Lived Experience of Racism in Transracial Intercountry Adoption

A week ago, an amazing panel of 6 transracial intercountry adoptees shared with me about their experiences of racism, growing up in a country where the racial majority does not reflect their skin colour and outward appearance.

The webinar focuses on Australian experiences because we provided this forum during business hours for Australian adoption and foster care professionals. In my experience connecting with thousands of intercountry adoptees around the world through ICAV, racism and how we suffer and live through it, is a globally shared phenomenon, regardless of adoptive country.

Listen to the shared experiences here at the recording of our panel webinar:

Timecode for those who want to get to the relevant parts:

00:00:00 – 00:03:13 Introduction & why we discuss racism
00:03:27 – 00:04:30 Welcome to country
00:04:35 – 00:08:20 Introduction of adoptee panel
00:08:20 – 00:41:14 What does racism look like & its impacts
00:41:15 – 01:09:47 Suggestions on how we can be better supported
01:09:56 – 01:23:14 Questions and answers with audience
01:23:15 – 01:26:02 Thank you and summary of key points

Resources

Our latest ICAV perspective paper on Racism
Our recommended Race Resources
ICAVs Video Resource includes discussions about race and racism
Post Adoption Supports

Gabby Malpas 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. Gabby’s input below is included in our full papers here which we submitted to the AHRC.

by Gabby Malpas, born in New Zealand of Chinese origins and transracial adoptee, ICAV Representative, artist at Gabby Malpas.

Colourblind by Gabby Malpas; watercolour painting

I was born in 1966 in Auckland New Zealand. I am 100% Chinese and at the time of writing, I am 56 years old. I started coming out of the adoption fog at 48 years of age, after meeting my birth mother in 2004. It seems old but to clarify, at 48, I finally connected with other Asian adoptees and found validation, support and the language to express my feelings around my life experience.

I have a huge respect for parents. I am a step parent but have not done the heavy lifting that parents do. It’s hard being a parent. Throw adoption or fostering into the mix and that becomes very hard. Throw transracial adoption into that mix and the challenges become even more so. These are my thoughts around racism. All of our experiences are different.

I am very happy. I see the value of good relationships with friends, peers and family, and acknowledge that all of us have experienced trauma at some point in our lives. However, I have struggled with racism my entire life with my difference pointed out almost daily by classmates, co-workers and friends. Not too regularly, I have also been attacked and harassed on the street and was bullied badly throughout my school years.  Jokes and micro-aggressions seem harmless and it took me decades to understand why I was constantly angry: an innocent question about my name/my origins/my nationality seems innocuous, but day after day, often from complete strangers makes a person exhausted, wary and sad/angry. I often withdraw.

I have this to say – I could not tell you this at age 12, 18, 25, 30 or even 40. It took decades to begin to process, understand and articulate what I am feeling.

Dear adoptive parents

Here is what I would like you to know about my life experience as a transracial adoptee:

