Lion: An Extraordinary Journey of Love, Loss and Courage

Stephanie Kripa-Cooper Lewter (Photo Credit: Russell Adair Photography)

Dr. Stephanie Kripa-Coooper Lewter is an Indian-American social worker, life coach, speaker, author and philanthropist. She came to America as a toddler through international adoption from an orphanage in India giving her tender heart a deep desire at a young age to understand her “why.” Believing a person’s present circumstances never determines their ultimate destiny in life, her life’s work is to uplift, connect and inspire. She is co-founder of Lost Sarees, along with Founder and National Chair of Roshni, Lost Sarees’ National Women’s Giving Circle that connects women with South Asian heritage to give, serve and lead. In 2017, she penned a “Manifesto for the Adoptee’s Soul” as a gift for Dear Adoption. She has also written online for Lost Daughters and Masala Mommas. She is the recipient of the 2012 Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation Award by St. John’s Adoption Initiative which explored the identity journeys of women adopted transnationally as children in their quest for authenticity and connection. In 2012, she co-authored a chapter with her daughter, “Beautiful,” in Parenting as Adoptees. In 2013, she wrote the forward to An-Ya and Her Diary: Reader and Parent Guide, “Dedicated To Nikhila And The Nikhila’s Of The World.” Coaching and Positive Psychology Institute graduate and former President/CEO of a nonprofit youth mentoring organization, she can be followed and reached here.

On Christmas Day, I watched Lion with my family and it shook me to my core. Poignant, soul-wrenching and stunning with powerful acting, breathtaking cinematography and a touching musical score, Lion is deserving of its multiple nominations and awards. Actors Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel’s magnificent performances are bound to steal your heart.

Based on a true story, 5 year-old Saroo Munshi Khan (Sunny Pawar) falls asleep waiting for his older brother Guddu to return for him at an Indian train station. After awaking, he walks onto an empty train carriage thinking Guddu may be there and falls back to sleep. He later realizes the train is in motion. When Saroo is finally able to unboard, he is nearly 1,000 miles away from home in Calcutta where a completely different language is spoken. Escaping weeks of harrowing experiences living on Calcutta’s streets, then one of many children at Liluah Juvenile Home, Saroo is eventually brought to the Nava Jeevan orphanage. He is adopted by Sue and John Brierley in Australia. As he adjusts, he longs for a sibling to play with, and later Mantosh joins the Brierleys through adoption from India also. Midway through the film, grown-up Saroo (Dev Patel) embarks on the college journey. Encounters with other international Indian students triggers memories of his mother Kamla, Guddu and little sister Shekila. Introduced to Google Earth, he begins the painstakingly slow process of searching for his hometown and family.

It’s unrealistic for one film to portray the full complexities of poverty, loss and adoption that Saroo’s single story holds. While there were departures from Saroo Brierley’s 250-page memoir, A Long Way Home, adapting his story to film, I applaud the way Lion keeps Saroo’s perspective as an adoptee central (although adoptive parent savior and rescuing themes emerge based on how Saroo frames his story to the world — see Chapter 4 in Saroo’s book entitled “Salvation”). Lion gets many aspects right about the adoption journey and is especially heart-rending for Indian adoptees and others transnationally adopted. Many can relate to the awkwardness of being asked to introduce who we are and where we are from, or the sleepless nights spent wondering about our families far beyond our reach oceans a part. Lion eloquently captured on screen the longing and pull upon my soul to find my Indian family and the reunion I have dreamed about a million times in my heart.

Lion also affirms quietly the following truths:

