This is not a burden that any child should have to carry. As a multiracial adoptee raised by white parents, I sat down to watch Netflix’s latest documentary series with extreme caution. Colin in Black and White is going to lead to a lot of discussion guides for transracially adopted families. I can tell you that right now. Do me a favor and don’t buy one, don’t even read it, unless it was written by a transracial adoptee of color. I’m not writing one, but I do want to talk about how episode 3 shows Colin trying to talk to his white parents about racism. And it is brutal.
Trigger Warning: Racial trauma. Emotional abuse.
I want to break down a 3 minute section from about the 9:35 minute mark to about the 12:00 minute mark. It’s a lot. I know. The family has arrived in Oroville, California for another Baseball tournament. Colin progressively learns how he is not treated the same as his white parents or teammates throughout this episode. In this particular hotel, the manager singles him out and confronts him.
Of course, she discovers “this man” is actually the adopted son of the two white people she assumed he was “bothering”. Kudos to the actress for bringing to life the super awkward and cringy reaction we are so used to smiling through. I don’t want to dwell on this scene but here are just a few thoughts I simply can’t fail to express.
The manager feels uncomfortable, right? So she shares something totally unnecessary thinking it’s related to this situation right here. Her church has a program for foster youth. Eye roll.
But then that “getting one” line. Wow! She manages to dehumanize and commodify children in half a second. While smiling weirdly at Colin.
I wish his parent’s would’ve looked at her like she had two heads, said “Okay…well, if that’s all, have a nice a day.” and turned away.
Of course she follows it up with the “Where did he come from” question.
And that is how white adoptive parents are encouraged by everyone (it seems) to have a white savior mentality, even if they never intended to be white saviors.
Notice how the parent’s react. They saw it as a compliment. Mom thinks she was sweet. They walk away from the interaction feeling like the manager was just providing good customer service.
Colin is visibly bothered. They don’t notice.
At about the 11 minute mark, the family is settling into the hotel room. The chronic, “little t” traumas of racial micro-aggressions are getting to him. His dad asks, “What’s wrong with you?”
Colin recounts what happened in the lobby. He feels hurt and for the first time in this story, he is coming to his parents with this. He’s telling them. He is asking them to help him make sense of why he’s being singled out and treated so badly.
What does mom say? “You’re talking about the manager.” She’s already making Colin feel like his perspective is off for questioning an authority figure. She’s already gaslighting him.
So whose fault was it that Colin was treated badly? Colin’s. What was wrong with the situation? How he looked.
When I say transracial adoption encourages internalized racism in children of color, this is what I mean.
His parents are misdiagnosing the situations. The racisms are happening but they are telling him, “No…that’s not what it is. It’s something else. Probably something wrong with you.” This is how a child of color can easily grow up believing that we are to blame for other people’s bad and biased behavior.
Later in the episode, Colin will try to change how he looks. He’ll wear a button-down shirt and tuck it in so he doesn’t look like a vagrant. He’ll try to adapt to the world of his parents, even though it is uncomfortable for him (air conditioning in the car) and even though it puts his life in real danger (interaction with traffic cop).
Later in the episode, Colin learns not to internalize his racial oppression. He meets another team of Black athletes who name the problem for him: anti-Blackness, racism. He learns to externalize the problem (it’s not me, it’s them). And he’ll later give voice to that in the elevator scene. Though his parents will total miss it, snickering at him and thinking he’s the one being “feisty”.
This next part of the scene is not ok. Mom asks if that’s what is really bothering him.
“I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel… uncomfortable?” Colin opens up. He’s trying to articulate something he doesn’t understand. He is coming to his parents to help him find the words.
More gaslighting: No is doing that to you. She’s also placing their intent over their impact. If no one is trying to make you feel bad but you still feel bad? Too bad. They didn’t mean so it doesn’t count!
Mom is also starting to get emotional here, isn’t she? When she says, “You have to talk to me” and slaps her hands? Whew! She’s deflecting her discomfort about this conversation. She can sense the implications of this conversation but wants to avoid it because she is not equipped for this.
This moment is well-scripted. While telling Colin that he can talk to her she is showing him that he can’t.
RELATED POST: 4 REASONS I DIDN’T ACKNOWLEDGE ADOPTION LOSS
Instead of confronting her inadequacy as a parent, she puts the responsibility on Colin. She tells him it is his job to know what’s going on and tell her about it. He has to be the adult. He has to be mature enough to figure this out on his own and then make it easy for her to see and understand.
Is she hurt that her son doesn’t let her in? Upset and blaming him for what? Hurting her feelings?!
