Trauma, Race and Invisibility: The Power of Getting Woke
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.
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