digital color collage of a femme person wearing a pink v-neck shirt and pink and white beaded necklace. she smiles with closed lips and is surrounded by digital images of flowers on a cool mint background
(Photo courtesy of Rachael Murphey; Designed by Lara Witt)

Adoptees Disrupting Adoption Narratives is a series of as-told-to pieces written and curated by Prism’s editor-at-large, Tina Vasquez, featuring five adoptees—Tiffany HyeonBrooksMezekerta TesfayNicole Eigbrett, Rachael Murphey, and Rev. T Sheri Dickerson—and one personal narrative essay by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣. They share in their own words what being an adoptee means to them and how current narratives around adoption are inextricably linked to family separations, settler colonialism, and white supremacy. They also delve into how adoptee-led discussions are necessary for the sexual and reproductive health, rights, and justice movements. You can find the series in its entirety here.

Dr. Rachael Murphey lights up when she talks about the students in her “Race, Adoption, and Foster Care” class in the graduate liberal studies program at Duke University. Murphey is an academic dean in the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke. Admittedly, many have found the class’s subject matter challenging. For example, in recent weeks guest speakers have included Amanda Wallace, who was a child abuse investigator for 10 years before she started Organization Stop Child Protective Services (CPS) because she came to the understanding the agency she once worked for “acts as a kidnapping gang to keep Black people powerless politically, economically, and socially.” Two of Murphey’s colleagues have also spoken to the class—both Black women in the academy who pursued open adoptions through the foster care system. The women dispelled the notion that Black people don’t adopt and honestly discussed the challenges of open adoption while highlighting just how essential that connection to the birth family is for an adopted child. 

“Generally, the goal with this class is to get students to think about race and racial identity within the context of adoption and foster care,” Murphey said. “I feel lucky if students realize that if we’re going to continue with this system as it currently exists, we need to think critically about the best, most open ways it can operate in the best interest of children. This semester I happen to have a number of students who think we need to burn the whole thing down. I’m not quite there yet.” 

Murphey isn’t just an academic interested in the subject of adoption. She is a transracial adoptee and, like others in this series, Murphey has serious concerns about how adoption and foster care systems operate and who they are structured to protect and appease. 

In late October, Murphey spoke to Prism over Zoom from her office, where she discussed why she wanted to teach a class about race and adoption, her personal journey finding her birth family, and whether the modern adoption system can be salvaged. Here she is, in her own words: 

As a graduate student, I taught political science courses at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I remember the thrill of challenging my students to focus on Sally Hemings as much as Thomas Jefferson. In early American political thought, they remain a perfect illustration of “here’s what we say we do, and here’s what we actually do.” After earning my Ph.D., I was still enamored with university life and believed wholeheartedly in the value of a liberal arts education. I started my academic career as an academic adviser, eventually making my way to Duke University. After decades of working as an academic administrator, I became acutely aware of the truth in bell hooks’ statement that “[t]he classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy.” When an opportunity arose in 2019 to propose, design, and teach my own course, I jumped at the opportunity. Desperate to get back to those challenging margins and difficult conversations, I decided to go all in and teach a course about the social construction and maintenance of race and racial identity. I knew through both academic research and lived experience that the adoption and foster care systems in the U.S. would be the perfect foundation to challenge students and, as Amanda Wallace, one of our guest speakers this term, extolled us, “to think beyond what we can see.” 

In April 2019, as I was preparing to teach the class for the first time and was sifting through adoption research, I stoked my growing anxiety by going on Facebook and looking for members of my birth family. This was not the first time I’d done this. I’d always been able to peer into the lives of my white birth mother’s family on Facebook, but none of the African American side of my birth family ever showed up in my searches. This time, however, when I plugged in the names of my birth father’s children, up popped his youngest son, Lawrence Lyle. 

Boldly and without much forethought, I immediately sent him a message introducing myself and our possible connection. He responded within minutes, and it took off from there. We used 23andMe and confirmed that our bond was unequivocal. So my first time teaching this class on race, adoption, and foster care is during this same period when I’m building a first-ever connection with the African American side of my birth family. The summer was busy; class started in August. Larry and I made plans to meet, but by November, he died suddenly of a massive heart attack. The first time I saw him, he was in a casket at his funeral.

