How Normalizing the Discomfort of Race Can be Healing
I always knew I wanted to work with adopted and foster families and children, even from a young age. Not until the last few years working in residential and wilderness, did I realize why I had this desire and passion for providing mental health services for transracially-adopted families. Recently, I attended a conference where the main focus was on attachment and trauma. During a networking dinner event, I was introduced to a young man of color who was adopted by a white family. He was intrigued by the idea of Wilderness Therapy, and was very interested and wanted to know more when I explained my work with adopted adolescent boys of color.
The next hour of my conversation with this young man was so transparent and authentic as he began to share his story of sadness in not knowing where he truly fits in. He expressed his struggles with not finding a therapist or a safe place to discuss what it truly meant for him to be a person of color in a family that did not look like him and the difficulty in finding spaces with those who give him a sense of familiarity. He was surprised that I intentionally worked with groups of young teens, like himself, and created a safe place to discuss these very topics that he identified as the “elephant in the room."
I can confidently say that in my work the last few years, I have had so many conversations like this one where my clients of color, primarily those adopted, express their love and gratitude for their adopted parents but find it very difficult to express or process what it feels like to be a different race from their parents. These kids tend to express loyalty to their adopted parents while still experiencing feelings of guilt in discussing their belonging or lack thereof, especially when related to race. I am aware that as a therapist of color, I am privileged to do this work with my clients because they immediately have a sense of familiarity when they first see me out in the field as their therapist. When working with the adoption population, attachment and trauma is an important aspect of my work, but racial identity is as important and directly connected to the work of attachment for these kids.
Normalizing the way my clients experience the world around them as a transracial adoptee is something my clients say they appreciate the most because rarely do they feel like they get the space to do that. Healthy secure attachment can be built through the moments we see our kids or create space for them to express their struggle of fitting in racially in their world. Experiencing that their race is a factor that cannot just be talked away by color blind statements like “we don’t see color” or “we love you for who you are and your race doesn’t matter” is important to help them know that all parts of them are seen, acknowledged and cherished. As our society continues to make sense and navigate its way through the implications of race and cultural differences, transracial families are often left not knowing how to effectively engage with their child of a different race. I show up in my work to say to parents that no matter how scary and confusing that may be, it’s important to first normalize and make space for their own feelings of discomfort and then to do the same for their children.
“I imagine that I am not alone when I say that I do not wish to be erased in order to be embraced or accepted” -Dr. Joy Degruy