Dear Adoption, You Gave Me Racial Identity Issues
My adoption put me through the long and difficult journey of searching for my racial identity. It took me more than 10 years to learn to embrace my racial looks and to be proud and self-confident about being a minority. It was a very bumpy road with a lot of ups and downs.
I grew up as a transracial adoptee, in a white family, in a white community which was located in Denmark. The community was in almost total racial isolation. Aside from my sister, there were a few other transracial adoptees, and an immigrant family from Iran. My social environment was, for that reason very homogeneous. I didn’t have any racial mirrors within my family, among my friends, in kindergarten, at my school, nor in the different types of sports I played. Those who I looked similar to were different kinds of immigrants and refugees from South Asia, East Africa and the Middle East, and they were mostly living in the big cities. Unfortunately, they were often viewed in a negative way by people in the little town where I grew up. This lack of racial diversity made me feel as if I were a black drop in a white ocean. It made me dislike what I saw in the mirror. It made me wish I was white with blue eyes and light, straight hair. As I entered puberty, I was exposed to the white ideal of beauty which exists within global popular culture; it made me become more and more aware of my looks. At a school filled with Danish pupils, we had posters of famous international actors, musicians and athletes on the walls of our classrooms. The problem for me was that almost all of them were white people. This had a very negative effect on me regarding how I viewed myself. The overall problem was that I never looked like the people who were considered popular. I was most often the direct opposite regarding popular racial appearance. Among my friends in my local community, I didn’t look like the popular kids and I didn’t look like the other kids beyond my local community either. And with regard to the global popular culture, I didn’t look like those who were popular and who represented the (white) ideal.
This resulted in me having very strong feelings of dislike regarding my physical appearance. Because of this, I did a lot of things to try and alter my appearance in order to look as white as possible. I specifically remember four things I did to change my appearance. The first being I would try to avoid the sun because if I were in the sun too much, my skin would become even darker than it already was. The second was that I would go to the local hairdresser and spend money on straightening my curly afro-like hair with chemicals. The third thing was that I considered my lips (particularly my lower lip) to be too big, so I would suck in my lips so they would become smaller. Some people who have seen pictures of me from that time, have asked why I looked so angry (referring to my mouth); I was not angry, I was instead trying to look white. The fourth was when I asked my adoptive mother if I could have surgeries so I could have blue eyes instead of dark brown. I remember my adoptive mother then explained to me this was not possible. She then tried to explain to me that since I was not white it would not fit the rest of my racial looks to have blue eyes, and there was nothing wrong with having dark brown eyes. My adoptive mother’s explanation didn’t have a significant influence on me and I continued my pursuit of alienation from my racial identity.
When I turned 15, my family and I moved from our all-white homogeneous town to a heterogeneous city which was multiracial, multiethnic, multicultural and multireligious. This city gave me the kind of social environment I needed to heal my racial identity issues. It was an environment that would have been the best for me from the very start of my life in Denmark. The changes toward becoming more aware and proud of my racial and minority background started slowly. One year before we moved, I remember seeing a movie with a black superhero. This was new to me; all the superheroes I knew of were white men. But here we had the African American actor Wesley Snipes, a black man, a lead actor, playing a superhero named Blade. Despite the fact that I didn’t (don’t) look like Wesley Snipes, I could still relate to him. He too had dark skin, dark eyes and black curly/frizzy hair. I was a huge fan of any kind of action movies too and all of these factors lead me to purchase a big poster of him. I felt I could relate to Blade regarding our shared racial appearance and I had this poster on my wall for a couple years.
Regarding the new city, the new school, the new friends and the new heterogeneous social environment, there were two paths on my journey toward racial identity healing. One was a cultural path and the other was a social path; both were focused on building a strong identity and a strong self-awareness as a racial minority. I did that by embracing minority cultures and having minorities as friends. But my walk down the cultural path was much faster than my walk down the social path, and therefore these changes did not happen at the same time or in a straight line even though the two paths often intertwined. Regarding the cultural path I began embracing a lot of cultures which were either minority cultures in Denmark or minority cultures in the U.S. In my new city I met a lot of different racial, ethnic, cultural and religious minorities who had their origins in South Asia, East Africa and the Middle East. I even met refugees from my own country of birth that belonged to the same ethnic group as I did. I slowly started to identify with parts of the minority cultures that I got to know of and in addition to that, I started to identify with African American culture. Especially Hip Hop music, which many racial and ethnic minorities in Denmark also identified with. The social changes took a little longer though. It took a while before I really started to socialize with other racial and ethnic minorities and even longer before the majority of my friends became racial and ethnic minorities. But as time went on, I slowly got more and more minority friends, which was really nice because then I had both racial and ethnic mirrors. I now had friends who could relate to subjects such as racism and xenophobia and, in general, could relate to being a minority for better or worse. Another positive thing regarding these social changes was that many of the racial and ethnic (and religious) minorities I met and started to socialize with were proud of being minorities and their self-confidence had a huge positive influence on me.
All of these changes constituted my journey toward identity healing and toward more self-awareness, self-confidence and pride as a racial minority. As weird as it sounds, it was only after I turned 25 that I was able to acknowledge to myself I had experienced racial identity issues. From the age of 14-25 I was not capable of admitting to myself I had these issues. Therefore, I couldn’t really talk about them until then; until I reached the age when I actually healed from these issues. One thing that further helped me with the ability to talk about these issues was reading articles from other transracial adoptees who, more or less, had experienced the same kind of identity issues as I had. Their articles and their words taught me how to talk about these issues – it gave me terms, language, knowledge and courage to talk about it all.
So, dear adoption (dear transracial adoption!), you really put me through a lot of identity issues and identity healing I would rather be without. And had I just been raised in a heterogeneous social environment with a lot of different racial and ethnic minorities, then I would have never felt the need to write a piece with this content.