The Inside Story of Transracial Adoption
Today we're joined by Isaac Etter - an activist, social entrepreneur and a transracial adoptee from the age of two. He is the founder of Identity, a startup focused on providing accessible, diverse, and ethical adoption and foster care education. And he formerly worked in adoption through his consulting firm Etter Consulting where he lead trainings for families and adoption agencies on transracial adoption.
In this episode, we discuss the personal adoption perspectives of Isaac and our own co-host Miranda, the affects adoption plays on racial identity development, and the need for parent preparation when adopting a child of a differing race.
[00:01 – 05:22]
Noelle: What uuuuup!?
Miranda: Welcome to The Unpacked Project.
Noelle: We're your hosts, I’m Noelle…
Miranda: And I’m Miranda.
Noelle: We're here to explore all things, social justice. It's through casual conversations, interviews and storytelling that we hope to inspire others to take action towards a more compassionate and equitable world.
Miranda: Because honestly, it kind of sucks here sometimes.
Noelle: For real. We can do better people.
Miranda: Alright, let's start unpacking.
Noelle: Hi Miranda.
Miranda: Hey Noelle. Hi, hey…
Noelle: Such as I do but it's like pretty much the same thing every time.
Noelle: As if we haven't been together for the past couple of hours.
Miranda: I know. Yeah.
Noelle: But no, it's Martin Luther King Day actually today, so happy MLK day.
Miranda: Yes. What document are you watching?
Noelle: It was called King, it's like three hours long but it's all like raw footage of everything and some of it's kind of hard to hear because of the quality, so they subtitle everything. But, kind of like bringing light to the fact that he was really fighting for. And, you know, I think that's another part of history that's been whitewashed in terms of what he's, you know, he's been fighting for. And I think it did a really good job of showing… I don't know how to put it, like…
Miranda: Well, I mean it related to the post for the fact that he's just not, he wasn't, he's portrayed [Cross Talk 1:38 – 1:39], yeah exactly.
Noelle: Yeah, I mean, like he was pretty firm and the fact that like, you know, how they were being treated was wrong and what we should be fighting for and that we should… like all the boycotts. Yeah, he was against violence and responding, you know, responding to the violence that was coming on to them with violence but I think they just did a really good job of showing everything behind the scenes.
Miranda: I think so many people relate [...] activism to protests.
Miranda: And I’m like or even just protest to violence and like protest doesn't have to be violent. I think he was such a disrupter.
Miranda: Yeah. Alright, well I’m super excited for our guest; we have the amazing Isaac Etter joining us. He's an activist, a social entrepreneur and a transracial adoptee from the age of two, so we're going to be getting really into identity. So we have him here with us. He's also the founder of identity, which is a startup focused on providing accessible, diverse and ethical adoption in foster care education. Formerly, Isaac worked in adoption through his consulting firm at her consulting where he led trainings for families and adoption agencies on Transracial adoption. He also co-founded an education and advocacy organization Safe House Lancaster, where he was the co-executive director. He's used his story of being adopted and growing up in a white world to create deep conversations about race in America. And with his unique insight on racial tensions between white and Black communities, he's been able to curate impactful conversations for families where everyone learns to value each other and their experience, while learning about systemic racism privilege and their role in it. So, hopefully I did a great job summarizing all the amazing things you've done Isaac. Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you?
Isaac Etter: Thank you so much for having me. I’m doing great today. Yeah, it's an okay day, it's a little bit snowy here, I’m sure it's not for you guys. But, yeah, it's chill trying to stay out of the cold.
Noelle: It is a chilly 65 degrees in Tampa Florida.
Miranda: And I’m freezing…
Noelle: When I came in I was like it's freezing here, she had the slider open, she had to put the heat on, I’m like I can't, it’s…
Isaac Etter: I would love to be in that.
Miranda: Yeah, most people would. I know we're kind of spoiled. Yeah. So, Isaac, can you just share a little bit more about your personal journey and really how adoption has impacted your work.
