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Code Switch: Transracial Adoptees On Their Racial Identity And Sense Of Self


And finally today, we're going to take a listen to a podcast I host along with Gene Demby called Code Switch. It's all about race and identity in America. And in our most recent episode, we talked about adoption, specifically transracial adoption. Most adoptive parents in the U.S. are white, and a lot of them are adopting children who aren't. That's according to the Institute on Family Studies. So we put out a call to those of you who are adopted. We wanted to know, how did adoption form your sense of racial identity and your sense of self? And here's what you told us.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I spent the first 12 years of my life thinking that I was a little white girl. And when I found out that I wasn't, it wasn't just a revelation, it was an identity crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So, really, I think it's kind of a lack of identity that ties transnational adoptees together.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The narrative about my adoption was really centered around my mom being a savior.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: My language, my mannerisms, my experiences are all informed by the white family I grew up with.

MERAJI: You told us you feel alone and want to know if there are other people like you out there.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: You asked us if you're a bunch of posers - those are your words, not ours - by trying to claim identities that you weren't exposed to when you were growing up.

MERAJI: A Korean transracial adoptee you wrote to say, quote, "there's no one I can let my hair down with or be Asian with because I'm not Asian - but I am, sorry, end of rant. Thank you have you actually read this email," unquote.

DEMBY: We did read your email, and we read a lot of emails just like it. We reached out to y'all with some questions of our own. First question, what experiences do you have that your parents and other family members do not?

DEMBY: Well, there's a lot of those.

MERAJI: That's Melissa Guida-Richards. She's 25 years old and lives in Bushkill, Pa.

MELISSA GUIDA-RICHARDS: I found out that I was adopted when I was 19 years old. That is when I found out that I was actually a Latina. I was adopted from Colombia.

MERAJI: Melissa says she's a lot darker than her parents. And for years, her parents said that was because they had darker family members. But people she came across out in the world were constantly assuming she was Latina and trying to speak to her in Spanish. It caused a lot of confusion for her growing up.

GUIDA-RICHARDS: I was raised to be an Italian, Portuguese, white daughter of Italian-Portuguese immigrants in the United States. And everybody in my life lied to me because they believed that they were making the right choice. Basically, my entire life was whitewashed. And since I have found out, at 19, I've been trying my best to learn about the culture. So it's just been a journey. And it's hard.

DEMBY: So white parents rarely talk to their kids about race. We know that, right? We know that from reporting we've done. And as so many of your responses show, that has a whole different set of consequences for transracial adoptees.

MERAJI: It does. And, Gene, we heard from several people who said their parents tried to minimize, if not completely erase, their racial difference.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: Kendra Rosati was adopted from South Korea by white parents, and she says she was raised in a white suburb of Buffalo, N.Y.

KENDRA ROSATI: My sisters are blonde and blue-eyed, kind of your all-American classic beauties. And my brother looks like my dad. All of my life, my parents have told me I'm just like my brother and sisters, but I wasn't and I'm not. I have constantly felt uncomfortable in my own skin. And when I was young, at night, I would pray to God that I would wake up looking just like my sisters. My parents were definitely not ready or equipped to raise a child of color. They didn't know how to or want to talk about race.

DEMBY: Question No. 2 that we asked adoptees - what's missing from mainstream conversations about adoption?

REBECCA SOOME BICKLY: What's missing is the voices of adult adoptees like myself and birth mothers.

MERAJI: That's Rebecca Soome Bickly.

BICKLY: I see stories about adoptive parents who have had to go through various ordeals to adopt their children or raise them. But centering this conversation on one perspective when there are really three parties involved in every adoption is limiting the public understanding and perception of adoption.

MERAJI: Three parties - birth families, adoptive families and adoptees.

DEMBY: Adoptees, though, they grow up. They have feelings about being adopted.

CAITLIN HOWE: Everyone expects you to feel grateful, but it's more complicated than that. Everyone expects you to appreciate a good life that you have, but you still feel complicated at times. You know, not everything is gumdrops and rainbows.

MERAJI: That's Caitlin Howe. she reached out to us for this episode, so I called her up to interview her. She lives in Eugene, Ore., where she works for Holt International Children's Services, which was founded in 1956. And it's the same agency that her parents used to adopt her almost 30 years ago.

HOWE: I am a Korean adoptee, and I work in the post-adoption services department of the agency. It's a brand-new position. It's really kind of a new, innovative direction that we're moving to include adoptees in programming for adoptees.

MERAJI: What have you done specifically to address these issues that you're talking about these issues that adoptees have brought up to us - feeling isolated, feeling like they never had a real chance to get in touch with their birth culture? What have you been doing in your job to make these adoptees feel like they're not isolated and they do have a connection to where they are from?

HOWE: I think what I've actually seen, Shireen, is that it's not - I think that there is this assumption that the longing is for birth culture. But a lot of the times, it's a longing for, like, deep connection to people that are like you. So I think that that happens in a couple of ways through the work that I've done. One is that we have adoptee camps. They started out as heritage camps that focused on Korean culture, but the realization happened that there are adoptees from all over the world now in the U.S.

And so we do something called cabin talks. So there's a topic of the day. And I remember the first year that I was a counselor. We were sitting around. And there was domestic adoptees, and there was adoptees from China, Korea, Ethiopia. And we were all sitting around. And everyone was just sharing their birth story. And for us, birth stories are pretty traumatic stories. You know, for one girl, it's like, all I know about my birth is I was abandoned in front of a government building in China. Like, that's extremely traumatic if that's your first known existence.

But what was amazing about sitting in that circle is we went around the circle, and everyone shared something pretty similar to that. And so in hearing those stories, that adoptee knows that she's not alone in that grief.

MERAJI: These adoptees, who I'm assuming are all youth - right? - that are going into this camp?

HOWE: Yeah, 9 to 17.

MERAJI: They are just so hungry for a place where there are other kids who are in the exact situation that they are in. And that, almost in and of itself, that is their identity, which I feel like we don't talk about.

HOWE: Yeah, I agree. I was actually at a conference. It was like the Korean adoptees of Chicago through this annual conference. But that was the first time in 29 years that I've ever sat in a room of entirely Korean adult adoptees. And it was extremely emotional. And I just remember, during the closing ceremony, one of the adult adoptees was on the stage, and they made the remark that, you know, you guys are my homeland. And I think that that really hit something deep inside of me because it is just like we kind of feel or we can have that feeling like we're not really Korean for all intensive purposes. And we're always recognized as a foreigner in the States. So where is our homeland as adoptees? And for a lot of adult adoptees, I think they find that in each other.

MERAJI: That's Caitlin Howe. She's the adoptee program coordinator for Holt International Children's Services. You can listen to the entire episode by downloading the Code Switch podcast on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.
Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.