Q: “Last week, my teenage son told me that he was tired of having to explain himself wherever he goes. Why is this happening, and how can I help him?”
A: When you were a new parent, you were probably eager to share details of your adoption with anyone who would listen. But you soon grew weary of answering the same questions repeatedly. Your son is now going through the same situation; as kids grow older, they receive the questions about race and their adoptive status that were once addressed to parents.
Most transracial adoptees reach a point when they are tired of explaining themselves. One of my friends, who was transracially adopted and is now in his thirties, once asked me, “When do I get to stop being adopted?” For an adoptee, even saying his name can bring a round of questions and quizzical looks—“Jones? That doesn’t sound Korean.”—that begin to grate.
Learning to accept this aspect of his life is part of his adolescent identity development. Your son’s personality and temperament will shape his responses. A sense of humor, for example, can be an effective tool. One African-American adoptee I know, who has a traditionally Irish name, quips that he is “Black Irish.”
There may be times when your son wants to share his story, or voice his opinions about race and adoption. Talk through different scenarios with him, asking what he’d feel comfortable sharing with a classmate in a school setting, or with a close friend. At other times, countering with the simple question, “Why do you want to know?” can let someone know he’s stepped out of bounds.
In her work on “white privilege,” sociologist Peggy McIntosh argues that people of color are too often expected to be “spokespeople” for their race. If you live in a community that is not diverse, this might happen to your son on a daily basis.
Some of the teens I work with are angry at always being seen as different, when they want to be treated like everyone else. Some talk about just “knowing” that people look down on them or exclude them. Others describe being followed when they go shopping, being randomly pulled over by the police when they are driving, or being questioned by security guards when they’re just hanging out “like everyone else.” Many of the boys were so used to this, they don’t even bother telling their parents about it.
And when parents do find out, they’re understandably shocked. You see your child as your child, and expect the world to, as well. But when a transracially adopted teen is out on his own, he’s not necessarily seen as your child, or even as an adoptee, but as a person of color, and he will be treated as such.
Over time, resentment can build up at such interactions, leading adoptees to feel misunderstood and isolated, and less willing to talk. Help your son by listening to his experiences, voice your own frustration with intrusive comments, and discuss how to create boundaries. Share the responses you used to give to similar questions, comments, and behaviors.
If you have not already done so, now is a good time to find a friend or a mentor who understands what your teen is going through. This can be an actual face-to-face friend or an Internet pal, but getting outside help is the key. There are several adoptee associations—some country-specific, some more broadly based—that focus on issues of race and identity.
Ultimately, your teen must work through these questions independent of parents and family. Empathize when you can, foster positive associations around race and adoption, and believe that your teen will grow to be a strong, confident adult.