Exploring the Richness of Identity: My Conversation with Susan Harris O’Connor about the Harris Racial Identity Model for Transracially Adopted Persons.

Susan Harris O'Connor
I first met Susan Harris O’Connor when she and I presented together on the adoption panel at the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Conference, last month. When we spent the day together, I learned about Susan’s work and her book. Her recently published book contains five of her life narratives that she has performed before numerous audiences, including Harvard Medical School, Yale Law and Smith College.  I highly recommend it for anyone connected to adoption, regardless of your racial or ethnic background.  One piece in-particular caught my attention; her narrative had been woven around a racial identity model that she had developed for herself and to deepen the conversation around racial identity. I knew then that I had to learn more. A few nights ago, I was able to interview Susan on the phone.

I asked Susan what prompted her to write The Harris Racial Identity Theory. She told me that Dr. Joyce Maguire Pavao asked her for her thoughts on racial identity after having heard three of her narratives. “I had read most of the literature out there” Susan said. “I knew what the researchers and theorists were saying but it was missing something for me.” Then, Susan began her introspective journey; a 6 month process of evaluating her own racial identity as a transracially adopted person.

When she was finished, she found that she had unfolded 5 dimensions of racial identity: genetic racial identity, imposed racial identity, cognitive racial identity, visual racial identity, and feeling racial identity. That her racial identity was dynamic, non-static and non-hierarchical in nature. She first released her model in 1999. And, she would later learn with colleagues Ung and Pillidge that it beautifully fit within the framework of ecology theory.

Susan describes how she carefully peeled away the layers of her racial identity, one by one to examine them, as being under a surgeon’s knife. She understands that such a close look at Self and acknowledging challenges may make people uncomfortable. “We don't have to be boxed.” She resolved. “You can bind yourself up so as to not seem complicated. Or, you can lay it all out to experience the richness of who you are.”

Susan’s model was recently published in the British Association of Adoption and Fostering special double edition on Multiculturalism, identity and family placement (2012). This was a monumental achievement both for adoptees and for professional literature for two reasons that the BAAF article also discusses. First, research and literature thus far have focused on whether or not children should be transracially adopted, but rarely focus on how the identities of people who are already transracially adopted are formed. The Harris Model informs us of this process. Also, racial identity models developed thus far were not inclusive of all elements of racial identity that Susan felt transracially adopted persons grapple with in their lifetime.

The Genetic racial identity is simply what is handed to you genetically from your parents. “For me, I am Black, Native American, and White,” said Susan. “These are the facts of my genetics.”

The Imposed racial identity is what others say you are and impose upon you. “When you are born, they look at the color of your skin, or who your parents are, and they give you a stamp. ‘This is who you are,’ they say.” When Susan said this, I immediately reflected back on her 1st birthday narrative. There, she records case notes written by a nurse who was consumed with trying to figure out what race to label her, by describing her skin, nose, and hair in detail, in almost every single note. Susan’s imposed racial identity at birth was “negroid” however, factually her genetic racial identity is Black, White and Native.

“Ethnicity can also be imposed.” When she said this, we momentarily dove into the complex experience of reunited adoptees who do not fit into their birth culture. Membership within the family of birth may create imposed ethnic identity expectations by the birth family that the adoptee will fit into cultural norms that they are not accustomed to or educated about.

“Please understand that the Imposed Racial Identity shifts and changes; it is geographical. When I am in some parts of Massachusetts, people believe I am Cape Verdean. In other parts, they tell me that I am bi-racial, black and white,” she said.

The Imposed racial identity also embodies racist slurs and the conscious and unconscious racial biases that are inflicted upon people of color. Your racial identity can also be self-imposed.” She said. “If you are told so often that ‘this is who you are,’ you can buy into that. The more you can learn factually about your birth origins, the more you can cognitively push back against inaccurate information. The less you know, the more vulnerable one can be to the imposed,” she finished. 

The Cognitive racial identity is what you think or know yourself to be. Susan said, “Ideally the Genetic identity and the Cognitive identity would line-up. However, for foster children and adoptees, who do not factually know the racial identities of both birth parents, it sets up a situation where one can have a tendency to guess at what one might be racially. This makes it a privilege to know your lineage so that one’s cognitive understanding of their racial identity will be confirming of their genetic inheritance.” Susan maintains that this complexity for adoptees must be acknowledged.

The Feeling racial identity embodies what one feels them self to be. “Regardless of what the other three constructs are for me, the Feeling racial identity is what I feel myself to be,” said Susan. “This aspect of my racial identity is a feeling inside of me that lets me know I feel a sense of connectedness to a particular group or individual regardless of how I look.”

Susan describes her Feeling racial identity as being the result of her cultural socialization. “For me it is white and Jewish,” she said. “How I feel racially does not need to match how I visually look. I feel white and Jewish regardless of what society believes I should be and regardless of the color of my skin.”

Susan emphasized to me the importance of the Feeling racial identity. “Transracial adoptees will go into clinical settings, and they will explain to the clinician that they are white. Professionals with a narrow racial and ethnic/cultural framework respond as if the adoptee’s view of their racial identity is pathological.” Susan continued, “The more professionals and adoption triad members have knowledge of this model they have a better chance at opening up a rich, meaningful conversation that is contextually based and normative rather than shaming and pathologizing.”

The Visual racial identity is what you see when you look in the mirror.

“I know the color of my skin. I do not and never have had a distorted visual racial identity” said Susan. “I have brown skin. But I feel white.” Susan described the irony of being adopted into a white home, being raised in predominately white environment and then being pathologized later for not fitting into a narrow racial category. “This is why I created this model, so that I can be whoever I really am. I will no longer allow anyone to define and determine who and what I should be.” she said. 

At the end of the conversation, Susan talked about being raised in a predominately white environment in the 60s, 70s, and 80s and how much the conversation regarding race and adoption has changed since then. “It’s great knowing that today’s adoptive families, birth/first parents and young adoptees have wonderful resources and supports available to them thru blogs, readings, conferences and local and national groups. There is a wealth of information and supports available for all. It really moves me when I see adoptive families talking to other adoptive families or when I hear them speak about how it is that they moved into a multi- cultural, multi-racial environment so that their child would not be racially isolated as he grows up, or how they discuss difficult adoption and race situations with their child which may include searching or meeting-up with the child’s ‘first mother’. I really think we have come a long way.”

“Isn't this what we want?” She said. “Open adoption and access to things like original birth certificates. That’s all part of this. These are best practices that we are fighting for.”

She paused for a moment. “Amanda, this is why, when you write this out, you must contextualize this conversation. You and I come from a time when adoptions were closed, viewed as an event and very little support, if any, given to triad members, creating a great deal of emotional suffering and fragmentation. We seek for better policies, practice and process for younger folks.”

“We fight for this, even if it means that they look back at us and will not identify with us.”

Thank you Susan.

Susan Harris O'Connor, MSW is the director of Quality Assurance at Children's Services of Roxbury, Inc. She is also the author of the recently published book The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee. This book consists of 5 autobiographical narratives that the author has presented throughout the country since 1996.

Adoption and Fostering Quarterly Journal, Volume 36/Autumn/Winter 2012

The development of racial identity in transracially adopted people: an ecological approach by Tien Ung, Susan Harris O’Connor and Raymond Pillidge

The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee by Susan Harris O’Connor (2012) published by The Pumping Station