Tag Archives: stereotypes

annoying stereotypes & microaggressions

inmyshoesI enjoy meeting and talking with other international and transracial adoptees. That we are adopted persons gives us a social identity that is unique. The environmental contexts in which we grow up are doubtless very different, and our adoption journeys are unique; however, when I talk to other internationally adopted persons, there’s a connection. It’s like, he or she gets me. We get each other.

Towards the end of my last semester of grad school, I learned that the student who sat right across from me in my Advanced Practice class was also an adoptee. She was adopted from Korea and grew up in Michigan. She is some twenty years younger, yet I immediately felt that kinship with her. We met for coffee one afternoon after class to commiserate over school and swapped stories about adoption. We laughed about stereotyping and how we have managed to live in a predominantly white world. It felt good to connect with another adoptee who also happens to be a social worker!

Earlier this month, I met with another adoptee, a friend. She, too, was adopted from Korea. We met for lunch at a Vietnamese sandwich shop to catch up. During our conversation, she asked me about my feelings towards international adoption after having completed my thesis and if I had an interest in working in international adoption. It is such a difficult question to answer, and I don’t think that I have a definitive one. We talked about our conflicted feelings towards international adoption. On the one hand, orphans need permanency and loving families. On the other hand, the complexities of international adoption are significant, and there is a great need for others to be educated. There is still so much to learn about international adoption, how it impacts the psychosocial development of adoptees, and how to help prepare and support adoptive parents, as well as adoptees – not that any parent regardless of adoptive status or not could ever be fully prepared for parenthood. But there are ways to better educate the general public and adoptive families and to offer a more realistic picture of this process.

My journey through adoption continues to evolve. Although I have experienced incredible personal growth through the years, I’m not sure that I could work in international adoption, at least not in the capacity of a caseworker. I’m sure that my own personal challenges as an adoptee have much to do with these conflicted feelings. I can help educate adoptive families, provide cultural training and support, try to impact international adoption policy, but don’t think I could manage the actual adoption process. I have several friends who have adopted children internationally, and I always think in the back of my mind that international adoption is a business. I would support greater efforts to prevent the need for adoption altogether…preventive services and services to keep families together.

While we were sitting and conversing, an older white gentleman walked over to us and interrupted our conversation to ask if either of us knew of a good Asian salon where he could get his hair cut. He told us that most of the Asian women he encounters don’t speak very good English and upon hearing our conversation and ability to speak “good” English, felt like we could point him in the right direction. I felt completely annoyed. I told the man that I did not know of any Asian salons as did my friend. The look on his face was one of complete shock. It told me that he assumed we knew the right salon to direct him to. We did not tell the man that we were both adopted and knew as much about Asian salons as the man in the moon. Instead, we watched him walk away, perplexed, and returned to our conversation. I could not shake off how ruffled I felt. Although this man was completely unaware, he had committed a microaggression that was just plain annoying.

I’m glad to have visited with my friend. It was encouraging to hang out with another adoptee, someone who has walked in “my shoes” in many ways. I didn’t ask her if she felt as annoyed as I did by the man who asked us about a hair salon. She seemed to brush it off and was so polite. I took her lead and decided to be polite, too, despite my feelings.

 

stereotypes and labels

In between overindulging on Halloween chocolate and preoccuation with the holidays, I watched two brief film documentaries, Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption (released on VHS in 1998) and a follow up to Struggle: A Conversation 10 Years Later (released in 2007). In the first documentary, we meet six adult transracial adoptees of different ethnic and racial backgrounds: John, Michelle, Josh, Allison, Martin and Seujan, who each speak on various  issues related to transracial adoption. In addition, we hear from some of the adoptive parents and siblings. Both documentaries are short, 20 minutes each, yet pack a punch. As a transracial adoptee, I could relate fully to many of their insights, feelings and experiences and was literally moved to tears in some instances. As the month of November is “National Adoption Month,” I thought I’d share some of the highlights of the documentaries and things that resonated with me over the course of this month.

One of the most challenging issues transracial adoptees encounter is that of stereotypes and labels, the first topic of discussion in Struggle. John, a bi-racial adoptee adopted by white parents, stated,

There are so many societal expectations, and every time I walk into a room, people react to the way I look or dress, or the way my hair is, or the color of my skin, and that can make you crazy if you don’t have some sort of frame of reference, which is why identity or this label becomes so important.”

John continued to discuss how he “rejected” the idea of labels during his first couple of years in college. He expressed,” I thought of myself as brown for a semester or maybe yellow. I’m not white, I’m not black, I’m just going to be brown.”

The problem is, as John pointed out, society doesn’t work like that. Society wants you to make a choice. John continues, “It was never a choice to be white because it was clear, you’re not white, but what are you? Are you black?” John shared later that around the age of 22 or 23, he finally came to accept and say, “yes I am black” (John Raibles has become a nationally-known adoptee, speaker and author on transracial adoption).

I understood well this identity confusion. My adoptive parents were also white, and I lived in the South. Obviously I didn’t look like my parents and I didn’t talk as most people assumed I might. In fact, I had a southern American accent just like everyone else in Louisiana. One of my most vivid memories of stereotyping occurred when I lived in Florida. I was waitressing at TGI Fridays and one of the other servers expressed his initial surprise at my southern accent. He said, “I didn’t expect this little Asian girl to have a southern accent.” At the time, it was laughable to me. But I realize now that any kind of stereotyping can be hurtful and damaging.

Martin, an African-American adoptee adopted by white parents, discusses another  example of stereotyping. In this incident, he was listening to his Walkman when another black youth came up to him and asked what he was listening to. Martin replied, “Pearl Jam.” The black youth said, “that’s ‘white’ music… can’t be listening to that. You have to listen to rap, reggae, all this other stuff.” Martin’s response was, “it’s what I like.” In answer, he received this remark, “you’re double-crossing the black community.”

The expectation to embody a certain way of being according to your outward appearance is confusing for transracial adoptees because we have roots in two cultures, maybe even more. For a long, long time, I rejected any link to my cultural roots. Surrounded by mostly white and African-American peers, what I learned at an early age was that it was not cool to be Asian, to look the way that I did. As a result, I tried to change the way I looked via makeup, hair coloring, what I wore, my attitude, etc. When a friend advised me to take a look in the mirror one day, not maliciously, to point out that I was, indeed, Asian I was affronted. To say that I minimized my ethnicity is an understatement. Identity was a confusing matter to me growing up. I was not able to define myself with any confidence until much later in my life.

The other adoptees in the documentary also shared personal experiences of stereotyping and marginalization, as well as how they came to eventually define themselves culturally speaking. Suffice it to say that identity for anyone is a process, but frequently a process of struggle for transracial adoptees. To confront “societal expectations,” we must learn to define ourselves from the inside out.  As Michelle, an African-American adoptee, stated in the documentary the question of who we are, our identities, must eventually turn into a statement, “I am ____”. When that happens is different for each adoptee. For some of us, it can take half a life time. When I finally grasped a sense of identity and could say, I am Taiwanese-American (not just American), I did it with confidence, not based on anyone’s approval or disapproval, but it came after a lot of inner conflict, introspection, and searching.

You can purchase a special edition DVD of both documentaries at Photosynthesis Productions (a friendly fore-warning, the DVD is expensive. I was able to get mine on Amazon for half the price). Also, from November 12-16 as part of the Minnesota Transracial Film Festival, you will be able to stream the documentaries via Watch Adoptee Films for a very small fee.

Tune in next time as I continue to discus the two film documentaries.

Watch the trailor for Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption