Isaac Etter, a social entrepreneur and transracial adoptee, shares his unique perspective on his adoption experience to assist adoptive parents in preparing their children for the world. As the founder of Identity, a startup dedicated to enhancing the lives of foster and adoptive families through technology, and a small business strategy agency owner, Isaac's insights are both practical and inspiring. With an incredible son and an insatiable appetite for learning, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the conversation.
Parenting can be an intimidating experience, even more so when you think about raising a child of a different race than yourself. You may be one of the thousands of parents who have adopted transracially and are trying to navigate complex conversations, unfamiliar cultures, and uncomfortable comments. Be at ease, you're not alone in this journey. I have had the honor of leading workshops, building resources, and working 1 on 1 with many parents going through exactly what you are.
When I was 2 years old, I was adopted by a white family. Throughout growing up, I had to navigate the deep insecurity of looking different from everyone around me. My parents did their best but did not have the knowledge or resources to understand the struggles I would experience growing up and in my early adult life.
When I was sixteen, I came across a hashtag on Tumblr, #blackoutday. Curious, I clicked on it to find black people across the country posting pictures in all black outfits to protest racial injustice. By then, I had never seen these kinds of posts or heard about racial injustice beyond Martin Luther King Jr. Diving deeper, I learned about a rising movement called Black Lives Matter. Police killing Black people? Racism? These heartbreaking stories, videos, and pictures stuck with me. I was a confused teenager with white parents, who was learning about a very different side of the world I grew up in.
My parents never had a conversation with me about race or racism. I only knew about my small world, a 16-year-old homeschooled kid, who had no clue how to comprehend this new information. It wasn’t until the following year, my first year of college, I started to experience the racism I was reading about. It was confusing for me - I wasn’t super comfortable with Black people, who looked like me, because I didn’t grow up around them, but now I was judged differently by white people who didn’t know I also had white parents.
So how can you help your child not have this experience?
I want to give you some of the advice I share in “A Practical Guide: Transracial Adoption.” The truth is you can’t control the negativity and hate in the world, but you can prepare your child, so they have the best chance of navigating it. What many transracial parents don’t know to do is prepare their children - the misconception is you can raise them in a loving environment and they will be fine, but that doesn’t account for people that aren’t as loving as you.
The first step: start early.
If you're adopting an infant from birth till 5 years old, the best things to do are surround them with toys, books, TV shows, and ideally, people that look like them. At this stage, the most important thing is affirming they are not weird or wrong for looking different than you and seeing themselves represented in your home through their toys, books, and shows they will see how they look is normal.
From 5-12 you are their advocate and safe space. At this point, friends and kids at school may be making comments about them looking different than you. What you need to do is make room for them to feel insecure about this with you instead of dismissing the feelings they are experiencing. You do this by being proactive about starting the conversation and checking in on how they are feeling and what comments are being said. This makes it clear to your child that you will make space for them to feel this way, and they don’t have to feel wrong or bad for feeling insecure about looking different than you.
Adoptees, in general, struggle with feeling wrong or bad for not being happy about being adopted all the time. The truth is that even though I love my adoptive parents and am grateful for the life I have had - I wasn’t always happy about it. Adoptees, especially transracially adopted children, need you as the parent to make room for them to love you and not love the life they are experiencing. The more room you make for them to process comments made and their insecurity with you, the more trust you will build with them, and that trust is necessary as you start having more difficult conversations about race in their teen years. It is also important you are spending time in communities that look like your child. Whether this is a church or a barbershop, or afterschool activity.
From 13-18 is when you start preparing your child for the world without you always protecting them. This is when you should be conscious of the stereotypes that may be put on them when they are not with you. You should explain to them that some people may treat them or see them one way, but that is not how you see them, and you don’t agree with that view. You explain how some people in the world may see and treat them but reassure them you're not one of those people and you have their back. These conversations will be much easier to navigate if you have people in your life and your child's life that look like them and have had to navigate life as a person of color.
18+, it is all about supporting them as they navigate life as an adult and as they may decide to search for answers about their story and heritage. Though this can be frightening for some parents, it is important you see this as your child finding answers to the thousands of blanks in their story rather than separating from you. If you support and honor your child's journey it will actually bring you closer no further apart.
For more in-depth advice, read my Practical Guide to Transracial Adoption and watch my presentation below on how to understand and support transracial adoptees.