#Transracialization: It really is a thing


Dear Rachel Dolezal,

As I have listened to your interviews on television, I have tried to set aside my personal feelings and judgments in order to better understand your story and your struggle. I am a biracial African American who was transracially adopted as a child, and I have two white non-adopted siblings. I’m now an educational researcher who has studied identity in the context of transracial adoption. You and I also share an interest in diversity studies in higher education, as I teach courses in multicultural education. There are a few things I want to share with you, Rachel, mainly to be helpful and educative.

After being raised in what I jokingly refer to as Whitesville (for reasons that I’m certain you will recognize), I adopted two African American sons from foster care. I have learned through experience the challenges of raising black boys in a white supremacist nation. I’ve come to appreciate how parenting is particularly difficult for those of us who were socialized as children into whiteness and privilege, making it sometimes impossible for us to see the dangers that lie in the road ahead, much less to comprehend the nuances of intersectionality.

As a point of information, I am known by some in the transracial adoption community as an Angry Adoptee and parent (and I don’t mind at all), mainly because I continue to hold transracial adoptive parents (including myself) accountable for our admittedly selfish actions to form families using the corrupt system of adoption. I get especially worked up when I encounter parents’ arrogant denial and ignorance of social justice issues in child welfare. This includes their parentalist privilege which drowns out the voices of adoptees and non-adopted siblings. I’m also continually outraged at the malpractices of the global adoption industry run by agencies, adoption lawyers, facilitators, and others who profit from the separation of children from their natural families.

I don’t expect adoptive parents who might read this to agree with me or to understand my position. I have very little patience anymore (after three decades of trying) for dialogue about the primacy of race and adoption as issues confronting transracially adopted children, youth, and adults. These comments are for you, not them, anyway, Rachel, and I am trusting that you will receive these remarks in the spirit in which I offer them: from one guinea pig to another in this grand social experiment about which we find ourselves trying to make sense.

It sounds like the word you were searching for to name your experience is transracialization. When you talked about how different you felt as a white girl in a transracial adoptive family, I imagined you as the conflicted young daughter of well-meaning missionaries, and as a devoted sister to black siblings. Listening to your attempts to articulate your experience reminded me of the white adults I interviewed for my dissertation on transracial adoption. All of them, like you, grew up with black (and in some cases, Korean) brothers or sisters. Despite ongoing misunderstanding and community disapproval of their parents’ decision to adopt children of another race, all of them declared their love for their siblings. Some of them struggled, as you have, to verbalize why they felt so totally different from other white people. I was curious to learn what transracial adoption might have done to their emerging identities as young white people, for example, what was it like to be known as “that family of nigger lovers”? When I saw you tear up during some questions, I had no doubt that you have at least a story or two to share that would break our hearts. To your credit, you did not wallow in self-pity, although I think you could do more to steer the conversation back to racism and the ethics of adoption and away from your personal narrative.

My research participants shared their stories about feeling responsible for their adopted brothers and sisters, for instance, feeling like they needed to protect them from the hostility and insensitivity of neighbors and classmates. One white sibling told me about how his eyes were opened to racism as a teenager once he saw his black sister being profiled by the storekeepers in the supposedly liberal college town where they lived and shopped. He also described the persecution he himself experienced (from African Americans as well as whites) when he fell in love with a black girl in middle school.

Other non-adopted siblings described their ambivalent emotions, such as pride and resentment, at having been thrust into the public controversy around transracial adoption. They described their anxiety from feeling visible, always on display whenever the family went out in public. Some disclosed heart-wrenching stories of emotional disconnections between their misguided parents and their adopted siblings who struggled with discrimination, substance abuse, and other mental health problems, or trouble with the law. In too many cases, parents and adoptees no longer speak to each other, even in adulthood. For some white siblings who were paying attention, their consciousness was raised about the reality of racism and adoption issues even in their own families and supposedly safe communities.

But none of the white siblings I interviewed, Rachel, claimed to have become black. Even as some of them worked out new ways of being white—of performing their shifting white identities in unusual ways—they didn’t come to the conclusion that they were now magically black. One woman did explain that she feels as much a part of the black community as the Swedish American community. But she never said, “Now I am black.” Like you, Rachel, her work among African Americans has taken her far out of her comfort zone as a person who was socialized in childhood to be white. And like you, she is raising black children, and she takes anti-racism (and black hair care) very seriously.