  • Please understand my life experience is, was and will always be different to that of my white peers, siblings and parents. Like it or not, quite often we transracial adoptees are treated very differently to our white siblings and peers. I noted a big change in people’s behaviour towards me when they saw one of my parents come into view. Racists are sneaky – they are not going to say stuff with you around. And it comes in many subtle forms: how many brown kids are watched like a hawk as soon as they enter a store? How many brown girls are told they talk too much or are too loud/naughty when their white classmates are termed ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘confident’ for the same behaviour?
  • I was raised colourblind. It was the 60s, 70s and 80s. We knew no better. I was 55 years old when the penny finally dropped about my own family’s response to my experience with racism. An older sister said, “But we just assumed you were one of us,” (therefore, it was impossible for you to experience racism). Another piece of the puzzle solved. However, my 7 year old me would not thank my family for the dismissal, harsh words or outright denial that anything had taken place. Things are different now. We have resources and so much information available.
  • If you are triggered by the terms: white privilege, white fragility and wilful ignorance then think long and hard before adopting a child of different race to you. We are looking to you to teach us, to have our backs and stand up for us. And this includes your circle of friends, your own family and peers. I was raised in the age where children were seen and not heard. I accepted outright racist comments/acts from neighbours, friends, extended family, and later, colleagues because I felt that it was my lot or I was undeserving of better. But think about what that does to someone over a lifetime! Is it any wonder that we adoptees are 4 times more likely to have substance abuse or suicide? Let’s try to change that.
Ching Chong by Gabby Malpas, watercolour painting
  • Believe us. I was 5 or 6 years old when I reported my first racist incident to my parents (and this was because I was scared. I didn’t report the ‘ching chong’ chants, the pulling back of eyes and harsher treatment by certain nuns because I was brown and clearly born of sin – those were a daily occurrence). Two much larger and older boys cornered me and pulled down my pants to see if ‘my bum was the same as the other girls’. Horrific and it still haunts me to this day. In response to sharing what happened, I was punished and told not to lie. So I stopped. It was clearly not safe for me to speak up and I didn’t want to be punished for it (to be fair I think it was the mention of private parts that had them more outraged). I left NZ for good in 1988. I put distance between myself and my family because of the above and some bonds were sadly broken for a while. Do you want this for your own family? If your children do not trust you to have their back they may be reticent to report more serious stuff like abuse, bullying and even date rape/domestic violence.
  • Just because we don’t tell you doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. I finally found the courage to speak up in the last two years. I cut friends, extended family members and suppliers for my own mental health and sanity but also I finally understood that I didn’t have to engage with such people.
  • Words hurt. And the hurt lasts a lifetime. So those jokes you make about other races — their food, shopping habits, hoarding, driving skills … all those lazy stereotypes that the Australian media like to peddle – well, your kids are listening.  When we see racist incidents reported be dismissed or downplayed by the media (especially if it is a footy star/ celebrity accused), how do you think that makes us feel?  We don’t need to hear:
    ‘They weren’t racist to me – are you sure it happened?’
    ‘What did you do to make them act in this way?’
    ‘Rise above it!’
    ‘Ignore it!”
    ‘Can’t you take a joke?’
    ‘I’m sure Xxxx didn’t mean to be offensive…’
    This ain’t it. Do better.
  • Quite often we are rejected by our own race – we are seen as ‘too white’, too culturally ignorant, and our names are white. This can be very confronting.
    We grow up, study, work and socialise generally in white spaces. We adapt to our environments to fit in but can be treated very harshly by our own race because of this.  A heritage camp and trip once a year can’t help with this and if we are living in a white country – it is understandable that we just want to fit in/fade into the background like everyone else. But we can’t. Don’t shame us for trying to survive in our own environments.
  • Racism is hard to process when the perpetrator looks like a member of your own family. An Asian child who grows up with their own cultural background watches how their parents react and behave when they are faced with racist incidents. They see how their parents behave and speak to the offender. Nothing may be said but there is a shared experience within the family and younger members can learn from their elders – and even grow up to challenge passive responses.

Check out Gabby’s amazing Art Mentoring that she does as a volunteer with younger Chinese adoptees.

America—You Made It Hard to Be Proud to Be Asian-American

by Mary Choi Robinson, adopted from South Korea to the USA

As I sit down to my laptop it is May 2, the second day of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Awareness Month and I reflect on Alice Wu’s The Half of It I watched last night to commemorate the first day of AAPI month. Watching the movie with my daughter, I thought how I wished it or something like it had been available when I was a teenager or even in my early twenties. To see an entire film focused on the life of a young Asian woman on the cusp of self-discovery and adulthood would have made me feel seen and a part of the fabric of American identity. So while this month is meant to showcase AAPI heritage I am not in fact proud to be Asian-American…yet.

I am sure my previous statement will elicit reactions from disbelief, to shock, to anger, and everything in between from varying groups of identities. So let me explain why I am not proud yet, how America made it nearly impossible for me to be proud, and how I’m gaining pride in my Asianness. As a Korean adoptee, raised by white parents in predominately-white areas, I have always navigated two racial worlds that often oppose each other and forever contradict my identity. The whiteness of my parents did not insulate or protect me from racism and in fact would even appear at home. When I first arrived to the US, my sister, my parent’s biological child, took me in as her show and tell for school with our parents’ blessing. Her all white classmates and teacher were fascinated with me and some even touched my “beautiful silky shiny jet black” hair, something that would continue into my early thirties until I realized I did not have to allow people to touch my hair. Although I start with this story, this is not a piece about being a transracial, transnational adoptee—that is for another day, maybe in November for National Adoption Awareness Month—but to illustrate how my Asian identity exists in America.

