Talking to White Parents about Racism

by , on
2021-11-03

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.

The White Saviors

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.

“I think about getting one all the time.”

Hotel Manager

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.

“Bless your hearts. You’re doing the Lord’s work.”

Hotel Manager

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.

Blaming the Black Kid

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.

Dad’s response?

“She thought you were a vagrant.
I told you you should’ve shaved that thing.” (laughter)

-Colin’s white adoptive dad

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”.

Deflecting by Criticizing

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.

Mom’s response?

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.

“It meaaaans. You always keep your feelings to yourself, Colin!”

-Colin’s white adoptive mom

Hold on. What?

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.

Eff that.

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.

“Talk to me and know there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for you.”

-colin’s white adoptive mom

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.

Colin’s Confidence Wins

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.


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Reclaiming My Adoption Story

by , on
2020-08-11

When you see or hear an adoption story, please keep these things in mind.

By “story” I mean the circumstances of my adoption, who my birth parents are and what happened that led to me being adopted, and how adoption has played out for me. I do not mean the perspective of my adoptive parents about my adoption story.

Every adoptee has a distinct story.

That story holds an enormous amount of power in our lives.

When others take up our story and use it, even with good intentions, it becomes a weapon that cuts at the dignity of the adoptee and fights against learning a broader view of adoption. Many times it is adoptive parents who over-share. I grew up hearing my story shared a lot with people outside our family. I always smiled back at the listeners and kind of enjoyed being the center of attention for a moment. As a kid, I didn’t realize I was learning other things during these interactions.

Yellow decorative scripture: "My story is powerful, you cannot wield it."

Over-Sharing Does Harm

I learned to see the details of my life as somehow “belonging” to others. I learned to feel obligated to satisfy other’s curiosity. When I sense people’s uncertainty about my background, the urge to dump all the details is strong! I think, if I do, maybe they’ll accept me and feel more comfortable with me. So I learned to over-share my own story also, even though doing so hurts me.

It leaves me exposed and drained. People react in a variety of ways and sometimes I have to reassure them. My story is a gift but not everyone sees it that way. Unlearning this is hard.⁠

As Stephanie Tait pointed out in a (Facebook) post, over-sharing might be done to justify the adoptive parent’s choices, to explain why this adoption is a good one, to counter the not so pretty side of adoption they don’t want to acknowledge. In other words, over-sharing is usually a way to make people feel comfortable again with the adoption situation or with the adopted child.

Adults might over-share a child’s story to encourage others to adopt or to evangelize. The “good intent” of this is used to dismiss the harmful impact of their actions and words on the adoptee.

Over-sharing is also done by relatives or family friends. Unfortunately, they only know the adoptive parent’s perspective. They also rarely ever question whether or not there is another side (or two) to the story. The’ll reveal details about the first mom’s situation and decision and never consider a bias exists.

Stewarding an Adoption Story

While we are children, our parents need to help protect and steward our stories, revealing more facts to us when they’re age appropriate. Relatives and friends need to be explicitly told that the details of the adoptee’s first family and placement are not theirs to share. Ever.

Owning our adoption story helps ground us and build a positive adoption identity. It is part of forming a more complete sense of ourself. Even if the details are sad or difficult to swallow. When we are ready to share, it can help heal some hurts. Sharing our story is the only way we can learn to let others share our burdens. Knowing our story belongs to us and we have control of it helps us move through life more easily, a life that will always be discovering how adoption has impacted us in ways we didn’t expect or think about before.

Adoptee stories are powerful. In other’s hands they can be a weapon. In our own hands, they can become an anchor and a sail.⁠


*During NAAM or National Adoption Awareness Month (November) I posted a lot on social media about the adoptee voice, which is often silenced and missing in discussions about adoption. NAAM was created as a government initiative to encourage people to adopt children in the foster care system and the messages during NAAM are usually the ones that portray the positive side of adoption, advertising to potential adoptive parents. Over time this month also because a time where adoption was just celebrated in general.

Adoption is Not Gospel: Part 2

by , on
2020-02-24

In Part 1, I pointed out a few important differences about the kind of legal adoption Paul had in mind when he used adoption as a metaphor for salvation. Part 2 is about what happens when we confuse Paul’s metaphor with adoption as we know it today.

More things to know about me as you read: I’m a mixed Chinese/German American transracial adoptee. I was adopted at birth to distant relatives of my (white) first mother. I love all my parents.

The painful things I share here are not an indictment of them, but a commitment to the truth of my adoptee experience.