Isaac Etter: Yeah absolutely. So, I was adopted when I was two by a white family. And growing up, you know, I just didn't grow up around any people of color. And so, my racial identity was always a question, you know. I never really had any way to look up and see a version of myself. You know most of us, we go through life and we see versions of ourselves out in the world that was never really my experience, so there was always question about, like, what I was going to be as an adult. Like, sometimes even still I look at myself in the mirror, I’m like I wouldn't guess this, like, I just, you know, wouldn't have, I wouldn't guess that I would look like this, not even from an attractive or unattractive standpoint, just from, like, literally just straight not having any recognition of how I would look as an adult. And so those were a lot of my early struggles which is really a lot of confusion around who I am? Who I’m going to be? And so I had a couple, I had a rough start to this journey but it was really in that, those years of college where I once started learning more about racism and the effect of society like systematic racism. But also I was experiencing racism for the first time, so being kind of, like, I guess you might call lived experience of racism and actually being a Black person that isn't, I’m shielded by whiteness and that just really changed my life, it didn't only just change my life in terms of like knowledge but the impact of experiencing racism for the first time really sent me into a crisis.
[05:23 – 10:19]
Isaac Etter: As, you know, as it does a lot of Black People to experience blatant racism. But, I think for me, the reason that it was extremely hard, was that for most of my life white people had essentially been my Facebook, right? I didn't know Black People. So, I was actually more uncomfortable around Black People. But then I go to college and the white people are saying, you know, mean things to me based on my skin tone, I’m having all these like weird instances in class, feel like I’m having to speak for Black People, you know, I barely know Black People at this point. So, there was just, it was just so much hitting me all at once, not to mention that like my family didn't really understand what I was going through. And so, you know, I just ended up dropping out and moving to Georgia and starting a new light but it was really when I got back to Lancaster that I started building non-profits and I wanted to see impact happen and I wanted to kind of start movements. So, the first thing I built was called Lancaster together, it was a non-profit that was focused on helping students connect with non-profits and know where to volunteer. And one of the events we did was on foster care and adoption. And from that event, like, that I spoke I actually ended up speaking at that event just for a little bit, just telling a little bit of my story, both of the agencies that sponsored the event, they actually asked me to keep coming and keep leading training. And so that just kind of started happening and I, every month I was leading this cultural training for an adopted agency. And then one day she just kind of pulled me aside and she was like, you know, why don't you just think about doing this. Like, I don't know what you're doing but you should just do this. And I wasn't at a position where like I had too much stake in anything, you know, so I was just like, you know, what whatever I’m just going to do this, that's how kind of editor consulting started. And I built that our consulting to help families understand the best practices for Transracial adoption. And it would be four years this year, this would be the fourth year, if I hadn't started identity. And so it was like about three and a half really strong years of doing trainings across the country, meeting with families and I love that work. And I think it's really important. But it was really while doing that work that I realized that there were bigger issues in adoption. And so, we started identity to help provide more accessible education to families and also provide them with ongoing support. So that's really the work that I do now. Yeah.
Noelle: Yeah. And, I mean, I love when we hear stories about how people take their own personal experiences and even if it's been difficult and there's been trauma, you know, and turning it into something, that's really productive and fulfilling, so I think it's awesome what you've done. We've talked on previous episodes about different like racial identity development models and you've started talking a little bit about it in terms of, you know, your own sense of racial identity and sense of self and how being involved in Transracial adoption affected that, you know, on some previous episodes, Miranda, I think you've mentioned you're also an adoptee. So, I’m just curious a little bit more and like you briefly mentioned, you know, growing up kind of having a white identity, it sounds like maybe… So, I’m just curious about that how you, you know, feel like that developed over your childhood and maybe at different times throughout, like as you entered adolescence and like different critical periods during your life. And same for you Miranda, like, just how that has happened for you all being adoptees.
Miranda: Just like how it's formed our identity?
Miranda: I’ll go.