As I grew up, I rarely saw other Asians let alone interacted with them. Instead, I lived in a white world full of Barbie, blonde hair and blue eyes in movies, television shows, magazines, and classrooms. The rare times I did see Asians in person were once a year at the Chinese restaurant to celebrate my adoption day or exaggerated or exocticized caricatures in movies and tv shows. Think Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Long Duck Dong in Sixteen Candles, or Ling Ling the “exotic gem of the East” in Bewitched. Imagine instead an America where Wu’s film or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before or Crazy Rich Asian or Fresh Off the Boat or Kim’s Convenience would have opened up for generations of Asian Americans. Rarely would I spot another Asian in the school halls. However, I could never form friendships with them, heavens no, they were real full Asians and society had taught me they were weird, ate strange smelly things, talked funny, and my inner adolescent warned me association with “them” would only make me more of an outsider, more Asian. In classrooms from K-12 and even in college, all eyes, often including the teacher, turned to me when anything about an Asian subject, regardless of whether it was about China, Vietnam, Korea, etc., as the expert to either verify or deny the material. I always dreaded when the material even had the mention of an Asian country or food or whatever and would immediately turn red-faced and hot while I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pant legs until the teacher moved on, hoping the entire time I would not be called on as an expert like so many times before.

My white family and white friends would lull me into a false sense of belonging and whiteness by association. That false sense of security would shatter when they so easily and spontaneously weaponized my Asianness against me with racial slurs during arguments. Of course, I was used to racist verbal attacks from complete strangers, I had grown up on a diet of it, but it especially pained me from friends and family. The intimacy of those relationships turned the racism into acts of betrayal. That was the blatant racism; the subtle subversive racism caused just as much damage to my sense of pride. As a young professional in my early twenties, a white colleague told me how beautiful I was “for an Asian girl.” A Latina student in one of my courses loudly and clearly stated, “The first day of class, I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to understand you and I’m so glad your English is so good!” And of course I regularly receive the always popular, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” Because Asian Americans, whether born here or not, are always seen as foreigners.

AAPI Awareness Month did not even become official until 1992. But anti-Asian sentiment in the US has a long history and was sealed in 1882 with the first national stance on anti-immigration that would be the catalyst for future immigration policies, better known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, coincidentally signed into law also in the month of May. In February 1942, the US rounded up and interned Japanese-Americans and Asian-Americans of non-Japanese decent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now in 2020 amidst the global lockdown of Covid-19, anti-Asian attacks, both verbal and physical, have increased to startling numbers. As recently as April 28, NBC News reported Over 30 percent of Americans have witnessed COVID-19 bias against Asians. Think about that—this is Americans reporting this not Asian Americans. The attacks have been worldwide but this report shows what Asian Americans are dealing with alongside the stress of the pandemic situation in the US. Keep in mind the attacks on Asian Americans are not just from white folks, indeed we’re fair game for everyone as evidenced by Jose Gomez’s attempt to murder an Asian American family including a two-year old child in Midland, Texas in March. Let that sink in—a two-year old child simply because they are Asian! Asians are being spat on, sprayed, and worse by every racial group.

To help combat this current wave of American anti-Asian sentiment, highly visible leader and former presidential candidate, Andrew Yang advised Asian Americans in a Washington Post op-ed to:

“…embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”

My reaction to Mr. Yang’s response bordered on anger at the implication for Asian Americans to continue the perpetuation of the model minority myth. The danger of which, besides reinforcing divides between racial and minority groups, extols the virtue of suffer in silence. Do not make waves, keep your head down, be a “good” American. Sorry Mr. Yang, I am finally gaining pride in my Asianess and I cannot and will not stay silent any longer.

It has taken me my whole life to gain nuggets of pride in my Asian identity. Now I appreciate the color of my tan skin and dark almond-shaped eyes and no longer compare my physical beauty to white women and the standards society has forced on us all. For the first time I actually see myself, and all Asian women and men, as beautiful because of and not in spite of being Asian. I no longer avoid other Asians and cherish friendships with those who look like me. I love to explore the diversity of Asian cuisines, cultures, and traditions and continue to learn about them since, remember, “Asian” is diverse and not a monolith of just one culture. Now I speak up without fear of rejection or lack of acceptance when I witness anti-Asian or any racist behavior and use those moments as teaching opportunities whenever I can. I no longer resent not being able to pass as white. I am becoming proud to be Asian.

Read Mary’s earlier blog My Adoption Day Is An Anniversary of Loss

Racism in Intercountry Adoption

I can’t believe that in the 24 years of running ICAV, I’ve not done ONE paper that brings together our lived experience of racism as intercountry and transracial adoptees! Well finally I’ve addressed this! It’s long overdue and I had the impetus to get this done because of the work in Australia by our Human Rights Commission to create a concept National Anti-Racism Framework paper. I was shocked into action when I read through the paper and realised our minority group does not even get a mention as one of the groups targeted for consultation. I wanted to do something about this, to bring visibility to our community who have long shared about racism and its impacts in our private adoptee only forum. From the many conversations I’ve had with fellow adoptees around the world, racism is one of the top issues we endure yet barely gets a mention in most adoption literature, research, policy, practice or education. At ICAV we aim to raise awareness of racism and the intersection with intercountry and transracial adoption.

