This piece explores the effect of mixed-race heritage and adoption on a person’s identity. Three anonymous authors have contributed to the work, each with varying intersections between these two experiences. These are:
• Adopted, not mixed-race, and raised in a family who look visibly different to themselves
• Adopted, mixed-race, and raised in a family that looks similar to themselves
• Not adopted, mixed-race, and raised in a family who look visibly different to themselves
This piece was written for a few reasons. Firstly, to raise awareness of two rare experiences: in the UK, mixed race individuals only make up 1.2% of the population and only 10% of children in care. These experiences have certain nuances that people who don’t have them may not be aware of. It’s hoped that the reader interrogates and compares their sense of identity to those described below. Secondly, this post hopefully will validate the feelings of other mixed race and care-experienced individuals, demonstrating that they are not alone in the experience.
South East Asian adopted by British Caucasian parents
Grew up in an Asian country (A) that was not my ethnic origin (B)
The country I grew up in was 14 hours away from my (adopted) parent’s home (UK) and about four hours away from my country of origin (B). Ethnically, I looked more at home in A than they did. However, my parents expected me to act, speak and think like them. To some extent, I think all parents expect this—but the impact is just a little different when the children have such different backgrounds. This ranged from policing my language – e.g., not being allowed to use the word ‘toilet’ because it wasn’t British enough, even though B primarily used Americanised English – to discouraging me from watching anything on the television apart from British shows.
When growing up, I got the impression that the locals were bad drivers, bad walkers, bad speakers of the English language. They were also shallow and materialistic. Funnily enough, I also got the impression that these were all things that British people (and British people alone) excelled at. I think this was because my parents only had two countries to compare: The UK and A. This meant that anytime they talked about their life, any comparison would be to the UK. For them, it could be complaining about small things that they missed from their childhood. For me, it was a romanticisation of a country that I had never lived in (and the degradation of the country that I was living in). Sometimes it was even innocuous things, such as just sharing their experiences. Unfortunately, things have a funny way of translating when you’re a child. My little adolescent brain ended up believing that my life would be so much better if I lived in the UK, looked British (aka white) and fully engaged with British culture. The fact that I lived in A, looked Asian, and participated in Asian culture was quite unfortunate for me.
“Comparison is the thief of joy” – Theodore Roosevelt
As an adolescent who already felt like they didn’t quite fit in, it wasn’t hard for the notion to bury itself into my subconscious. That’s not to say that I didn’t realise that there was something wrong with the consistent degradation of the country that we were living in. It was all I had ever known, and so many of the locals looked like me, that it was hard not to feel affronted by the perceived slights on my identity. But I didn’t realise why I felt like I did. I knew what discrimination was, but my own parents couldn’t be discriminating against people who looked like me, right? Because the fact of the matter is, they did try. They made sure that we travelled back to B at least once a year and they joined parenting groups with other adopted children. They weren’t trying to discriminate. They were trying to help the best way that they could. Besides, I thought, I was an Asian living in Asia! I couldn’t possibly feel ‘’left out’ or ‘different’’. I didn’t understand why I felt the need to distance myself from my own identity, but I did it and felt all the more guilty for it. I didn’t understand the guilt either. I grew up feeling ashamed whenever I embraced assimilating into the country I grew up in and I felt guilty whenever I didn’t.
I think the crux of the matter is that my parents raised me like they would have raised a child who looked like them. They didn’t teach me how to deal with discrimination or prejudice, because they themselves never had to deal with it. They didn’t censor their comments because they did not have the experience that would help them understand its potential effects. I didn’t have the chance to learn B’s language and they couldn’t help me, with it not being anywhere close to their native language. As I grew older, I stopped wanting to visit B because B’s locals expected more and more from me which I couldn’t give them. They saw my skin and expected me to act like them or talk like them, but I just didn’t know how. It only made my alienation more complete.
It took me a long time to realise how these micro aggressions and non-malicious instances of ignorance have affected me. It’s a difficult thing to talk about with your parents. When I was a child, I didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to express my feelings. I didn’t have enough life experience to point out exactly what was happening. Likewise, my parents couldn’t act on something they didn’t know personally, and they couldn’t act to counter something that they didn’t know existed. That’s why, when I talk about it with them now, it’s a difficult conversation. Our perspectives are different, our memories of what happened are dissimilar. What was a big deal to me were forgettable, throwaway comments to them. I don’t think it was malicious: rather, I think it just demonstrates how different life experiences can lead people to put different values on different things. We’re working on it, slowly and gradually. And although these conversations have put us in a difficult spot, we still love each other. That’s never going to change.
Mixed race, adopted, and fits in racially to their family
Identity relates to my sense of self. It has different aspects, such as racial identity, gender identity etc. I’ve found that the two facts of my adoption and mixed-race heritage contribute to feelings of isolation and individualism. Although at times this can be lonely, overall I don’t believe that it is any worse than more common types of family makeup and race.
