by Abby Hilty, born in Colombia adopted to the USA, currently living in Canada. She wrote and shared this on her Facebook wall for National Adoption Awareness Month.
Adoptees are constantly grappling with a life full of complex dualities.
I am an only child, but I have at least 4 siblings.
I have a birth certificate from 2 different countries.
I had to lose my family so that another family could be created.
I grew up in a middle class family, but I lost my original family because I was born into poverty.
I am very attached to the name Abby, but I know I was named after someone else’s ancestor.
I am occasionally told I look like my mom, but we don’t share the same genetics, racial group, or ethnicity.
I love my adoptive family, but I needed to search for my original family.
I am reunited with mi mamá, but we are no longer legally related to each other.
I am my mother’s daughter, but I am mi mamá’s daughter too.
I loved and lost my dad, but I don’t know who my father is.
I am short in my receiving country, but I am tall in my sending country.
I am brown, but I grew up with internalized whiteness.
I am an immigrant in my receiving country, but I am a gringa in my homeland.
I have lived in the northern hemisphere since I was 3 months old, but my body still struggles in the cold.
I speak English fluently, but my body responds to Spanish viscerally.
I have always celebrated my birthday, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but those have never been easy days for me.
I know how important it is for (transracial, intercountry) adoptees to share their lived experiences, but the emotional cost is high for every NAAM post, every panel, every podcast interview, and especially for every discussion in which my fellow adoptees or I personally get pushback from non-adopted people who want to challenge our lived experiences.
And, believe me, this happens DAILY in various adoption groups. So, if an adopted person that you know and love is slow to reply to your texts or emails or if they seem to sometimes be lost in a day dream or not paying attention, it may just be because so many of our daily decisions have to be run through multiple – and often competing – thoughts and even family systems.
My father was admitted to hospital yesterday as he had tightness in his chest and pain across his shoulder radiating down to his shoulder blade. The first question he was asked was, “Is there any family history of heart disease?” He was able to say, “My father had a heart attack, my brother had a stent put in and my sister also has heart disease, so yes there is.” This was then able to inform the medial team assessing him that there was a high possibility that this was heart related and so they could act accordingly.
When I was diagnosed with hip dysplasia back in 2010 the first thing I got asked was, “Is there any family history?” This of course was not the first time I’ve been asked that question. I’ve been asked that question my whole my life when I’ve presented for menial whatever’s. I’m adopted … oh right … sometimes awkward silence …. and therefore I don’t know.
The first thing we did of course when we found out that I had hip dysplasia, was get my daughter tested and bingo – guess what ?! It’s genetic!! She had it too. I was pleased but also sad that I had passed this on to her. I was pleased that for the first time in my life my newly discovered diagnosis meant I could help her catch hers early enough for her to still need surgery but not as invasive as what I needed to have. And there is the case in point, from a medical perspective on why biology matters.
Biology doesn’t matter. But they say blood is thicker than water. Biology doesn’t matter. But more than 26 million people have taken a genetic ancestry test. Biology doesn’t matter. But you have your grandma’s eyes. Biology doesn’t matter. But I’m so happy you got your dad’s musical talent. Biology doesn’t matter. But most states in the USA seal original birth certificates. Permanently. Biology doesn’t matter. But DNA carries the genetic instructions for development, functioning, growth, and reproduction of all known organisms. Biology doesn’t matter. But 406 episodes of Forensic Files kept TV audiences enthralled using biological evidence to catch violent criminals. Biology doesn’t matter. But ‘Finding Your Roots’ is a primetime hit for public television in the USA. Biology doesn’t matter. But an estimated 8 million children have been born worldwide using IVF and other reproductive technologies. Biology doesn’t matter. But all I ever wanted was to know who my mother is. Biology doesn’t matter. But mothers and the children they lost to adoption are desperately searching for each other, all over the world. Biology doesn’t matter. But it does. It really, really does.
Một giọt máu đào hơn ao nước lã / A drop of blood is worth more than all the water in a pond.