I was 50 when this happened, and even though our time together was short, it was truly an affirming and monumental experience in my life. It was the first time I felt the kind of immediate, magical, loving embrace you dream of getting from your “long lost” birth family. Before this, I knew who my birth father was, but we’d only talked by phone two times. He was unable or unwilling to admit to his participation in my existence, fearing it would hurt his wife of over 50 years. By the time I found his son Larry, my birth father and his wife had both passed, making it easier, perhaps, for him to embrace and acknowledge my existence. I’d also met my birth mother, a white German woman. My birth father was married with four kids when he drove her home after a night of bowling with their colleagues. My birth parents worked together at a public high school. They had sex one time in the car, and that’s how I came to be. After giving birth and relinquishing me in 1968, my birth mother went on to marry in 1969 and have two biological daughters with her husband. Their family adopted a third child, a boy from Vietnam, which I think is fascinating. 

I still can’t get over the first conversation I had with my birth mother. One of the very first questions she asked me was, “Do you support abortion?” When I told her that I absolutely supported a person’s right to choose, she said, “You do realize you would have been aborted if abortion had been legal in 1968, right? Does that change your view on abortion?’’ This was the first conversation she and I ever had. And bizarrely, I had heard that so many times before from so many other people. I wasn’t even surprised, just profoundly disappointed. 

You cannot deny my humanity. I’m here, and I refuse to dull my shine or remain quiet for anyone.

When you’re adopted, people regularly say things like, “You could have been aborted. You should be grateful.” Among the stupid and offensive things to say to an adoptee, that is right at the top of the list. It’s simply not an argument to say that in a parallel universe, you would have been aborted and never existed. It’s not logical. It means nothing. It’s really just emotional manipulation. When my biological mother came to meet me in North Carolina years later, she explained that her husband told her not to wear her expensive pearls or talk to me about their impending retirement or financial resources. I guess he thought I was going to ask her for money? I didn’t want her money. I didn’t need her money. It would have never occurred to me to ask her for money. I had already completed my Ph.D. by then and was married with two young babies of my own. And she knew this. I remember being so incredulous that she would say these things to me. I said, “But you know who I am. Didn’t you tell him what I’ve worked so hard to achieve in my life? Didn’t you correct his clearly problematic and deeply racist assumption that I would try to steal from you?” That was the last time I ever saw or spoke to her. When I dropped her off at the airport, she said, “Now that we’ve met in person, we can both go on with our lives.” The first thought that came to my mind was, “Dang, I hope she eventually gets with a good therapist to work through the wounds of relinquishing a child.” And yes, I’m being exceptionally generous here. Working hard to keep it classy and professional. 

Clearly, she had not planned that I would find her one day. I was a secret and a lie, part of her “dark” history that she—and my birth father—hoped would just go away. When she got married the year after I was born, she told her new white husband that she gave a child up for adoption, but she never said anything to him about race. So when I did find her some 40 years later, she had to tell her husband that the man she’d been with before him was Black. She told me—the child she relinquished and the product of that very brief union—that telling her husband she’d been with a Black man was the most difficult conversation she’d ever had. Wow. Just wow. Perhaps this explains why Ancestry.com and 23andMe continue to bring me so much joy. As a transracial adoptee, while hypervisible to the world as “different,” I’ve also felt invisible. The people who created me didn’t want to acknowledge my existence or even my humanity. These genetic testing sites gave me some of that power back. I’m certain my presence on Ancestry.com has disrupted a whole lot of folks’ ideas of family. I’m here, damnit. You cannot deny my humanity. I’m here, and I refuse to dull my shine or remain quiet for anyone.

As an academic, I was trained to be a neutral and objective social scientist in search of truth. That sentence makes me laugh. I realize that my experience is unique and not necessarily representative of most transracial adoptions, so I’m careful to pick and choose what I share with my students. I bring in guest speakers who represent diverse backgrounds and perspectives. We read fiction and memoirs, long-form essays, as well as academic research. We also watch movies and television at the intersection and in the margins of race, racial identity, and the adoption and foster care systems that help us explore the nuance of what we say we do and what we actually do. I make a point to privilege the voices of adult transracial adoptees, including those who were part of the foster care system. I’m certain that my students develop a better understanding of these systems when they hear directly from those whom the institutions are—on paper—designed to protect and serve. I’m grateful when adoptees take my class and feel comfortable sharing their truths with their colleagues. 

