As you may expect, transracial adoptions come with their own unique set of challenges. Growing up, one of the hardest realities of my adoption story that I had to grapple with was not looking like the rest of my family. I specifically remember being in elementary school and praying at night that I would wake up with white skin so I could look like my family.
As a child, all I wanted was to physically look like I belonged, I wanted to blend in the way my biological siblings did. Going out in public was especially hard for me. I was overwhelmingly insecure and felt that everyone stared at me simply because I had brown skin in a family with white skin. I was frequently mistaken to be a “friend” or my brother’s “girlfriend”, I was not automatically seen as a daughter or a sister.
I felt like I was constantly forced to address the fact I was adopted, that I couldn’t opt out of owing people an explanation for the fact I looked differently. As a child, intrusive questions, assumptions, judgmental stares, all of it…reinforced my ideology that I did not belong in my family.
So how can we reinforce and affirm the transracial adoptee that he or she belongs in their family when there are so many uncontrollable external factors that may make the adoptee feel otherwise?
I believe all adopted children, transracial or not, need to be in counseling. I do think this is incredibly important for transracial adoptees where there may be additional layers of trauma and challenges they need help navigating and overcoming.
Counseling provided me the opportunity to work through my own attachment struggles, the trauma surrounding my story, and engage in therapeutic modalities like EMDR therapy that enabled me traumatic growth. Counseling gave me a safe place and a safe person to share things about my adoption that I felt guilty or uncomfortable telling my parents.
It also provided me with language to be able to share what I was feeling and a deeper understanding of myself so that I could ask for what I needed from my family and those around me (and it still does today).
It is important to understand that teachers, friends, or other adoptive parents are not always equipped and trained to provide culturally informed and trauma-informed services to adoptees. They are great resources for support and encouragement, and I encourage adoptees to have them but seeking professional help from a licensed counselor is essential.
2. Identify safe and unsafe places
There will be places that may feel triggering or overwhelming to adoptees. For some adopted individuals, it may be very hard to vocalize and articulate these feelings. It took me until high school to be able to tell my parents the parts of town I did not like going to because I felt like I got stared at or pointed out when I was with them, or these places made me feel like I did not belong with them.
If you are an adoptive parent or fostering a child of another race, be aware of this. (As you read ahead, think about how representation may be a factor and how important it is to have conversations with your adopted child about safe and unsafe places).
Be it TV shows, books, movies, the community where you live, the places you frequent, make it a priority to represent BIPOC or cultural diversity. The more the adopted individual sees people that look like them or people of other races in all areas of their life, the more they will feel they inherently belong because you have normalized the idea of people being different.
For the transracial adoptive parent, representation of cultural diversity needs to be a lens through which you see the world. Think about diversity when you are looking at schools, the neighborhood you live in, the pool, or the camps you have chosen for the summer.
4. Have the hard conversations
I will start by saying if you do not feel equipped or ready to have hard conversations surrounding adoption, ask for help.
Home should be a safe place for adopted individuals. Creating a home environment that welcomes and affirms hard conversations is one of the best things you can do as an adoptive parent. It will manifest itself differently because no adoption story is the same, but the transracial adoptee will wrestle with belonging and attachment in some way in their life.
Conversations centered around belonging and feelings of belonging should start early. Do not wait years or until a certain age or milestone to have them. Also, do not be afraid to initiate them.
To be candid, even as an adult, I am still reckoning with my story. I would have thought that by now, I would have my adoption figured out, but I have come to realize it will be a lifelong process.
Different seasons bring up different trauma and attachment identifiers for me. I am grateful for the counselors and mentors in my life who are there to walk with me as I reckon with my story.
There are times I still feel insecurity bubbling up when I go out to dinner with my family. I am still acutely aware people stare at my family, and I assume the difference in my skin tone is probably something they see first. I still wrestle with feeling like I do not belong at times, but I know I do.
As an adult, I can recognize when those thoughts and feelings start seeping in and I am able to speak truth to them. My favorite author, Brene Brown, said it best, “True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are” and I know who I am.
Hi, I’m Ramya Gruneisen! I am a transracial adoptee living in St. Louis, Missouri. I have found a passion in sharing my story and educating adoption agencies and adoptive/prospective families on adoption.
I work in Public Health for the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). I work in the Refugee Medical Screening and Refugee Health Promotion programs for the USCRI in Missouri where I educate service providers on culturally-informed and trauma-informed care to refugees and immigrants, as well as monitor and report on public health data for new arrivals. It’s the most life-giving and humbling work. I also work as an adjunct professor at Lindenwood University in the Health Sciences Department. One of my greatest passions is teaching and sharing my love for health and wellness with others. I love spending time with friends and family, climbing mountains, and watching the St. Louis Cardinals and Blues play.
I believe the best learning is through story.