How many times does a person need to encounter racism before it works?

I was lying back in the dentist chair recently, a new friend wrenching on my gums with what felt like barbed wire sliding between each of my teeth. But he was wearing scrubs and latex gloves, so I trust he knows what’s up. It’s not a problem I start tasting blood.

He’s like, “You ok?”

“Ung… ah ghhh ghhh.”

“Don’t worry. If you aren’t bleeding, you’re not flossing.”

Racism. You want to protect, inform, listen to and equip your children as they’re sent out into the world to face it. Imagine your child feeling so comfortable with you, confident in your willingness to just be there and hear them out, growing through each challenge as their own strengths and confidence emerge.

These days, it’s real tough to do that. Overwhelming even. But, as parents, brothers and sisters, citizens of this world and the next, we’ve got skin in the game whether we like it or not. I don’t believe they ever need to “walk away” from racism in the 21st century. Our job is to strengthen the folks who walk into it.

As a person adopted transracially in the U.S., I’ve been navigating this conversation for over 30 years. Here are a few of my initial thoughts to help you address your family’s needs related to racism.

“equipping sweet Cara for the heat!”

First of all, it’s not a glamorous talk. And it’s not just a talk. It’s a bloody process. Ongoing throughout the lifespan. Like flossing.

Similarly, Simon Sinek talks about small consistent steps over time transforming into something bigger than the sum of those steps:

“If you just go to the dentist twice a year, your teeth will fall out. You have to brush your teeth every day for two minutes. What does brushing your teeth every day for two minutes do? Nothing. It does absolutely nothing. Unless you do it every. single. day. Can you leave out a day? Sure. How many days can you leave out? I don’t really know. How many times do you have to brush your teeth before it really works? I don’t know that either.” -Simon Sinek

Racism is like that. When encountered daily, on the street, at the city gates, in the church, in the hallways, the grocery store, the billboards, in books and commercials, from family members ignorant about race, from peers, strangers, teachers, administrators, people in positions of power, culture global and local; without the proper foundation, one begins to get a clear sense of their place in this world; a picture of their value and worth, a seal of sorts, a seal of disapproval and confirmation of their greatest fear:

“You don’t belong here.”

In a study of 34 adults adopted transracially, parents were described as “vulnerable, biased, and ill equipped to handle the racial realities of their lives” (Chang, Feldman, and Easley, 2017). As children, participants reported they didn’t feel comfortable sharing experiences of racism and oppression in order to protect their “fragile” parents, which “created distance in the relationship, impeded the process of identity exploration, and left them unprepared to cope with racist events.”

So what. What can we do? Especially for children transracially adopted?

1️⃣Initiate daily spaces to talk about it. Anywhere. Anytime. For as long as they need. This is God’s model for prayer. The Psalms are soaked in it.

2️⃣Narrate aloud during your own moments of fear, sadness, faith, anger, confusion, etc. from which they begin to develop their own model for coping and regulation, e.g., “ah! Daddy’s feeling really sad right now, ugh! ….hmm, what can I do? First I’m gonna take a big deep breath, and think.” <——even if it looks like they couldn’t care less about what you do and think. Probably looks like they’re ignoring you or wrapped up in whatever is in their hands. That’s ok. Remember, this won’t help them until, one day, it actually helps them.

3️⃣Initiate, practice, and affirm when they do use their coping skills (e.g., talking to trusted grownups, connecting with friends, exercising components of their faith, community, adoptee-centric spaces and groups, social media, music, art, get the body moving, engage the senses, get in the here and now, eat, walk, run, draw, glass of cold water, look at fun pictures, scribble for me how mad, hurt, angry you are, yell it out, silence, just sit together, etc.). The list goes on of course, what would you add to it??

4️⃣Express how important it is to you personally, in a thousand different ways (e.g., hang up pictures, posters, art that displays other cultures and backgrounds; avoid using language that minimizes, degrades, assumes about or demonizes other cultures; discuss scenes from cartoons, movies, YouTube clips, the news; think and engage dialogue about other religions and beliefs; read articles and convert them into age-appropriate discussion questions, be ok with not having all the answers to those discussion questions; demonstrate dignity and vulnerability when you yourself feel publicly or privately offended by anything; all year round participate in, contribute to, initiate and maybe even lead community events that foster adoption and trauma-informed racial/ethnic socialization, etc.).

4️⃣These can all feel exhausting, intimidating, scary, and even bring up feelings of our own shame and guilt if we somehow fail to measure up in some way. A backdoor encouragement is don’t feel too confident in these steps; or in your own parenting. Don’t be so impressed with yourself. Accept the fact we live in a fallen world with systems in place that are bent toward hurtful ways. But also don’t lose heart. We’ve got work to do. Because racism doesn’t have snow days or weekends; it’ll be on the clock long past you’ve gone home for the night. Keep showing up.

5️⃣Don’t feel too discouraged when you witness or hear about racism happening to your children. Anger? Sure, go for it. And be faithful with that anger. The book Good and Angry comes to mind. Rage if you need to. Jesus was the original rage against the machine. Whatever path you take, the danger is feeling so fragile you avoid the conversation entirely. This is hard work and good work. So get support as you need it. Preferably from other mentors adopted transracially or members from non-dominant racial groups. And provide as much support as you can because its part of our job as parents, AND it’s part of our generosity to one another. And pray. Remember the power and compassion of Christ is the ultimate Resource and Mediator (vertical and horizontal) working actively here and now to make all things new. This can be happening practically through you and through all the folks I just mentioned.


I gently ask clients, also rebuking myself, “How many times do our children need to encounter us before it works?”


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Chang, D. F., Feldman, K., & Easley, H. (2017). “I’m learning not to tell you”: Korean transracial adoptees’ appraisals of parental racial socialization strategies and perceived effects. Asian American Journal of Psychology, 8(4), 308–322.


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