The Story Behind The Photo: When You Don’t See Adoption

Adoptees growing up in a transracial adoptive family rarely have the option of keeping their adoption private. But for some adoptive families — domestic and even international — others don’t always see adoption. Below, Brazilian adoptee Carmen Hinckley shares her experience of growing up the daughter of a single mother who shares her same race, including when she chooses to share about her adoption and when she chooses to keep this part of her life private. 

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I am an international adoptee. I was born in Brazil and adopted as an infant by my single mother. My mother and I are the same race. Our facial features are strikingly similar, causing us to look as though we’re related. Both of us have heard comments from friends and strangers alike for my entire life, about our similarities. For anyone who doesn’t know my family and how it was created, there is no question as to whether I am biologically related to my adoptive mother.

I am able to “hide behind” sharing the same race as my mother. I share that I’m an adoptee with people that I’m comfortable around, and that I feel are important enough in my life to have this information. If I don’t feel that there is a reason to reveal that I’m adopted, I can quietly omit this information, leaving the other person none the wiser. For people with whom I’m comfortable talking about this, I share it to reveal a part of myself that they wouldn’t otherwise know. I also share it to become closer to them, and with the willingness to answer many questions that will undoubtedly arise. Still, I wait before revealing this part of myself because it does increase my vulnerability and opens my heart. I will typically only divulge this right away if I am talking to another adoptee or another Brazilian.

I am able to hold close to my heart the fact that I’m adopted and no one has been able to independently guess how my family came to be. My adoption can be a secret until I choose to disclose it. I can take advantage of this unique situation and keep it to myself or I can tell people I’m adopted and strengthen my connection to them. This provides a sense of protection around the most sacred part of my identity.

Another impact of this assumption is that often when I tell someone I’m adopted, they seem to immediately assume I was adopted from within the U.S. It’s when I reveal that I was adopted from Brazil that the shock sets in and the questions start coming.

“Really? But you look so white! I thought people from Brazil had dark skin.”

“But you and your mother are both so white and you look exactly alike! I can’t believe you were adopted from there!”
“Wow! I never would’ve guessed that! Have you ever tried to meet your birth parents?”

That last one is a very common question, and I’ve finessed my answer for the longest time. I believe it comes from the idea that if I’m Brazilian, and I’m very light skinned, that I would be interested in meeting my birth parents to find out where my white skin came from.

Each of these experiences shows the assumptions surrounding my own adoption and the ways in which it allows me to hide this piece of my identity, should I choose to. It’s a unique position to be able to take, and I use it with integrity to honor my story.

Carmen Hinckley | Portland, Oregon

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