An Open Letter: Why Co-opting “Transracial” in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic
June 16, 2015
Please direct all media inquiries to Kimberly McKee, PhD at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This past weekend the world took to social media to dissect the events surrounding Rachel Dolezal, the former president of Spokane’s NAACP chapter who came under heavy scrutiny for falsely representing herself as black. As part of this real-time discussion, the term transracial is being co-opted to describe Dolezal identifying as black despite being born white.
As members of the adoption community — particularly those of us who identify as transracial adoptees — we are deeply alarmed by the gross mischaracterization of this term. We find the misuse of “transracial,” describing the phenomenon of a white woman assuming perceived markers of “blackness” in order to pass as “black,” to be erroneous, ahistorical, and dangerous.
Transracial is a term that has long since been defined as the adoption of a child that is of a different race than the adoptive parents. The term most often refers to children of color adopted by white families in the Global North, and has been extensively examined and documented for more than 50 years by academics and members of the adoption triad: adoptees, birthparents, and adoptive parents.
Dolezal and others have perpetuated the false notion that a person can simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity. As extensive evidence-based research and first-person narratives have shown, we do not live in a so-called “post-racial society.” Damaging forces like racism make it virtually impossible for those with black or brown bodies to simply “put on” or “take off” race in the same or similar manner that Dolezal has employed. For transracial adoptees, navigating and negotiating the racism in our families, schools, and communities is a regular and compulsory part of our lives.
We also join others who have raised concerns about the misappropriation of the word “trans,” and the analogy made between Dolezal’s deception and the experiences of transgender people. For transgender people who have struggled to live their truths in the face of horrific violence and discrimination, we reject this flawed comparison and find it to be irresponsible and offensive.
As our collective cultural awareness and knowledge of racial and gender identities continue to evolve, it is clear that our understanding of them, as well as our understanding of the relationship between them, is outmoded and in need of better expression. The widespread and acute public response to Dolezal signals the pressing need for critical thinkers of all backgrounds to turn their attention to refining language and theory to better reflect our ever-changing lived experiences.
Writer and adoptee Lisa Marie Rollins recently wrote about Dolezal’s deception and how it derails meaningful conversations about adoption and race. As Rollins explains, the process of transracial adoptees asserting ourselves as people of color is often challenged by either white people or the very communities that mirror our racial and ethnic identities.
In Dolezal’s interview on NBC’s Today show, she justified passing as “black” in order to be recognized as her son’s parent. This questionable and even extreme approach to parenting goes against how families with transracial adoptees should actually tackle issues related to race. Scholars including Barbara Katz Rothman, Heather Jacobson, and Kristi Brian, among others, have examined how adoptive parents incorporate and support familial understanding of their children’s birth culture.
Adoption scholar Dr. John Raible affirms how a deeper consciousness of issues related to race may occur among white families with transracial adoptees. But this does not mean that white parents become people of color in the process. Instead, adoptive families need to create spaces for transracial adoptees to explore and construct their own identities.
Many of us in the adoption community have experienced the complex, tenuous, and life-long process of claiming our authenticity, making Dolezal’s claims and the current discussion all the more destructive.
We invite people to become active allies of transracial adoptees. It begins by listening. Actively listen to those who speak about and from the transracial adoption experience.
If you are an ally, we challenge you to examine the various ways that you appropriate our voices, cultures, and identities. Stand behind those of us who are working to dismantle this racist narrative that abuses, discredits, and erases the lives of transracial adoptees, and erases an entire field of academic inquiry. And use your privilege to lift up marginalized voices that need to be heard.
Finally, we encourage people to take time and explore the many articles, organizations, and experts who have worked on transracial adoption issues in order to educate themselves on this important current issue.
Co-opting the term transracial to describe Dolezal’s behavior exposes the deep denial and erasure of decades of research, writing, and art of transracial adoptees. That’s why we need everyone to stop trying to make this new definition of “transracial” happen. It’s not (and should not) be a thing.
Kimberly McKee, PhD
Assistant Director/Advisory Council Member, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Grand Rapids, MI
PhD Candidate, The Ohio State University
Katie Bozek, Ph.D., LMFT
Transitions Therapy, PLLC
Grand Rapids, MI
Erin Alice Cowling, PhD
Martha M. Crawford, LCSW
Adoptive Parent, Psychotherapist
Author, What a Shrink Thinks blog
Sarah Park Dahlen, PhD
St. Catherine University
Adoptee wife, ally and researcher
Chief Executive and transracial adoptee
The Donaldson Adoption Institute
Land of Gazillion Adoptees
Writer, Educator, Activist, Adoptee, Co-Chair, MN Chapter of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora (AFAAD)
Shelise Keum Mee Gieseke
Land of Gazillion Adoptees
Transracial Adoptee, Author, Artist, Lost Daughters Editor
Susan Harris O’Connor, MSW
Author, The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee
National Solo Performance Artist of her Racial Identity Theory narrative
New England Regional Director of American Adoption Congress
JaeRan Kim, PhD, LISW
Researcher, educator, and author of Harlow’s Monkey blog
Andy Marra | 홍현진
LGBT advocate and writer
New York, NY
Lisa Marie Rollins
PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley
Writer, Playwright, Researcher
Founder, Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora
PhD Candidate, University of Houston
Author of The Hundred-Year Flood, Different Racisms: On Stereotypes, the Individual, and Asian American Masculinity
Stacy L. Schroeder
Adoptive Parent, Sibling of Adoptee, and Adoptee Ally
Executive Director/ President, KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network)
Camp Hill, PA
Pact’s Adult Adoptees & Foster Alums of Color Advisory Board member
Advocate/Mentor for Bay Area adoptees and foster youth of color
Lost Daughters, Board Member
Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights
Amanda H.L. Transue-Woolston, MSS, LSW
Adoptee, Author, The Declassified Adoptee blog, Founder, Lost Daughters, Founder, Pennsylvania Adoptee Rights
Greater Philadelphia Area
Kevin Haebeom Vollmers
Executive Director, Gazillion Strong