  1. Children can be active agents of change in their lives when listened to. Saroo told multiple adults in Calcutta he was lost, that his home was really far, and he needed help to find his mother only to be dismissed, taken advantage of or misunderstood. Saroo remained so clear about his family even after experiencing emotional trauma that separation bears. Too many adults he reached out to — especially those in authority — did so little to listen and care.
  2. A mother’s grief when a child goes missing is unfathomable. Kamla tried to find Saroo for years spending any little spare money she had to look for him and remained in the neighborhood believing he would one day return. Kamla couldn’t read or write and newspapers notices of Saroo’s whereabouts never reached her. Such grief she endured for so many years without any closure on how her son disappeared. More must be done to reunite children with their families who have lost a child that has gone missing or is trafficked.
  3. Children who are adopted are not blank pages; they arrive with a past. Whether adopted on the first day of life, at five or 15 years of age, adopted children join their families connected to a past. Saroo’s strong instincts, agency and survival skills before being separated from his family, undoubtedly helped him stay alive when he lived on Calcutta’s streets alone. His brother Mantosh arrived to Australia with a completely different history and trauma. Adoption professionals and adoptive families should ensure a child’s background history is honored and not ignored.
  4. The desire to search is healthy. Family and societal norms often impose a gratitude narrative upon adoptees expressed by the lengths many adoptees take to shield their adopted parents or family members from their desire to search. This underestimates the capacity adoptees have to simultaneously love multiple families, places and homes. Greater resources are needed for adoptees who are searching.
  5. Processing the losses and gains that accompany adoption is an ever-changing, lifelong journey. Time changes many things including how we feel about adoption as new life experiences shift how we look at the world. Saroo’s perspective will likely continue to evolve when new questions undoubtedly emerge as it does for so many adoptees who are navigating the complexities of reunion.

Dev Patel as Saroo Brierley and Priyanka Bose as Kamla in “Lion.” Photo Credit: The Weinstein Company

A few weeks ago, I watched Lion again, this time with several Indian women whose friendships I treasure: Poornema, Anuradha and Jyothi. Although we do not share the adoption journey, we share so many other aspects of our identities together – as daughters, sisters, wives, mothers and immigrants in America. The universal themes in Lion of family, loss, identity and a mother’s love and search for home touched their hearts. We cried together as Saroo and Kamla finally embrace 25 years later after so many endless days and sleepless nights searching. As the credits finished rolling, their presence, hugs and heartfelt words conveyed to me that they understood, more deeply, the quiet ache my heart holds. They know first-hand the intricate contradictions and complexities that growing up in India holds.

Lion is a must-see film for those in the adoption constellation. It’s also for anyone who has felt the love of a mother, sibling or a child. Lion reminds us to never give up on unspoken dreams for our families despite impossible odds. I will never stop searching for my Indian family although the likelihood of a reunion grows infinitely smaller with each passing year. Unlike Saroo, I have nothing – no names, words or memories – to guide me home. We adoptees are so much more than what happened to us even amidst our deepest heartaches and losses that shape part of who we are in this world. Ultimately, Lion shows us that love transcends borders and the courage it takes to listen and follow one’s heart.

Watch the Lion trailer below.

 

If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

From Paper Trail to DNA: an Australian-Vietnamese Adoptee’s Search for Kin

For many adopted people, adoption can feel like a series of transactions. According to DAI’s research and knowledge base of lived experiences, we understand that adoption is a lifelong journey that requires professionals and everyone in the extended family to be educated, have access to resources and act with openness. Our vital work in adoption allows us to meet and connect with members of the community from around the world. We were thrilled to meet Dominic Hong Duc Golding and we are honored that he chose to share his personal journey with us.

As an “Operation Babylift” adoptee, I was one of the 3,000 children from who were evacuated from Vietnam to America, Europe and Australia in April 1975. I was formally adopted in 1977 and grew up on a sheep farm in rural Australia. In 2000, I moved to Melbourne to work with Vietnamese youths as a theater and media arts worker. My show Shrimp (2007) was performed for high school senior dramatic arts students across Victoria. It was an autobiographical work on my travels in Vietnam and being raised in a white family. I provide anti-racism and cultural awareness training to prospective parents in Victoria’s Department of Health and Human Services’ (DHHS) adoption program in addition to social workers on the complexity of searching for overseas first/birth parents.

In my work with Family Information Networks and Discovery (FIND), I handled social worker folders at DHHS archives. This prompted me to retrieve my own South Australian adoption file. All it contained were translations of Australian adoption documents.  My file doesn’t contain any information from the South Vietnamese government. I found to be very disappointing. This experience has led me to become a Committee of Management member of VANISH (Victorian Adoption Network for Information and Self Help). The President of VANISH states:

“Victoria’s adoption laws were significantly amended in 1984 after much lobbying by individuals and grassroots organizations. The Victorian Adoption Act 1984 introduced ground breaking reforms to information access provisions – namely retrospective access for adults who were adopted as children to their previously sealed records, including original birth certificate, original name and identifying information about their parents. It also introduced ‘open’ arrangements for subsequent adoptions.”

“VANISH was established in 1989 in response to demand following implementation of the Adoption Act 1984. Since 1990, the Victorian Government has continuously funded VANISH to provide search and support services to people affected by adoption. VANISH has always advocated for the rights and needs of people affected by adoption – particularly adoptees, whether born locally, interstate or overseas.”

