When I speak to families I often get asked the question: “What is the best advice you could give a family considering transracial adoption?” This question always brings me to reflect on my own adoption story and the events and experiences that have been most impactful to me as a transracial adoptee. Two words come to mind every time: assimilation and integration.
Growing up, these words meant little if anything to me. However, as an adult transracial adoptee I am reminded daily of my unique composition, whether I want to think about it or not. Some days it wears on me, while other days it exhausts me. Hear me out-because who we are is a culmination of relationships and complex experiences that we hold and share with others. These are the everyday exchanges with the world around us, the inanimate and dynamic elements of our lived experiences.
Think about it this way- you’re 11 years old and you don’t want to brush your teeth, wash your face, or even look in the mirror. But your mother, father or caretaker reminds you gently (or not so gently) that you stink! How that is conveyed repeatedly or the impact of those events add up to a learned behavior, one that you won’t forget as you get older. Not only do we learn what to do from our parents, we learn how to do. Knowingly or unknowingly we take this set of norms with us wherever we go. However, depending on what background you come from, these norms could be very very different.
It wasn’t until I became older that I realized that I do things the way my parents did things, and they did things the way their parents did things. The “culture” instilled in me oftentimes is where I feel the most comfortable. And understandable so, as they are my normal! Now take that same “normal” and apply it to a person of another ethnic background or culture. You may find that what’s “normal” to you is vastly different or odd to them! We have all experienced the awkwardness of cross-cultural interaction, but most of us can return to the fold of normal without incident.
Could you imagine meeting someone with all your characteristics, similar complexion, and ethnic origin, yet nothing about them resembles anything “normal” to you? As you speak, as you hear them speak, you feel the unfamiliarity and retreat. They also sense your “otherness” and retreat. Yet, inwardly you deeply desire to be familiar.
Assimilation is defined as…“the process whereby individuals or groups of differing ethnic heritage are absorbed into the dominant culture of a society. The process of assimilating involves taking on the traits of the dominant culture to such a degree that the assimilating group becomes socially indistinguishable from other members of the society” (Britannica).
As a transracial adoptee, you know the impact of assimilation all too well. You may feel the pain of dissimilarity and a fundamental otherness from people who look just like you, but experience life very different from you. This type of experience is very common for transracial adoptees meeting members of their own ethnic community for the first time, or for the hundredth time. And yet you are always easily distinguishable by the “how to do” characteristics that you are familiar with. By this time they are part of your formation. These elements of formation might be fundamentally different from your peers and it can lead to deep isolation, and in my case, a deep sense of loneliness.
In the context of transracial adoption:
Should I avoid assimilation then?
What does ethnicity have to do with it?
Why do you keep talking about race?
Why does any of this matter?
These are not only fundamental questions that every family considering transracial adoption should consider, they are questions that families considering transracial adoption must be able to answer.
Like many adult transracial adoptees, I have had to learn this alone. I have spent years intentionally unpacking my culture of orientation, to make space for my culture of origin. Holding both with a bit of dexterity. In this way, I have been able to navigate the norms of our society at large while simultaneously learning to celebrate and embrace my ethnic heritage. Creating an integrated family unit can help resolve the inherent isolation, inferiority, and identity confusion that cultural assimilation can have on an adoptee. So, how can I make space for integration?
Stay tuned for Part 2!