The Anatomy of an Oreo

When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.

Audre Lorde

I’m consistently asked about my experience as a Transracial Adoptee(TRA) and growing up with two contrasting identities – white and Black. For me, this question is difficult to unpack because it, I must admit, feels extremely personal, invasive and presumptuous. But, with time, I have also found that this question is often less about my experience and more a fundamental exploration about illusions of sum-zero identities and racial identity. 

How do we define ourselves? What is racial identity?

When I unpack these questions then, I discover that these questions herald to timeless theories regarding nature versus nurture and explorations regarding identity politics and fundamental understandings of race.

“Ask her…she’s not really Black…she’s an Oreo.” Sometimes, when I am feeling particularly vulnerable or afraid, I remember this ubiquitous comment from classmates and peers. It’s painful, presumptuous and ignorant. But, also at its surface, it’s a judgement on who I am and where I belong.

So, let’s begin there.

I was born in Philadelphia, adopted into a white Mennonite family, and raised in Lancaster County. Wildly passionate, intense and – perhaps in the true spirit of a Mennonite- thrifty, I grew up with an ethos that most things could be cured by hard work, frugality and community. I’m being a bit facetious, obviously, but it speaks to the temperament I grew up around. My father was a hardworking chicken farmer, though now he likes to refer to the old homestead as a hobby farm, and my mother was insurmountable. A free-spirited, eclectic, stay-at home mom, she committed to raising six independent, responsible and conscientious children.

With my mom, I learned to be curious – to ask questions and to love vivid colors and appreciate travelling and culture. A homeschool teacher, my mom would cart my five siblings and I to museums on art, history, and natural history and on family vacations to visit relatives in Missouri, Delaware, Virginia and Puerto Rico. Later, my mother would paint my room bright yellow, much to my chagrin at the time, and decorate with rainbow quilts. My mother taught me to wonder and to notice natural beauty. “Look children, look out there at the mountains,” she would often muse on particularly long road trips. Or, because I often suffered from horrible motion-sickness, “look outside,” she would murmur, “far, far out to the trees and mountains. Now, isn’t it beautiful?”

My father taught me to love the small intricacies of nature. With my dad, I would “help” in the chicken house – dragging my tiny blue shovel with me and scooping handful sizes of manure into piles. I would stack firewood, tap water nipples and plant strawberries, potatoes, corn, beans and squash potato bugs while he would patiently listen to my chatter.

Despite the contrast between short visitations with my biological family and life with my adoptive family, there remained a powerful commonality: intentional investment in the journey of relationship. For me, that journey has entailed a high level of emotional investment and relational commitment. I grew up watching my adoptive parents give back by investing in the local community through financial expenditures at local, family owned stores to promoting through word of mouth local farms. I witnessed them invest in relationships at church and local community events. And, I observed them perform countless gracious, quiet acts of intentional relationship – financial and physical support to local farmers, safe space for distressed neighbors, emotional stability for various relatives and friends with mental illness and investment in my own journey of adoption. This is what I grew up seeing, so that is what I grew up being: a socially conscious young adult invested in the community and in relationships spanning sociocultural and racial/ethnic borders.  

I was just 9 when a classmate called me the N word on the playground. I cried, demanded an apology, told my teacher and later, at home, searched the encyclopedia for the definition – intuitively certain that the slur was demeaning because of my racial identity.

That experience was also one of the first times I truly felt alone – despite being in a home full of love. No one else could relate to my experience in a way which honored the visceral emotions I felt and the historical legacy in which I was uncovering.    

I spoke about this experience in speech class in college because that response was a testament to the conscientious spirit I had as a young child and the responsibility I now feel as an adult. When my first article was published in college, and I realized that my peers cared about my voice – I knew that I needed to cultivate a voice and a platform around valuable critical conversations. For me, these conversations aim to center marginalized voices and topics like transracial adoption, the juxtaposition between the invisibility and hypersexuality of the Black woman, murdered and missing indigenous women (#mmiw), spirituality and antiracism.

As a TRA, I have found that my journey into becoming holds universal facets: self-exploration, differentiation, boundaries, joy, grief and mourning. But, unlike others – my journey into becoming also holds a significant othering factor – racial identity. And, despite my desire for relationships, sometimes guiding my heart through the process of open vulnerability is difficult.

For me, learning how to navigate life as a TRA has never been simple and also requires the reliance on other TRA friends. This looks like listening and centering TRA experiences and voices. Sometimes it means meditation and body positive exercises. And, sometimes, hearing the culmination of our experiences and grief makes me really sad. I mourn for what could be. I mourn for what was. And, I mourn for broken relationships.

Leaning into healthy relationships anchor me. I deeply believe that too often so many of us walk through this journey of life in isolation, and with the stubborn refusal to vulnerably invite others to join us on the journey. My experience as a TRA has been a journey of learning how to navigate that isolation and the deep silence which often is entwined with the isolation. It isn’t easy – but it is well worth it. The other day, I stumbled across this quote from The Stranger’s article, “Black Kids in White Houses:”

Gratefulness is the most powerful silencer in the adoption world. Even if a transracial adoptee breaks the silence to make a criticism about his or her experience, the immediate response always is: Would it have been better if you’d never been adopted? It’s a rhetorical cul-de-sac, a false runaround that continues to stifle conversations about more complicated subjects, like what’s the difference between a family that’s tolerant and one that’s actively antiracist, or why are there so many children of color adopted in the first place?

These questions stretch and move me. They make me fundamentally uncomfortable, but they also root me in the steadfast awareness that this practice of creating dialogue and relationships is of fundamental value.

See, here’s the thing – racial identity doesn’t have to be a sum-zero game. No one race or culture is monolithic. My experience as a TRA does not deny my validity as a Black individual.

But, I have also found that because I live in such a way that allocates me to privilege vis-à-vis white proximity, I have the unique responsibility to advocate, share, and use my platform and voice to discuss racism through a unique lens.

It is with this lens with which I write.

Last year, I experienced a truly impactful moment when a white father reached out to me and told me that he shared some of my TRA reflections with his Black TRA daughter and it gave them new ways to dialogue. Moments like that continue to be the most affirming and humbling parts of this journey.   

So be it on Twitter or Instagram posts with tags like #blacklivesmatter or #keepfamiliestogether or #transracialadoption, a trip to the Women’s March, or sharing vulnerably about my experience as a TRA and Black woman or speaking about my interracial relationship -these are aspects of my life that coexist. And, for me they must.

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