Here is the submission we put together for the Australian Human Rights Commission and here is a supplementary paper, our latest ICAV Perspective Paper – Lived Experience of Racism in Intercountry Adoption. Our paper provides a collation of lived experience input to help educate about our experience of racism. We also include in our responses what we suggest be done to better support intercountry and transracial adoptees.

To provide further support and education for professionals and adoptive families, next month on Tuesday 17 May @ 2pm AEST, ICAV will be hosting a webinar Racism as Experienced by Intercountry Adoptees to bring you the voices and experiences in-person. If you would like to attend, you can contact ICAV so we can keep you informed.

Together with our Perspective Paper and the upcoming webinar, I hope these resources will help to begin/continue the conversations about racism in intercountry adoption.

Sue-Yen Bylund 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 Sue-Yen Bylund, adopted from Vietnam to Australia, ICAV VIC Representative

Racism is here to stay. It is enmeshed in the very fabric of society, at every level. It manifests within us as individuals, at a systemic level pervading our policies and practices, reflected in our interpersonal behaviours and is accumulated and compounded in the base structures of our history, culture and ideology.

In order to mitigate the harm caused by racism we must be actively anti-racist. It is not enough to merely be “not racist”, as this, often results in a passive racism, which is as equally toxic as overt racism. Tolerance is a poor substitute for acceptance. Tolerance offers tokenism and indifference. Acceptance offers a place for all voices, a public validation as individuals and a genuine place at the table to self-determination.

Every person carries their racial biases differently. Acknowledgment of these biases on a personal individual level is important, however being open to listening, validating and accepting the experiences of others takes courage. 

My expectation within this forum, is to offer to an opportunity to broaden the discussion of anti-racism to embrace all forms and manifestations of racism within Australian society today. To offer encouragement to address the complex “grey” zones of racism. Through this broadening a more mature collective and inclusive voice will evolve, which I believe Australia is ready to share with the world.

The foundations of my identity lie amongst the chaos of war time Vietnam 1974. Within the first 3 weeks of my life, I experienced my initiation into the full audio and aromatic reality of war, surrounded by screaming and traumatised children and adults. Racial identity did not protect any of us from the horrors, what we all absorbed would remain forever with us as visceral burdens to tame. War and terror are the greatest levellers in stripping even the bravest to the very foundations of humanity. And then in one swift spin of the planet I would find myself a world away in the eerie quiet and calmness of Perth, Western Australia. This journey would also mark the beginning of a life’s self-education of racial fluidity. Being one heart and soul, but a chameleon of racial identities. Born of one culture, raised in another, looking as though I belong to one group, but in at my core, I belong to another, the duplicity and fluidity is complex and exhausting.

The need to feel safe, accepted, understood and validated seems to be a naturally human pursuit. As an intercountry adoptee the journey is complex and confusing. We slip into the cracks of racial stereotypes offering up apologetically a reason for inclusion or explanation for exclusion. Either way no matter where we are in our communities we are an anomaly. We are constantly offered up as a reminder that a book shouldn’t be judged by its cover and if you care to listen carefully, you will hear the simple request for safety and acceptance.

My childhood cultural identity was shaped through the lens of middle class suburban 1970’s Australia. It was fortunate that the primary school I went to attracted a good proportion of Asian immigrant families. This enabled me, at a young age to observe the “other” type of Asian. The Asian person who spoke the language, ate the food, complied with the Asian cultural norms, while they themselves were carving out the unique existence in post “White Australia Policy” era. It was clear to me from the very beginning that I was an “Asian variant”. I was to experience racial prejudice from all sides. My immediate family comprised of a white Australian adoptive mother, a white Dutch (first generation migrant) adoptive father and their two biological white sons. Straddling my home and school environments I began to acknowledge the fragmented racial identity which was uniquely mine.

I would learn to instinctively navigate the pros and cons of racial profiling expressed by adults and classmates. At times it afforded me a shield to hide behind, at other times it just bewildered me at how ignorant and entitled people could be. 

Teachers would regard me with the marginalising stereotype of female Asian student, this meant that no matter what I did, or didn’t do, I was considered polite, conscientious and studious. This enabled me to glide through my studies relatively smoothly. Where this backfired was when I would be herded together with all the Asian “look-a-likes” to be given special instructions in Chinese/Cambodian/Vietnamese. There were always a few of us that would simply shrug our shoulders, knowing it was too hard to explain to the teachers that English was in fact our only language. 