My situation is unique, and I generally think of it positively. I am also a mother of 2 bio kids + 1 through legal guardianship. I am sensitive to the parent experience also. This is the perspective from which I write. 

#ADOPTIONISGOSPEL LOGIC

If you’re not familiar with the American Christian (often white and evangelical) depiction of adoption being “the gospel on display”, let me give you the Tiff Notes.

Essentially, the idea is that some human things (like marriage or parenting) are imperfect reflections of the “true and better” thing, which is Christ and the gospel. If you’ve ever read a Christian marriage book that draws lessons for the husband and wife relationship from the image of Christ and the church as ‘his bride’, this is the formula.

In this formula, the gospel (our salvation) becomes the “true and better” adoption. While human adoption is flawed, this perspective claims it’s value is in how it reflects the gospel of Christ. Therefore, choosing to adopt becomes a very Christ-like thing to do. This perspective also makes people very resistant to criticisms of adoption.

Oh and one more thing; Christians often state that “we are all spiritual adoptees.” Usually this is an attempt to relate to an adoptee, to validate or normalize their experience, but often the result is adoptee perspectives are universalized into being a non-issue, and our voices are silenced.

IMPOSING SPIRITUAL ADOPTION ON HUMAN ADOPTION

Originally, Paul used the adoption metaphor to tell us something about God. Turning it around, as if the metaphor tells us about ourselves or mandates modern adoption, doesn’t make sense.

Christians do not feel called to vacate charges against the condemned because of Paul’s use of justification as a metaphor, right? So let’s look at how our concept of adoption today leads us to misunderstand Paul’s metaphor.

Adoption should be for children, not wealthy men.

Most people believe they have a child’s needs in mind when they set out to adopt. But remember, the spiritual adoption metaphor centers the desires and actions of God as our adoptive Father. Attempting to make that metaphor apply to adoption today will tempt us to move from a child-centered approach to a parent-centered one.

And in fact, prioritizing the desires and actions of adoptive parents is exactly what the adoption industry has done. This has caused a huge amount of corruption in modern adoption for over a century.

What this might look like:

Centered around the desires of adoptive parents, adoption becomes the response to infertility or someone’s felt calling to help children in foreign countries or “unwanted” babies. This creates a demand that outweighs supply and children are procured in horrific ways. Opportunists will kidnap and sometimes sell children for adoption. We know predatory agencies coerce and trick vulnerable mothers into electing to adopt.

Focusing on adoptive parent’s desires blinds us to how the adoption industry works in opposition to family preservation.

While this was not part of my story, it is for many adoptees. We cannot ignore or dismiss their stories as isolated or non-representative cases. Adoptees often ask “How could God have desired for my family to be ripped apart by lies and deceit so that I could be adopted?” or “Why did God allow this to happen in order to answer your prayer for a child?”. The knowledge that it did not, in fact, have to be this way is a cruel burden that cannot be dismissed by the assertion that it was God’s will.

When we center adoption around the actions of adoptive parents, we tend to celebrate their savior-ism. We often want to comment adoptive parents on their great faith and obedience in adopting. To the listening child, this makes adoptive parents appear to be their saviors who deserve unending gratitude and obedience just as Christ’s actions should stir our hearts toward similar feelings toward God. 

Claiming adoptive parent’s actions are Christ-like may not be wrong, but many adoptees and even non-adoptees hear this and assume the child is obligated to be grateful for their adoptive family no matter what.

How this played out for me:

I realized my adoption was centered around my adoptive family’s good deeds when I started speaking up about racism. I had relatives (not my immediate family) tell me that I was being ungrateful to them for challenging their racist ideas.

They attempted to shame me into silence by claiming they had “loved me like family”. It’s clear they saw my adoption as being about them, a validation of their righteousness. The implication was that I did not deserve their love, which I’ll talk more about in a second.

Expecting an adoptee to respond to their adoption like Christians respond to salvation is cruel. It makes it hard for adoptees to acknowledge or talk about any loss or grief they might feel. Reverend Keith C. Griffith said, “Adoption Loss is the only trauma in the world where the victims are expected by the whole of society to be grateful.”

Adoptees today are children, not grown men. 

Imposing spiritual adoption, where God knew us and chose us though we did not deserve it, onto modern adoption leads us to a wrong view of vulnerable children. We now know trauma is inherent in adoption, even for a newborn. Adoptees frequently struggle with rejection or abandonment and adoption trauma can manifest at any point in our lives.

Talking about adoption in a way that implies adoptees are like the undeserving and wicked sinner is spiritually abusive.

