gallery Dear Adoption, You Gave Me Racial Identity Issues

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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.

René Priyadarshan Beck Bjerregaard was adopted from Sri Lanka and currently lives in Denmark. He was born in 1984 and arrived in Denmark in 1985. René holds a BA in Religious Studies and an MA in Contemporary Middle East Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. He is very interested in subjects such as adoption, race, ethnicity and identity.

10 comments

  1. As Sri Lanka is relative to the subcontinent and of Southwest Asia, why would you identify as sub- Sahelian African? I am just curious, and you are not obliged to address my curiosity. Ultimately we all came out of Africa one way or another.

    Did you know that the same genes which dictate melanin level in hair, eyes and skin are in all hominids? Or that dark is dominent over light? There are far more peoples with dark hair and eyes and skin tones than there are those with pale eyes, hair, and skin? Even in Scandinavia! More importantly, we are all 99.5% similar to all others on this planet… meaning that there is only 0.4% difference between any of us.

    All adoptees are alienated from their cultures, languages, religion, and DNA inheritance like immediate and close family or distant cousins. We all search for someone that looks like us and shares our being with us. We all want to know who our ancestors were and our parents and our siblings… and for many of us, the first person we find in our life that resembles us is our first child and in those which may follow; and in the generation following… like grandchildren. And if one is fortunate to have found what too many agencies do not want us to-our actual names and our parent’s names, etc. we find even more about who they were and in consequence who we are, aa well as our potentials as productive, sentient beings able to help our fellows along this transient condition called life.

    I will leave you with these lines from a film called Guess Who’s coming to Dinner to consider:

    ‘Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.’

    Best wishes to you.

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    • @gazelledz

      Thanks for your comment. Regarding your question I didn’t identify as Sub-Saharan African, but I am definitely aware of the fact that I share skin color, eye color, hair color and to a certain degree hair type with Sub-Saharan Africans. Besides that, I identify with both black and brown minorities in Denmark because we all have one thing in common; being racial minorities for better or worse.

      Yes I did know about the little genetic difference there is between us as human beings. But the little difference there is, manifests explicitly through differences in skin color, eye color, hair color, hair type and facial features. All of these things have an importance both because it is a part of all human beings identity since it is a part of our appearances. And I would claim that for the absolute majority of the world’s population, their looks is directly or indirectly important to them and thereby a central part of their identity. This of course becomes even more explicit when you belong to a racial minority because then you directly differ from the racial majority, and thereby it often becomes even more important. Another thing is the fact that racism is a very old phenomenon that both historically and currently give race an importance. And if you want to fight racism you have to acknowledge the racial differences. “Color blindness” might sound like a good idea but it isn’t, because it makes you unable to understand the mechanisms of racism in all its facets. My point is that race and racial appearance can both be a positive thing as a part of our looks and identity, and it can be a negative thing used to repress and discriminate. But no matter what, the little genetic difference manifests explicitly.

      Yes all adoptees are in some way alienated, but not all adoptees are alienated the same way as transracial adoptees are. If you are a same race adoptee growing up in both a family and a society where people racially are similar to you, you don’t experience the same kind of alienation as I did (not that transracial adoptees necessarily experience what I did). But hopefully someday I’ll get kids of my own whom I share racial looks with.

      Great line from that film, but I don’t want to only look at myself as a man, I want to look at myself as a colored man because it is a part of my identity. It is a part of my identity in how I look and how the world looks at me.

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      • Hello, René. thank you for your candor which I respect. However as an adoptee whose roots are deeply embedded in North Africa and whose heroes were Crick and Watson whose science proves that race is a myth as ethnicity is geo-political as are non-existant borders, I will have to hope that with time your love of a non-existant concept designed for putting others in inferior positions will transform to all of humanity, of which both you and I are part and parcel of. Our 0.4 % genetic difference is statistically insignificant.
        Your skin tone, like mine, is only skin deep -subject to the whims of location near to or far from the harshest UV rays from the great star above we call the sun. Nothing more and nothing less. It is the dermis only -a thin layer of the first segment of what we call skin. The layer that peels when we are skin burned and the layer which if severely burned will heal and be forever after a paler shade of alabaster. Only the true albino is ‘white as the driven snow’, and that for a genetic mutation.
        You should be wary of your certitudes, because like all certitudes the will sooner or later be found false and misleading. You may well be a mass of dominant genes, but that only means that you are a majority of this group of hominids. Look around you my friend… even in Scandinavia you will find more dark hair and eyes than those with more lighter hair and eyes from their recessive gene pools inherited from…. Africa.
        If I were you, I would take care not to presume what I or another have gone thru-mostly because you would be wrong to assume anything about any of us other than that we all suffer the same hurt that separation from what is our inheritance has caused. Alienation of adoptees is just that-alienation, having nothing to do with the myth of race or the myth of a judge saying you are a Samuel when you are In fact a Samir.
        We all suffer the psychological damage of separation-not from an imagined ‘race’, but from the mother from whom we were torn and kept from- relinquished whether by coercion of a society or a considered choice via errors in judgement and non-knowledge. Don’t try the ‘I’m more alienated then you are’ bit with anyone because it just doesn’t contain any truth for you or for anyone else. I am sorry that you so resolutely cling to the establishment point of view when science says you collectively are wrong, and your innate intelligence should also tell you the same. No one is purely one thing or another… we are all admixtures of many tribes around the globe from the migrations of our ancestors long before us. Be careful of our own prejudice, because it will mislead and confuse you.
        As Martin Luther King reminded, no one should be judged by the color of his/her skin, but by the content of their character. The Quran advises the we were created in diversity not to create enmity but to know one another as fellow travelers on this journey called life.
        If you have not done so, you should have your DNA analyzed. It can help with your finding yourself and perhaps as a way to find your real family. As for the children which hopefully be arriving in future, they share half of your genes plus half of their mother’s -all of which are a great combination of the gazillion of ancestors preceding you and the children. They are not yours but only your to protect and safeguard and educate. And they just may not look like you.. at least not totally. The baby who is the spitting image of his father may mature to become the mirror image of his maternal great grandmother.
        I am not my physicality but the product literally of all who came before me. the physicality no more defines me than the system called adoption defines me. Playing the victim card is for children.. but not for adults. Jut remember that your adopters o more asked for the conditions in which they were born anymore than you did. None of us are in control of our births or even much of our lives. But we can control how we respond to them.
        Again I wish you good fortune and a resolution of your angst. Beware of becoming just another melancholy Dane…(I like your French name!)