Classmate interactions were more complex. While they seemed to want to flex their insecurities through bullying behaviours, I suspect they would often leave these bullying interactions more confused and with increased insecurities about themselves. They would corner me and spit out racial slurs “Ching Chong!”, “Go back to where you came from!”, “Asians out!” with the standard accompanying slanted eye gesture. I learnt very early to lean into the bullying. To not turn away in shame or embarrassment, I summoned the  airs of entitlement I learnt from my white Australian family. It was an educational opportunity. I would not show weakness. So armed with a vocabulary not generally associated with a small Asian female of 11 years I would lean in and say with a perfect Aussie twang, “Get f***ed you immature ignorant bigot!” While they processed the response in stunned silence, I was already half down the hall or across the oval. When I think back to those times, I know in my heart I still hold a deep resentment toward those who racially vilified me. The fact I could still name those individuals today shows how deeply it affected me. I built a wall to protect myself, a tough persona that would later in life be softened with self-depreciating humour. 

Humour has become one of the most powerful tools for disarming awkwardness though it should be noted that humour can only be genuinely offered by me (the vilified) otherwise it can have the effect of adding insult or increasing alienation.

Australian society in general is getting better at navigating racially blended families. However, there have been times where an awkward visual double take or racial slur has been reconsidered once formal introductions have concluded. 

For example, my adoptive mother is the personified “white saviour” heroine and therefore in this narrative, I embody the role of a grateful saved soul. There is no place in this narrative version for reality and it only serves to perpetuate the stereotypes. This distilled classification of our relationship as an adoptive mother and daughter has resulted in a chasm of empathy where my experience of racial prejudice and marginalisation cannot be reconciled with my adoptive mother’s version of my lived experience. She cannot/will not acknowledge that I have/do experience any racial prejudice. It’s unfathomable and therefore remains a taboo subject between us. I would suggest a classic case of “colour blindness” which is the most common manifestation of passive racism. Let me strongly suggest that racial “colour blindness” is not a positive construct to build a relationship in. I don’t advocate for a monochrome world. It cancels out important conversations that need to be had to build empathy and understanding. It bypasses the integral act of individual and collective validation.

A typical interaction in a social setting with my white husband, would start with a few awkward glances while people assessed my proficiency in English. Once the conversation has warmed up a little, the question is always asked “How did you two meet each other?” At this point all newbies begin listening in the hope to hear some spectacular Tinder dating app story with me gaining Australian citizenship when we married. Sad to say the story takes an epic sad tone when it is revealed I was a baby from the Viet Nam war. The conversation moves very quickly from one set of stereotypes to another. The chameleon game is afoot. We have now moved into the Viet Nam war genre and to be honest the racial stereotypes are just as nauseating. As the conversation peters out, I am left with a very uncomfortable feeling that I might be the daughter of a B-Grade war romance story of a soldier and prostitute but on the positive side, I have ruled out that I am a “mail order bride” from Asia desperate to get my claws into a rich white “sugar daddy”. Either way, I always leave these gatherings feeling like I have shared way too much about myself, simply to justify my equal status at the table of white Australians. Needless to say, it’s exhausting and incredibly invasive. At times my inner evil chameleon just wants to re-enforce the stereotypes rather than use my life as an education case study. In the end I see curiosity is better than fear and putting examples forward and building knowledge is a slow continuous but necessary journey.

With regards to my children, I am conscious that they physically are racially ambiguous. They could have genetic origins from various backgrounds, but once I stand next to them then it becomes evident their dark features come from me and they are of Asian origins. My daughter has experienced racial slurs from having an Asian looking mother. It wasn’t until she spent her gap year in Viet Nam that she developed her own understanding of her origins. She has in fact spent more time in Viet Nam than me. 

School parent social groups are an interesting micro society and navigating them is a full-time job. In the private school my children attended I had two very distinct social groups that I interacted with. One was a group of Asian looking mothers where I felt like an honouree member. I learnt Asian cultural things and etiquette that I didn’t get elsewhere. I did a lot of listening. The other group were all Anglo-Saxon looking mothers and I was dubbed the “token” Asian (humorous chameleon!) These girlfriends understood how I saw the world. It’s in these situations that I reflect on the sophistication of my chameleon gift and in a positive moment reflect on the bridges I can construct between the groups just through listening and sharing.

