing or calling them culture-less). I just brushed it off, thinking it would end as my friends got older and realized how insensitive the comments were.
This past year, I have realized that these comments do not go away as children get older if parents do not tell their children that it is wrong. But, as they say, you cannot change other people; you can only change your reactions to them and interactions with them. My parents started watching the news together every night as a result of the first COVID lockdown. As the Asian hate crimes started climbing because Chinese people were being blamed for the virus, my parents got more and more angry. They would call the people idiots and yell at them for not wearing masks in public when committing these hate crimes. They would also talk about how pathetic it was that these people blamed an entire race for a disease. They do not know that I would listen to them and just laugh at their reactions. While it was funny, it was also oddly validating to hear them getting so worked up about the racist acts done against Asians–it was nice to know they cared even though they did not talk to me directly about it. The interest and passion they showed while yelling at the television made me feel like even though it did not personally affect them, they were still bothered by it.
My parents were also very understanding when I decided to distance myself from one friend whose humor revolved mainly around racist jokes. The jokes were almost constant–every time my friend who was African American hung out with us, this other friend would make jokes about slavery and tell him to go back to the cotton fields where he belonged. Things like that made me uncomfortable, even though I know they were meant as jokes (lesson: do not make racist jokes the center of your humor). Having my parents support the fact that I was cutting this friend off, even though they both seemed to like him, made me feel like they both understood and respected me as both a daughter and an Asian person who was tired of hearing jokes about her eyes. Showing empathy and understanding to children can go a long way, and respecting their decisions validates that they are their own person. Because they respected this decision, I was more open with them when I experienced microaggressions or racism going forward.
In conclusion, race is something that should be talked about as it affects everyone. In my experience, the best way to communicate about race with people who are not the same race as you is by acknowledging and validating that they have their own beliefs and experiences. Talking with transracial adoptees about their race and explaining that they are wonderful as they are can help children prepare for any racism they may experience in the future and understand that their race is not something to be ashamed of but rather something to embrace.