Gabbie Beckley on Racism

On 3 April 2022, a group of 19 Australian intercountry adoptees participated in an ICAV consultation for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) who have developed a Concept Paper for a National Anti-Racism Framework. We believe intercountry/transracial adoptees are under represented in race discussions in almost every adoptive country and wanted to make sure we had a say. The next few blogs will be a selection of the inputs from adoptees who participated to give a more nuanced insight into our lived experience of racism and our thoughts on what needs to be done to better support us.

by Gabbie Beckley, adopted from Sri Lanka to Australia, clinical social worker.

Speaking out against racism is everyone’s responsibility

I have experienced many and varied forms of racism in my 40 years of living, walking and breathing in this world. It has impacted me in so many ways, how do I write them all down? I have grown up navigating this white washed world as a proud woman of colour, however being proud of who I am and what I have become in my life are not mutually exclusive. It has taken a lot of hard work, soul searching and conscious reflection many times over to become the most evolved person I am to date, and I am constant work in progress.

I have many family stories of racism, ones which now can be seen for what they were, in the time and place and the generational context from the speaker, not a reflection of my family as a whole.

One of the earliest memories I have is being told that a member of my family said, “No black child is going to carry my name!” But once I was put into my family member’s arms, all the racist bullshit fell away and I was treated like everyone else. As I grew up, I in turn had great love and respect for this person, I forgave their ignorance and focussed on our shared love of cricket and footy!

I have had experiences during my primary school years that I can still remember as if it were yesterday. Being kicked in the shins for sticking up of myself, for getting into physical altercations with racist bullies. For having teachers say to me, “I am ashamed to come from the same country as you”.

I have been called the N word more times than I can count. I have experienced overt, covert, intentional and unintentional racism throughout my life. I have been racially profiled by the police, been followed around in shopping centres by security guards.

I have worked in workplaces where people have said to me “where are you from” and what about your “real parents”.  I have had people say to me, “Your English is so good for someone who was not born here”. I have had a boss not talk to me for months at a time because of something he perceived I had done wrong. But it wasn’t the case, he was just a racist asshole and I was so glad to leave that workplace and step into the workplace of my dreams!

 I have not being given opportunities to further my career because of people’s attitudes, resentments and petty jealousy, which really boils down to, we don’t want to work for a person of colour.

I have been underestimated, dismissed, undervalued and not seen my whole life, which is why I probably am drawn to social work and the fight for the underdog and to try and dismantle the structural inequalities that remain so entrenched in our society.

I am a fighter, I am a social justice warrior, I am a firm believer in the power to make a difference and a positive impact on people’s actions, I believe in kindness and giving people a fair-go.

How has this impacted me? Well I consider myself as a person who thinks and reflects deeply about my actions and decisions. I have had the “what to do if you are stopped by the police” conversation with my children, in the wake of the well published murders of George Floyd, Tamar Rice, Brianna Taylor, and not to forget the tragic tale of our first nations peoples with the highest incarceration rate for young people and all the Black deaths in custody in which no-one is or has been accountable. I am sad, I am angry, I am dismayed that this is the current state of affairs that my children and I live in. Yet I do have hope – hope that we can build a community that brings about change, to work with like-minded individuals who share my passion and drive for positive change.

My experiences of racism have shaped the person I am, the parent I am and the social worker that I am. It impacts on my thoughts, actions and deeds. I am mindful with how people view me, I am respectful in the face of racist pigs, and I refuse to be drawn down to their level. I think it has had an impact on my mental health when I was younger, it caused a lot of self-doubt and searching for my place in this world.

I think that one of my saving graces has been the reconnection with my birth family and culture. Getting to know them is getting to know myself! I have spent the last 22 years knowing, growing and loving my family and I am thankful every day that I sit in a unique position where I am part of two worlds and I can sit comfortably in both. 

What would I suggest be done to better address the racism experienced by intercountry/ transracial adoptees?

I believe that adoption does not have to be the first resort. I believe that keeping family together in their birth countries with support via sponsorship/ education/ income generating activities would be beneficial to adoptees in general but specifically in terms of their mental health and connection to their roots and cultures. If adoptions do have to occur – maintaining a relationship with family is imperative! This includes birth parents, aunties, uncles, cousins, grandparents and siblings.

There needs to be a greater emphasis on the adopter’s thoughts and feelings in relation to adopting a child of colour. Deep dive into their history and experiences, get them to take annual courses on the impact of racism and how to be an anti-racism ally/ advocate. Ask them to look at their friendship circles, is it diverse? Does it represent a wide range of culturally appropriate, socio-economic, gender diverse people?

