Getting Personal About Race and “Transracial” Families

by Kevin Currie-Knight


Sheena (SUNY Oneanta) and Kevin (East Carolina University) continue an ongoing conversation about the idea of race and Sheena’s arguments about racelessnes. This episode gets more personal about Sheena’s and Kevin’s respective connections to “transracial” families. Sheena was adopted into a “transracial” family and Kevin is adopting a daughter who is differently raced than he. What does all of this mean for how we should think about race, racism, and the idea of racelessness?

00:09 – Sheena’s book on racelessness will be out soon 10:33 – Kevin and Sheena get personal about racialization and their connections to “transracial” adoption. 31:24 – Different ways that different people experience and talk about racialization. Kevin talks about ‘the wrong kind of colorblindness.” 41:13 – All the ways in which race is a clunky signifier 53:08 – The ways race unavoidably limits us. Can racelessness liberate us? 1:13:13 – Kevin talks to his son about race with the help of a t-shirt and a children’s book.

Kevin’s article (“Race Talk”) that is referred to in the middle of the show:

Race Talk





12 responses to “Getting Personal About Race and “Transracial” Families”

  1. For listeners, this dialogue was recorded several weeks before it appears here, and there is a reason, which I mention in the episode but will restate here. For the past two years, my familiy and I have been fortunate to have a foster-daughter (raced differently than us) in our care and last week, we were lucky enough to adopt her. Beieve it or not there is stll some anti-transracial-adoption sentiment out there from all sides. So, the reason we waited to release this was that I didn’t even want to change anything bad happening before our daughter was officially part of the family.

    I am bleeping her name because I want to keep private and pubilc separate, and there are at least some reasons why we still want to be careful withk where we share that information online. It’s probably nothing, but I’d rather be too careful than not careful enough.

    Enjoy the listen!

  2. The dialogue is excellent. And I really like this pairing. I hope you two do many more.

  3. Imho, adopting a child and raising them with love is one of the most noble things a person can do. May all of you have many, many years of health, happiness and fulfilment together.

  4. Terranbiped

    That there are still ethno/racial purists that would rather have a child wallow in a foster setting than be adopted into a loving family setting is the epitome of the terrible disease that Sheena is trying to vanquish. She really has her work cut out for her.

    Congratulations on this joyous occasion.

  5. Thanks! As far as your first comment, yes, unfortunately, there are such purists. Law scholar Randall Kennedy wrote a chapter on the very recent rise (and past controversy) of transracial adoption in his book Interracial Intimacies. It is shocking how recently – the 1990’s – it was really a standard practice.

    BUT, I can at least understand how someone can come to an anti-transracial position honestly. The history of tranracial adoption in the US is quite ugly, and passes through (start with, really) the forced adoption of indigenous people from their hones by white families in an attempt to raise them to assimilation with American cultural norms. It’s hard to wash that type of funk off the idea. Also, for so long, the US has by culture and fiat kept black and white separate that there di emerge both this thing called black culture and a forced sense of solidarity that black people often developed toward “their own.” Given that, I can understand – even if I disagree with – how someone can come to see transracial adoption as some sort of threat to racial, ethnic, or cultural purity. I think they are wrong, but they don’t know me or my intentions.

  6. Jay Jeffers

    Glad to see y’all back together discussing these topics on which you’ve both earned a lot of valuable insights! I concur with the others that you have a natural rapport that’s easy and pleasant to watch.

    I have a somewhat trivial, somewhat interesting little ditty that happened to me just today that might be relevant.

    My extended family, wife, mother, sisters and their families, etc. just completed a vacation to the Gulf Coast of Florida. Of course, many pictures were taken on cell phones as we naturally hung out at the beach, at the rental house, etc. We even had a photographer come and take (IMO) hokey family pictures on the beach that we color coordinate by sub-family (this year it was yellow or red or green tops with khaki or white bottoms). And of course, we all have pictures on our cell phones from past vacations and seemingly endless holiday and birthday get-togethers.

    So, you know how your iPhone will put together like a photo … what’s the word, montage or theme and then present it to you seemingly arbitrarily? There will typically be a little sentimental or soothing background song along with it. Sometimes the pictures will be clustered by time of year, like last summer or something. Other times, though, it will identify some salient feature of varying pictures and lump it together and present it to you as one theme.

    Just today I noticed one of these ready to watch so I clicked, not knowing the theme my phone selected, but I knew it was a family picture so had to be related to that somehow. Then I noticed that my niece, who was in the first picture, was also in the second picture. And then the third. And so on, and so forth. The pictures spanned time and any other discernable theme. My niece was the only constant I could identity over the whole of it. Over and over again.

