Things They Never Tell You: Q&A

Reading Time: 5 minutes
There is this weird expectation that transracial/interracial adoptees often “owe” society free access to personal stories in exchange for having been “given a better life.”  
While these assumptions are perhaps tacit, I have noticed that these assumptions manifest in a variety of different ways and often require multiple narratives which, I believe, are not always my stories to share. For example, a lot of people usually ask me about my biological family:
“Why did your birth mother give you up?”
“What kind of drugs was she doing?”
I wish I could tell you, dear reader, that these questions happen once in a while, but growing up, these questions happened and continue to happen frequently. And, later in this post, I will dig deeper into how the above questions aren’t always mine to answer.
Additionally, it is important to note that these questions, particularly when asked by strangers and acquaintances – though also this can be true for friends and family members- are often driven by a singular narrative which centers on privilege. For example, when a stranger would stop my family and interrogate my mother about whether or not my sister and I were “Fresh Air” children and “where my parents got us,”their questions were no longer “innocent curiosities,” because these questions ultimately centered around a narrative which relied on the structures of two privileged frames:

1.       Deserved knowledge: The tacit function of asking a prying question hinges on the implicit assumption that the asker deserves some sort of response. I offer the following as a consideration: when complete strangersask me about my biological family the narrative no longer centers around a relational one but a transactional one. Now, my response may not comply with the transactional code – I may deny access verbally or physically, but the question is often considered, at minimum, indecorous when applied towards non-adoptive families. However, relational decorum is usually forgone when applied towards mixed, multi-ethnic or diverse families.
While the critic may argue that prying, indecorous inquiries is hardly a substantial evidence towards underlying privileged lenses, another may argue that these questions, whether “innocent” or not, stem from individualistic narratives steeped (in this context), in western ideologies. Indeed, asking questions is an integral part of being a lifelong learner.

However, I believe the following questions must also be considered before engaging with one another:

  • How are we asking our questions? 
  • Why are we asking our questions 
  • When do we ask our questions?
  • Where do we ask our questions?
  • What are we hoping to gain?
 Try out these, although perhaps ridiculous sounding, sentences with me:

“Hi. My name is (fill in the blank). I noticed you standing there and I admit, my next question feels a bit awkward. I want to ask you a question that is personal, but I don’t have a relationship with you. It appears that you belong to a blended family and I too am curious about blended families but I recognize that you do not owe me any answers. If you are open and up for it, I am wondering if I could ask you a few questions. I also want to recognize that you do not owe me answers.  I believe the answers you may have to offer are a skill set and I am wondering if I can offer you monetary compensation in exchange for your expertise.”

Sounds crazy, right? Maybe even insulting? But, I want you to consider what happens to the narrative when this happens. There is a shift in power. Instead of demanding answers, you become the possible recipient of a gift. By empowering one another, there is room for transformation. This creates space for dialogue and open, I would even argue- honestrelationship because it starts by recognizing that this is openly transactional.
2.       Stereotyped Agendas: It’s not an exaggeration to say that folks have asked me about my biological mother’s drug addiction as a first, get-to-know-you, type question. Lately, the past few conversations I have had with strangers, whom are saavy enough to know that when I call my white mother, “Mom,” that I am adopted, are often a combination of rash assumptions such as the following: “So, tell me about your biological mother’s drug addiction, I mean, that is why she gave you up, right?” While this question is
a.       Dangerous – hinges on assumptions
b.       Indicative of racial stereotypes
c.       Offensive
d.       Personal (ie: none of your business).
This question is also not particularly unique in its ubiquity nor in its structure. Historically, poor black communities suffered vastly disproportionate sentencing in the aftermath of the 1980s’90’s crack epidemic and, arguably, continue to suffer unequitable, disproportionate sentencing. Contemporarily, the opioid epidemic often draws criticism because of how it is framed: Epidemic over war. And, it is untenable to suggest that the historical framing does not affect modern ideologies and policies.
While I have reacted differently to this question over the years, I have consistently been alarmed by another one of its tacit functions: narrative ownership. Asking me about my biological mother assumes (incorrectly), that I have access and should have access to telling another person’s story. My story is ultimately tangled up in a myriad of narratives. I am affected by others choices all the time at the macro and at the micro level. Regardless of my mother’s choices, I firmly believe that my story does not need to reveal her story. While, in some cases, I have chosen to disclose facts about my mother, I continue to carry and grapple with learning how to care for and share my story.  
I have found that as I continue to grapple with who I am as a black woman and as an interracial adoptee, it is equitable andreasonable to require monetary compensation when asked to provide others with inclusive and diverse tools. Let me be clear: while the critic may imagine an image of me requiring any and all community members to provide monetary compensation for prying questions, I envision compensation for providing workshops, trainings and/or “personal” question and answers for large group sessions.