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  2. Thank you for enlightening us, the general adoption community and more importantly, providing a valuable resource in your essay to other transracial adoptees struggling, and parents of minor aged adoptees who may be making the same errors as your family.

    Racial mirrors are so critical. The difference between being an adoptee vs. a transracial adoptee is not just a lack of genetic mirror, but any racial or ethnic mirror. It is so clear that this would put one at an even greater emotional and social disadvantage. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

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  3. Love your post and your reply. I hope the world is listening and I hope they are given hearts to hear all you have so perfectly expressed in words.

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  4. @gazelleds

    No matter how much you don’t want race to exist, it still exist, both as a social phenomenon and as a genetic phenomenon (but not all social definitions of races exist within the science of genetics). The big question is how we as humans and as societies deal with it. We can either embrace it as a positive thing or a negative thing, or try to ignore its existence. I don’t doubt what I think is the best way.

    Regarding Denmark and Scandinavia the absolute majority of people are white and have blue, green or grey eyes, and blonde or light brown hair. This means that I explicitly differ from the majority regarding racial looks, no matter what the gene pool inherited from Africa says.

    The different kinds of adoptions there exists will give different experiences which include different experiences between transracial and same race adoptees. Therefore I claim that transracial adoptees often will have other experiences than same race adoptees. But not all transracial or same race adoptees experience the same things as adoptees.

    It’s funny that you mention my name. In Denmark it is actually considered a “white” name. Many times black, brown and white Danes have wondered why I was named like that, because it doesn’t fit my racial looks. One time I even experienced that a white Dane got mad at me, because she thought I was lying when I told her my name is René.

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    • René -you may keep your misconceptions if you wish but science and fact make them obsolete., and sadly makes you prejudiced every bit as you claim others to be. And like too many males, you attempt to challenge me for the knowledge I have that you have not yet acquired-or refuse to accept. But then I have had more years to acquire my knowledge and my experience than have you. Maturity may give you a far different perception.
      Just know that when people like you-which includes the spectrum of the ‘white-v-black’ conversation (wherein one is supposedly one or the other)- it only creates more Fitna (an Arabic phrase meaning to cause contention and confusion) and more exclusion.
      I will leave you to your absolute certainty that only you are right, and therefore I am wrong. I will hope that you learn the truth of science rather then the false face of bigotry and prejudice of making those not your mirror image ‘The Other’.
      Even a mirror image is a false distorted view of that face you believe is yours as you gaze at it in the glass whose back side is coated in a metallic based paint to provide the distortion of its face. Not to fear, what you seek you shall find … you seek division and difference… and that is exactly what you will find.. superficiality.
      As Kunta Kinte’s father said to his son: If you clench your fist, you can receive no benefit from the one wishing to give it, nor can you dispose of that which is harmful.

      `A mind is a terrible thing to waste.’ Art Fletcher

      ‘Its not easy being green’ Kermit the Frog

      Vaya con dios …..

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  5. Yikes at how direspectful it is to tell the author that how they feel and what is accurate (u can go on and on as much as you wish about race being not real. We get it. But society is structuree otherwise so yes it is VERY real) is wrong.

    The tone of “im older, thus smarter and more wise” is incredibly offensive and silencing.

    Thank you for sharing, how wonderful that the metropolitan areas provided so much that is necessary for you. This is vital for people, especially white adoptive parents of children of color, to know and accept.

    If you ever do have kids i cannot fathom how amazing it would be to see that blood connection and mirror. Powerful.

    Hope you keep writing!!

    Like

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