When Rachel Dolezal made headline news, people came out of the woodwork to claim that they too were “transracial,” that they were actually black but trapped in a white body. And this, of course, is ridiculous. There is so much more to being a person of color than just a label. It’s not just something we put on and claim to be. It’s an identity that’s shaped by experiences, how the world sees us, and how we see ourselves. There are rich cultures and extensive histories of suffering and oppression behind our skin. It’s a shared reality that white people honestly just can’t relate to. So when this white woman was all over the news and social media claiming to be something she wasn’t, I was right there with everyone calling her out. I even got into arguments with quite a few people about how the term “transracial” wasn’t real, about how it was made up completely.
But I have a confession to make. I’m transracial.
Yes, you read that right. I am transracial. But before you get up in arms about that, give me a chance to explain.
I typed out so many angry tweets telling people that they had made up this word and that it wasn’t real at all. However, I was incredibly wrong. I was actually denying the existence of a very real a term, one that directly relates to me. The term “transracial” has been around since about 1970. It’s used specifically to describe children of color who are adopted by white families and is widely used in scholarly research, cultural works, and writing. Learning the true meaning of this term finally gave me the language to describe my life’s story. It’s a word that has the ability to hold all the things I’ve ever felt, experienced, and dealt with as a brown girl raised by a white family. This word is, to me as it is for so many, a term that allows us the strength to navigate the tumultuous journey that is transracial adoption.
The process of adoption is a wonderful thing because it offers many children, of all races, a safe and loving home and offers many people the opportunity to be parents. Though I have heard the word adoption come up here and there, I get the impression that most people don’t actually know too much about it. At least nothing beyond the basics – that a family takes home a baby or child. And they obviously don’t understand what it’s like to be an adoptee, and especially a transracial one. But how could you unless you lived it. And honestly, the lived experience can be hard to put into words.
As I mentioned before, part of being a person of color involves the way the world perceives us. And as a transracial adoptee, it’s often hard to peg exactly how we are seen. Because it varies based on who you ask, whether it’s our communities, our friends and families, or ourselves. Angela Tucker, a transracial adoptee and subject of the documentary Closure, said, we, as transracial adoptees, “know there are pieces of ourselves emotionally, that don’t match with what society perceives of who we are.” There’s a lingering feeling of disconnect for some transracial adoptees. You’ve got a foot on both sides, in a sense. The way that I see myself at any given moment never seems to match the way anyone else sees me. The white world only sees the color of our skin, often times so different than that of one’s family. And yet, I don’t always feel as though I belong to the world that is true to my skin either. And in both cases, I’ve often felt the need to prove myself, to prove that I’m white enough or that I’m brown enough. A woman named Zeba Blay said it best when she wrote that “many of us in the adoption community have experienced the complex, tenuous, and life-long process of claiming our authenticity.”1 And it’s exhausting. There’s this back and forth, a constant attempting to prove to everyone who I am, even if I’m not so sure myself. But that’s just one part of the journey of being a transracial adoptee.
In an open letter that was published, numerous transracial adoptees, adoptee allies, authors, transition therapy specialists, writers and researchers alike all put out a call to action for people to “stand behind those of us who are working to dismantle the racist narrative that abuses, discredits, and erases the lives of transracial adoptees.”2 Transracial adoption, as a process itself, has faced plenty of opposition in the past. Many did not agree with white families adopting children of color. In fact, laws have been passed to ensure race, as a factor, did not negatively affect who could adopt or foster children of color. And as much as we would like to believe that we live in a “post-racial society,” we all know that’s not the case. Navigating the racial tension and systematic oppression within our society is hard enough for any person of color. The world isn’t always on our side; we face adversity from so many different directions – in the workplace, from police, in our everyday lives. And transracial adoptees and their families are often forced to be hyper-aware of the racial tensions and biases in our society because of their unique makeup. The children are forced to face oppression that their parents are unprepared to deal with due to a lack of previous experience. Parents are forced to see oppression they have never felt and they’re forced to try and shield their children from something they may not even fully understand. There’s this and so much that comes with living in a multi-racial home. It’s a unique experience that should not be passed over or erased.
So we’re reclaiming transracial; it’s ours for the keeping. It’s a word powerful enough to describe the complexities of my life, of how I’ve struggled with my racial identity, of how I often feel disconnected from both sides, of how I was never quite sure what to call myself. But now I am sure, now I have the words. And I won’t let it be taken away before I’ve ever really had a chance to embrace it.
I don’t believe that you can be a different race than you were born. You do not get to change who you are in that way. It’s just not possible. But there are transracial people in this world, lots of us. So please, allow us to have our identities, allow me to have my identity. Use “transracial” appropriately because it doesn’t mean what you think. But its true meaning is extremely important to so many.