Tina’s Story
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Tina’s Story

My father was black. My biological mother was white. My adoptive family is all white. So, it wasn’t like they could pretend I had been born from them.

My earliest memories of being adopted are my parents talking about it and explaining that they went someplace, and they picked me out and brought me home, and now I was their daughter, and I lived with them. I don’t have any memories before that. And then we adopted my brother when I was about five, and he’s also transracially adopted. So that cemented things for me – you can go get the baby, and the baby doesn’t have to look like you.

It was something other people commented on a lot, as it was 1971. My mom would have to explain, “is she with you?” Or people would be confused because my sister would be with us. My sister’s just 13 months younger than me, and she’s my parent’s biological daughter. So, people would be confused. “Why is this brown girl with all these white people? What’s happening?” My parents would often have to explain this is our daughter too.

My parents had tried to conceive many times. After they adopted me, my mom got pregnant almost immediately. And then they kept trying and trying and trying, and they couldn’t conceive again. That’s why they adopted my brother. They wanted a boy. So, this is one way to ensure we get one, and they just did it that way.

I grew up first in Phoenix, although I’d been born in Michigan. Growing up bi-racially in the 1970s was very awkward. I had some bad situations happen to me when I was younger because my parents, I think, really didn’t understand how the world would view that situation. My parents had on rose-colored glasses. We’ve adopted this baby – things are great. And her life’s going to be great. And she’s not going to experience any of these things because we never experienced these things growing up. We never dealt with discrimination, racial slurs, or stuff like that. We’re white. We didn’t have any of that. And so, they didn’t prepare me for any of that.

I remember vividly the first time I was called the N-word, and I had no idea what it meant. I was only five, but I knew it was something terrible because of the way people reacted. And I had a friend with me, and my friend yelled at the kid. But I remember being frozen and stunned. I didn’t know what to say. And it’s only been in the last maybe ten years that I’ve even been able to tell my parents about that situation.

There weren’t a lot of black kids at my school, and it was kind of weird. You’re an outsider, but not. I don’t know how to explain it. You feel like you want to fit in, but you know that you don’t fit in. You always wonder are they being nice to me because they want to be, or are they making fun of me behind my back? There’s some insecurity there.

Things got a little bit better when my brother joined the family and shared some of the same experiences. Then they were able to see, oh, well, I guess things are different for brown people.

I remember one time we went to Disneyland and ate breakfast at a McDonald’s before we went there, and it was in Compton. It was mostly black people in the restaurant. My parents and my sister were the only white people, and my brother and I, of course, noticed that. My parents didn’t put two and two together, but when we left McDonald’s, I remember my brother saying, “That’s the first time I’ve ever been someplace where it was all black people, and you guys were the ones that were different.”

He was probably six at the time or seven. And my parents were like, Hmm, interesting. Because that was, for us, we were always in white spaces. And even when you try not to feel like you’re standing out, you’re standing out.

I think once he joined the family, my parents were a little more cognizant of these issues, and I felt like I could talk to them a little bit more about them and explain some of the things that I was feeling or struggling with, but I’m not sure that they completely understood. They tried, but I don’t think they completely understood how the world is different for people.

One of the weird things I felt – I was always concerned that if you could get a baby, you could also maybe take a baby back. If something didn’t work out, I needed to be on my best behavior because I didn’t want to be “Return to Sender.” You’re irrational when you’re a kid. I think about all the Disney movies I saw with the orphan kid and the evil stepmother, trying to get the kid out of the picture, and all these things revolve around in your head, and you start thinking, maybe that could happen to me. If I’m not good enough, then they won’t want me anymore.

For the most part, I felt loved like my sister, especially by my dad. I was a daddy’s girl until my brother came along, and he took over—my dad gravitated towards him because of sports and all that stuff. But up until then, I was a daddy’s girl.

My mom and I had a problematic relationship throughout my childhood. I never didn’t feel loved by her, but she was closer to my sister. They’re both middle children. My mom understood the whole having a big sister who kind of outshined you or out does you type of thing. And she was sympathetic towards my sister. So there were things she would allow my sister to do that I couldn’t do or something of that nature that I felt was unfair.

Now, of course, you always have that sibling rivalry. And I think it didn’t help that my sister and I were so close in age that my parents treated us as though we were the same age. So, if I got my ears pierced, then my sister got her ears pierced, and I had to wait until I was 12—stupid things like that.

But I did feel loved. It was hard for me, and it still is, to maybe reciprocate that. I am very guarded about things like that. I don’t like being vulnerable. I love my parents. They know that I love them. I tell them that I love them. I mean it when I say it. But it’s tough for me to get close to people and be able to tell them that. That’s not something I do. People can walk out of your life. They do it all the time, and I don’t want to have that, or I don’t want to be able to react to that.

Then, when I was in junior high, we moved to San Diego in the early ’80s. We kids were excited because you immediately thought of California; we’ll be at Disneyland every weekend or the beach! And that doesn’t happen. But we were excited about moving there.

It was hard, but I am glad we moved there only because it diversified the types of people we were around. California is very multicultural. So that was a benefit. There were more black people at my school. I had actual black teachers sometimes. That made a difference to me, looking back now. While it was hard on our family because we were comfortable in Phoenix, I think the move was good. We needed to go to a new place.

At this time, I started this very rebellious stage of my life. I must have been in seventh grade, I think. Every year they have you fill out these little forms with your name and your sex and your race and your date of birth and stuff like that. Well, you can only check one box for race, and that just irritated the hell out of me. Every year – I don’t want to check one box because I’m not one box.