While it is true we do not deserve salvation, we should never state that a child “did nothing to deserve adoption”. Yet I have heard and read this multiple times, even from adult adoptees themselves who have internalized this message.

The truth is, no child deserves to lose their family.
The truth is, all children deserve a loving family.

How this played out for me:

I could not see the trauma of my adoption until I was pregnant with my first child. Suddenly, I remembered a story my adoptive mom liked to tell about my infant days. I kept pushing her away, she recalls, so she prayed over me and rebuked a spirit and I finally relaxed and let her hold me. This story always made me feel ashamed but I was too young to articulate that. I responded as expected, showing gratitude for my mother’s overcoming love. When I finally understood my adoption trauma I realized my mother’s story is the spiritualized version of a stressed infant, struggling to adapt without my familiar mother and refusing to bond with a stranger. 

I no longer feel ashamed by that story. However, it hurts to know that, as a child, I was allowed to get the impression that something was wrong with me. Really, I was normal. I was behaving like any healthy infant would. It was my situation, my separation, that was wrong.

Spiritualizing adoption attempts to make a triumph out of a trauma. Triumph demands praise, but tragedy and trauma require lament in order to heal. I did not begin lamenting my adoption until my 30’s.

Adoption today emphasizes the new family and minimizes, even demonizes, the first family. 

Conflating spiritual adoption with modern adoption blurs the lines between God’s family and adoptive families. While we often stop short of equating being under the old authority of sin to the child’s first family, children are good at filling in the blanks. At least I was. 

Without being told, I put my first father and the Chinese ethnicity I inherited form him into the place that sin and wickedness occupy in the spiritual adoption metaphor. My child brain took this comparison to places my parents did not intend. They would’ve corrected me if I’d asked, but I didn’t. Instead of questioning, I simply internalized.

I sensed that I should never look back to my first father or Chinese heritage. God had given me a new life through adoption, both spiritually and here on earth, so I should never turn back.

As a transracial adoptee already struggling with internalized racism, this mix up was spiritual proof that Chinese people and culture was inferior and suspect.

A current biblical counseling site still tells adoptive parents to minimize the importance of their child’s heritage. Without the adoptee perspective to shed light on why this is damaging, many Christian adoptive parents don’t think twice about that!

I do not see my adoption as a picture of the gospel.

To me, my adoption does not look like the adoption Paul was using as a metaphor for salvation. Making my adoption about the gospel left me unable to see how adoption had truly impacted me. I had pain I did not acknowledge and therefore could not bring to God.

When I began to process this, I realized I had to deconstruct my faith. I had to cut out the lies and correct the half truths. At times I felt like I was losing my faith. I can see why so many adoptees raised in the church grow up and never come back. I don’t believe any Christian adoptive parent would knowingly risk this.

Family, we need to start sitting in the uncomfortable truths of adoptee stories.

How can we approach modern adoption faithfully?

This is definitely a topic I’ll cover more, but I want to leave you with a few thoughts right now.

When I think of spirit led actions to help children in need, I think of passages like James 1:27, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you.”

From my adoptee perspective, I see the emphasis on helping vulnerable families through the hardships that cause family separation instead of assuming family separation and jumping to adoption. 

I see the doctrine of adoption as a beautiful picture of what God has done for us, but not as a mandate for how we must show God’s love to others. Surely opening our homes and families to children in need is a Christlike thing to do, but there are many ways to do that. Ethical modern adoption is merely one of many options. I would argue adoption should be the last resort, but I’ll save that for another post.

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This isn’t the definitive word on adoption in the Bible. Just my thoughts. And I haven’t even mentioned adoption-like stories from the Old Testament (Moses, Esther, Ruth, etc)? I will write about those in the future so please follow my blog and join my reader list.

Grieving Birth | Adoptee Perspective

by , on
2019-01-25

I was adopted into a wonderfully loving family. I have always felt close with my adopted mother. So it never occurred to me that I might have suffered any loss from being separated from my biological mother at birth. It never occurred to me, that is, until I was pregnant with my first child. As I learned about labor and the connection newborns have with their mothers, I cried. I became fixated on that all important moment of holding my son to my chest. Yet, as my anticipation grew, a deep sorrow set in as well. I didn’t understand it at first. Then I realized why. I was actually grieving birth. My own birth.

I Slid Off Her Lap

I’ve heard the story many times. Perhaps a few months old, I was pushing away from my adopted mother. I looked up at her with an intense defiance in my eyes. Day after day, I was resisting.

“You’re going to let me love you.” She said as she gently tucked my limbs in her arms, hugging me to her chest, rocking and singing lullabies.