In this scene, Colin opens up to his parents about a hurtful interaction regarding race and adoption and he ends up being criticized for keeping his feelings to himself.
I watched this and felt a wave of shame crashing through the screen. Emotional manipulation, much?
This is how you make a child think they’ve hurt you by bringing up this topic.
This is how you center your feelings.
How you teach a child to become your emotional caretaker while you neglect their needs.
I have absolutely no problem calling this emotional abuse.
This entire series shows how Colin’s parents are both supportive and kind in some ways AND also actively contributing to his racial battle fatigue. His parents clearly love him but they also neglect to give him the support he needs and actively perpetuate racism (remember Episode 1 when mom says he looks like a thug?).
This is the nuance white people often fail to understand.
That they can both love BIPOC while causing us great harm.
2 + 2 = 5
This made my skin crawl. Mom has criticized Colin for not talking to her and making her feel shut out. Even though he was literally opening up to her about his problems.
She effectively ends the conversation though. It was causing her to feel insecure and uncomfortable, after all. She’s returned to a place of feeling good about herself as the parent who would do anything for her son. And, walking away, she tells him so. She tells him to see her as eager to listen and ready to support. Even though she consistently proves that, at least about race, she is the exact opposite.
It’s more than heartbreaking. It’s the lived reality of so many adopted people of color who were raised by good white parents. The reality is, white adoptive parents* who do things like this typically have no clue. Being unaware, they are unlikely to acknowledge and take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused. They literally see themselves as nothing but loving and supportive. If you say anything that threatens this self-perception…well, many of us have see the classic response of Denial and Reversing the Victim and Offender role. AKA: DARVO. Look it up.
*Obviously we know there are white adoptive parents who do have a clue and are teachable, but you are not going to make me say “Not all” are you? I didn’t think so.
There is something so sinister about the subtle and joking kind of way that his parent’s push aside the harm Colin encounters. Their whole vibe says “it’s not a big deal, son” and yet it really is. I think this episode did a good job of showing us how impossible it can be, how burdensome and exhausting, for transracial adoptees to talk to white adoptive parents about racism. This episode showed a pattern of conversation and behavior that, if not interrupted, can lead to the adult adoptee distancing themselves from their white family.
However, in spite of his parents, Colin is able to cultivate self-confidence and self-love as a biracial Black person. Read that again. In spite of his parents, not because of. This, to me, is remarkable. It’s admirable. It is a testament to his character and personality. I wish this were true for all of us transracially adopted people of color.
I’ll be sharing more thoughts about Colin in Black and White on my Patreon, which you can access for $3 a month.
Someday Is Here was my first speaking engagement for a conference. I deliberated for a long time about what I needed to share about transracial adoption. Or, rather, what other transracial adoptees needed to hear. Because this conference centered the voices and experiences of Asian American Christian Women, I tailored my message accordingly. I spoke about common elements in the transracial adoptee growth and healing journey. In other words, the things all transracial adoptees should know.
Click here for a video preview of my presentation.
I hope that those who attended the conference will find this post and use the links I share here as resources for further learning. Because in my 25 minute presentation, I cover a lot of ground. And depending on where someone is at in their journey…my presentation may create more questions than provide answers.
I know I just teased my presentation topic without further explanation. Not fair. Here is a basic outline of the things I discussed.
These resources are tools I consider essential for transracial adoptees and our families.
For understanding the larger contexts of adoption:
For adoptive parents and other white people in the lives of transracial adoptees:
“Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.”Romans 12:2
I am a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. Yes, I have had a great life in many ways. I do believe my adoptive family was loving. So how is it that adoption wouldn’t have been God’s plan for me?
At this point, the “pattern of this world” (aka the dominant cultural view) is to see adoption as a win-win-win situation and, if you’re Christian, to see it as part of God’s will and God’s purpose in your life. Even though adoptees have long been speaking up against the inaccuracy and danger of this perspective, this theology of adoption persists. And it’s still hurting adoptees and our families.
Christians, we need to “renew our minds” on the relationship God has with child adoption. What might that look like? We should think critically about how we talk about God’s will. What is God’s will, really, and what is not God’s will but human choice?
Let’s start here. These are a beliefs about God I’ve seen emphasized in (usually white, evangelical) Christian discussions around adoption.
So the logic of adoption goes something like this:
…then God must have planned for this (i.e. adoption) to happen all along.
This is the logic of “meant to be” and “God’s plan” with adoption. This is the dominant Christian view of adoption when things seem to have worked out for the adoptive family and the child.