Noelle: You're fine.
Miranda: I think, you know, so I was adopted when I was very young, I was days old, like two weeks old. My birth parents, my mother specifically wanted a family than more or less matched racially, so like there were some criteria that she was looking for in a family. And so she wanted a family that was Black and Latin, right? And Black Mexican Portuguese, my adopted family, my mother's Black and my father was Puerto Rican. Now, my parents are also light-skinned, right? So, I’m the darkest one in my family. My mother doesn't really have a lot of family. So, my extended family is pretty much my Puerto Rican family, so if you see photos of me, and with my family I’m the darkest one, they all speak Spanish, kind of all this, right? So, growing up the only question I ever had was who do I look? Like, I grew up for a very long time without… that was the only thing I ever wondered about, you know. I, you know, Isaac, you were kind of talking about some other things, like, what do I grow up to be like, you know, these other questions I never really had that because I also have a younger sister who's not adopted, right? So, like, there's kind of this, like, who looks like me, my sister looks like my parents and I don't look like anybody and do I look like my family. And so I actually found my parents when I was in college and I was having health issues and all the doctors are always like what's your health history, what's your health history. I don't know it, you know, at a certain point I’m starting to get frustrated, right? I’m like, can you just help me.
[10:20 – 15:06]
Miranda: I don't, you know, I don't know. So, I found I had some paperwork. I honestly did a Google search. Apparently I’m an FBI agent. And, you know, I found my birth parents. And so what was so interesting is that I then met them and was like my mother looks like a white woman. I mean she's Portuguese Mexican, she's lighter, and she’s super light freckles, straight brown hair. I’m like I look lit but our faces look the same, and then my father Black, very dark skin. So, just really it also kind of like I had this question and then it's like I had the answer but it wasn't what I thought it would be. So then these questions of identity weren't ever really answered, you know. So, I think and then, you know, once I met them, we had a relationship for a while. But, you know, that was kind of it. And so I think for me, I grew up around a lot of diversity I’d say but similarly like knowing blackness like being part of the culture, I think my mom tried but it just being her and not being really exposed to that many other Black People like we had a couple of family friends, I had a couple friends growing up. But I did and I still do, you know, some of that like feeling uncomfortable in groups of all Black People. I’m like people are going to know I’m a fraud, you know. And so I would say, I will say now I’ve been doing a lot more work around identity and figuring that piece of me out, you know. Actually it's really how we came to Isaac, right? I was on tick tock, I was like oh wow his story resonates with me, you know, so yeah, very similar in that way. What about you?
Isaac Etter: For me, it was no mirrors, no diversity for so much in my life. That identity for me around race just was kind of a big blank. And so, you know, I spent a couple of years, I mean, a lot of my time in Georgia was just spent around just like becoming okay with being different and being a Black person with my experience, right? I think one of the hardest parts about being a Transracial adoptee is different environment, like, another difficult thing is like and being in Black Community and not seeing yourself as a flawed. And so, I had to like just dive into not feeling like that, accepting my own blackness in a sense as weird as that sounds. It's like I may consciously be like oh I’m Black but as soon as I got around people, Black People, I knew didn't feel, I had to figure out how to get those two together and be in Black Community and realize that just because my experience may have been white, it doesn't negate my experience as a Black person either because as soon as I became an adult, like, as soon as I left that white bubble that was created for me, I immediately started experiencing racism. And like when a cop pulls me over, they don't know my parents are, right? And so like I’m still living as a Black person but I think for a lot of adoptees, it's just so hard for us to feel like it. And so that was a lot of my like early days, a lot of my early work internally was just accepting myself as a Black person and accepting that, you know, no matter what other Black People thought about me, I was Black. And then it also just becomes an internal thing with yourself, led me to giving back and trying to create a better world for those children who are currently experiencing that dilemma. And hopefully guiding their parents towards giving a better outcome than I have…
Miranda: Well I think, you know, earlier you had mentioned, something around, you know, the Black experience is so vast, you know, and I think this idea that we really have to remember is, you know, we've been inundated with these ideas that Black People, Black Culture looks one way or looks this way. And it's also not that, you know, the Black diaspora is so vast, you know, people speak differently, they're from different places, they have different experiences and that shouldn't be negated or dwindled down to, you know, Black People speak this way, dress this way, are from this area, you know, like go to these types of schools. I’m like we do all the things, everybody else does too, you know. And because of that we fit right in to that vastness, you know.