This semester I had a student who was adopted from Korea. On the first day of class, he shared that he had recently begun to search for his birth family and found out that, unbeknownst to him, he had a twin brother who was still in Korea. His willingness to share such personal information was affirming to me and to everyone in the room. In addition to setting a tone of truth-telling, it was the first of many times throughout the semester when our small community of learners and critical thinkers were able to sit in a moment of discomfort and real pain, better prepared to tackle the important questions that lie ahead. I remain grateful to this student. He made it infinitely easier for me to stand at the front of the class each session knowing that my wounds would be visible for all to see. 

A common adoption and foster care narrative is that we are taking children from neglectful or harmful or simply bad parents and giving them to good parents. That is much more comfortable than admitting we demonize poor people.

There have been times when students were not ready to have conversations about adoption and race. In fact, on the first day of class this fall term, I put the adoption triad on the board, and we talked through how race intersects with all of these different relationships. At the end of the class, a student was visibly upset. They told me they were going to drop the class and that their sibling was adopted and of a different race. That class discussion had made them uncomfortable. They chose not to sit in that discomfort. I was disappointed by their decision, but also felt protective of them the way I feel protective of all my students. I remember great emotion around this incident. Shoot, I’ll even admit to being a tad bit histrionic. I worried that I’d failed and I hadn’t even gotten started. But I know I didn’t fail. 

My parents, the Murpheys, are as white as you can be—my mom was born in Montana, my dad was born in Indiana, and they had two biological daughters. I was born in January 1968 and adopted two months later. My parents have always been exceptionally politically engaged people. At 88, my dad still defines himself as a proud liberal, eschewing the progressive moniker. They are the best informed, civically engaged, well-intentioned left-leaning progressives you can imagine. Growing up I was allowed to curse, but only while we were watching the news and only if I could defend my position without having to curse. We watched a lot of news. And still, they swim in the same waters everyone else swims in, they breathe the same air everyone else breathes in terms of white supremacy. They didn’t have a “save the heathens” approach to adoption, but treating adoption like a political statement can also lead to dubious conclusions. My dad says outright that they were making a political statement by adopting a Black child. He said race relations weren’t going to change unless white people were personally connected to the issue.

I grew up in Oregon, one of the whitest states in the country. I was one of two or three people of color in grade school, middle school, and high school. I am ambiguous looking enough as a biracial person, yet still plenty scarred by those K-12 educational experiences. I still feel like growing up in this all-white environment is a crime. In class, this is one of the issues I push my students to reflect on when I ask them how we can create a more just adoption system—and I don’t let them sit on the fence. I tell them they have to take a position. Personally, I think that with potential adoptive parents, we should assess where they live and the community they live in. If you do not come from a diverse community, you should not get to adopt transracially. I’m not saying white people can’t be good parents to Black and brown children. I’m saying in order to be good parents to Black and brown children, they have to be comfortable around Black and brown people. I think it’s time we made adoptive parents responsible for some of these ethical issues and that we crush their colorblind ideology.

We can inform, challenge, and disrupt. If I can achieve that with a few students at a time, I’m good with that. 

I don’t think most people understand the financial realities of most foster and adoption systems. You have poor people who cannot afford medical care, medication, child care, transportation, etc. This often presents itself in kids in a way that reads like neglect to their schools. If a child is removed from their home due to neglect and placed in a foster care home, the foster family is paid a stipend by the state for their care. It doesn’t make any sense. Why is our system set up to invest in a foster family and not, when appropriate, a family of origin? I don’t deny nuance, but I also don’t understand why the solution is so often to remove kids from their family. A common adoption and foster care narrative is that we are taking children from neglectful or harmful or simply bad parents and giving them to good parents. That is much more comfortable than admitting we demonize poor people. In my story, my birth mother was not uneducated, and she wasn’t poor. I wasn’t forcefully stolen from my birth mother. I wasn’t neglected. I just wasn’t wanted. 

My stance is that the adoption system needs very serious reforms and these reforms have to have some teeth behind them. I think adoptive parents should have the responsibility to ensure that the child they adopt was legally and ethically relinquished. I also think we should place a moratorium on intercountry adoptions. There is too much rot at the center of these adoptions, both in terms of how they function and the way that non-regulated adoption agencies operate in this space. I also believe open adoptions, whenever possible, are the honest and transparent direction we should head in. Before we consider removing children from homes where “neglect” is really just poverty, we should support struggling families with the same stipend and free health care given to foster families. I know every situation isn’t the same. Sometimes the money won’t help. My point is that we can do so much better. We can be honest. We can inform, challenge, and disrupt. If I can achieve that with a few students at a time, I’m good with that.

Tina Vásquez

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.