Yours truly in 1983
A Hot Sunday in July, 1983
“Hurry up! We need to get going!”
My cousin and I were scrambling to brush our teeth and get dressed to go to his family’s church one Sunday morning. Every summer during my childhood, I would spend a week with my cousin at my aunt and uncle’s house. On this particular day, we could not watch “Breakfast at Wimbledon” in our PJ’s with our customary Pop Tarts, then go to the basement and pretend to be our favorite tennis players using ping pong balls. (I liked John McEnroe’s fiery competitiveness, and my cousin seemed partial to the cool but intense Ivan Lendl.)
We needed to get to church.
Going to church and being Christian has always comprised a major portion of my immediate and extended family’s identity. Going to church on Sundays was just what you did.
Once in the car, I expressed a little apprehension because I did not know anyone at my cousin’s church.
“It will be fine. There are a ton of other kids our age there,” my cousin said. In many ways, I looked up to my cousin. He was just a year ahead of me in school, but he always had a self-assurance and confidence that I could only dream of having. Even at just eight years old, I had to bottle up a lot of social anxiety, because even then, I knew that I “stuck out” a little more. I hated garnering unwanted attention.
Once we parked and got out of my aunt’s station wagon, she told us to get upstairs to Sunday School. My cousin led the way, running up the dark, echoey staircase.
The classroom was near the top of the stairs. I could hear muffled voices emanating from the room. My cousin went to the door, and opened it.
I walked in behind him. There were no lights on, because the windows afforded enough light. In the middle of the room was a large rectangular table with about a dozen children seated around it. The Sunday School teacher was a tall-ish, slender woman, probably in her early 30’s, and she stood at the far end of the table, reading out of her lesson book. There were bookshelves and cabinets against the walls, and the whole room had that oddly nostalgic smell of Elmer’s paste and Crayola crayons mixed with old musty books.
We found a couple of empty chairs, and sat down at the table.
I was just getting situated, when from my right, I heard, “Hey, Bruce Lee. Do you know karate?”
My heart sank and my anxiety shot through the roof.
“Ching chong!” someone shot at me from across the table.
Another child did the “crane stance” with his arms and went, “Hwaaaaahhh!”
“Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at THESE!”
“Chinky eyes! Go back home, stupid chink!”
I wanted to crawl into a hole.
Soon enough, just about every single kid in that classroom seemed tickled pink to hurl almost every single anti-Asian racial slur or gesture my way.
I was in a state of emotional shock- I felt like a trapped animal. I looked pleadingly at my cousin, who was sitting across from me. But his eyes avoided mine, either looking at the ceiling or the Sunday School teacher. I felt for sure he would defend me, but he did not.
I looked over towards the Sunday School teacher. Though these children were being loud and blatant in their vitriol, she continued on with the lesson as if NOTHING WAS HAPPENING.
I endured this decidedly non-Christian treatment for almost a full hour…
After the service was over, my aunt picked us up from the class. She then dropped me off at my house, for that Sunday was the final day of my stay with them. I didn’t talk to anyone, especially my cousin.
Once I was home in the safe haven of my own room, I broke down and cried. I eventually did tell my parents what happened, and they were very rightly upset. My mom told my aunt, who in turn confronted the Sunday School teacher.
A little over a week later, I received a handwritten letter from that Sunday School teacher, profusely apologizing for what she let transpire under her watch. I remember my mom reading it aloud to me.
Even though I was only eight, I KNEW in my heart of hearts that the apology was a hollow one. My aunt was a prominent member in the church, and the teacher only wrote that because she didn’t want to suffer my aunt’s wrath. If the teacher truly thought what was going on right under her nose was wrong, she would have put a stop to it right then and there.
Flimsy apologies aside, the damage was done. This single incident broke my trust in Christianity, authority figures, family members and peers, all in one devastating blow. The concept of trust is an uneasy one at best in the typical adoptee’s mind…after this event, the level of my personal trust in anyone or anything teetered DEEP into the red.
Being an adoptee is such a complex, multi-layered thing. To deal with attachment, abandonment, trust, bonding, identity, and the myriad assortment of unanswered questions is extremely difficult and emotionally taxing. The aspect of being a transracial/transcultural adoptee adds yet one more layer to the onion. It is my opinion that being a transracial adoptee exacerbates the state of being adopted overall, especially here in the good ol’ U S of A, where society is so racialized.
I am an adoptee. I am a person of color, adopted by a white family. I love my family, but there is a huge disconnect. To an extent, I have been the beneficiary of white privilege, but only because of my family, not due to any inherent traits or qualities I may have. I have heard over and over again from family and friends alike, “We don’t see race or color! You’re just Jeremy!” Sorry, but my ethnicity is something that is inextricable from my very being. By saying you are colorblind is negating a good portion of my identity and experience. You’re literally whitewashing me.
And people like me are privy to see how (many) whites truly view people of other races and ethnicities. It’s not uncommon for me to hear micro-aggressions and outright racist statements towards non-whites from white family members and friends. Do these people outright hate black folks or other people of color? No, not at all. In fact, many of these people will claim to be “enlightened.” But from what I hear, there is a fundamental undertone of “otherness” or depersonalization when talking about non-whites. They completely forget that I AM a person of color, and even though I’m treated as “one of them,” I simultaneously experience overt prejudice and racism from whites outside of the “safe” confines of family or friends. I have inherited my family’s “whiteness,” but that inheritance only goes so far.
This puts folks like me in an awkward position. And yes, this uneasy state of being is yet another complicated aspect of being a transracial adoptee. It makes one feel horribly, painfully alone.
Here’s my advice to white adoptive parents/families. Do NOT deny or play down the experiences that your non-white adopted children go through. Do not say, “Oh, so-and-so is just an idiot,” or “They didn’t mean that!” You MUST understand that racism is alive and well today. It makes me madder than hell when I share experiences, and they are shot down or poo-pooed because they don’t fit into the “colorblind” (white privilege) narrative.
Instead of negating or making excuses for others’ wrong behavior, accept the fact that these ugly things are happening to your child (whether they’re still a kid or an adult), and assure your child of your love for them. Try to empower them with words, encouragement, and action, if needed. If anything, many adoptees feel powerless. The worst thing to do is to sweep it under the rug and not validate your child’s experience. In many cases, the bond formed between parent and adopted child starts out very tenuously…don’t put cracks in an already compromised foundation.