On the whole, the Christian view of child adoption is that it gives a child a loving family and prevents them from living a more difficult or less-loved life. I’ve already written a lot about how Christians see a flawed (re: false) parallel between adoption and salvation.
But what about us adoptees? For those of us raised in these Christians homes, it’s a difficult logic to contradict. After all, if I love my adoptive family or love the life I have now…or if I can see God using my adoption story for the healing and wholeness of others…then my adoption must have been God’s plan from the beginning. Right?
The experience of being an adoptee isn’t static. It changes as we grow and learn new information about ourselves and/or our families. So it’s only natural that our view of our adoption and our feelings about it will shift with time. It is natural for adoptees to question and wrestle with the reality of life as an adoptee.
However, the view that our adoption was God’s plan immediately puts the adoptee at odds with the Divine if we dare to question or wrestle. Trying to hold on to the idea that it was God’s plan and yet incorporate our new perspectives can lead to host of confusing ideas:
Of course these things bring up more questions, like:
Does God want families separated to form new, adopted families?
Does God want me to have lifelong struggles with adoption trauma, abandonment or rejection?
Typically, Christians will say, “Of course not…” and then start the mental gymnastics to justify the trauma that makes adoption possible. In other words, they will try to preserve their view of adoption as being God’s plan for everyone (the mom, the child and the adoptive parents).
The answers given tend to fall flat, especially for the adoptee who realizes they cannot pray their pain away.
How could God have wanted me to experience this lifelong trauma?
How could God have been OK with my first family’s suffering and pain?
When we try to validate this view of adoption, we skew our view of God and we fail to support adoptees.
What we believe about God shapes what we believe about ourselves and the circumstances we are in. We can believe that God has a good and pleasing will for us and yet God also allows us to make our own choices (freewill) that differ from or conflict with that will. Theologians call it God’s Perfect Will vs God’s Permissive Will.
Perfect will is what God desires; e.g. our salvation and collective restoration.
Permissive will is what God permits; e.g. human choices and consequences.
Family separation and adoption is a result of human choices. Here are a few examples of what I mean by that:
Often those choices are made within the context of larger, man-made issues, for example:
The are just a few things that are connected to families being in crisis and children being adopted. They are the result of human choices and actions that are not inline with God’s will or desire for us. Family separation and adoption might be something God allows to happen, i.e. its God’s permissive will. That doesn’t mean God orchestrated adoption.
Even if something good comes from adoption, it is only evidence that God can always create beauty out of brokenness; not that God planned the brokenness or desired it.
Sometimes adoption has positive outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in a loving home and have access to opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Sometimes adoption has tragic outcomes for an adoptee; they grow up in an abusive home with less love and support than they would’ve had otherwise.
This is why adoption is not gospel; because if the gospel is not good news to everyone then it is good news to no one.
Just because there are or might be some positive outcomes from our choices doesn’t mean that what we’ve done reflects God’s perfect will. We need to be careful not to put God’s name on OUR choices. This is taking God’s name in vain.
It is true that God is able to take what we meant for evil and use it for good. God can incorporate our hurtful or just unhealthy choices into the timeline without altering the outcome God desires.
Wait, isn’t it the family separation that is bad, not the adoption?
You could argue that adoption IS God’s plan for addressing the hurtful human decisions and conditions that caused family separation. Therefore adoption can still be part of God’s perfect will, right? Well, let’s think about what God’s perfect will is.
The Bible shows God carrying out a plan for the restoration of all creation through Christ. God’s perfect will is restoring our relationship with God and with one another and with the earth. It is wrongs being righted, broken things being mended and lies being exposed so that truth can restore us, heal us and make us whole.
Is adoption part of God restoring a family that was in crisis to a healthy and whole place? No.
Adoption actually assumes that the permanent destruction of the family is what’s best for everyone. Adoption leaves the broken circumstances that led to adoption broken. For example, instead of addressing the financial insecurity of a young single mother, adoption takes her child and leaves her more broken than before as she now has to deal with her trauma of child-loss.
God’s perfect will is that we care for the [orphan + widow] + the poor + the foreigner. Remember the orphan + widow = a child and their mother; because once the father had died a child was considered an orphan.
The Bible has already told us to provide for those slipping through the cracks of our society; the marginalized, the exploited, the forgotten. We should clothe them and feed them, i.e. make sure they have what they need to be healthy and whole. If we did this for families in crisis, their children would not need to be taken or away or relinquished.
God’s will for restoration requires we cultivate a holy imagination and resist fatalistic views of the world. We can only believe adoption is the best option if we first accept that there are some people and situations that God simply cannot or will not restore. So either God is not all-powerful or some people are just “throw away people”. Again, this is skewing our view of God or others to fit the narrative that adoption is God’s plan.