So, I would be checking multiple boxes, and then they would have a fit. And sure enough, this lady in the office called me up there. She said, “Okay. You have white and black hair. What are you?” I said, “I’m white and black.” She says, “No, you have to be one or the other.” I say, “How’s that? Because I’m not one or the other. I’m both.” And she says, “Well, because this is how we do things here. You have to choose one.” And I said, “Well, I’m not choosing because I’m not just one thing.” And she eventually chose for me. She decided I was black. I was okay with that. But I was annoyed that I couldn’t represent my true self. I had to be one or the other. And I know she picked black because at the time, they got more money or whatever for students of color, and so it helped the school if I was black. Whatever.

So that’s when I decided, you know what? I feel like a black person now. I don’t want to say I don’t identify with white people. I do. They raised me. My mom’s white. My biological mom’s white. But my lived experience has been that of a woman of color, a child of color.

For the next several years, I don’t want to say I was militant, but I was, “I am not going to be pigeonholed. I am not going to be forced into what your perception is of me. You look at me, and I look brown. So, you assume things about me, but you know nothing about my situation, my family, how I was brought up, or anything like that.” I don’t appreciate people trying to decide what I am. I will decide what I am. I started doing a lot of soul-searching on my part, which created a lot of angst in my family. At that point, I wanted to search for my biological family.

And my adoptive family was not cool with that. They thought I was too young. They also felt I was probably not in the right mental mindset to search. I think they were concerned about what would happen if I did find my biological family. Would I want to go live with them? I think there was some concern there. They didn’t know anything about my birth family other than what they had been told. So, they didn’t know, like was my mom stable? She wasn’t. Was my dad still in the picture? He was, but he had his own family. I don’t want to say they sabotaged it. They didn’t do that, but they didn’t encourage me to seek out my birth family. I did everything I could at that age of being a minor.

You could file some paperwork saying if your biological family comes looking, here’s how to contact me. I did all those things you could do, but there was no internet back then, so it was much more limited.

Then I got pregnant at 17, which created a whole other set of problems. I didn’t get pregnant intentionally. But once I realized I was pregnant, almost instantly, I thought, “This will be the first biological relative I will know.” And my family was very much, “You’re putting this child up for adoption, and you’re not keeping it,” and blah, blah, blah. And I said, “Yeah, that’s not happening.” I don’t care if I have to live in a tunnel; I will do that. But I am not giving my child up for adoption.

I stayed in California, and my dad, who had another job opportunity in Nevada, moved there with the rest of the family. But I think almost in the back of my mind, I believed, “This is going to be good, and I’m going to make it work.” My biological mother couldn’t make it work. I’m going to show her that it can be done. I didn’t dislike my birth mother, but at the same time, as a woman – how do you have a baby and then just walk away. I don’t understand. She never communicated with the adoption agency or anything. She never followed up.

I found out later that she did try to make some attempts, but the agency doesn’t tell you that when you inquire because they don’t want problems. I just remember at the time that I was having my son. I was thinking, “This is just super cool. I’m going to be looking at this baby’s face, and it will be a face that’s connected to me.”

Those junior high and high school years were tough in dealing with my adoption. I felt very different from my peers because I only knew a few other adopted people, and most of them were not transracial. So that is just like another added, I don’t want to say it’s a burden, but it’s just an added layer that makes it difficult. I mean, it’s hard enough to be an adopted person and know that you aren’t really part of the family. You are part of the family, but you know in your mind that you’re not related to them biologically, but it’s another layer when you don’t look like anybody either. My junior high and high school years were a mess.

My mom never learned how to do my hair because Black hair is different. And while my hair isn’t wholly Black because it is mixed, she never learned. She never learned how to do my brother’s hair. My brother always had the little afro going on – when it wasn’t cool to have an afro. My mom thought it was great. I’d say, “No, it’s not. It’s not great at all.”

Nowadays, I know that they have more training for trans-racial adoptive parents. You take them to this kind of barber shop, not that kind of barbershop. You braid their hair because their hair is fragile, and it breaks easily. And you wrap it at night or do these kinds of things. When I was young, teaching me or learning about how to care for black hair wasn’t important.

Thank goodness there was a friend of my mom’s finally when I was in junior high, who took me aside and showed me these were the products that I needed to get. She taught me I should be putting this stuff on my hair and not that stuff, and I shouldn’t be washing it every day because it dries it out, and I shouldn’t be just sleeping on it with no wrap around it or anything.

And I was so grateful somebody did something because I didn’t know what to do either. I went to school every day looking awful and feeling even worse. I looked like buckwheat.

My mom never took me to the Black section of the haircare products. These are all things you learn as you go. But my hair was already so broken and damaged and falling out because she tried to treat it like my sister’s white hair. It took years before it was healthy the way black hair should be.

That experience made my son’s life different because I was more conscious of that. I took them to the Black barbershops so that they get the right haircut and don’t get the little poof afro thing going. I made sure that they felt comfortable in the clothes that they were wearing. That represents them better than maybe some little polo shirt and Dockers or whatever. For me, I was more culturally conscious because my parents weren’t.

When you have trans-racial adoptions, there’s just an extra layer of sensitivity that gets lost in the mix. People assume you will assimilate into the group that is adopting you.

What’s funny is my dad has never given that up talking about those years in high school when I rebelled. I’m fifty now, and he still brings it up. He’s like, “I don’t know what happened to you there in high school, but you went sideways.” I say, “Okay. But my son’s thirty-two now, so we can move on.” But he likes to bring it up and always asks, “What made you do that? Or what made you act like this?” And I’ll say, “Dad, I was a teenager who was confused, who was hurt, who was crying out.” Who knows what I was thinking at that age? I mean, you’re a mess. And I was even more of a mess because I was adopted, and even more, because I was checking one box.

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