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Mirror Mirror on the Wall- Transracial or Mixed After All?

April 7, 2010

While prepping for a Boys to Men panel where I was asked to speak about “The Challenges and Joys of Raising Boys of Color in a Predominantly White State (Maine),” I did my homework.  I had my outline planned out. I was going to cover what happens when black children’s behavior on the playground is called out disproportionately to their white counterparts, and the importance of attending a black church for starters.

I would call attention to my own internalized racism, and what I was trying to do on a daily basis to unpack it. I would emphasize the joys of  my open adoption relationship given the opportunity, and try to encourage members of the audience to advocate for their children whenever they needed to do so. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t even know what transracial really meant.  Since I used the word to describe my family in my bio, it seemed like a good idea to look up the definition.  I wanted to be able to look like an authority on something, since I figured people were going to take one look at me, and ask, “What is that white woman doing on this panel?” I would arm myself with data, and definitions, in case my personal experience paled in comparison to that of my fellow mother panelists from Puerto Rico and Sudan.

What I discovered was that the definitions just confused matters more:

Transracial: 1. to alter one’s skin or hair to change one’s appearance from one race to another. 2. (the more commonly used definition in adoption lingo) to travel across at least one racial boundary, as in a family of one race, adopting a child of another.

So, by definition, when I adopted my son Sammy (age five, African American, adopted domestically at birth), we became, because of our racial differences, transracial. Then, when I brought Marcel into the world (age two) with the help of an African American donor, I then conceived transracially according to definition.  Does the president who also had a white mother, talk about his family growing up as transracial? Perhaps the term itself was not one his mother had ever heard. The fact of the matter is that it is the only term I have ever used to describe my family, or heard used to describe it. With our heightened awareness over the choice we have over the words we use or don’t use to name ourselves on the census, I looked at transracial in a new light. What does using the word to describe my family mean about us, and more importantly what is it not saying?

This post was written for my debut post, as the debut guest blogger on Mixed and Happy. I initially posted only this “teaser” here. Please read the whole article there, and check out their site! Then come back and leave your thoughts on this topic here too!


So, by definition, when I adopted my son Sammy (age 5, African American, adopted domestically at birth), we became, because of our racial differences, transracial. Then, when I brought Marcel into the world (age 2) with the help of an African American donor, I then conceived transracially according to definition. Does the President, who also had a white mother, talk about his family growing up as transracial? Perhaps the term itself was not one his mother had ever heard. The fact of the matter is that it is the only term I have ever used to describe my family, or heard used to describe it. With our heightened awareness over the choice we have over the words we use or don’t use to name ourselves on the census, I looked at transracial in a new light. What does using the word to describe my family mean about us, and more importantly what is it not saying?

To be honest, transracial has always felt rather clinical, and scientific, to me. If I am the transracial one, then the child is another race than mine. Since transracial adoption is predominantly an act of white people adopting non-white children, that is exactly what the definition has come to mean. Does being the head of a transracial family give me a guest pass into my children’s ethnic background in a way that saying we are mixed doesn’t? For days I sat with this question: why is this word so important in the adoption community? What I came up with may not be unique, but it certainly rocked my boat a good deal.

With its focus on boundary and race, does it not stand to protect privilege and otherness? The “trans” is a journey. The parent is the captain. The child on the other side of that boundary is the what? The endpoint? The rescued being, who will be brought back from the journey to the captain’s homeland? In my case, adopting Sam rescued me from a previously all but unexamined life of white privilege and childlessness. When I adopted him on my own, as a single mom, he and I became a new other. Did we become a transracial family or a mixed one?

Upon reflection, I would say that the word mixed more accurately reflects what has happened to me since becoming my childrens’ mom. Parenting changed the rhythms and course of life, certainly. But, being the mother of an African American child, and a bi-racial one has taken those racial boundaries that I took for granted all my life, and blown them out of the water several times each day. When you remove a boundary, you have an open space. To me, that is what being a mixed family has become. An open space that we permeate between ourselves throughout the day, throughout our lives.