Recently, I discovered that an organization for which I was co-leading class, which I was willing and able to provide for “free” compensated my co-partner, a multi-ethnic black male, for providing access and training for racial justice without extending me an offer as well. While I could take the time here to articulate the variety of inequities illustrated by this snub, I wanted to instead focus on historical impact.
Historically, black female narratives often involve wage gaps. According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), “Black women were paid 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2016. That means it takes the typical black woman 19 months to be paid what the average white man takes home in 12 months.” Or, if you are numbers person, Black women are paid 63 cents for every dollar a White, non-Hispanic man makes. Or, if you really want to sink it home: Black women work 7 extra months for free just to earn the same paycheck.
Often, it is easy to think individual events happen on the micro level rather than connecting the individual story with a larger narrative. Thus, my “working” for free isn’t and wasn’t a onetime event.

Black women are persistently over-represented in low-paying, often minimum wage, jobs and underrepresented in jobs that rank in the top-tiers. According to the AAUW “the gap widens with higher levels of education in some fields…This inequity stretches to more visible fields, too, like business (there are zero black female Fortune 500 CEOs as of 2017) and Hollywood (none of the 10 highest-paid film actresses in 2016 were black).”

Equitable wages often mean the difference between poverty and sustainability.

Because I am the type of person that likes action, I thought it may be helpful to put in a few tips for what you can do to help alleviate this gap:

1. Demand pay transparency. Organizations should be expected to annually release a wage report which articulates the pay each employee makes.

2. Call your congressman and demand equal pay by passing legislation that enforces equitable pay

3. Negotiate for an equitable salary with benefits

4. Advocate for one another’s pay equity

As it is MLK Day, I wanted to end with a quote: 
There comes a time when silence is betrayal. That time has come for us today…some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.

 –Martin Luther King Jr.

Things They Never Tell You: Health Care

Reading Time: 6 minutes
I don’t particularly remember traumatic doctor visits as a child. Or, in fact any doctor visit as a child. I was a healthy kid. I’m sure that I was terrified of shots and probably caused a tearful scene at least once or twice, but doctors weren’t anything to be scared of because…they weren’t. Or, at least that is what most closely resembled my experience because there were never any incidents.
1.      I was always admitted
2.      I could ask questions
3.      The only thing I needed to do in order to gain excellent medical attention was show up…with my white mother and/or white siblings

Embarrassingly, one of the first times I remember experiencing that doctor visit was recently. I have had my family health practitioner for my entire life. It’s one of those small practices. You know, the one where some of the doctors have gone to your church and been in your parent’s small group type of practices. The one where you sometimes forget to say the “doctor” part before the doctor’s name because you remember when he used to babysit you. That one. Or, at least, it used to be before it merged with a larger practice and suddenly everyone seems to be new and different.

Anyways, I went to the doctor a few months ago with a fairly fast heart rate, congestion, and what I was pretty sure was the flu. After all, I had recently started working more closely with little children and, because my office was right next to the school nurse, little children would wander into my office coughing, sneezing and snotting, and I would direct them back out to that big red sign with the first aid symbol before sanitizing my office.

After having my vitals checked, marked and told that my BMI and blood pressure were great, I was finally seen by a doctor. I had never had this doctor before (but I knew he was an old classmate’s uncle), and after what followed, I will never have that doctor again. After the normal examinations, he started asking me a few questions:

 “Are you a smoker?” Never

“What about drugs?” Never

“What about alcohol?” No, not really. A social drink maybe a few times a year.

“What about exercise?” Yes.

I had already marked these down on my chart and went over them with the nurse, but I thought, okay, sure, I can do this again. I know they probably didn’t have a chance to talk, and I know Doctors try to be thorough.

“What about foods. What do you eat?” Well, my husband and I make a lot of international foods, and we try to eat a lot of greens as well.

“What about fried foods, do you eat a lot of fried foods or fried chicken?” No, I don’t eat a lot of fried foods or fried chicken.


