At eleven years old, I was physically small, wore the color pink everyday, and had a constant smile on my face. In many ways, I still resembled a child much more than a young pre-teenager. With my large backpack and jingling keychains, my enthusiasm for school and learning was obvious. As an honor roll student with good friends and wonderful teachers, I only faced two consistent problems in middle school: gym class and racial taunting. And while I didn’t let the racial comments, both subtle and explicit, put a damper on my optimism, the racism and teasing I experienced undoubtedly affected my school environment.
I recall clearly the first time I was called a chink. I was in the sixth grade and on my way to my Family and Consumer Education class. With only three minutes for passing time between classes, I walked briskly in the hallway to arrive on time. And as I made my way to the eighth grade wing, where the classroom was located, I crossed the path of a much larger eighth grade boy. Instead of awkwardly sidestepping until we figured out how to pass each other, he shoved me on the floor, into a locker, and loudly yelled out, “CHINK!” as he walked away.
As I sat on the floor, with pencils from my oversized pencil/supply box strewn around me, this was the moment I realized that my race could be more than just an annoyance. I had experienced a smattering of hurtful words and micro-agressions by that time, but that this boy had invaded my personal space, put me on a new level of insecurity. My race was not only a source of weird and intrusive questions, but it also made me physically vulnerable. And it was in this moment that I also realized I would probably face unpleasant experiences due to my Chineseness for the rest of my life.
This scene replays over and over in my mind as I think about Emilie Grace Olsen of Fairfield, Ohio, the 13-year-old Chinese adoptee who took her own life last week. The seventh-grader shot herself in the head in her bedroom. Emilie’s mother told reporters that in the sixth grade, kids would call her names and try to trip her. Bullies sometimes focused on the adopted Chinese girl’s race, her father said. The heartbreaking news report shows Emilie’s parents clearly grieving and seeking answers in what seems to be an unclear situation regarding the school’s knowledge of her bullying.
Emilie’s untimely death comes just two months after the death of another Chinese adoptee and several other adoptee suicides this year. When we acknowledge the loss of these girls for their families, schools, and the Chinese-adoptee community, we need to acknowledge the impacts of race and adoption. We need to question why adoptees have higher rates of suicide, substance abuse, psychiatric disorders, and self destructive behaviors. We can not let these two girls’ deaths be in vain.
A 2002 study shows that adoptees living in Sweden are at increased risk of suicide attempt and death compared with non-adopted individuals. Hjern et al also demonstrated increased risk for suicide death in individuals exposed to foster care or other child welfare interventions. This research was further explored in the United states with a study conducted by the University of Minnesota. Published by the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013, this study found that adoptees are four times more likely to attempt suicide than non-adopted individuals.
Dr. Margaret Keyes of the University of Minnesota study says, “Adoptive parents are sometimes viewed as overreporters and quick to refer to helping agencies, social service agencies, or their family doctor. I think their concerns should be taken seriously and not necessarily viewed as overreporting or overanxiousness. They may be looking at a real phenomenon in their family.”
Keyes et al hypothesize that “factors unique to relinquishment by a biological parent (eg, early trauma, institutional care, attachment issues) may also elevate risk for suicidal behavior later in life.” Institutionalization of children shows lifelong implications when it comes to neural development and attachment. Despite how young children are when they are adopted, despite how much love their adoptive parents pour into them, they are not blank slates. Adoptees have a personal history and life before adoption that must be recognized.
The Keyes study is hugely important in showing the higher rates of suicide for adoptees. In addition to early trauma associated with abandonment and institutionalization, difficulties in family and school settings have been frequently associated with suicidality in young people. The bullying and racial taunting Emilie received at school seems to be one of the primary reasons for her suicide.
As her parents look for answers, it is clear that bullying is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed on a national level. I place no blame on Emilie’s parents during this heartbreaking time, but I strongly believe adoptive parents with young children need to consider the level of diversity in their neighborhood and their children’s schools. Emilie came from a 79% white city (with only 2.4% of the population being Asian), and was bullied for her looks to the point of suicide. I grew up in an 88% white city. While my elementary school had students from nearly twenty different countries, my high school was 98% white. Additionally, I can recall no people of color as teachers, librarians, or school administration in any of my K-12 schooling.