In the house I grew up in, on the second floor, there was a formal dining room and then a hallway leading to a large bathroom, a sewing room, the master bedroom and lastly my bedroom. On the wall opposite the dining room there was plenty of space for my adoptive parents to hang framed black-and-white photos of distant relatives who stemmed from both their family trees. In order to go down the hallway to my bedroom, each day and night, I had to pass by this orderly array of photos. Sometimes I passed right by them, sometimes, usually when I knew I was alone, I would look deep into the subjects’ eyes, so much so, that I’d start to believe they were staring back at me.
It was at these times, and in so many other ways, that I wanted someone with facial features, hair colour and physical stature similar to mine to peer back at me and explain the strange dissonance in which I increasingly felt trapped. But no help was coming because I was beyond help in some odd excommunicative aspect. No matter how much I tried dampening my distinguishable appearance, it carried me right back to my peers who generally judged me to not be wholly compatible with their cliques. As far as my adoptive parents and immediate family were concerned, I was theirs, for all intents and purposes, but when it came to innocuous remarks about familial traits or good-natured physical comparisons between cousins I was set aside and ignored. It was as if they were letting me know that this was “family business that doesn’t concern you.”
When you don’t resemble the people you’re forced to swim with in the big pond of The World, then you lower your body temp and try to cope and always look for an escape.
This is the last in the ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series that was created for Adoption Awareness Month 2019. Huge thanks to our ICAV Blogging team for their commitment and generosity in sharing their voices.
#2 ICAV Blogger Collaborative Series from Adoption Awareness Month 2019
When someone says “I don’t see colour,” to me this means they don’t see me. They will argue that they see me as a “person,” just like we are all people. But I counter that view because my personhood, my identity, my humanity, cannot be uncoupled from my brown-ness.
Pretending not to see colour has the effect of negating everyone’s ancestry, personal and familial history, and their lived experiences in the racialised society we all live in – no matter where we live. In intercountry adoption (ICA), this “colourblind” view can be absolutely devastating because ICA is dominated by white people adopting brown and black babies from all over the world. If white adoptive parents refuse to see their child’s skin colour or their own skin colour, how can they fully parent and love their child unconditionally?
For, it would seem, being colourblind is only possible under certain conditions: (a) I don’t have to see your colour; (b) I don’t have to acknowledge my colour; (c) we never have to talk about what your colour or my colour means; (d) we never, ever have to talk about how those colours exist in relation to each other within the larger context of culture and society.
From the perspective of a brown intercountry adoptee like me, I feel a mixture of sadness and anger towards anyone who espouses a colourblind mentality because they essentially negate the history of my brown ancestors.
If you refuse to allow that humanity has attached certain assumed behaviours and levels of privilege and importance to different skin colours, how can we possibly have a conversation on why these structures are in place, who’s benefitting and who’s being harmed by them, and why it’s important to create a truly level playing field?
When white adoptive parents pretend to be colourblind, how can they help their child be proud of the skin they’re in? How can they recognise their child’s need for racial mirrors? How can they help their child understand the beautiful and rich aspects of the child’s ancestry and culture as well as the pain and oppression their race has experienced and continues to experience, and how those dynamics relate to each other? How can they help nurture a racially competent child who grows up into a racially competent adult – even if that means their son or daughter is racially competent in a race that doesn’t match their own? How can they see the role that their white privilege has played throughout their own lives and via the intercountry adoption of their child? How can they decide how to use their white privilege going forward?
None of this is possible if we are teaching and encouraging people, including white adoptive parents, to pretend not to see colour.
Congratulations you’ve just completely erased my first culture, my birth family, my genetic history, my country of origin! Look I know you meant well, but underneath this, there’s an insensitivity or lack of awareness about everything that I was and still am before I was adopted. It’s kind of like you’re saying, “Good job – you have assimilated so well that you’re just like me/us now!” But I’m not.
One of my fellow intercountry adoptee friends joked about how we are coconuts – brown on the outside and white on the inside. It’s funny, but it’s also not funny.
My adoptive parents tried to show me books and documentaries about Vietnam when I was growing up, but I wanted nothing to do with anything that highlighted my difference. When I got sunburnt on my nose, I asked mum if I’d be white underneath. So I got caught up in the “not wanting to see my colour thing” either.
