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Thursday 27th of April 2017

Nurturing Healthy Racial Identity Development Vs. Internalized Racism In Transracially Adopted Youngsters

When reprimanded for not having tidied her room as she'd been asked to, 12-year-old Elise erupted in anger and yelled: "Everyone is always bugging me! Even the girls at school tell me that my skin is too brown so their make-up doesn't work on me, and my eyes aren't right, so I won't ever be able to wear eye make-up like they do. I HATE my WHOLE life!"

Her wise mother set aside the topic of required chores temporarily, recognizing that intense emotions and a threatened sense of self worth are far more important than a clean bedroom. She'd been noticing her daughter's recent effort to fit in, that her clothing and activity choices seemed driven by peers' opinions, and that Elise frequently referenced her peer group regarding whether or not she felt OK about herself. She also recognized how often recently her daughter had rejected all-things Korean, such as participation in Korean cultural events, and seeing other Korean-adopted friends she'd had since early in her life.

She focused on the emotional content of her daughter's words, conveying that she was listening to understand, and wanted to help. "I'm guessing that lots has been on your mind-- worries over fitting in and whether or not you are as attractive as those girls-- the White girls-- in your school." "Who WOULDN'T be worried?" said Elise, "No matter how hard I try to not be different, it always comes up. "You're adopted. You're brown-- not like us. " Why can't they just treat me like everyone else? I wish that I was White. " Wisely, Elise's mom didn't sidestep Elise's strong feelings by telling her how much she loved her beautiful looks. Instead, she responded " It must be uncomfortable to continually be reminded that you are different from most others in those ways-- adoption and race. I'm guessing that you may sometimes be afraid that others at school think you're not as good as they are." "You've got that right," muttered Elise. " Those girls also say insulting things about kids of other backgrounds, too. " Elise's mother understood from this that even when White kids make derogatory remarks about individuals or groups of color without demeaning Elise's ethnic background, the effect on her daughter was that she "got it" that minority heritage is deemed inferior to being White. Elise's shoulders relaxed and she moved closer to her mother. "At least I can talk to you, Mom," she said.

Elise's mother found a beauty supply shop that carries make-up designed to suit any and all skin tones, and a young adult Asian make-up artist to demonstrate applying make-up that compliments Elise's skin tone and eyes. She arranged a surprise make-up demonstration for Elise and a few other adopted Korean girls, after coordinating this with the mothers of the other girls. The girls loved it! They decided, after that, that they'd also like to learn how they could wear their hair, what clothing would be comfortable and attractive on them, and how to care for their skin. Elise's mother sought young adults of color to help the group learn about self-care, and who would provide positive role modeling for valuing themselves and one another.

Elise's mother talked to her daughter about the importance of having a circle of friends of color and made sure her daughter had opportunities to make these friendships. She realized that for a young teen of color, being with a group of youngsters of color yields "the pause that refreshes" from negative societal messaging about race, feeling singled out for racial group membership, and from being watched while out in public with White parents. She realized how important it is for her to give permission and encouragement to her daughter to make and keep such relationships at a time when youths their age are developing more conscious awareness of the social and political significance of race, and need the felt-experience of belonging in a same-race group to debunk stereotypes and collectively see and nurture their own strengths. For an adoptee, these friendship circles also offer emotional armor against challenges that they aren't "Korean enough" or aren't "real Asians" because they live with White parents, from members of their own race group. That they need to know-- in the words of youths of color-- how to "act their race."

Elise's mother also began to re-evaluate the social environments in which her daughter spends time, considering whether they tend to be predominantly White or offer multiracial and multi-cultural reflections for her daughter and their family. She began to make a more conscious effort to find a more multiracial school, summer camp, interest groups. She shifted gears from expecting Elise to live within her social arena, to joining the multiracial and multi-cultural one Elise needs and deserves.

She stepped up efforts to shop in markets and clothing stores where they'd encounter more people of color. To subscribe to magazines that depict women of color and feature their worthwhile contributions in science, art, politics, sports and literature. She made more effort to nurture her own friendships with adults of color, and place herself in social situations where she was likely to meet and have a chance to get to know more. She and Elise also began to study the history of racism together-- focusing on learning about the valuable contributions of individuals and groups of color, and about White individuals and groups that fought racism. She realized, as well, that families who live in White-dominated locales and opted to adopt transracially have a greater responsibility to do these things and assess the diversity of environments such as schools for their suitability, or to move, as they need to realize that providing these components for developing healthy racial identity are foundational and not optional.

In addition, she found a young, transracially-adopted adult mentor, realizing that Elise needs a close, personal, ongoing relationship with a young woman grounded in American cultural ways, but with shared-race in order to nurture Elise's comfort with wearing the skin she is in. She wants Elise to be able to look into a mirror and not only see who she expects to see instead of expecting to see a White girl, but to like who she sees and to look forward to someday seeing a mature woman who feels pride in her racial-ethnic heritage and claims that heritage as a strength.

She recognizes that acceptance by others isn't enough to immunize youngsters from developing internalized racism, instead-- an unconscious distancing, exoticizing, and rejection, or"othering" of those with shared-race, and by extension, self-rejection or even self-hatred turned in on herself. That just seeing people of the same race around her in public or participating in cultural activities and celebrations doesn't help youngsters feel comfortable with who they are, or remain proud of their racial-ethnic and cultural backgrounds beyond their early childhood years. She realized that parents who offer only this see their children rejecting their cultural heritage and along with it, their racial-ethnic group membership if they don't grasp the fact that race is the more salient issue as youngsters mature and actively, consciously nurture healthy racial identity development. She also recognized that Elise yearns to be able to fit in with her age mates, and so mentoring from women who are mature and first generation immigrants doesn't help her to know that she can be Asian AND "cool."

She also encouraged Elise to continue to play soccer. Sports, she reasoned correctly, gives youngsters and even playing field regardless of their racial background. On a sports team, its skill, not looks, that count.

Months later, Elise's mother found the make-up she'd purchased for her daughter stuffed into the back of an unused drawer in the bathroom. When she mentioned that she'd found it there, instead of in a more accessible location, Elise shrugged. "I really don't need that stuff now, 'cause I'm too young to be wearing make-up. I just wanted to know that I CAN wear it when I want to, and that there is make-up that will look good on me. When I get older and go to high school like Susie, my mentor, it will still be there."


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