You’re Not Like the Other Ones: How Selective Colorblindness Harms Adoptees of Color

“But she’s not THAT kind of Mexican!” exclaimed my mother’s acquaintance, backpedaling in the conversation after stating there were “too many Mexicans” at our local middle school. I, my mother’s adopted brown daughter, heard about this conversation later. My 12-year-old brain struggled to understand what kind of Mexican was so bad, what kind of Mexican I was and if they were the same. Children adopted by parents of a different racial or ethnic group – “transracial adoptees” – have to navigate some tricky conversations about race. These often arise when a white person’s desire to ignore an adoptee’s race converges with their bias against a minority group.

Colorblind ideology seeks to disregard racial and ethnic differences in society in hopes of ending discrimination and promoting equality, but it often has quite the opposite effect. When interacting with transracial adoptees, white people may actually be “selectively colorblind”; that is, they may seek to convey a racist stereotype while simultaneously excluding the adopted child from that minority group. They may find it easier to look past the racial identity of adoptees of color if their parents are white. But they won’t be able to disguise any racial biases they might have against minorities in general. As a result, people like my mother’s acquaintance may end up expressing racist sentiments with the caveat that those sentiments do not apply to the adopted child of color, just to that child’s racial group.

The effects of selective colorblindness are frustrating at best and damaging at worst. Throughout my childhood, I tried to act “white,” attempted to reject my heritage and had low self-esteem. 40% of adoptees are transracial. That’s a lot of young minds to be tainted by the effects of selective colorblindness. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Think (or read) before you speak. In our society, whiteness is treated as the norm. Anything outside of it is considered “other” and often comes with negative associations. While you may think you are living out Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream when you gloss over someone’s racial identity, you may actually be reinforcing the idea that there is something wrong with being a person of color.
  2. Call it out when you see it. Even if you have never made selectively colorblind comments, it is likely that you will hear other people make them. If you do, ask them to explain. Suddenly, they will be forced to reckon with their own racial biases. My adoptive mother did this when her acquaintance made that ignorant comment, asking, “You know Isabella is Mexican, right? What do you mean by that?” Hopefully, the perpetrator will remember your response the next time they go to make a similar comment.
  3. Practice color consciousness. As disappointing as it is, non-white folks in this country are still judged negatively by their skin color. Color consciousness is all about acknowledging race – recognizing that some people face racial barriers to equal treatment. Consider it the first step toward seeking racial equality in everything from our institutions to our interpersonal interactions.

In a society that embraces racial differences, adoptees of color will be able to grow up knowing their worth. We should be able to celebrate our heritage and love the color of our skin. It is our collective responsibility to make sure our actions and words are working toward that future, not against it.