I don’t know how long this went on, but the last day it happened, she prayed over me. As she prayed, the “leviathan” came into her mind, and she rebuked this spirit by name.

My infant form relaxed and I slid down into her lap and then onto the floor. I immediately fell asleep and from that moment on, I never pushed her away again.

Love & Shame

In sharing this openly, I am calling myself out; to stop invalidating my own experiences and emotional responses.

As a child, this story confused me. I saw the loving determination in my mother’s eyes as she retold this memory. In her mind, she had overcome a great obstacle for us. The result was that her baby was able to receive her love. I believe she wanted me to hear in this story how much she loved me.

So I tried to hear that, but I also felt ashamed. I also heard that I had been a broken and possibly demon possessed baby. My own body had behaved freakishly. What did that mean? What did that say about me? I couldn’t make sense of the story, so I rejected it. I listened to it like it wasn’t really me she was talking about. Even now, writing it down here, I question myself. The details I heard are concrete in my head, but when I try to share them, to shine a spotlight on them, they ghost into an accusation of insanity.

Did she really say all those things? Am I making this up?

In sharing this openly, I am calling myself out; to stop invalidating my own experiences and emotional responses.

As a child, this story of my infant self was just further proof that I, the “oriental adoptee” in a rural white community was not normal. Loved? Yes, but not normal. A gift from God? Yes, but something was wrong with me.

Unremembered Loss

I had never been interested in baby dolls. Never wanted to babysit as a teen. Even when my husband and I got married we weren’t 100% sure we wanted kids. We’d wait and see how our lives unfolded. So, when we decided we did in fact want children of our own, I had a lot of learning to do about pregnancy, birth and babies. Which I tackled in my typical, overachieving academic fashion.

I learned my little womb-dweller was already becoming familiar with me. He knew my heartbeat and the sound of my voice. It was comforting as a first-time mommy to know those same, effortless things about me would comfort my child in the first few minutes and days of life on the outside. My breast tissue would regulate his body temperature. He would learn to recognize my scent. His familiarity with me would aid his transition.

God’s design in the birth process is amazing!

Why was I crying about it?

These weren’t tears of joy. Pregnancy hormones? It was deeper than tearing up at a puppy adoption commercial. Prenatal depression? I didn’t feel an overwhelming sense of hopelessness. It was just thinking about this particular aspect of birth that was different. There was sorrow here. When I finally connected the dots, I was shocked.

Was I really grieving something I experienced as a newborn? Is that even possible?

The day I was born I was held by my first mother. However, that afternoon she was gone. As I thought about that, I imagined myself as a vulnerable infant suddenly losing the reassurance of that familiar heartbeat, her gait, her voice.

Just a few months ago I learned research shows infants register this separation as trauma, coded into the nervous system. At one day old, I would have sensed that disruption and loss, even though I couldn’t understand it.

I suddenly remembered that story of resisting my adopted mother. This new perspective broke my heart. A profound sadness for my infant self replaced the sense of shame I had associated with this story.

I had not been a broken or possessed baby, I was overcoming some measure of trauma in losing my familiar mother. I had to adapt to life outside her and without her. Plus, I had to adapt to a new mother I didn’t recognize. This was extra stress that an infant is not supposed to have.

Did I attach to my adopted mother? Yes. Did I adapt and adjust well? I think so. Therefore the temptation is for everyone, myself included, to dismiss and minimize the inherent trauma of adoption. As if it doesn’t matter because it all worked out in the end. The truth is, I had suffered a loss before memory that I was only now able to grieve.

Reliving & Redeeming

I’m now weeks away from meeting my second child, face to face. Skin to skin. I’m visualizing how I will once again face the pain of labor and postpartum care. I’m fixating again on the moment I get to hold him for the first time.

Foreground infant shoes and candle. Background mother's pregnant belly.
The anticipation of giving birth involves a grieving process for my own birth.

And I’m grieving. I’ve only talked about this a few times since my first was born. Always with tears. I wonder if that means that I still have healing to do. Or if that means that some wounds never fully heal. Or maybe by writing this out and releasing it, I am healing right now.

Either way, giving birth is both a sorrow and a joy for me. The process involves reliving a loss somehow remembered in my being, though not in my conscious memory. I cannot face giving birth to my own child without grieving my own birth. I’m a little glad we’re not planning on having more children (she wrote with a chuckle).

However, there may be some redemption for me in this process. At least I hope there is. I am now the mother. No longer helpless. Giving my child what I didn’t have. Creating a conscious memory of bonding with my infant. Perhaps my past sorrow makes this anticipated joy that much sweeter.


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