“VANISH, along with others, advocated for an Inquiry into past (pre-1980s) unethical and coercive adoption policies and practices, and for those responsible to apologize. This resulted in a series of formal Apologies by the federal and state/territory governments, and some faith-based/non-government agencies.”

“At the time of the Victorian Apology in 2012, the Government undertook to enable parents to seek identifying information about their child. But it also introduced ‘contact statements,’ making it an offence for a parent to contact their adult adopted child if the adoptee specified no contact. VANISH strongly advocated that this was too punitive, and contact statements were subsequently removed in 2015.”

Thanks to the lobbying of organizations like VANISH and the apology by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard, adoptees in Australia have gained better support services since the forced adoptions era. In the area of intercountry adoption, I along with a team from InterCountry Adoptee Voices (ICAV) also lobbied the Australian federal government to provide much long awaited support to intercountry adoptees in searching and counseling. Despite this, intercountry adoption is marked in two ways. One we all know is the absence of identifying information or closed records. Family separation means cultural alienation for the intercountry adoptee. The second is the risks of looking for relatives in the country of origin is surrounded by concerns about trafficking by international adoption agencies, fraud from people finders, war and forced displacement.

According to my records, “Diun Quang” is the first orphanage I was in. Yet those involved in Operation Babylift have never heard of it. An Australian woman involved in the evacuation of children did not even have my adoptive family name on her records or names of families with an allocated child. My visit to the People’s Committee offices in Cho Lon, Saigon’s little Chinatown, turned up nothing as well. This left me pursuing a Family Tree DNA test which was organized by Vietnamese American adoptees at the 40th Anniversary of the Operation Babylift reunion in Saigon in 2015.

Dominic with his 4th cousin Kim

The results or matches led me to meet my 4th cousin in New York last year who is also an adoptee from Vietnam and from the same district of Cho Lon. Vietnamese see the significance of DNA test results as a way to find missing relatives abroad or in Vietnam due to the separation of Vietnam at the 17th parallel into North Vietnam and South Vietnam. For Amerasians and adoptees, DNA tests has been the only way to prove relations to other birth family members when the paper trail leads nowhere or is insufficient to satisfy government endeavors.

Meeting my cousin in New York was transformational. It was a joy to finally meet a blood relative (however distant). It was like meeting a family member one has not seen for a long time. Because of this positive experience, I am less skeptical and less pessimistic. I’d like to re-examine my adoption records with the support of the ISS (International Social Service) – a tracing service supported by the federal government – and use another DNA test. To score closer matches is to discover more about my ancestry.

DNA tests become especially vital when we try to find our fathers: former defense force service personnel. Matches are closer when GIs, children or partners left behind in Vietnam are seeking connections. DNA tests, like adoption record searching, comes with all the emotional pitfalls and ethical dilemmas that adoptees face. Both adoptees and birth family members must address issues around time, failed match results, trauma and complications about attachment and people’s expectations.

Today, I am 42 and have met several birth mothers in Vietnam. A few of my peers have found elderly relatives and extended family members. I am not interested in why I was relinquished. What I seek is a memory of knowing that I’m not a lone orphan of war. “I have a blood relative,” Kim proudly stated to me over soul food in Harlem, New York. I have a cousin.

Dominic Hong Duc Golding is a member of the Committee of Management for VANISH. He created several theater productions (“Shrimp,” “Mr. Saigon” and “Ms. Hanoi”) upon three separate visits to Vietnam. Dominic is also the curator of “Unseen Habitation” (2014) and “Vessels to a Story” (2015) for RISE (a refugee drop-in centre). Follow him on Twitter @golding_dominic.

 

 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

Race, Privilege and Family Relationships

AdoptiveBlackMom – Lisa Greenhill (Photo Credit: Lisa Greenhill)

This is the second guest blog post in our special Black History Month series by AdoptiveBlackMom (Lisa Greenhill). AdoptiveBlackMom is a diversity professional, social science researcher, writer, blogger, mom and full-time smarty pants living in the Washington, D.C. area. Read her first guest blog post, “How I Got Here.” And follow AdoptiveBlackMom on Twitter@AdoptiveBlackMom and like her Facebook page

Hope and I are alike but we are also very different.

We are both black. We both have families from the Southeast of the U.S. We both love music but completely different genres. We both are talented but in very different ways. We both wear our hair naturally —  in its kinky, coily state. And that’s about it.