I think we should try collectively to share our stories and experiences, in the hope that with great knowledge comes great responsibility – and that is everyone’s business!

For more from Gabbie, read her paper shared years ago and included on our Research page: Human Rights & Social Justice in Intercountry Adoption

Andrea shares about Adoptee Anger

This is a series on Adoptee Anger from lived experience, to help people understand what is beneath the surface and why adoptees can sometimes seem angry.

by Andrea Johnstone, adopted from Canada to England.

I used to be angry as a teenager! I so desperately wanted my adopted mum and dad to see me for who I was and for them to meet my emotional needs. It never happened. I was the school bully as I had to learn to protect myself from all the racial comments.

My school teachers used to say to me, “You are nothing but a nigger!” Yes, that’s right f**ing school teachers. I was pulled up by my jumper and hit against the wall from a PE teacher who said to me, “I hate you Andrea Johnstone!” Wtf!! So yes, I was f**ing angry. The kids never got punished for their racial behaviour. The teachers had no idea that I was living in a very dysfunctional household – mother narcissistic with a depressive, passive father. So hell yes, I was angry!

However, the tides turned and I went into deep therapy after a suicide attempt. It was a long journey back to self. And I’m here now supporting many adoptees in the UK. So it was all meant to be, as I know that pain, I know that anger within. I know the primal wounding because I have been there.

That anger still continues at times to bubble within. But I know now how to soothe her xx and no regrets. All my life experiences are who I am today. I’m a bloody amazing, wise woman who has learnt to truly love herself and to remember I was the one I have been waiting for. To give to myself what I was needing.

All the looking outside myself, the love I looked for with men, nagh … I can only have a healthy relationship with someone when I get one with myself first. And let me tell you it’s taken decades to work that one out.

You have to dig deep ladies and gents because this journey as an adoptee is no walk in the park. xx

For fellow adoptees needing professional support, Andrea is a psychotherapist in the Bournemouth UK area, you can connect with her at Psychology Today UK.

Autism and Adoption

by Jodi Gibson Moore born in the UK and adopted to Northern America.
This is part 2 of a 3 part series written for Autism Awareness Month.

April is Autism Awareness Month

I always knew I was “different”. It took 40 years of almost continuous searching to find the right words for my kind of “different”, although being internationally adopted had a lot to do with it. My father’s sister took me from my home country when I was 21 months old, with the help of her mother, my paternal grandmother who was my guardian at the time. My aunt and uncle finalised their adoption of me when I was almost four. They would have told anybody that I seemed to have “adjusted” to the multiple disruptions in those early years but my behaviour screamed otherwise and I never bonded with either of them.

Growing up, I always knew I was adopted; I don’t remember being told or having to be told. My adopters told me about my flight from England with the woman who adopted me and her mother, my grandma. They talked about me being sick on the plane and how surprised the man who would later adopt me was when he picked up his wife and mother-in-law at the airport, and there I was with them. They laughed at my childish attempts to say their first names. Later, they would punish me for calling them by their names. I always knew they weren’t my parents but they wouldn’t answer any of my questions about my parents or my origins. I was told I came from the puppy farm, like Snoopy in the comics and I learned they expected me to pretend I was their daughter or else I would be lectured and punished. That didn’t sit right with me. I knew babies came from their parents and since I hadn’t come from them, they weren’t my parents. They made me go along with their pretend game but I got in trouble for pretending and making up stories. I was 12 years old when the woman who adopted me finally told me she was actually my aunt. I was angry at her for lying to me all this time and betraying me but I was glad I finally had a category to put her in: auntie. When I told her I wanted to call her that and her husband “uncle”, she yelled at me and told me not to. I had broken the rule of not upsetting her, so of course it was my fault, not hers for keeping a secret from me for ten years. She apparently had a medical condition and I wasn’t allowed to say or do anything to upset her and my uncle, who hadn’t wanted children in the first place, had a bad temper and yelled a lot. Instead of blaming him, she used to tell me she’d never heard him shout before I came along – so that was my fault too. They had me walking on eggshells the whole time I lived with them and I was too clumsy not to shatter them.   