I stand to gain a great deal from looking at my family as mixed instead of transracial. For starters, it acknowledges the sharing of ethnicity between us as a family, stripping the adoptive parent of the power of their race as the boundary setter. Emotionally it might help me too. I often find myself feeling lonely on playgrounds, or at family functions at the boys’ school. I feel like I fit in nowhere. I am not a white mother raising a white kid. I am not a black mother raising a black child. As mom in a mixed family, I become one of us, instead of one of me and two of them. This is a not so subtle shift that I am long overdue to break out of.

In this age of blended families, multi-hued offspring, and increased numbers of adoptions of every ethnicity, isn’t it time we all just embraced our mixed-ness, and let go of our clinical terminology that simply seems to somehow preserve whiteness, rather that accept the torch of being mixed?


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6 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2010 2:24 pm

    Tremendous. Really. Transracial does sound so incredibly clinical. Growing up my parents didn’t like the term, either. However, I’m not sure if their replacement was any better. They used to tell us we were their “across the borders” birth children. Their reference to “borders” had to do with coming to Haiti and adopting us from there. I greatly appreciate the sentiment “across the borders” conveys. My parents wanted us to know we were as special to them as if we had been birthed from their loins. I love my parents DEEPLY and know they were not careless or ignorant in how they raised us. However, the whole “borders” concept is still on the same lines as “boundaries, crossing color lines etc.” Great post and much food for thought!

    • April 10, 2010 1:08 am

      Quiskaeya,

      Thank you for this response, and for posting it at M and H too. Your perspective is eye opening, helpful, grounding. You travel between your love and respect for your parents choice, and where you land today with such ease. Thank you for taking the time with this piece!

  2. April 8, 2010 5:27 pm

    Whew. This is a humdinger, gets the mind roiling. Some first random thoughts:

    – Love this: “I stand to gain a great deal from looking at my family as mixed instead of transracial. For starters, it acknowledges the sharing of ethnicity between us as a family, stripping the adoptive parent of the power of their race as the boundary setter.” !!

    – I agree, the term “transracial,” as commonly used, posits whiteness as *the* reference point (that’s the tricky thing about whiteness – it’s ALWAYS doing that).

    – I don’t remember using the term to apply to our family in the 1980’s and 90’s: two white parents, one white son by birth, one Korean daughter by adoption. I tended to talk about being part of a “biracial family.” Somehow that seems a little different, more of a level playing field for everyone, but is it? I’ll have to look at it some more.

    – My personal experience of this is fairly unique: having grown up in Korea, my identification with Koreanness made our adoption experience feel less trans-racial. I already felt so connected to, so folded into Korean ways, that in a funny way bringing Yunhee home didn’t feel like crossing a border at all. Not that I ever forgot that I was white and she was Asian. Adopting Yunhee intensified my transracial and transcultural experience, but as a continuation of a journey begun in childhood.

    – Children are already marginalized by adultism: in society, grownups count more. None of our children, however they came into our families, got to do the choosing (except possibly on a soul level). Then add racism.

    – In the midst of all this, how do we find terms to describe our families that give our children’s identities the same weight as our own? How we describe ourselves reveals so much, whether we are conscious of it or not, and our children absorb it all.

    • April 10, 2010 1:11 am

      Annie,

      Here here to how “whiteness” always keeps doing that!
      As always your replies take my post to a deeper, and more flushed out place. I love how you do that.
      I had never heard the term adultism. But as soon as I read it, I started thinking about how that plays out in ways other than just “I am the adult I need to be the adult..”
      Thank you for taking this to another place.

  3. Luisa Martinez permalink
    April 9, 2010 9:26 pm

    Your conclusion feels so right on, Catherine—-we are families, however we compose ourselves. Love is the binding agent.

    • April 10, 2010 1:12 am

      Luisa,
      So great to have you join in here. Thank you too, for taking the time with this piece. I appreciate it.

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