The killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
A surge in anti-Asian violence across the country amidst the pandemic.
The migrant crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.
These events ignited some of the deepest discussions on race and identity in the United States in decades. Yet, many of the millions of adoptees across the country say it’s been difficult for them to express their feelings about social unrest.
Raised, in many cases, by parents of a different race and nationality, adoptees have unique perspectives on race and racism in America that aren’t heard often.
In honor of National Adoption Awareness Month, NPR asked transracial and transnational adoptees to share their thoughts.
Here are some of their stories:
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Hannah Matthews, 29, of Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, is a biracial Black woman who was born in Kansas City, Missouri and adopted domestically into a white family when she was three weeks old.
On the death of George Floyd and other Black Americans
“Over the last year, I’ve been thinking about other transracial adoptees who were probably experiencing what I experienced with the death of Michael Brown. Like, what does this mean for me and for my family as a transracial family? And this kind of culture shock experience of seeing someone who looks an awful lot like you, being harmed in systems that, typically, being raised in white families and predominantly white spaces, we’re taught to trust. It’s a confusing time.”
On talking to her family about racial violence
“I would say we can have conversations to an extent. My parents are open minded and willing to have conversations, to a certain level of comfortability. I do often feel frustrated talking to them because I want there to be more of a connection made between my experience and the injustices that we’re seeing happening, and I don’t know that they can do that.”
On how adoptee voices help bridge a gap
“I think adoptees fit into this conversation in the way that we’re able to offer a very unique racial experience … especially ones raised in a white context. We’ve been studying whiteness our whole lives. There’s kind of this insider look into whiteness and to the white psyche, and I think that’s really what we need to be focusing on when we see these larger issues of unrest: How can white people be looking introspectively into what this means for them, not just people of color.”
Annie Sefanko, 17, was born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and adopted into a white family in Rosemont, Minnesota, at 13 months old.
On seeing people who look like her crossing the U.S.-Mexico border
“I’ve seen a lot of articles where people from my country are migrating to the U.S. and sometimes I wonder: Is my birth mother traveling to the border? [I also wonder] where she’s at and if she’s still in Guatemala. Is she safe? And I also think about the conditions, because I know the conditions are bad. So, I definitely feel fortunate to be living my life right now in Minnesota.”
On talking to her parents about race and ethnicity
“In the past, I have talked to them about it a little, but they kind of don’t believe what I’m saying. I had one situation where I was in a parking lot driving at night with my mom and the police pulled up, and I felt really scared in that moment. And I felt like something bad was going to happen to me and I told my mom, and she’s like, ‘You know, stop worrying.’ She just didn’t believe how I felt in the moment. So, since then, I’ve been pretty, like, not open about race or anything with them.”
On finding solace
“I found through writing news articles about homelessness and teacher diversity really helped me understand other people’s views and understand my view a little more, too”.
“I’ve been able to talk to a few girls of color and women of color, too, that are older than me and have different backgrounds than me. So, I’m definitely learning about their perspectives and what it means to be a woman of color in American society right now.”
Emily Chen, 39, of Brooklyn, New York, was adopted from South Korea when she was three months old and grew up in Lincoln, Nebraska. Her father immigrated from China and her mother is white American.
On tough conversations with her father about anti-Asian racism
“In the Midwest, people didn’t really distinguish between the different East Asian ethnicities and so I was kind of lucky to have a Chinese parent and pass as Chinese, even though I’m ethnically Korean.”
“I’ve been having some tougher conversations with my father, just around the differences in learning more about my Korean cultural identity and his Chinese cultural identity, and just being aware of some of the things happening out there around the pandemic. I think we’ve all seen the sort of rising xenophobia since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I think I’m a little more cautious than [my father] is out in Nebraska. But I’ve been trying to convince him that it doesn’t mean that racism isn’t there just because he’s not really observant of it or seeing it.”
On her father’s reaction to her exploring her Korean heritage
“In 2019, I actually went to Seoul and saw my adoption file and visited my adoption agency with [my dad].”
“I think he’s a little bit frustrated. I never had this sort of interest in Chinese culture, but now having [an interest] in Korean culture, to him, he’s like, ‘Well, you’re Chinese. That’s your family. Why don’t you want to learn more about that? Why are you so interested in learning Korean independently when we kind of had to nudge you into learning Chinese’.”