I’m a Christian. I’m an adoptee. I don’t believe adoption was God’s plan for me. In my case, adoption was a human attempt to make the best out of a difficult situation. The results are mixed and ultimately, there is a great deal of pain.
That pain is not on purpose.
That pain does not need to have a purpose.
I do not need to put a spiritual spin on that pain to believe God is good or to give God credit for the good things that have happened in my life after being adopted.
God does not rebrand my pain. God does give me Christ, who is able to enter into the pain with me. Christ knows abandonment and rejection and displacement. Christ knows what it is to walk between two identities and different families.
God can also give me purpose in my pain. Not always, but sometimes my healing is bound up in being a participant in the healing of others. Finding that I can have purpose in my pain is not the same as saying that my pain was purposefully created. It is not evidence that adoption was God’s plan for me, but that restoration is and God is able to work toward that no matter what.
Nothing I said here is new but perhaps it’s the first time you’re hearing it said this way. And no, I don’t believe all adoptions are bad. That’s another overly simplistic and unhelpful view. So don’t focus on that. Focus on this next bit.
If we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we lose our ability to ignore the social inequities and injustices that lead to family separation. We lose our ability to pretend we didn’t know and absolve ourselves from doing something about it. We lose our ability to celebrate someone’s child being available to a another family without asking the disturbing questions about why this keeps happening.
More importantly, if we shift our perspective on God’s role in adoption, we gain the ability to confront and acknowledge the pain and suffering of all broken families. That means we gain the ability to enter into lament and mourn with those who mourn. We cultivate our empathy for our fellow humans, and from that we gain the ability to have real solidarity with the marginalized and forgotten. We gain an opportunity to join in God’s work and support them toward their own restoration, healing and wholeness.
“Forever Family” is a term popular in the human adoption industry (it’s “furever” in pet adoption). Many adoptees have expressed discomfort with the term, especially those who know firsthand that adoptive families do not always last forever. The terms we use are incredibly important, especially when stewarding a child’s growth and development. I propose we drop “forever” and take up “Entrusted Family” instead.
FOREVER FAMILY SOUNDS FUN AT FIRST,
BUT IT’S NOT ACTUALLY REAL.
AT BEST, AN IDEAL,
AND A JAB TO THE ONES TWICE REJECTED AT WORST.
ENTRUST FAMILY SOUNDS REAL AND FAIR.
IT’S PROVING WORTHY OF THE NAME,
NOT STAKING A CLAIM,
AND EARNING ANOTHER SOUL’S LOVE WITH TIME AND CARE.
It’s great to have ideals. Shouldn’t all families aspire to be “forever”? However, as an ideal, “forever family” is a term that centers the adoptive parents by making a claim about who they are.
It implies that they will always be a healthy and safe place for the adoptee. It implies that a family bond and sense of belonging is a forgone conclusion; inevitable as soon as the deal is done and the adoption is finalized.
This family is the right family because they are the kind of people who will provide a forever home.
And since this term contributes to a narrative that centers the adoptive parents and implies their perpetual commitment and worthiness, if the relationship does end or change in a negative way, the fault for that tends to tip toward the adoptee.
For example; “They just needed more than what the family could reasonably offer” or “They chose to distance themselves from the family.”
“Entrusted family” is a commission that is focused on the care of the adoptee. All families, biological or adopted or otherwise, have trust bestowed upon them by God and by the children themselves, to care for the children.
It implies that the adoptive family’s value to the adoptee is contingent upon their ongoing fulfillment of their responsibility to provide a loving, nurturing and safe family environment. Entrusted isn’t about who they are but about what they have been given.
“Entrusted family” allows for a change in the relationship between the adoptee and adoptive family at any time. It allows for either side to be the initiator of that change as well. Either the family was no longer worthy of the adoptee’s trust and care or the adoptee chose to no longer extend their trust for other reasons.
By the time we’re adults, starting our own families, it seems people don’t believe our separation and subsequent adoption can be relevant anymore. The struggle, if there is any, for the adoptee is supposed to happen during our childhood development years.
If we’ve reached our 20s or 30s and we’re still in good relationship with our adoptive family, then case closed! Stamp us with the seal that says “Forever” and everyone can feel good about it.
The reality is, that adoptees are allowed to begin to wrestle with any aspect of our adoption at any point in our lives. We can change our perspective of our own life at any point in our lives. The relationship with our adoptive family can change or completely break down at any point in life.