I was very good at being a chameleon, it’s like I had to become one to survive. I was so desperate to fit in and to belong that I learnt fast about how to adapt my personality to be loved and liked. I still do this to this day, but I’m learning that I’m enough as I am and I don’t need to perform to be worthy of being loved.
The popular TV show This Is Us wowed audiences again with its coverage of transracial adoption. I don’t watch the show, and a lot of adoptees can’t bring themselves to watch it either. And yet it’s immensely popular with adoptive parents. The supposedly “mic drop” scene is as follows:
Jack: When I look at you, I don’t see colour. I just see my son.
Randall: Then you don’t see me, Dad.
During NAAM, it’s particularly biting to see this interaction getting mainstream attention. You see, many of us adoptees of colour have had this exact dialogue with our colourblind families and friends (myself included).
This isn’t an original line, and dare I say, I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers lurk in adoption spaces and stole this from the stories of adoptees, co-opting our stories for better ratings.
This isn’t some TV script for your entertainment; this is a painful part of our real lives. It hurts us in deep, existential ways to be denied access to our birth culture and traditions and then to be unseen by our adoptive families. It is actively rejecting us a second time.
If you refuse to “see” the parts of me that are a brown Indian, then you are actively refusing to support me on my journey to discover who I was born to be. Your choice to take the easy road to claim, “I’m not racist” actively isolates me and in turn plays into its own racial problems. Take the harder road with me, with any of the people of colour in your lives, and learn how to unlearn racial biases. This work requires you to see, so take off your (colour)blinders.
The fact that it takes a network TV show to get this concept to take hold rather than the direct words of real adoptees should disgust anyone and everyone who loves an adoptee.
I challenge adoptive parents and allies who support the adoptee attempt to “flip the script” during NAAM to think about how prioritising entertainment over the real words of adoptees is its own form of silencing; to be more intentional about whose voices you choose to uplift; and be more critical of the media you choose to consume.
Somewhere along the way in my life, I got the message that I’m not a real Asian. As a mixed race adoptee I don’t even dare try to join Chinese adoptee communities or Indian ones for fear of not being enough in some way. I can’t make sense of what it is to be a Malaysian Chindian — I don’t know any others, I’ve never met one. There are no books I know of, no museums or movies. Even if there were, I would be reading them the way an outsider learns about history.
Something I resent is the suggestion I should do something in order to belong. Belonging isn’t a citizenship test!
As an intercountry adoptee brought to England by a white couple with no friends of colour, all the markers of my culture have been erased. Except my skin colour, my hair, it’s texture, my eyes. Each time someone says, “I don’t see colour”, or simply behave as though they don’t, this implicit message that I don’t belong in my biological culture is reinforced and I’m erased a little more.
I don’t forget that my gay friends are gay, I don’t forget their struggle to belong or to feel safe holding hands or kissing in public. To erase that would be a failure of empathy and allegiance. Of course it isn’t the only part of their identity and I’m interested in all the other parts too. The ones that are like me (or not), the parts that amaze, amuse or confuse me — I love them all.
Everyone just wants to be seen. I wonder what makes you feel unseen?
When we experience ourselves differently to how we are seen, there’s a disconnect, a disruption to our identity which isn’t resolvable with free will alone.
Belonging is relational – by its very nature it demands the acceptance of others.
Since the later years of coming to terms with my identity, fitting in between my two worlds (adoptive and birth), understanding the impacts of being relinquished and adopted, I have shared many of my experiences to wide audiences but one situation close to me, never ceases to frustrate me the most. This is when my own adoptive family make this comment, “But we see you as one of us” or “We don’t see you as being different” after trying to explain how I’ve always felt so different and out of place.
I acknowledge, in their eyes, they are trying to say to me that I am accepted and embraced by them as being one of their “clan” despite my skin colour and outward obvious differences. But without any in-depth discussions about the complexities of being intercountry adopted, these types of comments just made me feel even more disconnected and isolated from them. What it showed me was they had very little understanding of my intercountry adopted journey. When they don’t have these important conversations with me, they are oblivious to how their comments make me feel even though I know it is not what they intend.
