While some of my peers were read, “Goodnight Moon” as a child I was read, “Why Was I Adopted?” I’ve always known I was adopted, but it took years until I fully understand what that meant.
My parents decided to adopt in the 1980’s when Honduras was starting to work closely with US adoptions. I am Honduran and I am a part of a transracial adoption and part of a multicultural family- my father is Russian-Jewish, my mother is Irish-Catholic, and they had my younger sister who is biological to my parents. I share our story because as a professional in higher education I find that we learn through others and their experiences.
Transracial adoption means that I am a different race than my parents. I grew up in the suburbs of New York and Massachusetts- towns close to 90% white. My transracial adoption has had some impact on my family’s life. My mother once shared a story where a new elementary teacher contacted her to make sure that we could afford certain materials for a new project. My mother was a bit surprised to realize that the teacher saw me she saw a young Latina and failed to consider that I came from privilege or that my parents could afford such materials. More importantly – how could my mom correct the teacher’s assumptions on class and race or explain our family. Should my mom have to explain anything?
My sister and I were playing outside one time when a neighborhood boy asked, “How is that your sister? She’s black and doesn’t look like you!” My seven-year-old sister calmly replied, ”Julie is Spanish and she’s adopted from Honduras. She is my sister and I love her.” I remember feeling so humiliated, but as soon as my sister spoke up I was okay again.
I was asked about my family, our various cultures, races, religion and what it all means – even through college. When I first say I’m adopted and have a sister, the next question is, “is she from your mom and dad?” I think it is important to be aware and sensitive to students who are adopted by being aware of what language to use. I prefer the terms “biologically related”, “biological parent” or “birth mother”, and “transracial adoption”. Always ask what language people want to use.
I remember thinking this was my chance to understand what it meant to be Honduran when I first went to college. I tried joining a Latino organization but was confronted with comments of how I was “white washed” and how I “acted too white” even though I was darker. They judged me for not knowing Spanish. I left confused, hurt and decided to not discuss my adoption or my race until I was 25. It hurt too much.
I now have the opportunity to work with the cultural organizations on my campus. I use my painful experience as a teaching tool about colorism and what it means to invite multiracial, transracial and multicultural people into a cultural student organization. College is a chance for students to grow, learn, and develop into who they want to be. At 18, I wanted to feel Latina and be accepted by my own people. I now know that it is enough to feel comfortable in my own skin and be proud of my upbringing. My people are those I surround myself with. That is my definition.
How do you support transracial/multiracial students? What resources are available? What can your institution do or what conversations can you have? Here are a few items to help you become an ally and/or brainstorm.
- First, don’t pity adoptees. I am proud to be adopted, I am proud of all the opportunities I’ve had. I am a strong female Latina with a ME.d that will pursue a doctorate degree one day! Being adopted is NOT an issue. My transracial adoption is NOT an issue. The issue is being sensitive with language and how to hold conversations about adoption and multiracial/multicultural families.
- Support families at your institution. Does your orientation family program have language that supports a multiracial/transracial/multicultural family? Some schools have an ALANA parent group or welcome that implies that all members attending will be of color. Not all families are made up of one or two races. Support all families as soon as they walk on campus.
- Study student development models about transracial, multiracial, biracial, and multicultural students. Start with Maria P.P.Root’s, “Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage”, then read . “The Cultural Racial Identity Model” by A. L. Baden & R. J. Steward () to understand how a person may relate to their biological culture or their adopted parent’s culture through a cultural identity axis.
- Start the conversation. Research shows that many students do not try talking about their race and adoption until after college. How can you help prepare students for this conversation?
- Provide information and resources. Stock your cultural organizations with information such as pamphlets and bookmark website that may help. www.swirlinc.org/ , http://adoptioninstitute.org/index.php, www.mavinfoundation.org/new/ may help. Find out what is locally available to you. How can you provide a safe space on campus to hold theseconversations.
- Prep student leaders. I can’t count how many times I was put on a panel where strangers asked me sensitive information. Let them know you are there to debrief in case a question on the panel triggered them. Perhaps drafting questions ahead of time is your best bet. Help students set boundaries.
When I presented all this information at NASPA region I last year, during a session titled, “Affirming Our Mixed Roots,” I had colleagues in tears saying, for the first time their story had been told. If fellow student affairs folks feel this topic isn’t talked about, how lost must students feel! I know I couldn’t say all this out loud or admit my struggle when I was in college. I share my story now because I know how I yearned for mentorship, and the language to express my feelings on this topic. I wish someone could have reached out. Please begin to reach out to your students, colleagues, and institution to see how you can become an ally to transracial, multiracial, multicultural people.
Julia R. Golden