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Adoptees say it's been hard to express their feelings about race during social unrest


November is National Adoption Awareness Month. And even though there are millions of adoptees across the country, many say they often feel left out of nationwide conversations about race. Over the last couple of years, those conversations have reached new heights and depths with the deaths of George Floyd and other Black Americans, anti-Asian violence and migrant crises at the southern border. Transracial and transnational adoptees we spoke with shared how it's particularly hard for them to express their full range of emotion about these issues. Here are some of their stories.

SUNNY REID: My name is Sunny Reid. I'm 37 years old. I live in Cherry Hill, N.J. I was adopted from Korea and to a white family. When it comes to these racial movements, I feel like Asian adoptees fall in this weird, liminal space where we're not Asian enough and we're not white. It doesn't allow you to participate fully or feel comfortable participating fully in these, like, racial-type justice movements. And I think about how that complicates my own personal ability to identify as a person of color.

HANNAH JACKSON MATTHEWS: My name is Hannah Jackson Matthews. I'm 29 years old. I live in Lancaster City in Lancaster County, Pa. I'm a biracial Black woman, was adopted by a white family. Over the last year, I've been thinking about the other transracial adoptees who were probably experiencing what I experienced with the death of Michael Brown of, like, this - what does this mean for me and for my family as a transracial family and kind of this culture shock experience of seeing someone who looks an awful lot like you being harmed in systems that, typically, being raised in white families and in predominantly white spaces we're taught to trust?

ANNIE STEFANKO: My name is Annie Stefanko. I am 17 years old, currently living in Rosemount, Minn. I was adopted from Guatemala City in Guatemala, and I'm currently a part of a white family. When George Floyd was murdered, I felt pretty, you know, like, confused and also alone because I had no one to talk to, really. And I did struggle understanding how it affected me as a person of color because growing up, I didn't have a chance to connect with other Latinos. So it was pretty difficult.

I also felt pretty upset about the border crisis. I've seen a lot of articles where, you know, people from my country are migrating to the U.S. And, you know, sometimes I wonder - like, is my birth mother at all traveling to the border? Is she still in Guatemala? Is she safe?

Sometimes, I find, like, my parents just don't understand, like, race or my ethnicity. And in the past, I have, like, talked to them about a little, but they kind of don't believe what I'm saying, if that makes sense. I had one situation where I was in a parking lot, driving at night with my mom, and a police pulled up. And I felt really scared in that moment, and I felt like something bad was going to happen to me. And I told my mom. And she's like, you know, stop worrying. She just didn't believe how I felt in that moment. So since then, I've been pretty not open about race or anything with them.

REID: This is Sunny Reid. I think there's a lot of confusion about who we are, if we're adoptees or not, until we actually disclose our positions. I feel like there's, like, a hesitancy, too, because it's like once we admit that we're adopted, it's almost like, well, we don't know the actual Asian experience.

MATTHEWS: This is Hannah. I think adoptees fit into this conversation in the way that we're able to offer a very unique racial experience. We've been studying whiteness our entire life, especially - yeah, especially ones that have been raised in a white context because we live in such close proximity to it. And there's not maybe the barriers that would have been provided had we had parents of color or parents that were of our racial communities of origin.

There's kind of this insider look to - yeah, to whiteness, into the white psyche. And I think that's really - what we need to be focusing on when we see these larger issues of unrest is - how can white people be kind of looking introspectively into what this means for them, not only persons of color doing that? And so I'm hoping that because of transracial adoptees' unique experience of race and their access to white spaces that they would be able to maybe usher that conversation.

CORNISH: Those were the voices of adoptees Hannah Matthews, Sunny Reid and Annie Stefanko, and the story was produced by Ashley Westerman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.
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