by Angela Tucker, a Transracial Adoptee
Since the debut of Closure, the film that documents my search for my birthparents, I have had flocks of adoptees – both transracial and not – approach me via email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and in-person after public events. So many of these adoptees write me, saying that they finally feel validated and free to have conversations about their own identity. Even though I am a complete stranger to them there is a strong desire to connect, a desire that suggests that their fundamental needs were not met earlier in their life. Transracial adoptees don’t always have the opportunity to see their own reflection mirrored within their immediate family, or general community around them, which can lead to a fragmented sense of self. In no way am I suggesting that transracial adoption be abolished, as I see it to be a very necessary solution to an unfortunate need. However, parents who have adopted outside of their race need to make sure that their children have a safe space to articulate these feelings and to be able to have constructive conversations to process these emotions.
After delivering a keynote speech at an adoptee centric event last year a 16-year-old African-American transracial adoptee raced up to me, barely able to contain his thoughts, stating, “I feel like my emotional identity is White, because of the way that I talk and dress. I actually don’t mind that people think of me as an Oreo. I’m kind of lucky that I have the ability to code-switch if needed. I am comfortable with the preppy style.” Another transracial adult adoptee recounted a feeling of being “psychologically erased” every time someone called her an ‘oreo,’ or made a comment denoting that her personality did not fit with her skin color.
In 2011, Social psychologist, Claude Steele published the book, Whistling Vivaldi, How Stereotypes Affect Us, and What We Can Do. Some of the story centers around New York Times writer Brent Staples who would walk the streets of Hyde Park in Chicago, whistling Vivaldi and other classical tunes in an effort to signal to white people that he was educated (and thus nonviolent). This is an example of a phenomenon called code-switching. Individuals partake in this coping strategy in an attempt to appease dominant stereotypes. Language is a proxy for identity, and thus code-switching is an apt and cunning way for a person to handle more than one identity. Code switching is an appropriate way to remain safe within our own skin in a country where pervasive implicit biases are killing people, specifically black men. For transracial adoptees these general American stereotypes can feel messy and difficult to absorb and discern. Continue reading