At the age of 41, I finally received an official medical diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, Asperger’s subtype (this was around the time the DSM-5 did away with the separate diagnosis of Asperger’s and merged it with autism spectrum, so the updated diagnosis is level 1 ASD) along with ADHD, sensory processing disorder (SPD), and developmental coordination disorder/dyspraxia. Had I been diagnosed in early childhood, doctors, educators and my aunt and uncle adopter would have understood why I had trouble focusing at school or transitioning between activities, didn’t always understand verbal instructions, wanted to wear dark glasses even on cloudy days, didn’t like making eye contact with others, talked more comfortably with adults than children, “switched off” at times, and couldn’t stand on one foot for more than about three seconds. All of the symptoms were documented in my medical files when I was 5 but that had been the late 1970s and there wasn’t much awareness of “high functioning” autism back then, especially in girls.

As I was trying to decide how to approach this topic, the intersection of adoption trauma, international adoptee status, and disability/neurodiversity, it occurred to me that there is much symptom overlap and several parallels between developmental trauma and autism spectrum, along with other conditions comorbid with ASD. These conditions include, as I mentioned above, ADHD, SPD and other possible processing differences that impact how we take in information. We may have trouble understanding instructions for a variety of reasons. I remember being a little kid in daycare trying to open a bag and getting yelled at repeatedly to “untwist the wire.” I didn’t know the strip of green paper concealed a wire. All I saw was paper. The daycare woman didn’t have a lot of patience with me or think very highly of my intellectual abilities. Between her and my aunt and uncle adopter, I grew up feeling like I was stupid. My aunt constantly spoke in euphemisms or British colloquialisms that nobody else around me used and I couldn’t understand what she meant and she wouldn’t explain them for me. It was like a secret code I couldn’t crack, or a foreign language. She just didn’t like to call things what they were, the same as when she refused to tell me what she knew about my background, which deprived me of a lot of the grounding and structure I needed. I learned not to trust her. I learned to be ashamed of the ways in which I was different; I learned to hate myself for the things that set me apart from everybody else. Very few people focused on my strengths, but everyone commented on and most made fun of, my shortcomings.

Is it adoption or autism?

I probably ask myself this question several times a day and more often than not, it leads to overthinking and no definite answers. Social anxiety, difficulty identifying or verbalising emotions, keeping lots of space between myself and others – “social distancing” is a way of life for me – and not knowing how to participate in group activities may be signs of hypervigilance and consequences of preverbal trauma rather than autistic behaviors. Not picking up on social cues? My aunt adopter thought I just didn’t want to pay attention and I don’t know how she perceived my inability to interpret her veiled speech. The fact I viewed the adopters as guardians instead of parents, literally as my aunt and uncle when I found out the truth, could be simply realism and logic. In my mind, my aunt and uncle couldn’t be my parents. I didn’t even meet them until I was almost two and I never felt close to them or safe with them. That could be autistic black-and-white thinking but there are other things I remember or have been told from my early childhood. I learned to read early when I was three, but even before then I could identify almost any car on the road. My uncle adopter used to laugh about the time he caught me lining up my grandma’s cigarettes in front of the fireplace, making sure they were exactly straight and doing the same thing with my toy cars. I’d prefer to use dolls to act out the stories in my head than play with other girls. Due to the neighbourhood and the fact my aunt and uncle adopters were old enough to be my grandparents, I didn’t have a lot of kids to play with other than their friends’ children. I always thought their age and the huge generation gap was the reason I didn’t really know how to socialise and “hang out” with girls my own age and found it easier to talk with adults if they didn’t intimidate me, but that seems to be another autistic trait.

Even hypersensitivity to rejection, which seems to be an almost universal part of the adoptee experience (after all, we perceive early maternal separation as a rejection or abandonment) can be attributed to rejection sensitivity dysphoria (RSD), a recently identified condition often comorbid with ADHD and autism spectrum. Autistic individuals tend to like routine and order, need to be prepared well in advance for changes or disruptions, and I can’t think of a worse disruption to a small child than being separated from their whole family in one day, uprooted from their home and placed with strangers in a different sensory environment. Strangers who look, sound, and smell different; strangers who aren’t tuned in to the child’s needs and could overwhelm them; strangers who want to touch and hold the child when the child needs to keep a safe distance and may have an aversion to being touched.

I often ran away from the adopters as a child and adolescent. Sometimes I’d walk far enough ahead of them so that nobody would associate me with them; sometimes I’d lose them in stores; sometimes I’d wander away from them on outings. I’ve heard that a lot of autistic children do this, perhaps because of impulsivity, distraction, or just a lack of concern for safety. For me it was an escape behaviour, the “flight” aspect of the stress/trauma response. I just didn’t want to be around them – had to get away from them. I might have been distracted by somebody who reminded me of a parent or someone else from home (this may often be the case with older adoptees) or I may have been hoping that someone would find me and return me to my parents – help me get back home. It never happened.   

