What is transracialization?

Transracialization is a term I use to describe a positive outcome that can happen when a person of one race spends a lot of time with individuals of another race. Transracialization can be understood as an alternative to the more typical socialization process known as racialization.

For example, by engaging in long-term relationships of caring with racial “Others,” a white individual can become immersed in wider social networks populated by people of color. Doing so allows the white individual to develop a more sophisticated appreciation for differences among people of color (e.g., refuting stereotypes that imply that all people of one race think the same about a given issue). The individual can transcend the myth of color-blindness and come to a deeper understanding of the role of race and discrimination based on color-consciousness in our society.

Transracialization implies transcending the limits imposed by the process of racialization. If racialization teaches us to fear the racial Other, transracialization draws the Other closer. Whereas racialization exerts strong pressure to keep the races separate, transracialization intentionally crosses color lines. While racialization is based on historic notions of racial superiority, transracialization transforms such notions through its explicit anti-racist orientation.

The idea of transracialization emerged in my research with the white non-adopted siblings of transracial adoptees. When I interviewed adults who grew up in adoptive families with brothers and sisters of another race, it became clear that some of them (but by no means all) felt quite different from fellow white people. I was intrigued by the stories of how a few of them managed to transform their thinking about race, whiteness, and racism, moving from color-blindness to accept color-consciousness and even take up anti-racist activity.

These courageous white siblings began transracializing their identities by internalizing their parents’ liberal views on racial integration. In effect, as children and adolescents they said, “Okay, if race-mixing is good for us inside this family, then race-mixing should be equally okay outside the family.” Yet what they shared with me about their not so positive experiences with interracial dating in their youth sends a chilling reminder of how far on the cutting edge racially mixed families continue to live. Other encounters with racism–directed at them as well as their adopted siblings and friends outside the family–gave them a very different perspective on white privilege and on how pervasive race prejudice remains throughout our society.

I saw how white adults whose lives have become transracialized maintain connections to communities of color through their ongoing friendships, romantic involvements, and membership in integrated or predominantly people of color organizations (e.g., houses of worship, youth groups, and places of employment). Their involvement with people of color makes them both more aware of racism and more committed to interrupting it.

In the words of one white sister who has African American siblings, “If it’s a direct offense against my brother and sister, it’s a direct offense against me.” For this woman, racism has become her issue; it is no longer just an intellectual or abstract “ism” to be aware of, but a reality she perceives and struggles with in her own life-world.

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I have come to believe that transracialization, as represented in the narratives of this small group of non-adopted white siblings, offers all of us a way out of this inherited madness we know as “race.” I urge white parents who adopt transracially to develop transracialized lives and identities, in the same way that these courageous non-adopted white siblings are doing.

Parents need to venture out of their comfort zones and interact with peers–other ADULTS–of color. It is simply not enough to love and enjoy the cute and cuddly adopted children who bring so much color and spice into predominantly white family gatherings, daycare centers, schools, and houses of worship. Adoptive parents can now think of themselves as truly adopting the communities and cultures from whence adoptees come. Instead of lifting children out (of poverty, dysfunctional families, or dire circumstances), parents can lift themselves into communities of color to embrace their rich cultures, heritages, and ongoing traditions of anti-racist struggle.

To conclude, transracialization offers us a different way to think about integration. The old model, in my view, has failed. Transracialization levels the playing field, and is thus more just as well as effective. Furthermore, transracialization offers learning opportunities that individuals from the dominant culture just can’t get living safely ensconced in a comfortable monocultural community some of us know as “Whitesville.”

A final thought: If, as DuBois wrote in 1903, the problem of the 20th century was the color line, then the 21st century belongs to those who dare to cross it.

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