There is a niche and powerful position that intercountry adoptees have in the conversation around racism and prejudice. It’s borne from the hybrid and fluid nature of our self-identities. We exist in the space between cultures and races. The triumphal story of our survival is in fact a narrative of weaving together of cultures, racial identity, tolerance and acceptance. Intercountry adoptees must reconcile the disparity between the physical and internal nature of racial identity, because at every turn we are challenging the stereotypes and presumptions. As an Asian in white Australia, we challenge the mainstream colonial stereotypes, as an Asian in Asia, we find ourselves challenging the long-held stereotypes in our birth culture. We belong to both yet neither wholly. 

If I was to consider the future of racism in context of Australia, I would continue to raise the challenge to government and individuals to embrace the complexity. Find the words, create the platforms, lead with optimism. Systemic racism embedded in the policies and practices by government and institutions needs to be constantly questioned and reviewed to ensure it leads in activating change. Structural racism that unpins mainstream think-tanks needs to be shaken loose. It is an uncomfortable and confronting task, but I believe Australia is mature enough to take this task on. Interpersonal racism is very difficult to navigate as an intercountry adoptee, but the freedom to express an alternate reality from the stereotypes is a good platform to build upon. Internalised racism is insipid and so very damaging. We want to move from passive tolerance to active validation of individuals. 

Ongoing political bi-partisan support for research and consultation is an essential investment to engage in effective societal change. A firm commitment to reviewing and evaluating key milestones is required for accountability and integrity.  Educational resources coupled with public awareness and youth engagement are core to developing a more mature future for all Australians.

For more from Sue-Yen, read her ANZAC Day Reflections, her contribution to What’s in a Name? and advocacy with Green’s Senator meeting.

Resource

Read ICAVs small collation on Color blindness in Adoption

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

Gypsy 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 Gypsy Whitford, adopted from the USA to Australia.

I am angry because I’m a product of a broken billion dollar industry. Because I had a price tag and got treated like a new toy. Because I could have been aborted if the health care system in the USA was better but instead, I was sold to the highest bidder. Because instead of abortion, I was bought by a white family that took my blackness and turned it white with no care or empathy for who I really am or where I should be. Everything I should know was striped from my very core.

I believe race, culture, and biology plays a big part in who we are. The generations before us are part of our identity and not having biological family affects us on a deeper level than most understand.

I’m angry because it’s not just me living as a transracial adoptee with adoptive parents that have whitewashed me to the point they expect me to just deal with racism because they can’t comprehend how it really is. Or they say things like, “Well, we raised you white so that’s what you are.” Or “Well, you could have been left with your real family”, except they truly had no idea about my bio family and my mum; no idea other than to use the manipulation and collusion my mum faced before my adoptive parents signed that cheque to buy me.

We are not all unwanted! We were loved but a billion dollar industry stepped in and sunk their teeth into them, in turn, breaking that mother and baby bond in the name of $$$.

I am angry and will remain angry until the private infant adoption industry is dead!

You can follow Gypsy on TikTok @gypseadoptee

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.

My realities of being adopted from China

by Xue Hua adopted from China to the USA.

Hi everyone! My name is Xue Hua and I was adopted as a 1 year old from Hunan, China. I live in Indianapolis in the USA, where I’ve grown up. My (white American) parents had 3 biological children and then adopted me when their youngest was 7 years old. About a year after adopting me, we adopted another girl from China, and then another about 3 years after that. So we are a family with a total of 6 girls – 3 biologically related and white, and 3 adopted and Chinese.

While it’s definitely been nice having siblings who are also POC and adopted (which I know many do not have), it’s also been quite hard having siblings that are white. Over the past 2 years, there has been some serious family fall-out, and on my part, much because of how we have communicated/not communicated about race and adoption. It’s hard because I had really looked up to my older sisters, and they have prided themselves on being very “woke” and social justice-minded, but yet, they have largely refused to acknowledge how they have contributed to my experiences with racial trauma in our family, and that’s been a recent big breaking point in our relationships. Fortunately, although my mom is fairly conservative, she has been much more understanding and willing to look at herself honestly.

Another major theme in many adoptees’ stories is abandonment issues, which I am no stranger to. In addition to obviously being put up for adoption and living in an orphanage as a baby, my adoptive father, who I was very close to, died when I was 8 years old. While my mom and I have always been close, she had the tendency to shut down when conflict and stress increased, so I spent a lot of my childhood (especially after my dad died) feeling emotionally abandoned as well. I see many other fellow adoptees in our social media groups who share similar struggles!

One thing that’s helped a lot throughout my adoption journey is becoming friends with other Asian women. While there are moments of feeling “more/too white,” I have, more often than not, felt very included and welcomed. It has also been a great outlet to discuss race and racism with fellow adoptees who truly understand what I’m talking about / experiencing.

