Searching for Identity: Adoption, Race & Awareness in the Millennial Generation

by Dwight Smith


A version of this essay was previously published on

What happens when a Black boy is adopted at birth into a white world where race and racism are ghosts of the past and racial identity is a silly thing to waste time thinking about? And what happens when white millennials are raised without an accurate understanding of race, racism, and their role in a racialized society?

Both questions are connected because I — and many of my millennial peers — came up in similar race-erasing worlds. Both questions are important to me because my life experiences as both a transracial adult adoptee and a millennial motivate me to address the racial confusion of my generation.

As Slate’s chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie sums it up in his article “Why Do Millennials Not Understand Racism?,” our generation thinks that “if we ignore skin color, racism will somehow disappear.”

I helped build the Impact Race initiative for a global nonprofit called Net Impact, connecting our 100,000 members with the awareness, language, and resources necessary to advocate for racial equity in their communities and careers. Aspects of my journey as a transracial adoptee, and that experienced by the majority-white millennial generation in the United States, highlights the importance of pushing the conversation toward an honest, reflective look at how to understand racism and actively work for racial equity.

Ignorance is bliss, until it isn’t.

I am a mixed-race Black male who was raised in and around whiteness, where race had about as much real significance as the color of one’s shoelaces, and racism was a wrong of years gone by. In this world, to be Black (this is how I was and continue to be categorized) was limited to a combination of inaccurate media portrayals and hollow stereotypes. For the most part, there was just deafening silence when it came to me being Black (or mixed, for that matter). Of course, with no deeper discussion or exploration, all of this was “normal” to me in the sense that it was all I ever knew. It was also normal to all of my white peers as I was growing up. This is, in part, the reason that a raceless, colorblind worldview is so common among many of my white millennial peers today.

Because of this reductionist view held by those around me, I was alone in navigating the waters of racial identity at a young age, while I also searched to fill the void left by the displacement of adoption. I never knew which box to check. A heavy dose of the once-prevalent-now-debunked “love is enough” approach to transracial adoption was very effective in rendering me racially oblivious and thus unprepared to cope with the reality of the racialized world in which I was coming of age. I desperately needed to be prepared.

For the record, I love and admire my adoptive parents tremendously. There was a lot of good in my upbringing and nearly all of it was because of them. I do not blame my parents (or my peers) for what amounts to the crippling combination of good intentions and a prevalent but incorrect racial paradigm.

That being said, although I did benefit from the white privilege of my adoptive family during my childhood, the more I stepped out from under that umbrella—outside the house, out of the view of parents in the grocery store, in the locker room—the more it became clear that I was viewed as other.

As God would have it, a pivotal chapter in my adoption journey coalesced with the repeated and very public brutalization of Black people across the country and served to advance my racial self-awareness.

In the early morning hours of January 1, 2009, Oscar Grant was murdered on a train platform in Oakland, California. I remember the exact moment when I realized that I was Oscar Grant. I was transported out of my individual circumstances and onto that BART platform as I fully understood that how I was viewed, and how I identified, held fatally unequal weight. This incident lit a flame within me. No matter how great of a code-switcher I had become, the type of life-or-death judgement that ended Oscar’s life would not wait for my explanation, my exploration, or others’ commiseration.

February 26, 2012, brought with it the murder of Trayvon Martin.

November 23 of that same year marked the murder of Jordan Davis.

The flame quickly grew to a blaze.

From 2009 to the present day, every name—Oscar, Trayvon, Michael, Jordan, Rekia, Tamir, Laquan, Eric, Akai, Walter, Sandra, Freddie, the Charleston Nine, Elliot, Alton, Philando (this list sadly goes on and on)—renewed my commitment to a journey of inquiry for the root causes of and solutions for racial inequity. My eyes were opened to see everything through a new lens — not just the acts of racial violence that periodically garner media attention. But the everyday realities that people of color face in this country, realities that so many millennials will never experience.

Just as I needed to be prepared for a world I hadn’t prepared for, so too do millennials who need to wake up to the fact that most of the conceptions they hold regarding race in America are, in fact, misconceptions. Though the individual risk will never be as high for white millennials as it is for people of color, as the largest living generation in an increasingly diverse country, our collective need for awareness has never been greater or more urgent. We all need to open our eyes. We all need to wake up.

Time to wake up!

At the beginning of my freshman year of college, as my racial awareness was still budding, I started the reunification process with my birth family. This entailed connecting with both of my birth parents, as well as other immediate and extended family whom I had never met, but many of whom knew of and had been praying for me. It was (and still is) a beautifully complicated experience.

I had so many questions — both about myself and about my adoption—and suddenly answers were within my grasp. I was immersed in my African American heritage: People, places, stories, and traditions that I had never experienced were somehow familiar. Imagine dropping a dry sponge in a puddle of water and the rapid absorption that follows. That was me. I was learning and living with a more complete sense of self.

But unlike the sponge, there is no saturation level for me. The experience of reunification is an ongoing one, with ups and downs. Even though life as an adoptee never stops being complex, whether in or out of reunion with birth family, I know that my steps into young adulthood would not have been as sure without this connection to my roots.

Activating awareness

As a transracial adoptee raised in an era of colorblindness, and as a Black person, the stakes were especially high for me to adjust my worldview — potentially life or death. This is true for all nonwhite millennials and children. But the stakes are incredibly high, too, for white millennials who must bring a racial justice lens to their lives. In his best-selling book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates cautions multiple generations of white Americans, including millennials:

The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle themselves. To understand that the field for their Dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white, is the deathbed of us all. The Dream is the same habit that endangers this planet, the same habit that sees our bodies stowed away in prisons and ghettos.” 

Coates’s grim prognosis of the false security of the American dream and the effects of U.S. racism should compel us all to first seek understanding and then racial equity-oriented solutions.

Simply opening one’s eyes is not enough. We must seek the context to interpret that which we now see. My faith, my current understanding of the factors that influenced my childhood experiences as a transracial adoptee, and my everyday experiences as a Black man in America, fuel my life’s commitment to education and advocacy. And so, what I will do, following in the pattern of Coates and others, is continue to lift the veil.

Postscript: For other transracial adoptees of color out there – know that you are not alone. WE OUT HERE! Community is probably closer than you think. Seek it out. My hope is that this piece and my experience might bring community one step closer to you. A Facebook message from a friend in the spring of 2013, inviting me to apply to be a counselor for some family camp, was the beginning of my journey with Pact. Before my first Pact Family Camp, I didn’t even know what I was looking for. What I found was other adult adoptees of color. What I found was a space where I could continue to learn myself. What I found was an organization that put adopted and foster youth of color at the center of all its work, creating for young girls and boys space and voice that I never had. Now I am committed to all the youth and families that make up this community—that I needed and never knew existed—by investing my time, resources, and energy into Pact, An Adoption Alliance.

I just wrapped up my fourth consecutive year at Camp as a co-head counselor for the Teens. In addition, this year I was honored to join Pact’s Board. Pact has played and will continue to play an absolutely pivotal role in my life. If you are a transracial adoptee of color and you are reading this, consider plugging into Pact. In doing so, you are taking an active role in building voice for those that have been silenced.

Dwight Smith is a transracial adoptee and a former member of the Board of Directors of Pact and of the Coro Center for Civic Leadership. A graduate of UC Davis, Dwight has served as a teacher, tutor, coach and mentor, including as a Pact Family Camp youth counselor. He is currently a Senior Manager at the Groundwater Institute.



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