For context, I am half Jamaican and half English. However, I don’t know my biological father, so I only found out my English heritage through a DNA test in 2021. I was adopted at 18 months to a white mother and black father, joining their two older biological mixed-race children. Seven years later, they adopted another boy, who became my adopted little brother. I look similar to my adopted brothers and sisters, so my adoption was invisible to observers.
My mixed-race heritage isolates my identity, placing me as an ambiguous figure to myself and others. In one way, I am similar to all other minorities in England. I am othered by the majority white British population, despite being 50% English. In the past I have been subject to racism, and often feel uncomfortable in white spaces as the sole minority. I feel the stares when I visit relatives in the countryside: implicitly suggesting that my presence is strange and unnatural. My whiteness is denied by white society—yet this is not surprising.
Yet simultaneously, I am claimed as black by black society. I am encouraged to know black culture, music, films, and recipes. If I don’t, then I am called a ‘’coconut’’ or a ‘’choc ice’’—black on the outside, white on the inside. I keep a mental checklist of tasks I must complete to retain my ‘’blackness’’: visiting Jamaica, having a certain hairstyle, or keeping up with drill music. Being black is not just a quality: it’s an activity.
I do not wish to disavow my white side: I was raised by a white mother, and enjoyed ‘’white’’ activities, such as choral singing. These are meaningful experiences to me. Yet by both white and black individuals, I am excluded from both. Isolated from either culture, I’m caught in limbo: too white to be black, and too black to be white.
My adoption also isolates my identity through the disruption of the family unit. I’ve never understood the ‘’blood is thicker than water’’ dynamic. I have a good relationship with my biological grandmother since I was 10, and I plan to meet the rest of my biological family in the next few months. Likewise, the idea of the nuclear family does not represent my experience. Despite having no memories pre-adoption, I don’t consider myself to have one mum, but three: biological, foster, and adopted, who all played vital roles in my development that must always be recognised. Make no mistake: I value my adopted family and am so grateful for them for adopting me. It’s just that I feel no particular pull to them beyond that, due to the wider commitments I possess to my biological family.
One might think that the combined effects of these experiences would make me feel lonely. I agree somewhat, especially in regard to not having anyone to talk about it. I know adopted individuals—and I know mixed race individuals—but other than my little brother, it’s rare to come across people with both. However, as I get older, I am growing a network that can put me in touch with these people. In addition, I supplement the reduced family attachment by forming close bonds with my friends, some of which feel like family I’ve chosen—almost like an adopted family! After my movement from biological home to foster home to adopted home, it’s nice to be able to decide who my family are.
Mixed-race, and raised in a family that looks visibly different to themselves
I don’t look like my family. I was told that she can’t possibly be my sister, your brother. I was asked, is she your real mother, or who is that man who picked you up from school? Growing up like this was difficult because I didn’t understand that I was different—I did not realise that I was not white like my family. The only differences I saw were that my sister and one of my brothers wore glasses, that my mum had short hair, that my dad spoke English and that I had curly hair. It was other people who repeatedly pointed out that my skin was brown and that they could not possibly be my family unless I was adopted.
I remember desperately looking for role models or people who represented me in films, books, and toys. As this was extremely difficult to find in early 2000s Belgium, I would cling on to anything I could relate to or anyone that vaguely looked like me. It was Dora the Explorer, Flora from Winx club, and Tina from The Princess and the Frog. I didn’t realise I was doing this; I was used to not seeing many people like me in real life, so I did not expect to be represented in the media either.
When I was represented, they never had the same hair as me. I have coily hair, which is thick and long. My mother is a beautiful white woman, but she had no idea how to do my hair, but believe me when I say, she tried everything she could to learn. The early 2000s didn’t have YouTube to watch videos or Amazon to order natural hair products, but we managed. When she did my hair, it was always perfectly detangled and in different hairstyles. But during my early teenage years, I felt embarrassed about my hair. It was not straight like all the other white girls in my school. Sleepovers became very uncomfortable when the one girl who could plait hair in many different ways did everyone else’s but mine. The only way I used to wear my hair was in a low bun or ponytail: I never gave myself the chance to experiment with my hair. When I did, it would always end up back in a bun when my bravery ran out.
Since coming to university I have slowly started to dismantle this internalised racism. I am mixed-race, but I have been trying for years to erase my black side because I thought I had to choose one side and kill the other. I am both, and it is time for me to get to know the part that I have hated for so long. I have seen so many powerful, beautiful, kind, amazing people of colour now, I finally feel represented. No longer the little girl clinging on to Tiana: I am a woman who is being inspired by great authors, activists, brothers, and sisters. They understand me without speaking or making noise, because they carry the weight of the same skin as me.