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How to talk to parents about race if you're adopted or multiracial

“There’s a fine line between having empathy and recognizing that these conversations are going to be difficult … and then making sure we’re not giving them a pass because it’s too hard,” one expert said.
Image: A young Asian woman and a stern looking white mother stare at one another from separate green circles, with white scribble lines between them.
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Talking with family about race and racism can be uncomfortable for anyone, but for people of color who have a white parent or parents — including multiracial children and transracial adoptees — confronting white parents can be a particularly painful and taxing process.

For transracial adoptees, there’s often the idea that in order to be the “good,” “grateful” or “deserving” adoptee," they must brush off racism, protect the feelings of the white people around them at the expense of their own, and always remember that they could have had it worse.

For multiracial people, it may also feel like the burden of dismantling racism or biases within their families falls entirely on them.

Considering the range of reactions some white people often have when a person of color talks about race — from anger to silence to leaving the situation that’s causing them stress — it’s no surprise that so many adoptees and multiracial children delay or avoid having this conversation with their parents.

Yet talking about race, particularly about how they themselves experience racism, is something many people of color yearn to do. It might be because they struggle with their parents unknowingly saying or doing things that cause harm. Or it may be because they want their parents to understand that just because they may have been raised to “be white” doesn’t mean they actually are or that anyone else sees them that way. Whatever the reason, it often ultimately stems from children wanting to improve their relationship with their parents — not because they don’t love them.

Today, as American families become more multiracial — the number of multiracial babies in the U.S. tripled from 1980 to 2015 — long overdue calls to speak out against systemic racism are growing, and young people are confronting the biases in their parents and family members.

Chloe Vaught, 22, who is Black and white, said that while her dad, who is white, is mostly open to conversations about race, white privilege and politics, she sometimes feels like she hits a wall.

“I think his age and his gender play a huge role in how those conversations go down, in addition to his race,” Vaught told NBC Asian America. “I feel like he can kind of dominate that conversation a little more than listening sometimes. … He can kind of get really defensive, too.”

NBC Asian America spoke to experts on multiracial families and transracial adoption to identify ways young people of color can make these conversations easier and more fruitful.

Remember, it's not the burden of people of color to educate others.

A crucial disclaimer is that people of color are not obligated to talk to their white parents about race and racism, said Gina M. Samuels, who researches adoptee identity at the University of Chicago and is a Black transracial adoptee herself. It’s not the responsibility of people of color to get their white parents to see and care about their racial identity — that’s the responsibility of the parents.

“It’s not your fault if your kid experiences racism,” Samuels said of white parents. “But it is your fault if you’re not there to help them.”

For some adoptees, broaching this subject can be traumatic and reopen old wounds of abandonment and loss, so it simply might not be worth the heartache and emotional labor. If, after an honest assessment, the situation doesn’t seem doable, it’s OK to go no further.

“It’s about knowing whether or not you want to engage in a relationship with your adoptive parents around these issues,” and it's fine if you don't, said Kimberly McKee, a Korean transracial adoptee and professor of intercultural studies at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Figure out what both parties need from the conversation.

Before the conversation, it’s important to have goals, whether it’s convincing parents that you’re a person of color, not white, or getting them to stop using othering language. Without a clear purpose, it’ll be harder to come away from the talk feeling satisfied.

“What I’ve done in my own life is figure out what I need from those conversations,” said Caitlin Howe, a Korean adoptee who grew up with her white parents in Oregon and is now the adoptee programs coordinator at the adoption agency Holt International.

Howe said that one of her aims was to be able to tell her mom about her encounters with racists, and to have her respond with, “That must have been hard” or, “I’m sorry you had to have that experience,” instead of a flippant “Let it go.” She added that she often uses cues such as, “How you can best support me is…” or “My desire is for you to…”

It's going to be difficult, but try not to give anyone a free pass.

These talks are never easy, so it can be helpful to simply call attention to that fact at the outset, by prefacing the conversation with something like, “This will be hard,” said McKee. Preparing parents for what to expect also means that when the conversation does become difficult, they can’t use being caught off guard as an excuse to get angry or go silent.

“[T]here’s a fine line between having empathy and recognizing that these conversations are going to be difficult for our adoptive parents, and then making sure we’re not giving them a pass because it’s too hard,” McKee said.

Understand how parents might see this as 'asserting your adulthood.'

Part of what makes it so hard for some transracial families to talk about race is that doing so challenges family roles, power dynamics and race relations. Parents might have thought of themselves as experts who know what’s best for their children, and can feel attacked when they’re asked to change their ways. “Parents are not always equipped with admitting they don’t know how to do something,” said Howe, and for them to realize they’ve made a mistake can be jarring and make them defensive. The point isn’t to blame them for the past, but to help them do better in the future.