Another thing that’s been helpful is writing. I recently wrote a personal creative nonfiction piece on being a transracial adoptee and it won “best of” the nonfiction category at my college’s literary & art magazine! It was so cathartic telling my story to others and being so generously recognized for doing so. I highly recommend for any other adoptee writers out there to share your story – whether for personal or public use!

Being Truly Seen as a Filipino Adoptee

by Arlynn Hope Dunn, adopted from the Philippines to the USA; presented at the 16th Philippine Global Consultation on Child Welfare Services on 24 September, 2021.

Mabuhay and good morning! My name is Hope and I’m joining you from Knoxville, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Thank you to ICAB for inviting me to be a part of the Global Consultation on international adoption. I am grateful to access the post-adoption resources of ICAB, which have been significant in my process to reconnect to my birth family. I emphasize that my story and reflection today are my own and am not speaking for the lived experiences of other adoptees. I hope everyone who listens to our testimonies today will be open to various perspectives on adoption as it influences us across our lifespan.

My Beginnings

I was born in Manila in December 1983 and in July 1984, I was flown from the Philippines with my social worker, to meet my adoptive parents and six year old sister who was adopted from Korea. We had an idyllic, quiet suburban life, my mom was a housewife and my dad was a geologist, who often traveled around the country. Our family most likely would have relocated west to accommodate my dad’s work but we never left Tennessee. My dad had juvenile diabetes and developed pneumonia and passed away three days before my 1st birthday. My mother, a polio survivor, which left her with nonuse of her right arm, was suddenly a single mother of two small children without nearby relatives. The unresolved grief of losing my father reverberated through our family for years through the emotional withdrawal of my sister, who was very close to our dad .. to my mother who cycled into prescription drug abuse so deeply at times she was unable to look after me and my sister. As for me, I oscillated from the role of  comic relief to absorb tensions between my sister and mother to self-regulating my own emotions by hoarding food as a child and bottling up my emotions, to make myself scarce and small. While I grew up in a home that verbalized love, I now recognize patterns of neglect and codependency that  impacted my development. I was also raised in the era of the early 90’s where social norms and media reinforced color blindness rather than offer race as an opportunity to discuss and celebrate unique cultural diversity. 

Unlike the large Filipino communities in California, there was little diversity where I was raised, as the majority of my school and community was white with a few Black students. I was one of three Asian students and we were all adopted. Rather than gravitate towards each other, we leaned into different friend groups as a natural part of assimilation. Of the three of us, I was more quiet and painfully shy, which made me an easy target of bullying. At the age of seven, I was called the “N” word on the school bus. I was told my mother gave birth to me in a rice paddy. Ironically, at the return of the school year in Fall, girls would flock to touch my skin and ask how I got so dark. Those times, I was so proud of my dark skin and I never learned about colorism until I was an adult. Eventually the bullying declined until after the attack of the twin towers on 11 September 2001, where racism resurfaced and another student told me to get blown up with the rest of my people. In response, my teacher made me hug the other student because at 17, “he was just a boy”. My family’s response was to remind me that I am American as though that alone is enough armour to withstand and deflect the verbal violence. I internalized so much shame of being different, which I equated to less than, that I became complicit in my own cultural erasure and plummeting self esteem.

Young Adulthood

As a young adult, I struggled with milestones that came naturally to my peers. I failed most classes in high school but my principal liked me and let me graduate on time. I dropped out of college without a vision of who I wanted to be by 21. I ended a six year relationship and engagement and  couldn’t hold down a job by 23. I was active in the evangelical church but was told by elders that my depression  and suicidal ideation resulted from my lack of faith. Eventually, I gained experience by working with children. I went back to college at age 27 while working multiple jobs and  was accepted into the occupational therapy assistant program, where I  gained mental health tools and later graduated with honors and delivered the graduation speech.

As an outlet from my busy college and work schedule I enjoyed going to the movies alone and in 2016, I saw a movie that was the catalyst for my journey to find my heritage.  Lion is a movie about the real life Saroo Brierly, who was raised by his adoptive Australian parents and eventually reunited with his first mother in India. As Saroo is gathered in his first mother’s arms, a dam of emotions broke within me, primarily guilt that somehow I had misplaced the memory of my first mother. Something deep within me, awakened as I witnessed this tug of war on his emotions, played out on a cinema screen. I saw a mirror that illuminated myself  as he ran interference between two worlds that rarely saw him and the complexities of adoption and how he was left to reconcile this unbearable weight alone.