Isaac Etter: Yeah, we are, you know, Black is, Black People are diverse and of yourself. That is something that isn't taught to most people. And so, you know, adoptees fall into that mix of getting the wrong stereotyping, getting the wrong message. And it's like all races aren't just one, I mean, so I think it just really sets Transracial Adopters up at a disadvantage, not having parents that expose them to the world. And especially the people that look like them that come from all different.
[15:07 – 20:04]
Miranda: Yeah, for sure. So, Transracial adoption, it has this complex history in this country which, you know, we aren’t really surprising when we think about how systemic racism impacts so many aspects of society. Prior to the 1950s Transracial adoption was extremely rare and in many states illegal. Adoption agencies also recommended race matching. So, white people adopting white children, Black folks adopting Black children. For a period of time, which we also know the children of color tend to wait in foster care longer than their white peers, which is why the multi-ethnic placement act Meepa or MEPA, I’m not sure, was enacted in 1994.
Noelle: Yeah, we had looked up. Yeah, we always try to like do research before especially, you know, I’m not an adoptee, and we talked about on this episode really being like close to your heart, right? And like a reflection of you. And so it was interesting. I, obviously I work with children in foster care, and I work with Transracial Adoptees, and I experience it from that lens but never from like a lens of really looking at it through identity development and kind of the experience of what that would be transracially. But in the research of looking through that, they assessed the multi-ethnic placement act over like the past 25 years. And they had found that the proportion of adoptions that were Transracial increased at a rate that exceeded the increase in overall adoption. So, we're seeing the, you know, the rise in adoption in general, which, like is a good thing, right? I mean, we don't want children sitting in foster care and not being adopted either. But, the data really shows that the proportion of children adopted transracially, it increased from 23 percent to 28 percent overall and from 21 percent to 33 percent for Black children specifically. So, of these Transracial adoptions, interestingly 90 percent involve children of color adopted by parents of a different race. I know we had the conversation exit mostly white parents that are adopting children of color, you know. And so given how much more common it is in the past decade or so. I mean there is that that history that we know. What do you say to the people who challenge it? Like, you know, who say that it's not, you had talked about it being, there being somewhat of a disadvantage for the children and there is that complex history. So, can it work in a child's best interest to be adopted Trans-Racially, you know, there are a limited amount of Black families to be able to adopt Black children in foster care. So, there's like this balance, right? We want them to be adopted but then can it set them up for disadvantage. So what are your thoughts about that?
Isaac Etter: Yeah. I think the first question, and it's… I think you almost work down to that question which is like, the first question is like, is our child welfare system the best place for children, right? And so, if we ask that question and we look at our child welfare history, and we look at the child welfare system, we know the answer is no. Like being placed into the system is one form of trauma already and so we know these children is already coming with a set of challenges, already facing their identity? So, the answer is like no and yes. I guess that's, I know that's complicated but I think it's probably more so no than anything because the system isn't set up in the children's best interest, because right now it's best suited to agencies and people who are profiting from it. As we look at these things and Black children going into more white homes and all these statistics that are happening, I think alongside of them, we should be looking at building nonprofits and businesses that help support that and those being positive experiences…
Noelle: That's like one of those things that we always talk about in here, we talk about intersectionality a lot and it's like we already have these systems that suck and that don't work. When you don't have racism involved in it and then you layer that on top of something, that's already shitty and it just exacerbates all the problems. Like you said, I mean, you know, there can be, you know, a white family that adopts a white child and the adoption system has, you know, like you said is riddled with problems, foster care shelters. Like, all that already exists, even if you're a white child experiencing that, so then later on being a child of color having to navigate all of that and dealing with parents if you are adopted then or put in foster care, parents that don't understand or don't expose or don't do the work, you know, like you said, and it just exacerbates any of those issues. So it's a really good point.
