This past summer was a whirlwind adventure for Alisha and me. We went to NINE of the eleven adoption heritage camps in Colorado to present White Privilege: The Adoption Experience. It was an honor to be able to connect with literally thousands of adoptees/parents on a subject that adoptees, often times, protect from parents. What is white privilege you ask? It is those UNSOUGHT/unearned advantages a person receives by the virtue of their skin color. Whether this means (i) you get to get seated in a more desirable place in a restaurant, (ii) you’re able to quickly identify with people in magazines at check-out counters because your demographic is widely represented or (iii) someone doesn’t get startled meeting you for an interview because they made an assumption reading your name on a resumé…there are so many ways that white privilege can insert itself into an adoptees daily experience. White privilege is what an adoptee experiences when they are with their parent(s), but quickly realize they are without such privilege when they are on their own. This can happen when they go to school, are on a date, go to college, or move out of the house. If adoptees do not have ongoing dialogue with parents about what white privilege is and how it is a variable in how we navigate the world, we run the risk of being affronted with this realization on our own and may process it in a very negative manner. If we can understand through open dialogue with our parents/peers that this is a variable, and we do not have to treat it as a handicap in our social interactions, but rather another layer of understanding that makes us emotionally intelligent and deep thinkers…the healthier we can approach how we build our identity and appreciation for our enriched ethnic backgrounds.
Driving to Winter Park, Estes Park, Golden and Denver to see as many parents and teens as we could possibly squeeze into 3 months was amazing. The experience at each camp was unique however, the feedback was consistently positive.
1. “Do you see me?”: Parents will sometimes use the words: “I don’t see race/color…that’s why I chose to adopt internationally/trans racially.” These words, with all the loving intention behind them, can be received by an adoptee negatively. When we hear these words, we may question…does that mean you don’t see ME? Because we are not the same as you. We look different than you. We have different needs (i.e., different shades of foundation, hair products, etc.), different experiences in the world, and we need our parents to acknowledge this so we do not build unrealistic thoughts in our mind on how the world operates. Talking about our differences and truly acknowledging our ethnic backgrounds is a positive. It’s a way we support our multi-cultural families in creating happy and healthy environments where topics like this are easier conversations that kids should not hesitate to actively participate in with their parents.
2. “I know how you feel”: Teens provided overwhelming responses on how realistic empathy from parents was key. Discussions around white privilege can be somewhat challenging for a teen, however, the moment we hear the words “I know how you feel…because when I was your age…”, we will end the conversation in its tracks and adoptees may resolve themselves to think that parents may never be able to have a realistic discussion with them on such sensitive subjects. Teens said statements like: “How could they know what this is like?!” “How would they be able to understand?” Parents are always trying to find their “dial-ins” to engage their teens in deeper discussions, but this failed approach places them in the category of “you just don’t get it.” Adoptees know that their parents are trying to relate to them, but we also know that our parents (who happen to be white) could not understand what it’s like to be teased with having our peers take their index fingers and stretching their eyes to make a more narrow slant. Yes, many teens experience teasing, however, experiencing this in conjunction with navigating our identity within our homes/family units who are multi-cultural is an added layer of complexity that is definitely not the same experience as our parents had in years past. Parents often times, whether intentionally or not, may take for granted the significance of biological reinforcement when it comes to teasing, among other topics surrounding race. What happens when you are teased? You want to retreat to where it’s safe and where you feel you belong. Adoptees may interpret teasing based on race or their adoption experience as a way someone outside their family is telling them…they don’t belong. Instead of using “I know how you feel…” teens agreed that validating our feelings would be much better. Statements like “I don’t agree with what happened to you.” “I am angry at what happened too!” “I can imagine being in your shoes, how frustrating it is” or “What happened today was absolutely unacceptable in our family.” Teens this summer voiced that they much prefer to have their parents just relate on how it feels to be in an adoptee’s shoes vs. manufacturing an empathetic moment that falls short in an adoptee’s mind of connecting on this deeper level.
3. “I want to wash the brown off”: At one of the camps this summer, Alisha and I heard from teens that they sometimes wish they could “wash the brown off” their skin! This is definitely an indicator of internalized racism, which can be a side effect of white privilege in our adoption experience. We want to belong to our families in as many ways (mentally and physically) as possible. We are constantly looking at the differences because they are physical, easy to identify and obvious to the world/our peers. In our workshops with parents this summer, we shared specific stories from our childhood that emulated a time when we were internalizing racism. Mine was when I was 11 years old and my B.F.F. of the past few years in grade school suddenly decided to drop me like a bad habit for a new B.F.F. who “happened” to be blond haired and blue eyed. I did not talk to my parents about this as much as I should have. My parents unintentionally dismissed this as another childhood hurdle by giving me a “this happens to everyone” type of comment; “children move onto new friends all the time.” The difference for me is that I could not find the words to tell my parents that I felt that if I was not adopted, this would not have to be a challenge I’d have to endure; that it would not happen to me if I was white. Instead of having a healthier discussion on my identity, I suffered in silence through most of my middle school years on the loss of what I felt was a life-long connection. If washing skin and hair would have made me white…that 11-year old girl would have done just that. Not good…not healthy…not the way to move forward. Unrealistic/unhealthy perceptions on who we are build into negative associations on how we can relate to our parents to be our advocates and motivators. It’s not easy to be young and broach these topics. We rely on the parent to start the conversation to make it not so scary. We rely on our parents to remind us consistently that our differences we have (i.e., my skin, hair color, eyes, etc) are to be celebrated and supported.
