Race issues tend to make most people squirm, but if you are an intercountry adoptee, they can take you to the Mt Everest of discomfort. Like there is a whole new height of discomfort reserved for an intercountry adoptee, adopted into a white family, who needs or wants to speak about race issues.
Why is it hard? Let me count the ways
It is hard, because speaking about race is something that makes most people extremely uncomfortable. (The one exception here is the question “where are you from?” which for some reason, never makes its asker feel uncomfortable). It is hard because it means more than advocating universal human rights or Australia’s so called anti-discrimination laws. It does not mean speaking about a faceless minority, or the rights of a friend of a friend. It means facing the reality that you are not part of the white majority like your family a minority.
And it’s only –
Your family – they’re not a minority. They’re most likely the majority.
Mostly though, it is hard for an intercountry adoptee to speak about race issues because on top of all those common criticisms that get leveled at ethnic minorities when they speak about race (playing the ‘race card’, ‘being racist against white people’ etc), when you speak about race issues or racism as an intercountry adoptee in Australia (ie a predominantly white country), you are essentially speaking out about the institutions created by, and the behaviour of, white people – and your family – and some, or even many, of your friends and nearly all the people you know and see on the streets and on the TV – are, well, white people. Your whole world is white people. As an adoptee, raised as a non-white white person, it is hard not to feel disloyal to your family, all that you have been taught and the whole lifestyle of institutions (school, media etc) that you grew up with.
While your family hopefully did not contribute directly to creating race power imbalances, they benefit every day from institutional racism and white privilege. Something that, despite all the love in the world, cannot truly be passed from them to you. Sure it can be partly passed to you if another person cannot tell that from your surname that you are ‘ethnic’ until they see your face or your parents have accrued some level of financial stability that has passed to you which would likely not have been open to them if they belonged to a minority group. But the effect of those partial privileges is still likely to be limited if you participate in the world outside your family’s home. White privilege is not only about finances, it is about freedom and about your views and appearance being regarded as legitimate and acceptable without qualification or explanation to the wider society.
When you speak up about race issues, you are going against the grain of everything, and everyone, that you know, because unfortunately most white people do not speak out against race issues. If they did, race issues would not be issues, or at least they would not be so prevalent. In my view, change happens when the minority sticks together and advocates and the majority listens to the minority and takes action to support them. A minority cannot make a change because they lack the numbers. There needs to be a dedicated majority that takes up the burden as well. It is hard to go against the grain at all, let alone about race; an incredibly divisive, complex topic (that can literally result in violence and abuse).
Speaking about race issues and racism as an intercountry adoptee is speaking about something that makes you feel totally alone because very few people in your world can understand what you or other ‘non-white’ people experience both directly and indirectly. Moreover, often people (who are the racial majority) do not want to know about racism or talk about race, because there is a view held by some in Australia that: colour blindness = kindness; colour blindness = not being racist.
But colour blindness is not kind and it can still result in racism. Colour blindness only perpetuates the perception that white privilege does not exist. It may be hard for an adoptee’s family to recognise, acknowledge and willingly accept the true depths of white privilege in
the world Australian society, making it impossible for the adoptee to comfortably speak out about race issues and racism without disapproval and disappoint from their family.
An intercountry adoptee might even feel like they do not have the right to be upset as most other people they know are not personally concerned about racism. I correct my earlier statement – there is a second exception to speaking about race in Australia. It is making race jokes. Everyone knows that ‘real’ Australians don’t take things too seriously: They certainly don’t care if someone calls them something racist because it was all in fun, right?
A person who is an ethnic minority can choose to live in denial about the extent to which race issues are a relevant issue, but we cannot definitively avoid racism because if we could, it would mean that we live in a society where all races and cultures are equal (which we don’t). There is a choice whether to consider the larger issue of racism and whether you take up its plight or not. This is where speaking about racism becomes a complicated and poignant decision. To speak about it or not is one issue. The next questions are when, where, how and to whom do you speak about it. It is no easy thing and for an intercountry adoptee, there is no family guidance or lived experience on how to navigate it.
Speaking about race – It is drawing attention to oneself – the part that people regard as ‘unAustralian’ and bringing it to the forefront. I can say that this has been difficult for me, an adoptee, because I have spent my life attempting to blend into my adoptive family and the predominantly white Australian community in which I have grown up (‘whitewashed’ for want of a ‘nicer’ word). It is as if I felt it wise to draw as little attention to my ‘otherness’ as possible. Combined, all of this makes it desirable for an intercountry adoptee to downplay the part of them that is different, makes it desirable to ignore identifying with their ethnic racial group and that group’s culture, in order to emphasise honorary ‘whiteness’ and be more ‘Australian’. So if someone chooses not to speak about race – that’s their call. But if they choose not to speak about it for fear – of being unAustralian, or worse – of being rejected by their family (even if their fear is baseless)…Then I feel deeply sad about that…and I also completely understand their reasons as well.
When speaking about race is simply speaking about yourself…and what is so wrong about that?
Awhile ago, an old friend of mine (who is ‘white’) posted a question about race and cultural appropriation on Facebook. Normally I would find it difficult to speak about race on a public forum where all the people I know are going to read my comment and for all of the reasons above. Yet because the person who posed the question was an old friend, and a kind person, I knew the question came from a good place and I felt comfortable enough to reply (in addition to this, I have been learning to combat internalised racism – more about that later):
… I think it also has to do with ‘white privilege’ as it is often called, because if someone who is not ‘ethnic’ chooses to represent another race or take only the parts they want from that race, and then ignore the parts they aren’t interested in, then it’s exercising a privilege that people who are truly of that race don’t have. If you are truly belonging to an ‘ethnic’ race, you have to deal with your race every day, including racism. You can’t opt out of your race when it suits you and just be ‘white’ for a day.
(Excerpt from my longer FB reply)
My friend, and her friends (whom I don’t know), responded to my comment with such kindness and open mindedness. So, what I will say is that although speaking about race when you are an ethnic minority in even your own family is by no means an easy task, it can be done and there are people who will support you. They might even be people you’ve never met.
After posting on Facebook as above, I shared my experience with a friend who is also a Sri Lankan-Australian adoptee. She said to me, “It’s nice that you felt comfortable enough with being brown to say that.” That is when I realised that speaking about race, speaking about being brown, is simply speaking about being me.
At this time, in this space, race issues are my reality and also my multiracial son’s reality too. Do I wish that we didn’t have to deal with race? Hell, yeah. But do we have that white privilege? No. So I make the choice to speak about race, in hopes that by doing so, my son, in his lifetime, might eventually have the choice to avoid it.
However. I also do it because speaking about being brown in a white country is simply speaking about what it is like to be me.
Note: Here, I am speaking only about Anglo-Australians because Australia is a predominantly ‘white’ country, and in countries like Australia, and in the current world climate, there is a reality of what is known as ‘white privilege’. I am talking about Australia because I’m Australian. I live here. I am not saying that Australia is a more racist country than any other country (whatever that phrase ‘racist country’ means, anyway).