What would I prefer my family to say? I would prefer them to acknowledge my differences and really try to understand where I’m coming from. For me it’s about the discrepancy I experience on a daily basis because strangers throughout my life meet me once and make basic assumptions that I am NOT one of them (white Australian) based on my appearance – my skin colour, my eyes, my hair. The internal battle I face as an intercountry adoptee, is that whilst in my private family circles I might be fully accepted, it is NOT the experience I have in public outer life.
The constant jarring reminders of “not belonging” in my wider adoptive society leaves me with a lot of unresolved questions of who I am, where do I belong, who are my clan, and how did this reality eventuate. Are my adoptive family even aware of these impacts? No because they are so blind to what everyone else can see and received very little education on race, culture, and the importance of open discussions. Ignorance is not bliss in this case.
So when my adoptive family says, “I don’t see your difference, you’re one of us” when clearly I’m not as clarified by many strangers, this comment only acts to shut down the conversation instead of opening it up and allowing me the space and love to process competing realities.
Being intercountry adopted is not a reality we adoptees can ignore for too long!
I don’t know if it’s the fact that I didn’t grow up in an English-speaking country, but we don’t use the word “colour” to describe a person. In Sweden, we use “foreigner” as opposed to being Swedish. So instead of saying “I don’t see colour”, people would say “I never think of you as anything but Swedish” or “I see you as the same as us”. They say that to be nice.
When I grew up there were very few people in Sweden with a darker complexion. Most didn’t speak the language well and some of them (of course, a small minority) appeared shady. Swedish mindset is to question if they (dark complexion people) could be trusted.
To tell me that I don’t appear foreign means I am a person they trust. But … when I go on dating sites strangers viewing my profile, only see colour. I get less guys who write than my white peers, less matches with white skin but more super likes from “foreign” men.
One time I wrote in my profile text that I was adopted so as not to appear scary. Then I thought adopted might also sound scary, because in Sweden that implies psychological problems. So I deleted it again and had to come to terms with being less popular online.
My close friends have never said these words to me about not appearing foreign but I do things said like this occasionally and every time, I am offended. As if that random person has a right to put an approval stamp on me. As if I were to do anything untrustworthy, he or she would judge me much harder and say, “Hmm, I guess she wasn’t like us, after all”.
What defines me is not what you see, it’s what I see. Colours don’t colour my life, but my experiences in a prejudiced and bigoted society have.
A transracial adoptee’s worth as a human being is both legally and socially determined by his adoptive parents, his adoptive family, their friends and neighbours, and the entire local community that is encouraged to invite him in as one of their own. But as I eventually learned the security blanket of immediate family didn’t always save me from explaining what I was doing there or defending how I belonged. In my youth, it seemed like I was constantly feeling a barrage of disconcerting interactions with other kids who called me out, in so many words, as being a foreigner, even though I knew nothing else than what my Irish Catholic family had taught me: That I was an “Allen”, that I had to go to Mass every Sunday, that I spoke English and that I belonged to them.
The erasure and then replacement of my identity reverberated in how I developed a sense of self: I didn’t really have a Self. I had a mock-up of one, a misfitting template that I was encouraged to carry around and display each and every day. I didn’t know what it meant to be Vietnamese because that was not the point of this whole adoption experiment. I was trained to look in the mirror and pretend that I was just another Irish Catholic kid with a bad temper. I was trained to not read about the war I had been exfiltrated from. I was trained to see myself like everyone else.
I even trained myself not to see colour. Even though my graduating class in high school comprised many kids from refugee families from Southeast Asia as well as several Asian adoptees, including me, I couldn’t pick them out because I refused to see them other than strangers. I didn’t hang out with any of them or even talk to them because why would I? I was “Kevin Allen”. Son of Evalyn and Bob, and oldest brother to two sisters. I couldn’t even find myself for so long because I was lost. Lost in the fantasy that I was just like my parents, just like my aunts and uncles and cousins, and just like the community that held me under its tutelage.
