Someone close to me is dying. They are racist. And, I love them.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this phrase in my journal and wept. As one of two Black adopted kids in a white family, I am used to complicated grief and loss. And I am used to sharing my stories of grief while also purposely omitting prefixes.
Placed in foster care until my adoption at age four, I know what it is like to have a primal wound. I know what it is like to carry grief and all of its wind chime wails, full-body sobs, and bone-deep screams. And, I know what it is like to hold that grief at the same time while feeling relief and gratitude for permanent placement.
As a transracial adoptee, learning the complicated and nuanced dance of grief, loss and love will be the journey of a lifetime.
But lately, it’s the gratitude piece that has been making my journey particularly tricky.
Maybe you can relate.
After all, when does gratefulness get in the way of bold truth-telling?
When does gratefulness get in the way of change?
For many transracial adoptees, living from an often societally imposed posture of gratitude is, at best difficult, and, at worst, violent. And, this posture is reinforced through white savior narratives, colorblind ideologies, and western Evangelical Christianity, which can make the journey of deconstruction particularly difficult.
But what often goes underreported is how this societally imposed posture perpetuates ideologies that fundamentally deny and discount reports of racism experienced by transracial adoptees.
Instead, many transracial adoptees are simply told that they should be grateful that “someone wanted them.” And, everything else is unimportant.
However, as an adoption reform advocate and a racial justice educator, I believe that sharing stories of the violence that some transracial adoptees experience is fundamental when building responsible, informed, representative, and equitable adoption reform policies.
And while reform work always begins with education and awareness, I believe that this work must also include an adoption industry-wide value of and shared commitment to anti-racism. This value needs to include acknowledging that placing Black, Indigenous, People of Color adoptees in homes that are not antiracist is violent and abusive.
And, we know that this reform is urgent because we know the stakes are high.
According to the October 2013 Report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adoptees. And, while to date, there has not been comprehensive reporting around transracial adoptee suicide rates, as a transracial adoptee and a transracial adoptee community member here is what I know and have experienced.
Historically, many of us have not shared publicly about the racism we experienced in our adoptive families.
And, while there are a variety of reasons for that (including personal and technological ones), I think that many of us learn to rationalize our silence. After all, publicly speaking out may feel scary and taboo. Or, the relational blowback may feel too high.
Instead, what I have witnessed is that some of us will set healthy boundaries as adults that include a limited relationship with our adoptive families. And, I can relate.
Three years ago, I went on a family hiking trip, and an older (white) brother who, ironically, was wearing an American flag shirt began to argue with me about racism after I asked him why we didn’t seem to get along. I will never forget that he told me this: “You really want to do this? Fine. We don’t get along because you exaggerate everything, and everything is all in your head. What you have said happens to you (racist acts) probably don’t even happen. And, you should know that talking about racism just makes racism worse. God does not want us to talk about racism anyway because Jesus wants us to be happy…”
I left the conversation sad, angry, hurt, and deeply disappointed. And I set the healthy boundary to limit my engagements with this particular sibling.
This past summer, in the wake of George Floyd, I found myself emailing some members of my adoptive family about the lynching. And, while writing about race via email is not a new thing in my family (or for me), this email was different. I found myself beginning by identifying that most of these family members would reach out to me after an incident when they wanted to ask my opinion about what happened. Usually, these incidences were ones that at least one family member would argue about behaviors. Or state “why didn’t the Black person just…” However, after this incident, no one emailed, texted, or reached out.
Next, I started reminiscing various racist instances that I had experienced as a child and as an adult within the family where racism had gone unchallenged.
I recounted family reunions where an esteemed extended family member would tell a story about seeing a Black man sometime during the early ’50s or ’60s and calling them a “greasy man.”
I remembered the great aunt who would babysit me at her house where she had racist antique dolls and memorabilia.
I recounted the story of a recent(ish) family reunion where an extended family member showed up at my parent’s house wearing an explicitly racist T-shirt. And, no one challenged him. But, after I chose to leave, a few family members and relatives texted me to state their disgust about his shirt.
I identified, and identified, and identified incident after incident, and then I named all of it as racism and asked them if they understood my analysis and if they could help me understand their experience.
Perhaps, as you can imagine, that is when s**t hit the fan.
In the weeks after my email, I was bombarded with emails accusing me of being rude, unfair, and ungrateful. And then later that Fall — slowly — I began to receive new emails. Emails that acknowledged that what I said was valid and accurate.
To be clear, Black rage never needs white validation or justification to be valid.
And, to be clear, these incidences pale in comparison to so many stories of other transracial adoptees. But, I share these stories because I think it is important to make visible what happens in the dark. I think it is important to name violence in all of its forms so that together we can strive toward transformation and sustainable, life-affirming, policy change.
So here is what I know:
My grandpa is dying. He is racist. And, I love him.
Today, I wrote that phrase in my journal, and I wept because I am used to complicated grief and loss. And, I grieve what has been, what was and is, and what will never be.
Today, I am choosing to dance that nuanced, complicated, beautiful dance of grief. And I am choosing to tell my truth: with names.