Most folks who come into contact with us assume that I birthed her; after all we are a same race adoptive family. Folks assume that because I’m educated, then Hope must love school and do well in school. She hates it. Folks assume that Hope is a young, social justice militant like her mom. She’s not. Folks assume that Hope is and always has been comfortable with being in a middle-class home. She’s not but she’s trying to be.

It’s these differences that spark a bit of conflict in our lives. To sort of quote the late author Bebe Moore Campbell, Hope’s black ain’t like mine. When Hope was placed with me at the age of 12 (she’s now 15), we struggled with many things in the early months. After the difficult adjustment episodes passed, we began to realize that our concept of what it meant to be “black” was vastly different.

I grew up in a stable home with both parents who valued education. My mom stayed home with my siblings and I until we were all in school. We took road trip vacations. My father worked overtime to make it all work. Things were tight but never unstable.

Hope never knew that kind of stability, and she didn’t know many, if any, black folks who did. For her, blackness was associated with class — poverty, some homelessness and just getting back economically. She did take a few trips to visit grandparents and extended family in her early years but that was about it. She attached those experiences with being black rather than being poor so her concept of blackness was much narrower than mine. She was happy to be parented by someone who shared her skin color but our experiences were so vastly different that shared color was undermined by class difference. During our first year, she told me it was like I wasn’t even black.

Yeah, she snatched my black card.

Shortly after our adoption was finalized, Hope’s extended birth family found us. We embarked on a relationship with them. Hope began to tell me stories of her early childhood visiting her family and the things they used to do. It was something real and tangible, and it wasn’t just a familiar family lens that Hope viewed these memories through. These were her people and they were a version of black she could relate to.

Only it was different now. Hope had traveled a little. She had a passport. She was seeing a bigger broader world. Hope was solidly middle class and she was learning to lean into her economic privilege.

By the time we went to visit Hope’s family, awkwardness settled in. The rush of emotions was overwhelming — grief, joy, happy memories, sad memories and anger.  It was a lot to process so the conflict between race and class wasn’t initially clear.

But on the long drive home, it certainly became a point of discussion. Hope shared her observations. Our families were very different but also very similar — supportive, loving and encouraging with mutual core values. But we lived differently. Hope was proud of the things we’re able to do but she questioned if her birth family could do those things too. She questioned her grandmother’s living situation. She wondered what life would have been like if she had experienced a kinship adoption.

She tried to reconcile this race/class thing. It was hard for her; it still is several years later. I kept saying that black folks come from all walks of life; there are still some shared experiences, but yeah, this class thing can make race look and maybe feel different.

Our relationship with Hope’s birth family is awkward. Some of our early “grown folks” conversations about Hope explored fighting the finalized adoption and who would have access. I was sympathetic but I was also clear. I welcomed a relationship, but given Hope’s history with her family of origin, I would bury them in court. I’m somewhat shamed by that threat now. Privilege allowed me to make it. Looking back, I now feel like a snobby jerk.

Transracial families aren’t the only ones who may have to struggle with issues of race. Because class issues can overlap race and racial identity so much, those of us in same-race adoptions may also struggle with healthy racial identity development when our children move from one social class to another.

Hope is at an age where she’s trying to create her own identity. She also chooses to align herself and her friendships with all non-black peers. Certainly, there may be a lot of reasons for that, but the class conflict and how that shapes the way Hope sees herself plays a big role in her relationships, including and especially those with her birth family.

Class and privilege shape as much of Hope and my relationship with her birth family as any of the biological connections. We are all a work in progress. As an adoptive parent, I realize how important it is for Hope to have a relationship with her birth family. It’s important for me too. It’s my goal to make it all accessible for this big family of mine. This means teaching my daughter to learn to be aware of her privilege, how to prevent it from negatively affecting her relationships, and finally, how to use her economic privilege for good. It’s another set of lessons and values on a mess of healing, course corrections and personal and family growth, but important, so like with all the other stuff, we’ll do it.

 

 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

How I Got Here

AdoptiveBlackMom is a diversity professional, social science researcher, writer, blogger, mom and full-time smarty pants living in the Washington, D.C. area. Follow her on Twitter @AdoptiveBlackMom and like her Facebook page

There are many writers chronicling their lives as parents and specifically adoptive parents. A quick Google search will turn up thousands of blogs and articles written by adoptive parents discussing their journeys, what they’ve learned, what challenges they experience and what emotional mountains they’ve climbed.