In what some might call “typical ADHD,” my thoughts often go in several different directions, probably giving me enough material to write a whole series on neurodiversity and how it intersects with adoption, and maybe I will. But it needs to be said that adoption, and more specifically the act of early maternal separation sets us up for “trauma brain” regardless of genetic predisposition to certain neurotypes. I first read about Nemeroff’s (1998) research involving rat pups separated from their mothers for a few hours a day during infancy and the impact this had on their neurological development, the effects of which persisted into adulthood, in a psychopharmacology textbook (Meyer & Quenzer, 2018). Other researchers are still performing these studies and documenting the same outcomes: anxiety, increased sensitivity to stress, depression-like behaviours, emotional dysregulation, eating disorders, and metabolic disorders throughout the rats’ lifespan. And unlike the rats, we adoptees aren’t returned to our mothers or siblings when that phase of the experiment ends. It’s not a perfect comparison, but research ethics officially prohibit doing similar maternal separation experiments on human infants. At least, now they do. Watch the documentary Three Identical Strangers and see for yourself.

My doctor who diagnosed me several years ago with ASD and Asperger’s syndrome told me at the start of my assessment that childhood trauma doesn’t cause autism (for that matter, neither do vaccines); it’s a genetic condition. However, I believe that developmental trauma such as early maternal separation may have a deeper impact on certain neurotypes; we may be more sensitive to early stressors or less resilient. Trauma responses may increase – or be mistaken for – neurodivergent traits. For example, adoptees, especially those of us adopted internationally and/or after our first birthdays like myself, can display self-calming/self-soothing behaviours (Tirella & Miller, 2011) that resemble what would be called “stimming” in autistic children and which I would call an attempt at emotional regulation following a profound loss. We adoptees don’t always have, or eventually get, access to our family medical history so we don’t know what we’re at risk for but as the rat studies found, the non-separated rats developed typically while their separated littermates, who shared the same DNA, did not. We don’t have to have a documented family history of autism, ADHD, anxiety, or depression to develop these traits after a severe developmental trauma.

While there is more understanding over the last few decades of the neurological impact of early maternal separation or parental loss that precedes adoption, there needs to be more research into how this overlaps with autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory processing differences and other neurodivergent conditions. My hope would be that adoptees’ needs and vulnerabilities can be addressed in early childhood when we would most benefit from interventions – and perhaps more can be done to prevent these traumatic separations in the first place.

Resources:

Meyer, J. S. & Quenzer, L. F. (2018). Psychopharmacology: Drugs, the Brain, and Behavior, 2nd ed. Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.

Tirella, L. G., & Miller, L. C. (2011). Self-Regulation in Newly Arrived International Adoptees. Physical & Occupational Therapy in Pediatrics, 31 ), 301–314.

See Jodi’s part 1 of a 3 part series for Autism Awareness Month: Puzzle Pieces.

Atlanta Consequences

by Kayla Zheng, adopted from China to the USA.

I am still processing the murder of 6 Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings. I have been posting and sharing throughout my social media accounts about my anger, my distrust, the audacity of law enforcement and society for protecting white terrorist fragility and blatant denial of racism. I can feel tension like a chink in my armour of forced composure. But I am not only processing this all as an Asian woman. I am also forced to process this threat as an Asian woman adoptee, who has been raised in a world and by people who look like that terrorist. Worse yet, I have been raised by people who have ideologies in similar veins of that terrorist. Where do I begin to grieve, where do I begin to process, how do I begin to let you know how I feel when I have spent the majority of my life living under the same roof of whiteness that claims to love me but harms people who look like me?

If I were to ask my white evangelical adoptive parents their feelings of the mass shooting in Atlanta, they will question if it was race based. After all, not all the victims were Asian. If I were to ask them if certain political leaders in powerful positions where responsible for fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, I would be met with “fake news”. But if I were to ask them if they love their Asian daughter, I would be met with “yes, however, I don’t see you as Asian, you are just our daughter”. How do I process a grief and fear so real and palatable, when it is ignored and denied by those who are supposed to be my forever protectors? How do I put it into words and wrap it, so it is presentable and comprehensible for others to see the contradictions? In this lies the problem, the problem with racism, its systemic and institutional power that is subtle but feels like bullets, and shrapnel, and death.