    OK. We are a Whitebread Southern family, pictured together over what seems like countless family gatherings, and my niece is adopted from Korea.

    Do I consider my iPhone racist? That’s rhetorical, but even in a more literal design sense, IMO the answer is no. But, well, I’ll just say that it felt somewhat blunt, and a little invasive. Maybe I should be so enlightened that I view the theme as I would it identifying my older sister who is the only brunette in the family, but as is, I found it both low key unsettling and also funny. And for what it’s worth, my iPhone has never found my older sister’s slightly darker hair as particularly salient in this way, and I doubt it will any time soon.


  7. Jay Jeffers

    Incidentally, I am in a conversation with a tech savvy friend right now who told me, after hearing of this, that **I** am the racist, not the iPhone. Not that I noticed my niece as the theme, per se, but that I must have missed the countless other themes it identified that I took in stride, w/o notice. Of course, I have a defense regarding how often I get these montages from which extended family and how many pics it usually takes and whether it usually goes across time spans, etc., etc., etc.

    I’ll report back after the inevitable debate with said friend tonight.

  8. Terranbiped

    Sounds like a great plot for a Black Mirror episode – the sentient algorithm.

    Coincidentally, just got back from Captiva.

  9. Terranbiped

    Yeah, I’m well aware of the history, and reasoning of these righteous cultural advocates that remain tethered to the past and their identity ideology.

    Do you really think these ossified dinosaurs care one whit what’s in your mind? Ironically and paradoxically, the color of your skin stipulates your unalterable falling short for the task at hand. As Tina would sing – “What’s love gotta do with it…”

  10. Of course they care what’s in my mind. Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility (which went viral in almost the same month we adopted our daughter, making for an interesting experience) is all about trying to excavate and purify “the white psyche.” But, as you hint at, they will never believe a word I say about my intentions, hence a thankless catch 22: I can try to convince you that I’m telling the truth, but if you already think I’m destined to be a liar or misread what’s really going on in my mind, there’s nothing i can do.

    So, sure, they care about what is going on in my mind. But since it is an unwinnable fight and one that can only distract me from the role of raising my daughter, I think I’ll just pass. They can think what they want, because they will anyway, and engaging with them would do nothing other than embolden them to pass more uninformed judgment.

  11. Jay Jeffers

    In an attempt to avoid making this a simple diversion from the conversation, I want to underscore a concern Kevin expressed around 18:00, which was something to the effect of the feeling of the otherization that occurs inside a family when the line is “you’re X race and she’s Y race.” I feel the force of that even within an extended family. But the world as it is provides that otherization, and it seems like a mistake can be made in the opposite direction as well, which is treating the topic of race as if it’s taboo in the midst of casual references, when the terms that have the potential to otherize also sometimes simply refer to people with ancestries from different parts of the world.

    For example, someone can refer to different races nowadays without meaning that there’s some large divergence in essence that underwrites the categories, which was also mentioned in the conversation. I think my experience with my iPhone fits somewhere in the area of the topic. That is, the teetering between trying to avoid the otherization of race by noticing it too quickly on your own, on the one hand, and on the other hand trying to avoid the otherization of race by being too quick to challenge outside projections of it, thereby noticing it again, and in any one situation not knowing quite where in-between to land.

    So, I’ve thought about it and debated it through, and I don’t see how facial recognition technology and the like could avoid noticing differences that laypeople would “naturally” associate with race or ethnicity. That is, unless it was specifically trained not to. Of course, that’s not at all to say that it’s self-consciously trained to notice race or ethnicity, just that race or ethnicity in the form of clustered characteristics in skin tone and hair texture and sometimes eye shape, etc. are real characteristics in the world.

    That’s not at all to say that those characteristics haven’t been reified and prioritized over other characteristics that could have been prioritized instead, or that facial recognition technology needs any one of these in particular.

    In the case of my niece and my iPhone’s “memories” feature, I’ve never seen it start from such a low base of pictures and string together a theme the way it did with her recently, across time and context. Of course, it’s lumped other people together before and presented them together in a memory string, but only from a much higher volume of pictures to work with (I live in a different state from my mother and siblings, and my niece). And of course, it’s lumped together seasons or certain kinds of activities.

    As to whether it “noticed” my niece’s Korean features in particular, whatever that means, and thus explaining the unusually picture low base to themed memory ratio, I suppose I’ll never know. It could be as innocent as any other association, or it could start doing this kind of thing more often, or it could be that the associations it makes with people are actually impacted by differences between them and everyone else in the picture, etc., etc., etc.

    You get the point. There’s no smoking gun on either side. Leaving me in the somewhat unbalanced state I described above. I suppose a few more of these would help one gain their footing.