“What about fried foods?” No.

“Hmm. Okay, what kind of greens do you and your husband eat?” We do salads, and broccoli and most recently we made some bok choy.

“Really. Bok choy.” I experienced his tone as flat, disbelieving. 

And, it was then that I realized I had a choice.

There was a narrative that I was rejecting by emphasizing my “no,” to his perceived understanding of who I was/am. 

My voice was challenging a pervasive and damaging narrative, and this fantasy narrative was impacting my access to equitable healthcare. 

At the time, part of me wanted to chalk it up to a misunderstanding because I was desperate to conjure up a reason why this man wasn’t actively participating in a racist narrative. After all, if this man was racist, who was going to help me? 

So, I did what I usually do when I am in a situation. I make a list. 

I didn’t want to cause a scene. 

I didn’t want to have the Flu and and I really, really just wanted to go home. 

I didn’t want to count that he asked me twice about the fried food, part. 

I didn’t feel like I could formulate a response that would actually matter. 

I didn’t want …to be black. I wanted to hide, and the best way I knew how was by utilizing my connections to hide myself and by whitening the situation. See, I knew who he was. I knew he, though he didn’t know at the time nor would he have made the connection by looking at me and my black skin, but he would know my adoptive parents. I knew that if I mentioned someone’s name, just let my old maiden name slip out, I could “whiten” the situation. I could get out and just tell myself that the fried chicken comment was a mistake. I could forget this rumble and bumble mess of whatever thisinterrogation was.

The critic would wonder: but surely, you couldn’t knowthis. After all, what you experienced, was just a feeling. Your story is very one-side filled with your incomplete truth. 

And, that is partially correct. Partially, because I did it. I whitened it by whitening me.

Let me be clear: this isn’t a feel-good, pat-myself-on-the-back-type-story. 

This isn’t one of those stories that makes me feel good about how easy it was to say some version of the following back:“Yeah, bok choy. You know, when my family grew up on that chicken farm, we grew a lot of vegetables but never bok choy…”

This is a story where I take the easy way out because I had that option. 

And that little phrase was all it took.

He knew who I was. He knew my family. He said my maiden name, and looked at me. I was “okay,” again. I was healthy again and I was “free to follow-up if anything got worse.”

I had a “way out,” of what I feel was discrimination and racism. 

I had a “way out,” because, I feel, that all I had to do was remind him that I, too belonged in a white community because white people loved me.

I had a “way out,” because I could no longer fit the mold of whatever his preconceived ideas about me were. 

As a racial justice advocate, I failed because I hit the “easy out” button rather than committing to intentionally leaning in and naming what I experienced as racism. But, I have also re-committed to saying: never again will I allow whiteness to save me, no matter how easy it may be to “right” the “wrongs” just by inserting a name.

Maybe this was a mild experience. Nobody died. I wasn’t injured or maimed, right? The “wounds” inflicted were superficial at best, discriminatory and emotionally damaging at worst, right?

But, this isn’t a stand-alone one. My “story” isn’t something that just happens as a fluke. 

But, I’m hoping that I can use my experiences to demand equitable care for all minorities. Because I have access to institutions and communities that others don’t have access to, I must use my access and my voice to represent those who don’t. 

Studies consistently find that black women receive less-sufficient and often inadequate health care in comparison to their white female peers. Black babies are two times more likely to die before their first birthday and black are vastly under-enrolled in cancer clinical trials. And, according to the Boston Globe, “historically, black health has been at the mercy of white power and privilege.” 
According to the Huffington Post, forty percent of first year medical students and one in four residents believe that black people physically have thicker skin than white people. This absolutely holds implications for how black persons are treated by health care officials. 

According to NPR, black mothers in the US die at three times the rate as white mothers. Other studies have linked this mortality rate with racism.

The historical interconnections between the medical industry and the black people are often linked back to the infamous Tuskagee study which involved doctors letting black men die from syphilis. The Henrietta Lacks case in which doctors used her cells for years without permission from her family. 
The list of medical abuses against blacks are long, but it is important to realize that historical structures fundamentally inform and impact current systems and practices. 

Recently, Serena Williams detailed her experience giving birth and her need to advocate for herself in order to save her own life. According to a study published in New York City for severe maternal morbidity, black women in New York City with college education are more likely to suffer severe complications during pregnancy and childbirth than uneducated white women.