Reclaiming my Philippine Heritage

I began my journey to reclaim my Philippine heritage through my name. For the last four years, I’ve transitioned from my adoptive name Hope back to my birth name Arlynn which is Gaelic for “oath, pledge”. It feels empowering to return to something that I now know for certain was given to me by my first mother. Before I formally began my search into my history, I told my sister, who supported my decision. It was several months before I asked my mom if she knew any other details about my birth family other than from the correspondence that she had given to me in a binder. I felt I had to protect her feelings as if me wanting to suddenly know about my first family would hurt her. She told me there was no other information.  Later, I would find out that was a lie.

Throughout my life, my mother continued to struggle with her misuse of prescription pain medication. As a child, I recall my mother pointing out which medication bottles she used in case she didn’t wake up for me to call the police. At times, I slept  on the floor by her room to ensure she was still breathing. I was 32 when she required hospital intervention for withdrawal symptoms, she told me in her anger that she wished she had left me in my birth country. It hurt more than if she had slapped me because she never lashed out about my adoption when I was younger. I walked out of her room feeling like I lost another parent.

Eventually, my childhood home was sold and my mom went to a nursing home for care following a brain hemorrhage. My sister and I recovered our mom’s safe deposit box at her local bank, which unbeknownst to me held my full case study. My sister told me I was never supposed to know and our mom made her promise not to tell me, when she was younger.  I sat alone in my car sobbing as I read the name of my first father for the first time as he was not listed on my birth certificate, which I always had access to growing up. It detailed how my parents had seven children and five of them died during childhood from sickness. My parents separated while my father stayed with their surviving children and my mother stayed with her nephew refusing to reconcile with my father not knowing she was pregnant with me. Over time, my mother began to wander away from home and was institutionalised. After I was born she wondered away from home again and found singing to herself.  After my birth, I was recommended to be placed at a temporary child shelter as my mother was unable to care for me. A purple thumb print in lieu of a signature directed her deed of surrender for me to the social welfare authorities.

Long lost family

Searching for Biological Family

Thanks to  the resources of ICAB and Facebook, I was able to locate my surviving brother and sister and learned that my birth parents  have passed on. In early 2021, I was able to find my first mother’s relatives including her only surviving sister. I’m still astonished and grateful that my siblings and extended family have embraced me and I ache with the longing to meet them, to be touched by my people. Before the pandemic I had goals to travel to the Philippines, but during the closing economy, I lost two of my jobs, my mental health suffered from the isolation of living alone during the lockdown, and I eventually lost my housing, and the money that was raised by friends and family to go to the Philippines had to keep me from living in my car, until I could stay with friends. Since last November, I’ve been able to gain a full time job and this summer, I found a therapist, also a transracial adoptee and she has been working with me to process my grief and the survivor’s guilt I’ve felt knowing I somehow outlived many of my siblings. As I slowly rebuild my life, a renewed energy to return one day to my motherland to meet my siblings motivates me further.

While my quest to reclaim my motherland, my lost language, and my siblings has carried profound heartache, there has been tremendous joy in connecting with my nieces who are teaching me Waray Waray and Tagalog phrases. I have curated my social media so the algorithms draw me toward other Filipino adoptees, artists, writers, and healers. This past December, I turned 37, which was the same age as when my first mother had me. On my birthday, I was able to meet with a Baybaylan priest who prayed over me and my ancestors. During all this time since I rediscovered by case study, I was trying to grapple with the grief and at the very end, he began crying. We cried together and that small, kind gesture touched me so deeply because for the first time I felt like someone was sitting with me in my grief, and it was so intimate because I felt truly seen in that moment and worthy of love. 

Thoughts for Adoption Professionals

The practices of the adoption industry have changed drastically over the years since I was adopted. I hope that the conversations around adoption continue to shift toward adoptees to include our stories that illuminate this wide continuum of lived experiences that point not only to the good or bad experiences but hold them all to a critical lens by adoption professionals. I hope practitioners of this industry recognize and acknowledge the degree to which trauma from early child separation from our first mothers and the role of assimilation and the loss of cultural association impacts adoptees. Are prospective parents trained in this and also in grief counselling? Consider looking toward practices which ensure family preservation, if possible. If adoption is granted, how will you ensure that a child has resources to find community if they live in places not culturally diverse? How will they find community? A final question for reflection: when a child is relinquished from your country, what practices will be ensured to support that adoptee who wants to return to their country of origin, without that person to feel like an outsider, a tourist, or intruder?

I have a short video of a photo collage I created that spans across my life from the time I was a baby ’til now.

Thank you so much for listening to my testimony.

Maraming Salamat po.

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