This is all to say that as much as my white adoptive evangelical parents claim to love me, they cannot love me. Because they cannot recognise the terrorism they have inflicted onto me my whole life. They cannot love me fully because their “colour blindness” has prevented them from seeing the whole spectrum of my identity and how I go through life. They cannot truly love all of me because they refuse to acknowledge their own racial bias towards me, and how they raised me in that environment. They cannot love me entirely because they cannot confront their whiteness, their own racism, and how they contribute to a culture of white supremacy.

I have had some extended adoptive family members reach out to me, reassuring that they care, letting me know they are worried for my safety. On the other hand, I have not heard one whisper from my immediate adoptive family. None of them. Their silence speaks volumes. I am still processing what it means to be Asian in America. I still think about the time I was told me to go back to where I came from, as if it was not whiteness that forcibly re-homed me to a country that despises me. To a country that sees me as a virus, a fetish, a communist spy, a threat and fantasy to be colonised from the East. I am still absorbing and trying to understand what the violence towards people that look like me means to me. I struggle with this all, but I struggle with this in addition to being an Asian female adoptee. I struggle to process what this means when the people I was raised by refuse to see me as an Asian woman. And that refusal could cost me my life.

Read Kayla’s most read article: Decolonizing Moses

US Adoptee Town Hall Event Thoughts

by Kara Bos adopted from South Korea to the USA.

US Office of Children’s Issues: Virtual Town Hall Event for Adopt Intercountry Adoptees

I was notified of this event due to ICAV urging adoptees to represent our voices in this invitation for dialogue from the US State Department regarding adoptee lived experiences. It was my first time participating in such an event as I don’t think of myself as an activist and would imagine these types of invitations reserved only for established groups that speak for the collective. However, I was given the opportunity to join for the first time, a collaborative event with State Department officials and intercountry adoptees. It was a thrilling experience to see a diverse set of adoptees from all parts of the USA sharing their personal stories.

There were at least 60 intercountry adoptees and 15 Department of State team members on this virtual town hall call. 46 of us were given two minutes to respond to the question, “What do you, as an adoptee, want US policy-makers to know about the lived experiences of adoptees?” Naturally 2 minutes per adoptee was not enough time to cover this heavily weighted question, but we all did our best to respect each other’s time and stay within these limits. Topics shared were very personal and emotional and involved issues such as mental health support, citizenship for adoptees to be retroactive and inclusive, connection and resources for connections made readily available for inter-country adopted children independent of adoptive parents who may not support sharing these resources with their child, and post adoption services such as birth family search/right to origin, proper investigation and regulation of adoptive parents/adoption and random post adoption checks occurring long-term and not only within the first 3 years of adoption to mention a few.

The State Department was led by Marisa Light who moderated and provided a listening ear, only jumping in on the occasion to clarify when certain issues such as citizenship for adoptees being “outside their jurisdiction”. However, they did at least mention that they know the people who are responsible for this jurisdiction and promised to bring this to their attention.

Something to also note, is that there isn’t a single intercountry adoptee working in the State Department that holds oversight of intercountry adoption into the USA. When asked this question, they could only emphasise that Marisa’s boss who is apparently higher up in the ‘chain’ is a domestic adoptee and “holds all of our concerns very dear to his heart.” Naturally any adoptee would question, “How accurately can a department who oversees the adoption process truly understand the complexities involved with intercountry adoption if not a single member is an intercountry adoptee?” Furthermore, if intercountry adoption has been functioning since the 1950’s, since when have they started asking for dialogue with intercountry adoptees? Why isn’t there a single intercountry adoptee as part of this oversight division?

Stephanie Eye a Senior Advisor in the State Department replied with the following email, when I asked how they were planning on following up with the issues we had raised:

“We are in the process of reviewing all of the issues, concerns, and questions raised during the call and plan to follow up with adoptee participants to provide clarifying information, including specific areas where we have jurisdiction and where other entities may be more helpful.  That will be disseminated to the adoptee listserv that we are creating and to which all town hall participants will be subscribed.  We hope to get that out to everyone very soon.”

I can only hope that this isn’t just checking the box in regards to listening to our voices. I can only hope that real effective change will be put in place when listening to our voices. I can only hope that the truth of our lived experiences will be used to not only protect future adoptees but to also retroactively help the adoptees that are still suffering. All we can do is keep the dialogue open, and continue to voice our truths. I urge all adoptees to do so, even if it seems like no one is truly listening.

As Ghandi once said, “Many people, especially, ignorant people, want to punish you for speaking the truth, for being correct, for being you. Never apologise for being correct, or for being years ahead of your time. If you’re right and you know it, speak your mind. Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is still the truth.”

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