Emily, adopted from India as an infant, continues to share her story and perspective about growing up adopted. Here, she talks about adoption, race and identity, reflecting on the difficult questions raised by others, and the difficulty of not feeling you belong, even when you know you are loved. (Part I of II)
I sit here in tears trying to piece together what to say and how to say it.
As you may know from what I shared earlier this year, I was adopted from India at eight months old. My forever family was entirely comprised of white people until my uncle and aunt adopted from China years later.
I LOVE my family and that is no lie.
But one of the struggles I’ve endured was being of color in a predominately white area. I never really started to notice the difference until I was a couple grades into elementary school. Some kids would start to point out and question, “Why is your family white and you are black?” Or they would ask, “What happened to your real family?”
Trying to process all of these questions seemed difficult as a child. I would say that I was adopted and leave it at that. I was young, and even though I’d given an answer, my younger self didn’t know these questions were bound to come out sometime in my life.
But that was just the beginning. And things didn’t get easier. They got harder.
As children, we ask very blunt questions and we definitely have no filters. That was increasingly the case, as kids asked about me and my family growing up. For instance, my mom told me about a time that she acted puzzled when a boy asked to see my “real mom.” She had asked him in response, “What does a ‘real mom’ do that I am not doing?” She explained that there are different ways to build families. As true and as loving as my mom’s explanation was, these moments were also constant reminders that I did not fit. All I had to do was look down at my skin and realize that I did not belong. No matter what the kids said to me, the reality I faced just made things worse. I was trying to figure out who I was and where I would belong.
Then came another harsh reality in being bullied and called names. In middle school, when I was at the YMCA with a friend and my sister (my parents’ child biologically), another child began swimming around us, and began bullying me. He called me the N-word. I didn’t know what the word meant. My friend explained that it was a bad word, also telling my mother what happened. My mom responded, engaging the pool’s lifeguard, who had the boy suspended from the pool. Still, after this incident, I noticed that word … and that it seemed to come up more and more.
Not only that, but people would laugh at me and tell me to go back to India. They would tell me that I did not belong. These memories and words, plus the questions I’d been asked before, just added to the thoughts in my head.
As I got older and more independent, I made new friends who had never seen me with my family. They did not know that I was adopted. Adoption became less a part of my identity. I actually stopped talking about adoption all together. There came a point when I finally was not known for or identified by my having a white family.
In high school, a place where I learned not every person knew I was adopted, I never shared that piece of me. I also ended up meeting a great group of girls of different ethnicities while in high school, and we all went to Multicultural Club. I remember thinking to myself that I finally fit in somewhere. I was no longer picked on for my race. We all had each other’s back. Every week we would go to our club; I enjoyed every minute of it as our club did not discriminate or call people out for racial differences. We were able to plan “Diversity Week,” and there was a time that our school let us plan the MLK assembly. I felt safe and did not seem to have as many issues.
When new friends came to my house, they thought they were in the wrong place when a white woman answered the door. That became the moment I was able to talk about my adoption.
Being out with family though, even when we were obviously together, people would still “call me out,” as not belonging. The situation might be different than the bullying and name calling at the pool, or the questions from elementary school, but nonetheless would bring difficult questions.
It would come up during times like shopping with my mom, unloading our cart, talking and laughing. On one past occasion, I’d stepped around her to the cashier, who then told me, “that woman was first,” pointing at my mom, who politely replied, “We are together; she is my daughter.” And it still occurs. As recently as last year, the feelings from that encounter welled up, likewise while shopping with my Mom at three different stores, all on the same day, after three different women approached me, and began talking to me as if I worked there. They had assumed that I was the employee while I was helping the older white lady.
I realize that in some respects, this misunderstanding may not seem like a big deal … but to me, it meant everything.
And it left me asking difficult questions myself: Why do I have to be pointed out? When will this go away? Will it ever just stop?
The answer is … I do not know when I will feel that I am just normal with my family. Unless we are behind closed doors.
But even then, I still will shut my eyes when I am with them, and open them, and think about what it would feel like if my family had my same skin tone.
Part I of Essay by WACAP Adoptee Emily Seaborg, “On Race and Identity”
Passionate about supporting adoptive families, Emily Seaborg, WACAP volunteer and adoptee, is currently pursuing her Master’s in Social Work. A long-time participant of WACAP’s family camp, she returns each year for what she calls the “best” weekend: “This is where I connect. This is where I can explain how I feel with others who know what it is like. These people do not judge, and I can share my experiences with others!” As a mentor for adoptees who need a listening ear, Emily also offers a voice of perspective for their parents, helping to bring families closer through understanding and empathy.