Another woman in my study, with a biracial brother and African American sister, talked about how fearful she became whenever they traveled to visit a favorite aunt who lived in what she described as a redneck area. She explained how she talked to their mom about her concerns for the safety of their multiracial family, and how painful it was to visit this beloved relative surrounded by plentiful pickup trucks with gun racks and Rebel flags in plain view. I sense that you will be able to relate easily to this woman’s concerns that were rooted in her love for her black siblings. When I asked her how she identifies racially and culturally, she told me, “I feel like part of the tranracial adoptive culture. But that doesn’t really mean anything to anyone outside of the culture.”

Rachel, I think she hit the nail on the head. Part of the problem is that families formed through transracial adoption are still rare enough that we don’t have a word in common usage to describe our family members’ possible identities. This devoted white female sibling was struggling to name a unique reality that she saw as very different from the way most white people, even those in transracial families, tend to think about and live with race.

Like most Americans, this woman was socialized to be white, which meant staying with her own kind and developing certain ideas and beliefs about various racial groups. Racialization is the process by which we all learn the rules of race, however unspoken they may be. As I am certain you are aware, sometimes these rules are codified in law and policy. But mostly they go unrecorded, and instead are reinforced through peer pressure such as public ridicule, and so on. Growing up in a highly racialized social context, we hear messages all the time about which groups are safe and which groups to fear, which groups to associate with and which to avoid. Racialization happens in ongoing overt and subtle ways, with the media, schools, and other public institutions shaping our consciousness, and then influencing how we understand the world and our place in it.

The result of this white sister’s socialization into a highly racialized social order encouraged her to see whiteness as normal, if not superior. Yet her parents worked hard to debunk a racist worldview by educating their children about the history of race relations and racism. As an adolescent, she dated interracially, and grew increasingly comfortable socializing with individuals of different races. In this way, she broke with racialization, which is what I suspect you also found yourself doing.

If I dare go out on a limb, Rachel, I’d guess that you came to reject the way you had been socialized into the spoken and unspoken rules of race, which offended your sensibilities as a conscious person deeply connected to your black adopted siblings. You felt implicitly that you were different from most other white people, yet you found little (if any) support for your emerging racial identity and your new way of performing your whiteness. Had I been your teacher back then, I would have supplied you with one word of empowerment: transracialized. You, Rachel, like some of my study participants, were experiencing the transracialization of your white identity.

By transracialized, I mean that they remained white, but they hardly felt or acted like typical white people. For example, they transcended the ingrained fear of blackness by becoming emotionally connected to people of color—their siblings, people they dated, and in some cases individuals they partnered with or married. Some of these white siblings eventually moved to predominantly black communities (the way you went to Howard University), and some adopted children of color as second generation adopters.

They got this way largely due to their long-term relationships with key people of color in their lives, both inside and outside the family. I was impressed by their tenacity to make good on their parents’ teachings that race mixing was a good thing inside the family, and by their commitment to pursue diversity outside in the real world. I admired the courage it took to persevere at boundary crossing, even when it meant risking social approval and physical danger. In the same way, I kind of admire you for sticking to your guns, and risking social disapproval by insisting that you are not a typical white person who unconsciously accepts the intended results of your childhood racialization process. Instead of running from diversity (as most whites learn to do), you seem to have embraced it in many aspects of your life. As a transracialized white parent responsible for raising black children, this is especially important, and it is no easy feat to pull off.

As a researcher, Rachel, I labeled these new identities collectively as transracialized. That is, these courageous individuals were still white, but they had crossed over the boundary markers that normally serve to police racial boundaries. But they didn’t somehow actually become people of color. Instead, they insisted on enacting innovative and creative definitions of whiteness that flowed from their commitments to anti-racism and social justice. I can tell you that since I have published my research that is now ten years old, a number of white individuals have thanked me for giving them language to name their experience, because they, too, have felt alone, isolated, misunderstood, and marginalized as non-adopted white siblings with black brothers and sisters. Maybe you’ll find the transracialization construct useful, too.

I think I get you, Rachel Dolezal. I’m not saying I understand you completely or that I agree with all your choices. But I think I understand very well the complexity of growing up in a transracial adoptive family formed by well-meaning white parents, however mis-educated about race and adoption they may have been. I think I understand the commitment and affection you express for your adopted siblings of color. And I think I see why you feel strongly that, as you say, you are no longer white. Not because you have become black, I would argue, but because you have transcended your childhood racialization process.

I only wish that we both had come across the term transracialized sooner, because I think it more accurately describes your identity and your experience as the non-adopted white sibling of transracial adoptees. I hope that you will find it useful in the social justice work you have chosen to do, and more importantly, in leading your multiracial family that now looks to you for guidance and healing.

Be well,

Dr. John Raible