When I launched my own blog, AdoptiveBlackMom (ABM), three years ago, I was oh-so-naïve about the written world of adoption. I’d read a few articles and such, but I didn’t really connect with the online adoption community. I had barely stumbled into that world. I wasn’t one of those hopeful adoptive parents who scoured the Internet trying to learn about the process in minute detail. It never occurred to me to read about what adoptees thought about their adoptions and their lives (both hidden and exposed).I wasn’t that chick. I was in the midst of doing my research for my dissertation when I launched my blog; yeah, I was a bit busy and a wee bit distracted.

The truth is that AdoptiveBlackMom wasn’t really supposed to be a thing. It certainly wasn’t my identity. In fact, I never intended to write for the general public; my blog was just supposed to be this thing that I used that was a little cooler than a newsletter to update friends and family about my adoption journey.

I never intended to write this long. I never intended to be as transparent as I am. ABM wasn’t really a person; she wasn’t really me. ABM was just a play name I used on the internet. That changed very quickly though. Apparently, black voices in adoption are rare.

There are certainly a few amazing black bloggers but it’s a pretty small group of folks. That made the little space I created for adoption updates, and more specifically, my voice and vantage point special and, unbeknownst to me at the time, important. Within a few months of being online, people found my blog.

I have always loved writing. I write a lot for work and at the time was doing an enormous amount of writing due to school. But there was something about the blog space that allowed me the freedom to write about my hopes and fears as a prospective parent. I wrote about everything, warts and all; somethings I regret writing about. I hid very little and wrote regularly. And that’s how I became AdoptiveBlackMom.

As we all do, my story and I have evolved. My beautiful daughter, Hope has now been with me for three years. We are headlong into the teenage years, complete with my pending nervous breakdown about Hope getting her driver’s license.

When fellow black mom blogger, Mimi Robinson, and I launched the podcast, Add Water and Stir, about six months after Hope’s placement, I told my daughter about my blog and how I write about my life with her. I tried to explain that the blog was really about me and she was a character in the story.

Hope was 12 or 13 at the time and she was entirely disinterested in the whole thing. She remains so though she seems to have a deeper appreciation that my “work” on the blog and show are done in hopes of improving the lives of other adoptive families — especially families of color and transracial families.

She supports that even if she doesn’t really want much to do with the adoption community. There’s a mutual understanding we’ve come to over time. In other words, she seems cool with it. If she wasn’t; knowing what I know now about the importance of adoptee voices… well I don’t think I could be AdoptiveBlackMom anymore.

I don’t know who I would be other than Hope’s mom and being her mom is an awesome identity.

She knows that I also co-host the podcast and that I discuss our shenanigans there as well. I’ve never asked her permission but I have been honest with her about my documentation of my life as her mom.  Hope has even done an interview for the show for National Adoption Month. She will still not-so-randomly ask if I am posting inappropriate and/or unflattering pictures of her online. I actually don’t post any identifiable pictures of her on my blog and very rarely post any pictures of her online in our “real” life. I like and appreciate that she regularly checks in though.

I’ve always been protective of Hope. I try to be mindful that one day she may choose to read AdoptiveBlackMom. I want her to feel like I didn’t reveal too much and that the story of our life together is really my story. She very likely has a different interpretation of our experiences. Both of our narratives will be true.

And as I recognize that my identity and voice as AdoptiveBlackMom serves as a rare peek behind the veil of adoptive and black parenting of an older child, I continue to write about my life as an adoptive parent mostly for myself. I use the exercise to really think about what I’m feeling and experiencing as a parent. I am an educator and spend a lot of time thinking about what I’m learning. I use the online space I’ve created as my own notebook but I recognize and deeply appreciate that my experiences may be useful to other parents.

So, that’s the story behind the story of AdoptiveBlackMom. I am she and she is me. But I would not be her if not for my amazing daughter, Hope.  I adore this kid and dedicate this post to her.

 

 If you’re interested in contributing as a guest blogger for DAI, please email Heather Schultz (Communications and Development Manager) at hschultz@adoptioninstitute.org with one writing sample, resume/bio and 2-3 desired topics of interest. For more information on our guest blogging submission process, click here.

