Isaac Etter, a 25-year-old transracial adoptee who is passionate about adoption education and sharing the adoptee experience, is currently working on a four-part documentary of his life. As a black man raised in a white home, Isaac shared powerful insights into the transracial adoptee experience during our interview.
As a child, Isaac Etter was one of the few people of color in his small town. Adopted at the age of two, he was the oldest child in a family with three biological children of his adoptive parents and one sibling adopted from Hawaii. “My parents always worked in very conservative Christian settings that lacked a lot of diversity. There were not a lot of other people of color unless they were also adopted.” Isaac notes how difficult it was to grow up without racial mirrors. He felt insecure about being a different color than most of the people around him, and he struggled with identity, “trying to figure out who I am.”
“I Felt Like this Oddball”
Isaac says, “As early as ten years old I remember just having these deep insecurities and shame around looking different.” In high school this experience translated into friendships and relationships. “I felt like this oddball out. Also, my family didn’t understand or know how to broach any topics around race, so they never talked about it.” To add to this, the family’s church community was not open to talking about issues of race.
Isaac found he did not have the language or support to understand and navigate racism. “Most of what I learned about race and racism actually came from the internet when I was 15 and 16 years old.” What he learned from Tumblr felt even more confusing, “I would read statements that white people are racist and I didn’t even know what to do with that. How am I supposed to comprehend that, as a 16-year-old adoptee that only knows white people?”
College was the first time in Isaac’s life where people did not know that he grew up in a white family, and he struggled to connect with his white peers, “This community that I had always fit into very comfortably, all of a sudden I don’t [fit in] as much. That was a really hard transition.” He dropped out of school and began his own journey. His parents had a hard time understanding that his experiences in college were different from his white siblings, and they were not prepared to have any of the conversations that he needed to make sense of his experience.
A Mentor Can Springboard Transracial Work
Isaac eventually returned to live in his hometown, and by then there were more conversations out there about race. His family worked hard to educate themselves about anti-racism and eventually apologized to Isaac. “My family did a good job of learning. They spent time with mentors. I had one professor at my college who was black who I spent a lot of time with, and he ended up becoming friends with my parents. That springboarded and put me on the path to do transracial work.” Isaac began speaking publicly about adoption, and in 2019 he launched his own business.
Looking back, Isaac wishes that adoptive parents were given more information and engaged in real conversations about transracial adoption prior to the adoption. He believes it is extremely important for adoptive parents to try and understand the adoptee's experience.
“Don’t listen to too much fluff—there will always be the feel-good stories, but know the other side of that story too.” He wishes that his parents had thought more about what Isaac’s experience would be as a black child being raised by a white family. In addition to navigating issues common to all adoptees, like feelings of low self-worth and identity issues, he had to wade through issues specific to transracial adoption. Parents of transracial adoptees need to understand the importance of cultural connection and being in a community of people that look like the adoptee.
White Communities May Have Cultural Blocks
Navigating identity is difficult for all adoptees, but it is especially challenging for transracial adoptees. Isaac notes “cultural blocks” in white communities; for example it can be difficult for a black adoptee to find someone to cut their hair. All adoptees are trying to understand who they are without biological information and mirrors. The transracial adoptee has the added burden of also trying to figure out how they fit into a community that is not like the white community where they are living, “How do I fit into a community that I don’t understand but that I am connected to whether I feel it or not? That sends a lot of adoptees into a very complicated space. . . . Transracial adoptees spend so much time feeling like imposters because it’s hard to feel like you’re fitting into something that you just didn’t grow up around at all.”
Relinquishment Has a Ripple Effect
Isaac notes that this has all been a journey. When he was younger, he was often angry. Starting at a very young age (around five or six), “I understood that in order to be in this family, I had to be given up, I had to be separated from somebody in order to be here. That has always been prevalent in my head, this idea of abandonment and rejection, and that translated into depression when I was younger and anger in high school.” Isaac stresses that it is very important for all members of the adoption constellation to acknowledge that this one event—the relinquishment—has a ripple effect and affects all members of the adoption constellation. It has a powerful impact on many areas of the adoptee’s life, including relationships and work.
Over the last four years or so, Isaac has begun to have a better understanding around how his adoption has affected him, “It was huge in my life—I had to live in these cycles where I left before someone could leave me, and I was just constantly reliving my abandonment.” Isaac has worked hard to process his anger. “When you let go of some of the anger, you can see how deeply it is affecting you.” Isaac has also worked hard to understand how his own feelings of “unlovability, abandonment, and rejection just drove a wedge in my ability to see myself as valuable.”
Three Levels of Brokenness in the Adoption Triad
Isaac notes “three levels of brokenness” in the adoption triad. The birth parents “experience their own level of brokenness whether they wanted to be parents or not.” It is important to acknowledge that adoptive parents often started with a loss as well, “Regardless of what they say or how they feel or how their Instagram posts look . . . parenthood is a complex and complicated thing.” Many adoptive parents experienced infertility, and in general he worries that adoptive parents do not explore what family and parenting means to them before adopting. He adds, “The problem is that the grief, the despair, the anger of both of these parents undoubtedly gets put on the child, and there’s no stopping it. The birth parent that relinquished the child, that relinquishment lives in the child no matter what. Then the child is also going to have to live with a very unspoken and weird feeling that they did not grow inside their mother when that was really what she wanted.”
Positive Steps for Adoptive Parents of Young Children
Isaac has worked with a lot of adoptive parents over the years. His goal is to educate parents around what adoptees–particularly transracial adoptees–might be feeling, and he goes a step further in encouraging early conversations like the ones he wished he had had.
“From a very early age I connected the dots, and I think a lot of adoptees do.” By age five or six, he had a basic understanding of “that one choice to relinquish” but kept those thoughts to himself. In advising parents, he talks about the importance of reaffirming and reconnecting with their child and creating safe spaces to talk about things.
“Know that your child might not ask for what they need, so give them the space to tell you. . . . Be consistent and remember that it’s a process. Constantly remind the child that they are loved, accepted and wanted even while they are constantly trying to work against that. Figure out how you can mentally stay there and set up ways to reaffirm that connection. Adoptees will try and run from that feeling of being loved, so the more you can pound that they are loved in their head the better.”
Written by Erica Kramer, MSW
Boston Post Adoption Resources
About Isaac Etter
Isaac Etter offers speaking engagements and resources such as podcasts and guides including A Practical Guide: Black Hair Care and A Practical Guide: Transracial Adoption through Identity, his startup company. He hopes to finish his four-part documentary in the fall 2023.