But in interviews and Twitter hashtags, Dolezal has become the face of “transracial” — what, for many, is a new adjective on the battlefield of identity politics. And linking Dolezal with the word has offended many, among them those for whom growing up looking different is a familiar struggle: transracial adoptees.
“You’re turning something that is a historical experience into something that’s almost being made a joke,” Kimberly McKee told The Washington Post.
McKee, 31, is the assistant director of the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Parent Network and an assistant professor who studies transracial adoption — when a child of one race is adopted by the family of another. She was adopted from South Korea when she was five months old; she grew up in the suburbs of Rochester, N.Y.; and she is one of about two dozen adoptees, adoptive parents and academics who signed “An Open Letter: Why Co-opting ‘Transracial’ in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”
“As members of the adoption community — particularly those of us who identify as transracial adoptees — we are deeply alarmed by the gross mischaracterization of this term,” the letter reads. “We find the misuse of ‘transracial,’ describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of ‘blackness’ in order to pass as ‘black,’ to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.”
McKee and other signatories of the letter described the struggles transracial adoptees face as they are raised by families — and, often, in communities — where those around them look nothing like them. This isn’t just about being the only dark face in a school photo. It’s about learning to survive in a world where even buying hair-care products can be alienating, and encounters with law enforcement can turn ugly.
Such struggles, some transracial adoptees say, have nothing to do with a white civil rights leader from Spokane, Wash., who convinced people she was African American.
Lisa Marie Rollins, who is black and Filipino, was adopted in 1971 by a white family in Washington state. Now an adjunct professor in the race and resistance studies program at San Francisco State, Rollins described parents who “did not have the tools” to talk with their daughter about why she was different, and what that difference meant.
“People walking through the world were treating me like a black girl,” Rollins, 45, said. “At home, race did not exist.”
Rollins said transracial adoption is as much about a way of parenting — of “making sure that their child is connected to whatever their community of origin is” — as about adoptees. She said it was left to her uncle, for example — a white man from Louisiana — to give her “the talk,” a conversation black families often have with children about the dangers of dealing with police.
“I grew up really struggling to figure out all these things about race at my church, at my school, that I didn’t know how to navigate,” Rollins said. “I had to figure out that stuff on my own. The experience is not uncommon at all.”
While there are no national statistics on how many children are transracially adopted, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are by no means alone. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, one HHS survey in 2007 reported 40 percent of all adoptions were transracial, largely due to Americans adopting children internationally. And according to advocates, education requirements for those considering transracial adoption differ from state to state.
Transracial adoptions also pose special challenges. For example, consider the following questions for transracial parents from the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association:
• Am I doing enough to help my black child feel a sense of belonging in our family?• How can I better connect my Latino child to his culture, his racial roots?• How can I prepare my daughter for the impending discrimination she will experience because she is black?• How can I prepare my family to experience racism now that we are a transracial family?• What do I need to do to meet my Korean child’s needs around race and culture?• How can I advocate for multicultural educational materials in the schools?Or, have you ever been too embarrassed to ask questions about culture, afraid of saying the wrong thing or embarrassed about not knowing the answer?
“The word ‘transracial’ means a lot to adoptees,” Angela Tucker, a social worker and transracial adoptee living in Seattle, said. “It’s been a part of my identity for my entire life. It unites adoptees who know what it is to be raised in cultures different racially different than our own.”
Tucker, 29, is a black woman adopted when she was just one year old by a family that included white, black and Hmong children. She said her parents worked hard to “raise us in a way that we are able to see our culture.” They sought out black Cabbage Patch dolls — difficult to find in Bellingham, Wash., in the 1980s. They knew that “flesh-colored” bandages might not work as advertised. And they tried to make sure Tucker had a diverse group of friends.
“My parents did a great job mitigating these kind of racial differences,” Tucker said. “They were really aware of their own privilege in the sense that they could go to a grocery store and go down the hair aisle and find shampoo that would work with Caucasian hair, but not us.”
But even with supportive parents, Tucker struggled. She straightened her hair. She was told she acted white. Trying out for a state track meet with headphones on, people made “microagressive comments” about her music of choice: country.
“As I grew, I had to work really hard and go through really different stages and phases of my emotional identity to figure out my identity,” Tucker said.
Now, she says some of that work is being undone by a national conversation about Rachel Dolezal as “transracial.”
“I think she used her white privilege to slip into our space without owning the historical struggles that black folks have faced,” Tucker said. “It could never go the other way around.”