Trauma, Race and Invisibility: The Power of Getting Woke

melanie-chung-sherman-headshot

Photo Credit: Target

Melanie Chung-Sherman (LCSW-S, CTS, LCPAA, PLLC) is a Texas Board-certified clinical social worker and supervisor and a licensed child placing administrator through the state of Texas. Over the last 18 years, she has specialized in the field of child welfare ranging from foster care, adoption, mental health, trauma-informed care and administration. Melanie also teaches as an adjunct professor of Social Work at Collin College in Plano, Texas. She graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington with her Master of Science in Social Work. Melanie and her younger brother were adopted from South Korea and raised in the United States. Like her Facebook page.

It was not too long ago that I was introduced to the term — “woke.” For what it is worth, this awakening has been a steady revelation of intersections from lived and professional experiences as a transracial adoptee, cis-gendered woman, child welfare advocate, therapist, mother, wife and sojourner. The steady acknowledgement and acclimation to the unnamed, and oftentimes, random acts of racism and discrimination has been an intentional and painful process of getting woke. For a long time, I attempted to keep the impacts of racism invisible to my psyche in a false attempt to shield myself from dealing with the pain, but denying the truth of things never works. If a traumatic experience, such as racism, is completely invisibilized, denied or not even recognized as such, it does not erase the impact as Page (2009) states, “Traumatically experienced events, captured in memory and replayed like a familiar musical refrain from an operatic score, are negatively stored in the memory network… Racial and ethnic self-understanding illuminates the way in which the self can become invisible rather than understood.” For decades, transracial adoptees have shared their experiences related to race, adoption and identity and what they need — this generation is no different.

Last November, The Donaldson Adoption Institute informed me that I was selected to submit a blog post. Enthusiastically, I agreed to explore the complex dynamics of race, invisibility and trauma. Then November 8th happened — and my desire to write was completely stalled. I was too busy reassuring my children that my citizenship would not be revoked and that I would not be sent away. My husband and I spent countless nights discussing how we would deal with the Neo-Nazi propaganda that was anonymously papered in our neighborhood and on our college campus (where my husband and I teach). The fliers that highlighted the twisted belief that people of color, LGBTQ brothers and sisters, and Muslims should be thrown into internment camps, sent over walls, and even denied housing and rental properties in the name of the President-elect. Two days following the election, a swastika was spray-painted on my friend’s workplace doors (in a predominantly LGBTQ community). We wondered if the home we had built for our children would be a safe place for my family and those we loved anymore. Was it time to move? What do we do now?

In the last few weeks, there has been a strange dichotomy of feeling too visible, and yet, invisible. I felt like a walking target for the hate that had become more emboldened, yet simultaneously invisible to those who appeared to go about their day as if nothing happened. I know I was not alone in this. There have been those whom we believed had our best interest, but turned a blind eye or remained indifferent to our concerns. However, there were many more who rendered compassion, sensitivity and empathy by reaching out and supporting us. Following the increased racial hostility this month, I realized that I was not fully prepared to comprehensively address racism with my own children either, but that would not stop me from trying. Having grown up in the South, my adoptive parents did not directly address race or racism, but assimilated my brother (also adopted from Korea) and I into our all-white community. We were told that “color” did not matter. Though, at a young age, the Confederate flags that lined our school told another story. The gravity of what needed to be written weighed heavy on my conscious and a wave of inadequacy and grief blocked my ability to coherently construct what I had committed to write. So, I sat on this post —writing, re-writing and even deleting two completed drafts. It was the bravery of client after client who shared their stories that compelled me to move forward.

Over the course of the last several weeks, adoptees have shared their experiences of escalated racial and ethnic discrimination that are impacting their sense of safety and trust. These experiences ranged from being told to leave the country, vitriol related to their birth country, racial epithets and slurs directed at them, and online and direct bullying in which race, sexual orientation and/or gender are the main factors. By far, the most painful responses have not necessarily been dealt by their perpetrators, but by the silence, dismissal and outright denial of their experiences from the very ones they trusted. One young person felt unseen and unheard because s/he attempted to share about the taunting, but was told “to just ignore” or “give the benefit of the doubt” — leaving her feeling anxious and unprepared for the next incident. Developmentally, adoptees rely upon their parents for survival and beneficence. Subsequently, transracial adoptees may also outright deny their racial differences and overly identify as the same race as their adoptive parents in an effort to cope and privately manage their experiences. Ultimately, the responsibility of transracial adoptive parents is to help adoptees racially enculturate or integrate their racial and ethnic background, in context to their adoptive family, and not merely assimilate (Baden, Treweeke, & Ahluwalia, 2013).