Parents might also consciously or unconsciously minimize their grown children’s lived experiences. “Adult transracial adoptees are seen as perpetual children in a way. We’re infantilized in a way,” said Mark Hagland, a Korean transracial adoptee who leads the adoption group Transracial Adoption Perspectives on Facebook. One method of approaching this, he said, might be saying something like, “I know you love me as a daughter, but I want you to understand me as an adult.”

The key is “having a conversation where you’re asserting your adulthood,” said McKee. This means knowing your limits and drawing your boundaries, then sticking to them.

Vaught said she’s found success talking to her dad by making it personal when it comes to national conversations like Black Lives Matter.

“It’s like talking to the white people in my life being like, ‘I feel horrible right now. I feel really f---ing down,’” she said. “It's so exhausting to have to say so many times, ‘I matter.’”

Find indirect ways of putting race on the agenda.

Long conversations about race can lead to burn out. Not every talk needs to be a deep dive or heavy confessional, said Howe, or start off with an alert that it’s going to be about race. Sometimes, slipping the topic into everyday conversation can be just as effective. “It can be as simple as openly talking about someone who is of a different race and calling them by those adjectives — Asian or Black or Latinx — and not like you’re trying to make a point,” she said.

Sonrisa Lopez, 16, is Latinx and white, and said she’s been having conversations this year with her father, who is half-white and benefits from white and light-skinned privilege. Lopez said it’s helpful to bring up these conversations from the perspective of being concerned for her 12-year-old brother, who is Black and a transracial adoptee.

“The events of 2020 made me realize my brother is going to have it, in my opinion, way worse,” she said. “And I need to be able to protect him and talk to my parents about my concerns and what I think he'll face.”

There are other strategies as well. Read a book about transracial adoption; join or volunteer with a group standing up against white supremacy; march in a Black Lives Matter rally; donate to an anti-racist movement. The more parents see their children doing this work, the more they’ll be exposed to it, and the better the chances that they’ll someday follow their lead.

There are so many resources out there. Take advantage.

Whether it’s an adoptee support group, a certified counselor or a researcher who’s written a book on the topic, there are many others who have navigated this same space and can help. Joining a community, or even a Facebook group, can offer a place to debrief and digest after a trying conversation. Many adoptees also find that their parents are more willing to listen to adoption experts than themselves, or are less likely to get defensive.

Samuels said to consider the question, “What am I willing to do and what am I not willing to do?” Perhaps it’s, “I’ll send them a book, but I’m not going to always fight with them.” Or maybe children will talk with their parents, but only with professional assistance and support. Samuels recommends checking out the toolkits, online courses and professionals directory posted on the adoption and foster care education nonprofit Creating a Family.

“In 2020, we now have so many resources — books, documentaries, videos, blogs, articles — there’s just everything. We adult transracial adoptees have created an entire literature now,” said Hagland. “The burden doesn’t have to fall purely on you.”

Remember it's not a self-help ‘program’ — it's a relationship.

The concepts of white fragility, white privilege, white supremacy are a lot for anyone to unpack. When adoptive parents hear about their transracial children’s experience with racism, it might be their first instinct to deny it or hijack the conversation by making it about them and their own need for comfort. This is not a 10-step program or a one-month process — it’s a lifelong journey. But in expressing to your parents that it’s one you want to go on together because you love them deeply, experts say, the hope is that they will indeed join you.

Lopez said she started having conversations with her parents about privilege in 2019, and even a year later, she still often hits barriers. Digesting phrases such as “ACAB, All Cops Are Bastards,” has been hard for them.

“It just makes me say more and more, ‘OK, they're not bad for me, but they could potentially be harmful to my brother,’” she said. “And that just makes me so much more terrified.”

And realize you don't have to commit to educating for life.

It’s important to check in with yourself regularly about how it’s going and how you’re feeling. If parents are routinely disrespecting their children’s boundaries, invalidating their lived experiences, saddling them with the entire emotional load, or making them feel guilty, it may be time to take a break — or even stop. “The challenge is, do you think you can be successful?” said Hagland. “There are people who can’t be. Their parents will never get it. You have to make the calculation.”

But remember, Samuels said, this is not your failure. And it’s not your fault.

Vaught offered one piece of advice for parents and family who are having these conversations for the first time.

“If you're white and you have Black people in your family, you need to advocate for them and step out for them,” she said. “I mean, everybody should but especially your family members. Ask them if they're OK.”