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On June 1, 2018 Rebekah Henson published an important thread on Twitter critiquing the hashtags #FamiliesBelongTogether and #Ke...

Monday, July 13, 2015

Transracial adoptee, Ethiopian adoptee or just Ethiopian?: Navigating identities

 Africa Is The Future. Photo by OkayAfrica  

A friend sent me this article about transracial adoption and asked what my thoughts were. I agreed with everything that Angela and Lisa Marie said about transracial adoption, but it also had me thinking about how I identify myself as an adoptee. In North American adoption circles, I identify as an Ethiopian and transracial adoptee, but with the French-Ethiopian community, I (we) identify ourselves as Ethiopian adoptees only (we barely talk about race). With non-adoptees, I simply identify as Ethiopian. I think there are a few reasons for this. First of all, the term “transracial” is mostly used among English-speaking, mostly North American adoptees who are more familiar with adoption jargon. Another reason is that, the U.S. has a different history of slavery and racial oppression, therefore issues of race and racism are more openly discussed and paid attention to compared to Canada or in Europe. Still, I think the other reason is that, most of us, such as myself are more interested in connecting with our Ethiopian-ess than the transracial aspect of our adoption.

While I carry my Ethiopian identity within me, I've felt less Ethiopian because I did not grow up there, do not speak my language and I'm not very familiar with my culture and customs. I felt like I'd lost part of myself because my white parents completely underestimated the importance of me knowing my culture, country of origin and having contact with other African or black people. I am trying to reclaim my "lost" identities now as an adult, without resenting them, but it’s hard. Because I do feel like I missed out. Big time. But while my identity was shaped by having grown up in a transracial family, I want to move away from my “transracial” identity. I’m not trying to deny it, instead I’d like to explore and deepen my knowledge and understanding of other identities that I felt I'd I lost because I never had access to them. To put it bluntly, I feel like my “transracial” identity gives too much credit to my “white” experience by shifting the attention away from what I am in the present, which is that I am just another African (Ethiopian) woman living in the diaspora, navigating black womanhood in a white, male-dominated and hetero-normative society which both marginalizes and negates the complexities of Africa and my blackness.

While I do have a particular transracial adoptee experience, most of my friends are immigrants or people of color from Canada, South America or Africa. We can relate in many ways and on many different levels because we share similar experiences as “exotic others”. Obviously, we share vastly different family experiences and connections to our countries of origin but our daily experiences are the same. We all get stared at, exoticized, asked ridiculous but innocent questions, get discredited for our work and talent but also appreciated for being “different” and bringing diversity and culture, get refused jobs because of our appearances or our accents or lack of Canadian work experience...the list goes on and on. 

But being a transracial adoptee certainly has benefits. It has made me highly adaptable and capable of “fitting in” (if I want to) and navigating very white spaces with ease but sometimes with discomfort.  Of course I’m most comfortable in diverse and culturally-aware environments (luckily I live in a great city for that, MontrĂ©al). Still, when people ask me if I’ve gone back to Ethiopia to connect with my roots—they are surprised when I tell them that it’s more than that: Africa is home to me and I’ve always known that it'll be part of my life somehow.

Africans living on the continent and those in the diaspora are doing amazing things all over—from Ghana and Nigeria to Uganda and Ethiopia to South Africa and beyond. We are creating and building, launching new projects in the arts, sciences, culture, business despite living amidst war, disease and poverty, political instability (in some places). These things co-exist in Africa. It’s a place with a million contradictions.

I hope to be part of the wave of Africans who return and surprisingly, many Ethiopian adoptees I’ve spoken with feel the same. I’ve noticed that as Ethiopians, adopted or not, we are extremely connected to each other, our culture and our country, even if we’ve lived outside of Ethiopia for many years.

With Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, Aselefech and I want to help bridge the gap between Ethiopian adoptees and the broader Ethiopian diaspora communities living in Canada, the U.S., Europe and Australia perhaps through helping Ethiopians (adoptees and non-adoptees) return access to work or volunteer opportunities in Ethiopia. There are so many possibilities. We will see what the future holds.

Photo credit:

How to Respond to a New Adoption?

The Image of the Stork we see in society related to birth and adoption

I was at a party this weekend when I was introduced to a new mom and her baby. A person next to me commented to the mom on how fit and trim she was so soon after birth. The mom responded that the baby didn't come from her body, that she was adopted.

While the conversation continued happily while I looked on silently, my thoughts reeling. Where was the mom? The original mom? Where was the family? Why did they decide to relinquish? Were they pressured? Did the birth dad have a say in the relinquishment? Does the adoptive family understand the issues that adoptive children face? Will the adoptive family understand and honor the original families?

These are not questions we are allowed to ask. We are not supposed to show sadness or sympathy for the baby who has just lost her original families. We are supposed to show only joy, as if the baby has suffered nothing. I'm sure it's hard for the onlookers to see anything other than beauty and tranquility as they watch the new baby sleeping peacefully in its new adoptive mother's arms.

But there was so much more that I could see.

What a stork really looks like

Invisible to the other guests who only saw the present, I could see the past and the future. In the past is the original family, now torn apart. In the future, is the adoptee who bears the scars from the tearing.

I could see the present as well, but very differently than those around me. In the present I see a society that pretends that there is no loss in adoption. I see a world that supports the facade that a person will magically transform when you take her from her family and put her in another one.

I imagined a different future. One that acknowledges the truth of adoption.

Hearing that the baby was adopted, I would have responded somberly, wordlessly acknowledging the loss the baby had experienced, was experiencing and would experience.

I would not have asked about the relinquishment, because clearly that is none of my business.

However, I would have asked about the baby's original families. What was her nationality? What are her parents like? What are her families like? Did she have siblings? What were her original families traditions and talents? What is her name (assuming a link to the original families)?

That future isn't here yet. Had I responded that way, I would have offended the adopted mom, shocked the other guests and embarrassed the host.

Instead, I stayed silent. Not pretending to feel the joy of the others, but not speaking my mind either.

The host then explained to the adoptive mom that I was an adoptee and blog about the experience of reunion with my birth mom. The adoptive mom had a moment of a look that I would describe as defensiveness cross her face as she said that the baby was an open adoption. "It's different now," she said. That was her response to hearing I wrote about adoption.

"Yes, it's different now," I said.

Only my "different," was not the same as hers.

Adoptees have a voice.

It's time we use it to change what adoption is and how society sees it.

Let's make a different future.


Cathy Heslin is a reunited adult adoptee of closed domestic adoption in New Jersey. She met her birthmother when she was just 18 and moved out to Portland after graduating college to live with her birthmother. She has been in reunion with her birthmother for nearly 25 years, and with her birthfather for 15 and has a complicated extended family that includes all sides.

She writes about adoption with a focus on long-term reunion. She has written a memoir in partnership with her birthmother called Kathleen-Cathleen where she and her birthmother write alternating chapters sharing their experience of reunion from both the perspective of the adoptee and the birthmother (not yet published). They also write parallel blogs on shared themes: Cathy's blog is reunioneyes.blogspot.com. Follow Cathy on Twitter @CathyHeslin.