The paradox for most transracial adoptive families, particularly white adoptive parents, is that they have not had to actively engage or become exposed to other minority groups, yet are parenting a child(ren) of color (Lee, 2003). Children of color cannot remove their minority status, nor can their parents fully protect them from these experiences. Transracial adoptive parents need additional tools to racially socialize and help their child(ren) of color to integrate their identity development. Positing a strong sense of self is hard work that must take place between the parent and child to help prepare adoptees of color for adulthood. There is a difference between parental encouragement related to racial and cultural pride, such as attending culture camps or ethnic events, which tends to be observational versus actively helping transracial adoptees recognize and navigate racialized discrimination and microaggressions (Leslie, Smith, et. al, 2013). What is understood is that this process must begin prior to the home study and morph into a lifelong learning curve for the sake of their child.

Consistently, the issues related to race, claiming and identity are never too far away from discussion. Based on an adoptee’s developmental age, there is a sense related to how much parents have actively engaged in discussions about race. The use of words related to racial identity and awareness, or not, reveals the depth of those discussions. What we do know is that the effects of racism have a negative impact on a person of color’s physical and mental health as well as the deleterious effects of daily, unspoken racial microaggressions on their well-being, self-esteem and personal sense of safety reinforcing the importance of helping transracial family systems navigate race and experiences (Nadal, Sriken, et. al, 2013). The trauma of racism and discrimination is that it is unpredictable, unprovoked, unavoidable and oftentimes invisible to outsiders. These events can range from the intrusive actions of someone touching hair without permission, stares, glares to overt racist comments — and a child of color is the direct recipient. The very nature of racism elicits a sense of vulnerability, hypervigilance and a lack of universal control.

Many adoptees are referred for therapy due to complex, neurodevelopmental trauma, adoption-related stressors and/or attachment challenges, but what is typically overlooked are the stressful impacts of racism and discrimination and how those impact the family system. It is not uncommon for adoptees to hold body memory related to past abuse, institutionalization and neglect. When those past experiences are also coupled with present-day racism and microaggressions, it is no surprise that some children of color are more at-risk for multiple diagnoses, behavior interventions and stacked medications. It also places them at a heightened risk for racialized discrimination and bias due to behavioral or developmental special needs.

For children of color growing up in transracial adoptive homes, particularly within all-white communities, there exists a subtle notion that racism, by proxy of adoption, no longer exists. Adopting across racial and cultural lines does not exonerate adoptive families from the on-going and intentional work of addressing their own biases. It is confusing and conflictual for transracial adoptees to be told to be proud of their heritage, yet not acknowledged as a racial minority wherein others have taken a colorblind approach. This blindness does not alleviate children of color from the racial barbs and stings they will experience both in and outside their family system. Color blindness creates a confusing paradox in which a child has learned that the ones they love may not believe them, nor protect them from racialized attacks, yet are supposed to be there to meet their attachment needs (Lee, 2003). Invisibilizing the impacts of racism can inadvertently trigger past trauma and felt-victimization, particularly if there was past abuse or neglect, related to not being believed or psychologically re-abandoned. Shifting parental responsibility to their child to individually navigate their racial identity places an undo developmental burden on the child and reinforces to the child that their parents cannot or will address openly (Lee, 2003). Failing to see color results in missed opportunities to more comprehensively help their children formulate their full identity, protect them and grow together as a transracial adoptive family.

Conversely, for transracial parents who are working hard to actively address race within their home, many share their frustrations and grief related to extended family members and community invisibilize their experience as a transracial family. Many parents do not feel fully supported or believed by their loved ones to keep their children safe. Thus, some have made the difficult choice to limit contact and exposure which has decreased support, but yielded a newfound freedom to advocate for their family. Parents have shared their fears and frustrations related to the knowledge that once their child steps over their door sill, there is a world that holds contempt for their child(ren) simply because of the color of their skin. They ask, “How can I keep my child safe?” They have wept in my office with the full knowledge that they can get pulled over for a traffic violation without incident, but if their child made one wrong move it could be potentially fatal. They fear their child’s special need and inability to properly read social cues will create an even great point of victimization based on their race as well. The unknown and out-of-control aspects of parenting creates anxiety and a level of concern for many transracial parents. They share how lonely it feels at times, but how empowering it is, once they get woke, too.