Isaac Etter: Yeah, we often talk about how systems can't be good if we let people get away with bad things, we can take the George example, right?
[20:05 – 25:21]
Isaac Etter: The argument wasn’t what happened to George Floyd wrong or right, the argument became is policing good or bad. And the narrative was that how can the policing system be good if we let people get away with bad things consistently inside of it. And so, I think in child welfare, we just need more people who are building really new and really important and impactful nonprofits and companies that challenge the status quo of child welfare. I mean I have some wonderful friends that are doing this work and it's beautiful to see. And this also goes along with family preservation, right? Like the first step to child welfare is actually making sure that families can stay together. The second step becomes foster care and adoption. And so, we have to really reorganize how the system is flowing and operating before we can really get down to whether family placements are good or bad. Because again gamble, it's a gamble especially. Is it good? Is it a good placement, if a birth mother is coerced into giving away her parental rights but the adoptive family is really great? And so, there's so many nuanced situations in here that I feel like we have to get down to and that makes questions that are great like that, really hard to answer because I want to say yes but at the same time kind of like the example I just gave, it might not be.
Miranda: I always appreciate the questions that cause us to have more questions, right? You know, because if we're really thinking of a system, you know, as a whole, there's so much to undo, you know. I mean really I think we talk about that a lot. There's so much undoing. You talk about racism, it's not a singular experience, there's just so much to it, it's multifaceted, it's nuanced, you know. But, I think, you know, all of that will take years, you know, the creation of organizations and this additional support. But one of the things that we can do or that, you know, your company does is provide support to Transracial adoptee parents, right? So tell me what do you think is most important for parents to consider when raising children who look different from them?
Isaac Etter: Yeah, I think the most important thing is to assess your own biases and your own experience, right? And so, I think in order for Transracial adopted parents to be good parents, they have to really be brought into being allies on all fronts, right? They had to really be bought into doing their own work and addressing their own biases. And that could look like assessing like your community, right? Church is a really good example because the majority of people who adopt a Christian. And so like what church do you go to. And does that church have any people of color. There's a great assessment of where you stand, right? It gives you a clear picture of like should you be bringing a Black child into this home, if you literally know no other Black man, is this going to be your first class, are you really capable to be a great translator without a parent, that's a great first step I think. I personally would rather if you know that you're just not, that's not the life for you, like you're not Black lives matter and just adopt white children and call it a day. Focus on what you know, no shame in the game, really, not for me personally and maybe other adoptees have different experiences or viewpoints of that. But, I just think, it's true like if you can't handle the race component of adoption, just don't do it. There's nobody, I’m not going to shame you about it at least. And I don't think anybody should shame you about it because the worst thing that we need in the adoption world is for children that have already experienced a set of trauma to experience a whole new set of trauma because their adopted parents refuse to accept their racial identity which does happen. I have friends that don't talk to their parents because they are literally anti-Black lives matter and will be blatantly racist. And that's a traumatizing experience for even an adult adoptee. And so, you know, that's I guess my viewpoint on it start with what you know, like start with your community, start with where you're from, you know, who, you know, and then go from there. And I think some of the second layer questions are like how is my family going to react to a Black child, is my family going to be brought into this process, you know, my extended family really wasn't at first. I didn't grow up around an extended family that even understood when I started talking about things. It took years for my extended family to really get on the same baby and mainly George Floyd. Like, a lot of the George Floyd instinct really woke up a lot of my extended family. And so, like, those are some questions that I think parents should be asking themselves that they don't have to think about biological problems. So, I just think those are some of the questions that don't get asked enough. I think they're getting asked more and many people are doing deeper thoughts about Transracial adoption but you have to know yourself well enough to know that is your home really the safest place. And that question hasn't been asked historically. I’m hoping that it gets asked more.