In art studio class in high school we had to do a self-portrait. I took my time drawing mine. I used coloured pencils and got the shading and features of my young face all correct and flattering. I thought it was a great representation of me. It was one of my proudest works. But I never kept it for myself. I gave it to my parents. I felt I had no use for it.
It wasn’t until I was in my 40s (yes, you read that right), that I started making friendships with Latina women. By this I mean Latina women who grew up within their Latina families, language, and culture. Non-adopted Latina women.
Why? Why did it take me so long to be able to make connections with other Latina women? Because from the moment of my adoption at age 2.5 months, my Latina identity and environment were replaced by a white, Jewish one. Now, there is nothing wrong with having a white, Jewish identity – if you are white and Jewish. But what if you’re not?
I grew up with so many truly wonderful people and things around me. There were hard times for sure, but there was always love, friendship, family, educational opportunities, vacations, warmth, food, shelter, etc. All feelings and things that no one can or should take for granted.
Yet, still, something was missing. Not only the figment of mi mami in Colombia, but me, myself. My identity as the Latina I was born to be, thanks to all that had transpired in the lives of my ancestors.
It’s crazy hard to say these things, to say that I got hurt even though I was raised by people who loved me, who had the best intentions, but who wanted me to be – and who were erroneously told I could be – the product of their ancestors and not mine.
Again, it all leads back to the damaging, majority viewpoints that have dominated the system of adoption since the late 1950s. Telling adoptive parents that they don’t need to see color, that they should fully assimilate their intercountry transracially adopted child into their family, along with name change, new language, new religion, new environment, is to tell adoptive parents not to see all of their adopted child. It’s how it was done back in the early days of intercountry transracial adoption, and, sadly, much of this continues today even though experts – the adoptees who have lived this whitewashing – have started speaking up on how the impact has been harmful despite the intent being good.
I speak not to be hurtful but that, hopefully, guardians, foster parents, and adoptive parents of children of a different race and ethnicity than theirs can understand and learn to do things in a way that helps raise racially comfortable and competent individuals.
It took me decades to start breaking down my internalized whiteness. And it is an ongoing process. It started with legally reclaiming my original last name, Forero, about 20 years ago. This was NOT done to deny or disrespect my (adoptive) parents. Absolutely not. It was done to respect myself. To recognize I have always been here, that I have always been Colombian, that I have always been part of another family as well as my adoptive family, and that I have always had worth just as I was and always have been.
My light brown skin has never been white. And that’s OK. My dark brown eyes have never been blue. And that’s OK. Spanish filled my brain from within the womb. And that’s OK. My ancestors didn’t come from Eastern Europe. And that’s OK. I was racially incompetent. And that’s NOT OK. I am still surprised when I look at pictures of myself and see an Indigenous Latina woman. And that surprise is NOT OK.
Recognizing differences amongst people is not problematic. What’s problematic is discriminating against people based on visible and invisible differences. What’s problematic is pretending not to see people fully. When we put our blinders on to others, we put our blinders on to ourselves as well. Every child, every woman, every man has history that is carried in their genes. No one is less than anyone else. Everyone deserves to be seen.
Today, I dedicate I Ain’t Movin’, by Des’ree to my fellow transracial adoptees. May you all walk with dignity and pride.
(Originally posted on my facebook feed during NAAM2019)
“Time’s much too short to be living somebody else’s life.”
…Our capacity to destroy one another is matched by our capacity to heal one another. Restoring relationships and community is central to restoring well-being…we can change social conditions to create environments in which children and adults can feel safe and where they can thrive. Van Der Kolk, B. (2014) The Body Keeps The Score. Viking, New York
“Though you may not have direct reports working under you, you are ALL leaders in your project teams,” we were told recently at a work-related strengths finding and building seminar. This got me thinking about what leadership looks like in our community of intercountry and transracial adoptees (ICA/TRAs). Every day I see fellow ICA/TRAs working to bring about change in areas such as the intersectionality of adoption, trauma, race, and loss; family preservation; family reunification; and garnering awareness and even funds for lifelong post-adoption services for adopted people (as well as others in the adoption constellation). If the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts, then our community will best be served if we can collaborate with each other, as united leaders. Therefore, I invite all ICA/TRAs to ask themselves a few fundamental questions about leadership: What are leaders? Who are they leading? Are they leading or are they serving? If they are serving, whom are they serving? How can leaders influence in the absence of direct authority?