So, here is what I have learned that they don’t tell you: 
  • YOU are your best advocate
  • Some people won’t see YOU because they can’t see past your skin
  • You can’t make everyone listen but you can listen to yourself and remain committed to loving yourself 
  • Your body belongs and deserves a space at the table 
  • You are not alone in your experience
  • Believe in yourself
  • Record and report all acts of discrimination
  • Trust your body. You know your body best. You know if there is something wrong
  • If you have the time, capability and space to do it, research your symptoms. Stay well-informed about your health and the medications (if any) that you are on
  • Keep a log about your health and any new symptoms that you may experience

***(Side note: I am, obviously, not a doctor. Thus, these are only suggestions and should therefore be treated as such). 

Damon Young at The Root, recently published an article about Serena and his family’s personal experience with the medical industry. I appreciated that the comment section included some responses on how to combat medical racism. One such suggestion included embracing black and POC doctors and nurses. Others suggested creating resource groups where black women and POC can participate in medical research and share resources with one another. Black people and POC are integral in saving one another’s lives. 

While “all black groups” are often critiqued as “segregationist,” these spaces remain integral and important as safe spaces for minorities. Advocating for equitable space requires the full body. This means exhaustive work which requires immense amounts of emotional and physical and spiritual stamina, and your body will often pay the price of stress. 

Be gracious to your body. Be kind to your body. Love your body. And, love yourself. 

If you are reading this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. What have your experiences been? If you are an interracial adoptee reading this, how have you handled medical health? 

Things They Never Tell You: Reflections From My Interracial Adoption

Reading Time: 2 minutes
Things they Never Tell the Parents

Any self-respecting psychologist is going to tell you that adopting interracially is going to create some challenges. Translation: you and probably everyone else involved is going to lose their shit.

There isn’t going to be a self-help book that will hold your hand for the ignorant people whom will suddenly and passionately believe that commenting on your family is their job. 

Friends and family members will suddenly start Googling interracial adoptions. In their earnestness, you will begin to be swamped with stories. And more stories. They will only be horror stories. You will wonder if you can live life in a forest somewhere without any technology or people. 

You will contemplate changing your answer machine to a compilation of highly offensive swear words just so that anyone who wants to tell you something urgent has to stomach all of that first.

You will learn to say things like, “yes, they are my real child,” “no, I am not a saint for adopting this (insert nationality/ethnicity/race here) orphan,” and “of course I love all of my children the same.”

Side-eyeing that stranger clutching her purse while staring directly at your children for ten straight minutes does in fact make your eyes hurt. But hell, you will persevere.

It is in fact still illegal to accidentally strangle and burn the stranger that just told your adopted child that he/she/it/they were lucky enough that someone actually wanted them

To that family member reminding you again for the seventy-seventh time that her friend’s best friend’s son knew someone that read an article that an interracially adopted child cooked their entire adoptive family and ate them. Yeah, blood isn’t always thicker than water. Or fire. Or an ocean.

To your mother-in-law who keeps asking what you’re going to do about all of the problems. Because, you know, these kids are really damaged. And, like, I guess you can always return them if it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it is okay to really say: STFU

You are enough

Unconditional love is transformational and can break one thousand walls 

You will make mistakes

You will need a village

Trust your village

You will be one of the most important advocates for your child

Diversity and inclusivity matters

Things they Never Tell the Interracial Adoptee
You are probably going to lose your shit

When you do lose it, get prepared for a label like: Reactionary, Physically Aggressive, Troublesome, Provocative, Attention-Seeking, Disruptive, Obnoxious or Developmentally Delayed 

People will stare. All the damn time

You will learn to say no, I’m not a “fresh air” kid

You will wonder if they really do love you the same as “all their real kids”

People will classify you as real or not real. 

You will begin to wonder if you are real

Yes, being called an “orphan that nobody wanted, not even your parents” is probably every bully’s favorite phrase to use in Middle School

Ignorant Predominate White Institutions (PWI’s) mixed with religion can be dangerous and painful

You still matter even when you feel like you don’t

You are still enough

That emotional roller coaster will sometimes control you but it doesn’t always have to

You are still enough

Not everyone deserves an answer 

You are still worth loving

You are not alone

Your voice counts

Your parents will trigger you

Reactive Attachment Disorder: no one ever truly “graduates,” but you can manage it and transform into something that feels almost beautiful

You are still enough

It is okay to feel the pain even when you aren’t sure what words go with it