Editor's note: Today's post addresses the complications around racial identity and the problematic aspects of racial appropriation. But this is just one part of a pervasive and long-standing race issue in our country. Along with Americans across the US, and our African American sisters and brothers in particular, we grieve the tragic church attack in Charleston, South Carolina. In the coming days, we will explore the history, racism, and fear underlying ths event here on Her.meneutics. Please stay tuned. - Kate
The coverage of Rachel Dolezal—the former president of a local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), who misrepresented herself as a black woman for nearly a decade—has launched countless questions, jokes, memes, and think pieces in response.
Because of the timing of the Dolezal news in the midst of a national discussion over gender identity, one common reaction has been: If we accept Caitlyn Jenner as transgender, then must we also embrace Rachel Dolezal as “transracial”? This line of thinking came up so often that “transracial” and the mocking hashtag “#TransracialLivesMatter” began trending on Twitter.
Many adoptees, like me, and a whole body of sociological tradition, take issue with this application of the term, which has been used since the 1970s to describe families formed through adoption where one or both parents has a different racial background than their children.
As a transracial adoptee, I know what it’s like to strain and struggle with racial identity. That’s why it’s even more hurtful and troubling to see black culture trivialized, worn like a Halloween costume, by someone like Dolezal.
Even though I have brown skin, black hair, and the genes that go with it, I know that there is more to the black experience in America than outward appearance. After growing up in a primarily white community in Washington state, I have worked hard to seek out black culture, mentors, and friends of color. I’ve done my share of exploring. I’ve made my way through countless hairstyles, questioning my professionalism while sporting a kinky afro or a cornrowed fro-hawk, even if it’s paired with slacks and a button-up shirt. I took a DNA test not only to reveal who my birth parents were, but also to learn verifiable information about my African ancestry—information that had been lost in the adoption transaction.
I’ve systematically worked my way through different layers of my complex racial identity, fitting in with the researched truth that many transracial adoptees associate more closely with a racial group that differs from our racial appearance or genetic background. The term transracial itself has been a powerful, unifying force among adoptive families. By identifying as a transracial adoptee, I’ve found a sense of belonging among others who have faced similar experiences and who can share in the integrity and the power in this word.
As fellow adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins wrote:
The “trans” in transracial, for me, never meant my race changed. It meant I was a multiracial black girl, adopted into a white family. It meant I was taken without my consent from one home, one place of origin and put inside another family, another culture, another race, one that didn’t belong to me. It meant I had to learn how to navigate my blackness and my black girlness… [But] even with all the “privileges” of whiteness, even with all the education, the middle class living, camping, fishing, hunting — It never made me white.
The real transracial experience is much more complicated than the way the term is being used in Dolezal’s case, and the adoption community is speaking out.
It’s hard to know what to call a person who has decided that she identifies with one race so much that she’ll dress the part without having lived through the burdens, hardships, and cultural pride that comes with being a black woman in America today. Brian Bantum, a theologian from Seattle Pacific University, writes:
By simply calling herself black, she bypasses the complications of a white history, a white body and the questions that inevitably arise about why she understands herself as connected to that community. She did not want to negotiate these complications, she wanted to possess something that was not hers.
There are plenty of people who identify with a community that is not theirs. But when you lie in order to feign a deeper connection or gain credibility or attain a position, that is something else entirely.
One reason Dolezal said she has continued to identify as black is because of her black son, whom her parents originally adopted and she gained custody of when he was in high school. “For that to be plausible, I certainly can’t be seen as white and Izaiah’s mom,” she told Matt Lauer on the Today show.
But adoptees know that such families are not only plausible, but common. Adoption researchers, psychologists, and advocates wrote in an open letter posted this week:
[Dolezal’s] questionable and even extreme approach to parenting goes against how families with transracial adoptees should actually tackle issues related to race. Scholars… have examined how adoptive parents incorporate and support familial understanding of their children’s birth culture…. But this does not mean that white parents become people of color in the process. Instead, adoptive families need to create spaces for transracial adoptees to explore and construct their own identities.
I doubt the vast majority of us will ever know someone like Dolezal, who has faked a racial identity for years and years. But in our churches, neighborhoods, and schools, we will know people who fit the real meaning of transracial, who have welcomed children of another race into their families or who—like me—have grown up with parents and surrounding culture of a different race. Perhaps it’s our call to listen to their experiences, to serve as allies in communities alongside them, to welcome their families as not only plausible but loved and celebrated.
Angela Tucker is a transracial adoptee and the subject of the documentary, Closure, which is available on Netflix. Angela’s story has been featured in Huffington Post, Slate, The Daily Kos, Adoption.com, and other publications. She blogs at www.theadoptedlife.com.