On how the uptick in anti-Asian violence has changed her
“I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought, and I speak up more than I think I typically would have a few years ago. A couple of weekends ago, some guy shouted to me, ‘Hey, China!’ when I was walking down the street. I turned around and I said, ‘I’m not Chinese!’ I just figured if I don’t say something to him, the next Asian person that walks by him, he’s going to do it again. So maybe even if he hesitates just a little bit, hopefully I helped in that way.”
Lina Vanegas, 45, of Ann Arbor, Michigan was born in Bogota, Colombia and adopted into a white American family when she was six weeks old.
On feeling more “other” than ever before
“[The social unrest] has made me more and more aware of my status of being ‘other’ and not being white, and realizing just how unsafe this country is. So, it’s been stressful. It’s been heartbreaking. It’s been an exhausting time seeing how much racism, how much white supremacy our country is rooted in and how the systems and institutions all support that and are rooted in that. I’ve really had to rethink the way I look at society and the way I look at how we can create change … how we can make it so it’s safe for people who are not white.”
On the conversations she’s having with friends
“A big issue is citizenship for many transracial adoptees and international adoptees, who are at risk of being deported because their paperwork was not filled out. People are more scared about citizenship, so that’s a whole issue that adoptees are advocating for right now.”
“We also share the same sentiment of being scared, feeling unsafe, even limiting some of the places that we go just because there has been a lot of violence, especially against Asian Americans. So that’s been really, really scary. And just trying to figure out how these conversations impact our children. A lot of us have children that are biracial, too. So dealing with that creates another issue of safety.”
On how adoptees’ voices can be elevated
“I would like to see our voices be front and center because we are struggling and we’re struggling greatly with mental health issues, with addiction, with many other issues. And until our voices are included in the narrative and included in society, we’re not going to be able to be supported, be seen or be heard and be believed.”
Sunny Reed, 37, of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was adopted from South Korea into a white American family in 1985. Her adoption experience forms the backbone of her Ph.D in Childhood Studies at Rutgers University-Camden.
On Asian-Americans and social justice movements
“The Asian American community is so fractured when it comes to racial justice movements. In my own research, I’m finding that most Asian American scholarship on Asian American identities does not include Asian adoptees. I feel like Asian adoptees fall in this weird, liminal space where we’re not Asian enough and we’re not white, and that doesn’t allow you to participate fully, or feel comfortable participating fully, in these racial-type justice movements. And I think about how that complicates my own personal ability to identify as a person of color.”
On the in-between space Asian adoptees often occupy
“I think adoptee voices could be better heard if we had better unity and recognition from the Asian American community at large. I think there’s a lot of confusion about who we are, if we’re adoptees or not, until we actually disclose our positions. And I feel like there’s a hesitancy, too, because once we admit that we’re adopted, it’s almost like we don’t know the actual Asian experience.”
On trying to bring awareness to anti-Asian violence
“I’ve been very angry at the lack of response [to anti-Asian violence] compared to violence against other races. I’m taking that as a sign of our status in America. I’m taking that as this deeply rooted model minority, deeply rooted anomaly that violence against Asians is this one-off thing – that we’re not oppressed. And to be honest, that has been a huge block in me talking about it with certain people. When I do talk about it, I tell people to pay attention to the silence more than to the support. Because to me, that’s where you’re going to find what people think about the racial justice for Asian people.”
Lucy Grimshaw, 22, is a Black woman born in St. Louis, Missouri. At 19 months old she was adopted domestically by a white woman who immigrated to the U.S. from Britain.
On being a Black woman in predominantly white spaces
“This year has been incredibly exhausting for me because seeing the difference between how I’ve been treated versus my [Black] counterparts has been extremely difficult for me. And the lack of understanding of diversity and the lack of understanding from some of those in my [white] community about racial injustice as a whole has been really hard to see.”
On losing friendships because she’s Black
“My community over the past year has shifted a lot. I used to go to a primarily white church and there are people there that I dearly love and still I’m in contact with. But there are also people who are extremely ignorant about matters of race. Because I come from a transracial family, in some ways, it’s almost like I’m a safe person for them to be racist towards.”
“So that was something I mourned last year, the loss of some friendships because they didn’t accept my Blackness. But the beauty is that I found a new group of people that did accept my Blackness and who I was. That’s the most beautiful thing of all because there are people out there that do understand you.”
On finding support within her own family
“I have been extremely blessed in the midst of all the chaos to have a family that is so supportive of me and my identity. My mom, especially. We have a lot of conversations about race, about how race has impacted me, and seeing so much unrest and people dying that look like me. And it’s been extremely healing to be seen and validated because in other spaces I haven’t gotten that validation.”