Monday, November 23, 2015

The Complexities of Transnational, Transracial Adoptee Identities

Today’s Prompt: If you are an intercountry or transracial adoptee, talk about how you view yourself in relation to your families, your friends and peers, and the community you either grew up in or live in now. If you were adopted from a country outside the U.S., do you identify as an immigrant? Where/how do you find resources to fill the gaps in your cultural identity formation?

In adulthood, transracial adoptees of color find themselves rendered just another person of color as they exist outside of the boundaries of white privilege offered by their white parents. Often adoptive parents with children of color overlook or are unaware of the fact that the protections offered by white privilege fail to confer themselves on their children. The white supremacy and racism that permeates society leaves adoptees just as vulnerable as other people of color. I cannot emphasize this point enough as discourses of colorblindness and multiculturalism historically silenced adoptees’ discussions of racism.

My remarks prior to the opening plenary session, “#BlackLivesMatter and its Significance to Adoptive Families,” at the 2015 annual KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Parent Network) conference reflects my commitment to locating adoptees of color within contemporary discussions of race in the U.S. To set the stage for discussion and conversation between Honorable Judge Judy Preddy Draper, Shannon Gibney, Robert O’Connor, and Susan Harris O’Connor, I noted:

We recognize the importance of discussing issues such as white privilege, racial profiling in policing, and the impact of implicit bias within our families. We also realize that transracial and international adoptive families cannot overlook the role racism and race have in the lives of adoptees.

Transracial adoptees of color are ensconced in white privilege and simultaneously exist in black and brown bodies capable of experience the violence that has taken the lives of countless Americans as a result of racism. They may live in families where extended family are complicit in racism against people of color and view them as exceptions.

Adoptees of color regardless of origin share many parallel memories of dissonance and racism. Addressing the importance of coalitions, Amy Mihyang Ginther wrote the post, “Why Asian Adoptees Need to Give a Shit about #BlackLivesMatter.” We need to have real, honest conversations about the role of race and white privilege in transracially adoptive families. I am continually reminded when I am with my family that we don’t look alike through small things or moments that some may overlook. As I have previously discussed, I have a history of negotiating what it means to lack visible family ties within my adoptive family. For many adoptees, asserting their identities as adopted persons is complex. It involves negotiating other people’s expectations about what one should think or act. This is not to say that adult adoptees are not striving to empower future generations (e.g. Dear Wonderful You: Letters to Adopted and Fostered Youth).

For international transracial adoptees, the discussion of how racial difference and race functions within the adoptive family also must incorporate discussions of how adoptees are situated within their respective diasporas. Transnational adoptees historically are an overlooked diasporic community. Often these adoptees are viewed outside of understandings of immigration to the United States. Yet, these children as unaccompanied minors are some of the youngest migrants entering the nation. Their experiences in predominately transracial families mark them a distinct sub-group of Asian, African, and Latino Americans.

As an adoptee from South Korea, I grappled with my location as an Asian American since childhood. This is not to say that I did not identity as Korean or Asian. Rather, I was unsure of where I fit. This was a time when the only Asian American female role models on television were Connie Chung, Margaret Cho, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Michelle Kwan. Families like mine were not on television. And, as we remember, the only Asian American family on television at the time only lasted one season.

Not until college did I start examining my location within the broader Asian American community. I chartered the first Asian-interest sorority in the District of Columbia, what is now the Pi Chapter of Sigma Psi Zeta Sorority, Inc. I participated in the Asian Student Alliance. I also interned at a women of color organization as I negotiated my positioning as a person of color. These experiences provided me a framework to locate where adoptees fit into wider discussions of communities of color. Transracial adoptees represent a unique perspective given the fact that they grew up in predominately white families. These years also facilitated soul searching of what it means to be Asian American when everyone assumes this identity is only available to individuals raised by their biological/social parents of Asian descent.

Families like mine disrupted assumptions of what it means to be Asian American. I have distinct memory of being a freshmen in college walking back to my dorm room and when white peer decided to play the “where are you from” game. When he finally exhausted all of the possibilities, I said, “well, I’m adopted.” And his response was, “so your parents are American.” That moment captured the conflation between whiteness and being American as well as highlighted how I simultaneously existed and outside of my parents’ status as both Americans and white. Over a decade later, this short interaction stays with me.

I have only recently come to negotiate where I fit within the broader Korean diaspora. This consideration of what it means to be a diasporic subject is fueled both by my scholarly interests in adoption and my reunion with my biological family in 2013. The South Korea I returned to in 2007 for the first time and then again in 2010 and 2011 is no longer the same. I am no longer another Korean adoptee returning in search of something. Instead, I am adoptee who returns and sees herself as belonging as part of a family. Yet, even as I gain access to a diasporic identity, the fact that I lack cultural capital and proficient fluency in the language renders me outside of the nation.


Adoption is complex and nuanced. It requires great care as we reflect and consider how the past informs the present and how these moments today influence the future. Racial, ethnic, and cultural identities are ever changing and in flux. They are not permanent and static. The fluidity of identity is what allows adoptees like myself the ability to locate ourselves as persons of color and members of the diaspora.

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