As an adopted person, the leaders in my life who have resonated most with me are the ones who have listened, validated, felt all “the feels,” and who worked diligently and gently at helping others grow and learn, setting them on the path to becoming leaders themselves one day. I believe that we all are – or have the potential to be – caring, impactful, servant leaders in our family, professional, and community settings.
The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society; will they benefit, or, at least, not be further deprived? Greenleaf, R.K. (1977) Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. Paulist Press, New York
The concept of servant leadership, in which the main goal of the leader is to serve, was first outlined by Robert K. Greenleaf. Though an in-depth look at servant leadership is outside the scope of this blog, I hope that the short quote above will speak to many in the ICA/TRA community. It certainly speaks to me as someone who empathizes with those who are harmed by the power differential inherent to modern day adoption: vulnerable women and children.
Following in the footsteps of earlier generations of vocal adoptees, such as Betty Jean Lifton and Sherrie Eldridge, who advocated for adoption reform, some members of the ICA/TRA community who were born and adopted between the late 1960s and the early 1990s have published books, become adoptee-centric grief and trauma therapists, set up local support groups, and initiated DNA programs for adoptees and first families, amongst other noteworthy projects. However, unlike our pioneering predecessors, who were almost exclusively white, same-race domestic adoptees, we are the ones paving the way for critical thinking about intercountry and transracial adoption practices.
Furthermore, our community is in the very unique position of being the first generation of adult intercountry, transracially adopted people who have had time to think and heal AND who are connected globally, thanks to the internet, AND who have access to affordable DNA testing AND whose voices are starting to be heard by local and international governing bodies. Over the past few years we have begun to leverage all of these resources and opportunities, and in doing so, many members of the ICA/TRA community are now devoting their time and energy to serving adoptees and first family members. Whether we realize it or not, we are already practitioners of servant leadership.
The traditional business model of leadership has been about increasing power and profit margins by getting people to do what you want by wielding your authority. This model is not only waning in the business world, but it is wholly inappropriate in the ICA/TRA community: we have neither profit margins to increase nor authority to wield. Therefore, effective leadership in our community, namely leadership that educates, empowers, supports, and influences even without direct power or authority, I believe, will find its strengths in empathy, values of truth and justice, and the desire and ability to knowledge-share that many ICA/TRAs have developed as a result of their unique lived experiences.
We were powerless as babies and children when we were removed from our families and sent around the world to grow up in adoptive families, often with no connection to our original selves or families. As a result, many of us have struggled with our identity and sense of self worth. We paid a very high price for something we never gave our consent to in the first place. Yet, the flip side to all the pain many ICA/TRAs endured while growing up, and often continue to endure well into adulthood, is that we often have specialized knowledge acquired only through lived experience. Many of us also feel an intense desire to give back to our community by sharing that knowledge (with each other, with adoptive parents, and with policy makers) to help ensure that things are done better for current and future generations of vulnerable families and adopted people. To me, that is certainly a big part of leadership.
Finally, it is no stretch to see reflected in the ICA/TRA community most, if not all, of Larry C. Spears’s ten characteristics of effective, caring leaders (Character and Servant Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders. Journal of Virtues & Leadership, Vol. 1, Iss. 1, 2010, p. 25-30):
Listening Empathy Healing Awareness Persuasion Conceptualization Foresight Stewardship Commitment to the Growth of People Building Community
Being a member of a group of individuals who exhibit such characteristics is very powerful, and very empowering indeed. If our ICA/TRA global community can harness the benefits of servant leadership by fully owning and exercising all of our inborn strengths as well as those characteristics we have acquired through our lived experiences, I believe we not only help each other heal but can also shape governmental policies in favor of family preservation and post-adoption support. As we move forward as a community and as leaders in the field of intercountry and transracial adoption, I hope we will continue to grow, to learn, and to hold each other accountable as leaders who serve with kindness, and no expectations of glory in return.