[25:22 – 30:31]
Isaac Etter: I work with some agencies that have a lot stricter of a process for Transracial adoptions, who actually like their home study process is a lot more involved. They do questionnaires and trainings that really assess whether a family should be able to Transracially adopt. I think that's really important. There haven’t been enough studies about this yet. I know there's not official studies but I think as more studies come out and more people do research on it, we will find that there is a serious mental and traumatic experience that Black Transracial Adoptees go through or any other race in a white family that… like, I think it really, we see it on social media and like in theory we understand it, I think in the next like 10 years we'll see actual research that shows how traumatic of an experience that was. That was one of the worst experiences of my life, like, I will never fully recover from having my family not understand why Black lives matter or why I’m voting for trump or why I need to post about a police, like murder. Like, I’ll never fully get over that pain and that experience and that feeling of rejection because it was compiled on top of the feelings of rejection; I have from my birth mother, my birth father and all these other things. So, I think that we're still underselling the importance of parents really being prepared and understanding this. I’m hoping that in the next couple of years we actually see data that supports this lot more. So that everybody can get bought into the fact that this is serious work and it's in serious fuel.
Noelle: Well, thank you so much. One of the things that we always like to end with is we like to ask, like, are there any people you referenced before you have some friends out there doing amazing work in this area, if there's any agency that are really forward-thinking or more progressive or follow some of the recommendations of editor consulting. So can you just let our listeners know how they can support or if people are looking to adopt or if there's resources for adoptees that have experienced which you've experienced, just some resources for our listeners.
Isaac Etter: Yeah, for adoptees one resource that I recently came into was called intercountry adoptee voices, run by Linnell, that has one for internet, it's a lot for international adoptees but it has a lot of domestic resources as well and the big community surrounded, it's great for adoptees. Actually in Florida, there's an agency called adoption authority that I’ve worked pretty close with. They're fantastic, they do a great home study process, and they've told me they very often tell people to Transracial adoption, which is great. And so, really big fan of them, obviously identity, so at identity, like, we have a learning community for adoption and foster families, they get access to webinars tutorials and other resources, and also being community. So, like families would love, for families to join that. I’m trying to think, you know, in terms of other resources that people can look at, Instagram was a great place for this. Like Hannah J Matthews is on Instagram or Redeem Therapy… oh sorry, it's Therapy Redeemed, there's a therapist that's also an adoptee, these are some great resources to start doing like just a little bit of research, around maybe what the psychology or the experience of the doctors is to let you know like is this something a journey that I want to do.
Noelle: Thank you so much. I like you said Miranda it's like questions that lead to more questions and I’m like now this could be like 20 more episodes of things that we need to cover. But, we appreciate it, you know thank you for sharing your experience, you know, is probably painful and, you know, like you said traumatizing but being vulnerable with us here today and sharing that, we really do appreciate it. I think stories are really powerful ways to build empathy and also expand knowledge for people. And so we just are really thankful for you being here with us today. And also sharing the resources and the work that you're doing at identity, so…
Isaac Etter: Absolutely. Thank you guys so much for having me. It's happy to be here.
Noelle: Yeah. So, listeners, we really only have I think like another episode left before we hop on break but we thank you so much for having you with us throughout all these episodes over the past few months. We'll see you in a couple weeks. And then I don't know we'll take it again.
Miranda: We'll see you back after that.
Noelle: Yeah. Alright, thanks everybody.
Noelle: Show the unpacked project some love and be sure to like, subscribe and review our podcast. You can also check us out on Instagram at the_unpackedproject.
Miranda: And if you enjoyed today's episode, visit our website at the unpactproject.com, where you can make a donation that supports the research, production and operating costs of this work.
Noelle: Shout out to all of our listeners who unpacked with us today.
Miranda: See you next week. Peace.