This process is not meant to be rushed. It requires patience, humility, courage, curiosity and time. There will be plenty of mistakes and offensives made, but the purpose is that you are in the arena to make them. It is about listening more and interjecting less. We all have a choice to move into a more compassionate and robust understanding of one another or retreat into defensiveness and fear. Children of color do not have the option of retreating— and need adults to join them on the frontlines. It is my hope that you welcome the process of getting woke, stay the course, and experience the tremendous opportunity that can lie ahead for all involved. What I learned is that there was no right or wrong way to do this. It would be messy and complicated — and along the way, there have been incredible mentors and supports who have guided me. The only mistake is not starting the journey — and relentlessly seeking insight and self-awareness.

Here are some considerations as you start the process:

  • Become aware of your own personal biases. We all have them. Acknowledge them because when they come up again, you will be aware of them — and can do something constructive. (i.e. rather than averting eye contact with a someone different, you engage in eye contact the next time).
  • Research the historical backdrops of race relations in the United States. I strongly recommend reading materials written by people of color.
  • Read fiction and non-fiction works by people of color. Support writers of color.
  • Read and collect books that positively portray children of color. Read these together with your child.
  • Learn the difference between appropriation or co-opting experiences related to people of color.
  • Read transracial adoption works, particularly ones authored by adoptees of color.
  • Research movements related to social justice and social movements from their sites directly.
  • Learn about sensitive (in-group and out-group) terminology related to marginalized groups such as LGBTQ, people of color, religious minorities, special needs and much more.
  • Get involved within your community. Seek out workshops and conferences related to racial diversity and trainings.
  • Intentionally involve yourself within your child’s racial and ethnic community to better integrate mirrors and mentors for you and your child.
  • Talk with your child (at an appropriate level) about what you learn. Discuss national and international events as it relates to race and intersectionality with your child. Help them gain understanding and words related to these events. Words are empowering — and help them better define an experience so they can advocate and speak up for themselves, too.
  • When you hear or see something that could be racially intolerant, biased or microaggressive, call it out. If your safety is not secure, take a picture, record the incident (if you can), and make sure to report the events to police and/or the SPLC or the ACLU. When you become more aware, your attunement to your child’s needs does as well.
  • Be prepared to move through the stages of grief — denial, bargaining, anger, acceptance and grief. This awakening may create many conflictual feelings and will challenge what you thought you knew — that you didn’t quite know.
  • Recognize that if you are connected to social media — you may want to consider sitting on your post for a few hours before posting — not to tone police, but formulate your thoughts and responses.
  • Expect pushback and defensiveness— and that you may lose some relationships you thought you had. You will also gain new friendships as well. This requires a newfound sense of self and courage. Plan for that both physically and emotionally — and recognize that your child experiences many of these events daily. If s/he can do it, so can you. You cannot genuinely lead your child unless you have done the work, too.
  • Build your safe network of loved ones and family who will support you and even do the work with you. This can be online or in-person community. Set healthy boundaries as you need.
  • Above all, take care of your heart. This is a unique journey that only you can define. Do what you need to do to tend to your spirit. Journal. Laugh. Cry. Pray. Meditate. Work out. Write. Find your outlet.

 

References

Baden, A. L., Treweeke, L. M., and Ahluwalia, M. (2013). Reclaiming culture: Reculturation of transracial and international adoptees. Journal of Counseling & Development, 90, 387-399.

Lee, R. M. (2003). The transracial adoption paradox: History, research, and counseling implications in cultural socialization. Counseling Psychology, 31(6), 711-744.

Leslie, L. A., Smith, J. R., Hrapczynski, K. M., & Riley, D. (2013). Racial Socialization in Transracial Adoptive Families: Does It Help Adolescents Deal With Discrimination Stress?. Family Relations, 62(1), 72-81. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00744.x

Nadal, K. L., Sriken, J., Davidoff, K. C., Wong, Y., & McLean, K. (2013). Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People. Family Relations, 62(1), 190-201. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3729.2012.00752.x

Niwa, E. Y., Way, N., & Hughes, D. L. (2014). Trajectories of Ethnic-Racial Discrimination Among Ethnically Diverse Early Adolescents: Associations With Psychological and Social Adjustment. Child Development, 85(6), 2339-2354. doi:10.1111/cdev.12310

Page, R. (2009, August). Trauma, invisibility, and identity development: An EMDR framework. Presentation at the 14th EMDR International Association Conference, Atlanta, GA

 

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