We don’t need a fairytale forever in order to find comfort in a loving home. Especially when so many adoptees learn that forever doesn’t last as long as promised.
Adoptees need families that recognize they are not entitled to our love or our lives because they were decent enough to give us a home, but that an adoptee’s love and desire to be in relationship depends on their ability to earn and keep our trust.
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It wasn’t until I was in my 30s and about to have my own child that I started wrestling with the fullness of my experience as an adoptee. I can’t help but wonder why it took me so long? I can’t help but think if I’d wrestled with these things when I was younger, my adoptive parents would’ve handled it better. So far, I’ve come up with 4 reasons I didn’t acknowledge adoption loss.
My relationship with my adoptive mother was marked by a lot of raw and vulnerable conversations. As a teen and young adult, I felt safe and comfortable telling her exactly how I felt and hashing out all kinds of things. My adoption was just never one of those things.
In fact, I knew I was adopted before I even knew what “adopted” meant. My parents were very open about it. I met my first mom when I was around 9. I had ample opportunities to ask questions and explore my feelings about being adopted, but I didn’t. I assumed that it was all good, never acknowledging the possibility of adoption loss or trauma.
I’m now doing this work as an adult and suddenly finding it impossible to connect with my adoptive parents, unable to broach the subject with them. I’ve been mining my memories, searching the mindset of my younger self for answers as to why it took me so long to face the complex reality of being adopted. Here are the 4 reasons I’ve come up with, so far.
When they explained my adoption with the common positive, religious spin in a matter-of-fact manner, I believed their words were gospel truth. It didn’t occur to me that there could be another perspective. It’s in my nature to be loyal to an authority I trust. So I resisted asking further questions, figuring if they knew more they’d have told me. I resisted entertaining any feelings that did not fit with their positive adoption narrative.
What could my parents have done to help me know it was ok ask questions? I think they would have literally had to say something like, “You know if I were you, I might have a question about __[insert adoption related thing here]__. Are you curious about that?”
And I might have said no the first time and refused to think about it further. Eventually though, with regular prompts, I might have felt comfortable questioning things.
They also could’ve said something like, “While our experience of adopting you has been wonderful, you might find your experience of being an adoptee is sometimes confusing or difficult. We want you to know it is okay to feel that way and we want you to tell us if you do.”
My family was very spiritual. Very Christian charismatic. There was a pull to believe my adoption was part of God’s plan for my life and as such, it wasn’t something I felt I could question. How could I question God?! If He wanted something to happen then it must be good for me.
What would’ve helped? If my parents had taught me the difference between what God approves of (perfect will) verses things God merely allows to happen (permissive will) and applied that to my birth and relinquishment, that would’ve helped. I could’ve understood this by high school and it might have opened up space for me to begin to acknowledge adoption loss. However, I suspect they thought that since I didn’t show signs of wrestling with my adoption, there wasn’t any loss to grieve.
As a transracial adoptee, there were racial things that happened in my childhood that didn’t get properly assessed and addressed. Why? There was no person of color in our life (at least none willing to take the risk) to point out what was not ok and explain why. I believe I sensed that being racially different was uncomfortable and tried my best to fit in. That meant not questioning what the majority thought or said. That also meant internalizing the racism that I wasn’t taught to recognize as such.
I needed my parents to know things that they didn’t know they needed to know. In the 80’s, being racially colorblind was the moral and Christian (e.g. “God looks on the inside, not the outside”) approach to racial difference. At least for most white people. So while I know it would’ve helped if they’d found an Asian American community and learned to prepare for racial issues, I also know its unrealistic to think they would’ve known to do any of those things. I don’t blame them for not knowing what they didn’t know, but the result of that was still harmful for me.
Adoption, I thought, was something that happened the day I was born and then I just lived the rest of my life like nothing was different. In some ways that naivety provided a buffer from pain. However, this made us resistant to the idea that my adoption could/should inform how we assessed and addressed any issues I had growing up. I got used to looking for any other reason aside from being an adoptee or being racially different to explain adverse experiences or feelings.
What would’ve helped? To help me understand that being an adoptee was going to continue to impact my life in different ways, we would’ve had to have heard that from adult adoptees. We would’ve had to have found someone who knew they were adopted, had come out of the fog themselves, and had the desire and ability to talk about their lived experience.
First and foremost, I hope other adoptees might find something they resonate with and maybe hearing me articulate my experience will help them better understand how to communicate their own.
Secondarily, there are a lot of folks out there who love an adoptee and I hope this sheds light into the reasons why some adoptees do or do not or maybe just have not yet felt the need to acknowledge or process adoption loss.