It is so important for children of color to have role models, inspirational figures, and safe people in their lives who look like them. Natural sources for these types of “heroes” are within their own family or school settings, yet the majority of adoptees are adopted into white families in predominantly white communities where their image is not reflected back at them. When I was younger, I remember staring and pointing at any Asian women who walked by me because it was such a rarity. Adoptive parents need to make a conscious effort to have friends of color and bring them into their children’s lives. Obviously, these family friendships need to be constructed in respectful ways, not singling out a person solely based on their race. These friendships develop more naturally in places of greater diversity, where connections based on similar interests, work experience, and values can be made. I think Chad Goller-Sojourner says it well: “If you don’t have any close friends or people who look like your kid before you adopt a kid, then why are you adopting that kid? Your child should not be your first black friend.”
When parents choose to adopt transnationally, they sign up to take on the task of understanding the complexities of race in our society. It is adoptive parents’ job to prepare their children for the racism they will receive and not leave them defenseless when they are called a chink, told to go back to their own country, or asked if they see in widescreen. And while some things will always be more naturally discussed with peers and mentors of color, adoptive parents and educators can to do their best to encourage open communication through age appropriate discussions of difficult topics. White teachers teaching to multiracial classrooms need to have a heightened level of cultural competency and be attuned to different family structures. Adoptive parents and educators can work to not invalidate children’s experiences with racism at school. It’s so important to listen and not marginalize or undermine the issues as they come up. When children and adolescents feel unheard on certain issues, they learn to stop talking about them. I think perhaps one of the most important lessons for adoptive parents to learn is that silence does not equal serenity.
If parents and educators are able to realize their own flaws in their racialized mindsets and have open, meaningful discussions about race in the classroom and in the home, perhaps the next generation of children won’t carry the same prejudices or won’t have to face the same types of marginalization. The death of Emilie Grace Olsen is a tragedy that highlights how much more work we have to do as a society to support adoptees and people of color.
Dr. Oh Myo Kim M.Div, PhD, wrote in a Gazillion Voices article:
“I want to write about the number of adoptees who struggle with suicide and suicidal ideation because they lack a continuity with the past and because their attempts at continuity are denied by agencies that withhold birth family information, about the number of adult adoptees who are divorced because their identities are so wildly in flux it is hard for a partner to keep up, about adoptees who perform childhood even as adults. I want to write about loss; about issues with body image because for our whole lives, our faces did not reflect our immediate families or societal images of beauty; about attachment issues; about not eating or overeating as a representation of nurture; about substance abuse. I want to write about the structural inequalities on a global, political and economic scale that fully manifest when an adoptee attempts to hold the poverty of their birth parents alongside the privileges of their adoptive parents, and especially, when that adoptee tries to love them both.”
If we claim to love and want to do right by adoptees, we need to start writing, listening, and talking more openly about the intersections of race and adoption. Not all adoptees who feel isolation will commit suicide, but we do pay a price. Adoptive parents often say they are willing to do anything for their children, and I believe that should include providing them with a safe, healthy, and nurturing environment. Unless we acknowledge the effects of early trauma, racial isolation, and lifelong loss, I fear we will continue see more stories like Emilie’s.
 Keyes, Margaret A., Stephen M. Malone, Anu Sharma, William G. Iacono, and Matt McGue. “Risk of suicide attempt in adopted and nonadopted offspring.” Pediatrics 132, no. 4 (2013): 639-646.
 Hjern A, Lindblad F, Vinnerljung B. Suicide, psychiatric illness, and social maladjustment in intercountry adoptees in Sweden: a cohort study. Lancet. 2002;360(9331):443–448
 Beautrais AL, Joyce PR, Mulder RT. Risk factors for serious suicide attempts among youths aged 13 through 24 years. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 1996;35(9):1174–1182
“Talking to Our Children About Racism and Diversity” by The Leadership Conference http://www.civilrights.org/publications/reports/talking_to_our_children/
Gina Parker Collins, “Five Myths of Talking About Race With Your Child,” http://4riise.org/?p=424