4. “You should know”: Feedback from both parents and teens indicated that both sides felt that at some point, there is a “you should know” moment when it comes to discussing topics like white privilege.
- Teens: You should know that (i) I struggle with my adoption story (i.e., I feel that I come from a negative space because descriptions of my adoption include words like ‘abandoned’, ‘left behind’ and ‘lucky’ vs. I was loved/cared for before I arrived in America, I was found and my parents are ‘lucky’ to have me complete their family); (ii) I am not confident with my cultural/ethnic background – I need constant reinforcement that my background is associated with positive (i.e., get publications/text books that represent me, get adoption groups that meet up regularly so I can build relationships with people who are ‘like me’ vs. just a once a year event like heritage camp); and (iii) I want to be white SO badly at times.
- Parents. You should know that (i) I love you unconditionally; (ii) I am proud to be a parent of an international/trans racial adoptee; (iii) I support you with any ideas on how you can connect with your culture; (iv) I will always advocate for you when you are treated unfairly.
The fact of the matter is, whether parent or teen, neither side “should know.” We need to come together and let each other know through verbal communication and action. Without the communication/collaborative dialogue/reminders, we don’t know. It may seem crazy or far-fetched, but we don’t always know or we may need a reminder to reinforce our unity as a family and as a purposeful culturally aware/competent team.
5. “It’s not about you”: A big reason why so many adoptees feel we cannot speak to our parents about topics like white privilege is because we feel our parents will take our feedback personally. Our parents are white, but does this mean I can’t talk to them about how white privilege is impacting my life? Many adoptees answer this question in their own minds as “yes.” Many teens feel that their parents will internalize this feedback and become defensive when their children talk to them about how there is unequal treatment based on race and how it impacts their daily experiences. Responses included: “But they are white…so they won’t understand.”; “I vent about how angry/frustrated I am and I end up with being yelled at instead.”; “They think it’s about attacking them instead of attacking a topic.” Adoptees frustrations with white privilege that they experience when they are with their parent and the observation of how they do not have this when we are away from a parent can be overwhelming and confusing. These frustrations can come out in what may be perceived as angry yelling, when we are truly seeking to vent or seek out solutions. What won’t help is if a parent meets our volume with more volume. Out of volume, teens feel threatened and more anxious about the original concern and may respond with…even more volume. Volume creates 3 things: Anger, Frustration, and Stress. These 3 things give you 0 resolutions. Parents can assist by helping their kid come back to center by providing calm energy/voice tone. When adoptees vent about their experiences of white privilege/adoption issues, terrible things may be said out of frustration like the trump card of “I want my birth mom!” or “This wouldn’t happen if I wasn’t adopted!” It is VERY HARD not to take these comments personally because as any adoptive parent who loves their kid knows, you want to say “How can you say that to me?! I love you!” Adoptees are not sharing these frustrations as a personal attack on their parents. Parents are our sounding board for so many issues/challenges we face in our lives. We thank you for the tremendous patience it takes to endure these bumps along the way to finding our identity and exploring what it means to be adopted. Unless we are yelling at something specific that you did to cause the angry words to come out…it’s not about you. 🙂
6. “How do I start the conversation?” We asked teens at almost every camp, how many of you feel you can talk to you parents about something a sensitive as white privilege or any other adoption issue? The response was usually 50% or more felt they could not talk to their parent(s).
- Alisha offers some creative solutions based on her childhood experience. Whenever a “scary” topic was bubbling up, Alisha would place a post-it note on the refrigerator saying “come find me” or “I messed up”. This made Alisha’s mom aware that there was something that needed to be addressed, but that Alisha was not comfortable starting the conversation. Many conversations were had on top of the washing machine, under the bed, or in the closet because this represented a physical manifestation on how Alisha felt: scared, unsure and helpless.
- Some adoptees may feel like we are being peppered with questions to the point we feel overwhelmed and want to disengage. An alternate approach that a teen shared with us this summer is that she would ask her parent(s) to write out all the thoughts and questions they had in a notebook and leave it for her on the kitchen counter. She would find time to write responses and thoughts in the same notebook and leave it for her parent(s) to find later. This supports an ongoing communication. Although this is not verbal communication, heck it’s something!?! 😉
- Teens need to not start conversations with “you just don’t understand.” This automatically shuts down the discussion and is not welcoming a parent to participate in any collaborative effort to find solutions. Instead, we have told our teens this summer to select words that provide their parent(s) with a way to move the conversation along. Using “I” statements vs. “You” statements are great because it does not place the other participant in the conversation in a defensive mode. The adoptee or parent is now expressing their feelings, and there’s no disputing how you feel personally. Examples are: “I feel like…”; “What I need from you is….”; “This is what I’m experiencing…”; “Please listen to everything I have to say without interrupting, and then tell me what you think.”
White privilege is real. Parents who are white automatically have this privilege, but can step across this figurative line as their children’s advocate/support system and empathizer. This is something that adoptees will experience more than once in a lifetime. It doesn’t have to be a negative, but is another variable we navigate. We need to build a healthy/collaborative environment where these topics are easier to approach. Outside our homes, topics like this are considered taboo, but inside the safety of our home, our families, our team…no topic should be off limits or considered taboo. Parents and their adoptive children need to know that open discussions are welcomed and are met with open minds and open hearts. If we can be honest with ourselves on the reality we live in…the more progress we can make in a united effort to be supportive of each other and show the world that adoption is not a petri dish to be examined in a clinical manner…we are just another way people choose to have a family. 🙂