Season 1, Episode 17: Dr. Karin Garber describes her research on adoptive microaggressions, beginning by outlining ways that stigma and stereotypes about members of the adoption kinship network can lead to intentional or unintentional negative messages that can be communicated through behavioral, verbal, and environmental means. Dr. Garber goes on to describe the spectrum of microaggressions, providing examples of microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations that adoptees may experience. She then compares microaggressions experienced by adoptees with the research on microaggressions experienced by birth/first parents and adoptive parents. Dr. Garber provides helpful suggestions for adoptive parents seeking to support their adoptive children in navigating and responding to microaggressions as well as for practitioners working with members of the adoptive kinship network. She concludes by discussing a new area of research that she and others are pursuing related to intraethnic and intraracial microaggressions experienced by transracial adoptees.
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For more background
Dr. Emily Helder: Hi, I’m Dr. Emily Helder and I’m here with Dr. Karin Garber. She’s the equity and organizational culture manager for the department of community services at Multnomah County. She’s also the author of a chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Adoption entitled “Adoptive microaggressions: historical foundations, current research, and practical implications.”
So thanks so much Karin for being here.
Dr. Karin Garber: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Emily Helder: Sure, so why don’t we just start with providing a bit of background? So if you could begin just sharing a bit about a definition of, of microaggressions and especially because we tend to normally think about them in the context of marginalized groups.
Could you say a bit about how members of the adoption triad might be considered marginalized groups?
Dr. Karin Garber: Yeah. So microaggression is a term that has been coined and researched by Chester Pierce in 1978. And it’s basically used to describe more covert forms of racism at the time. And microaggressions are often subtle comments or behaviors that tends to indicate negative and disparaging messages towards a marginalized group. And microaggressions can be intentional, they can be unintentional and they can come in behavioral, verbal and environmental forms. A lot of people sort of forget about the environmental form. So Dr. Hal Grotevant at UMass and I wanted to apply this framework to adoption. And so specific adoptive practices, adoption arrangements and laws have all really worked to cultivate and reinforce secrecy within adoption. And it’s this secrecy that formed an environment where stigma could then proliferate and this stigma is infused in historical narratives that communicate really specific derogatory ideas about each member of the adoption triad. And so this stigma has fueled the marginalization of birth/first parents, adopted individuals and adoptive parents as well. And it’s this environment of secrecy really and these narratives that underlie current day microaggressions.
So all that being said, you know, an example: the stigma against unmarried women, having children out of wedlock has been really immense and has profoundly impacted perceptions of adoption. So the stigma has fed into stigmatizing narratives about birth mothers, that they’re often young, poor, they are perceived to be promiscuous, and they’re socially, you know, abnormal and not fulfilling their mother role. Kind of the stereotype or the stigmatizing narrative about the birth father is, you know, he is often portrayed as absent altogether, or if he’s present, he’s often considered to be irresponsible and negligent. The adopted individual is marginalized by the stigmatizing narrative that, you know, they’re quote unquote “bastard” or “illegitimate child” who’s disadvantaged in their parentage.
Adopted individuals are perceived to have identity issues, developmental delays, and all kinds of different psychological problems. And then adoptive parents have been impacted by the stigmatizing narrative that they’re infertile. That adoption is always a second choice, that they’re selfish or inadequate for not being able to biologically conceive and that they’re they and their families violate kinship norms by not having biological children.
So those are examples of how these stigmatizing narratives have marginalized these different groups.
Dr. Emily Helder: That’s so helpful. Thank you. And I want to follow up on one thing that you mentioned, you talked about adoptive practices as contributing to this environment of secrecy. So I’d love for you to say more about how some of the systemic factors that you talked about in the chapter or, or adoption practices as well are contributing to the presence of those adoptive microaggressions.
Dr. Karin Garber: Yes. Okay. So in terms of adoption practices these practices reinforced the stigma and secrecy that are related to microaggressions. So as adoption became legalized and more systematized in the 1950s what are called closed adoptions predominated. Where birth parents didn’t have any contact with the adoptive family or the adopted child.
And so this would help to ensure secrecy so that no one would know that an adoption had ever taken place. And then to further hide the fact that an adoption had occurred, it was customary practice that adopted children’s physical characteristics had to be matched with their adoptive families.
And in this way they could sort of appear as other biological families would. And adoptees gaining access to their original sealed birth certificates with their birth parents names on it as opposed to their adoptive parents’ names is still a battle in several states to this day. And so the secrecy still appears to be evident in things that we found in our research around the theme of silence, around the theme of unacknowledged identity status, where discussions around adoption were absent from many of the adoptees relationships.
Dr. Emily Helder: One of the things I really enjoyed when I was reading your chapter was how you talked about microaggressions along a continuum. So you used a framework that divided them up, talking about microinvalidations, microinsults, microassaults. And that was just a helpful framework for myself in reading it. I wondered if you could just describe those briefly and maybe give a quick example of those.
Dr. Karin Garber: Yeah. So I’ll just backtrack a little and just say that, you know, Derald Wing Sue and his formative research on racial microaggressions, delineated three different types of microaggressions that you mentioned: microassault, microinsults, and microinvalidations. And definitely we found all three of these types in our research as well with adoptive microaggressions. And so a microassault is considered to be the most overt type of microaggression and is a blatant derogation of adoption. So, microassaults are exemplified in our research by the theme of using adoption where adoption was used basically as an outward explicit attack intended to hurt the adopted person.
And so, as we’re looking at microaggressions with adopted adolescents, this tended to come out more in terms of the form of teasing or harassment about adoption. A microinsult in our research was more at the medium level of intensity. And so microinsults disparage or convey ignorance about an adopted person’s heritage or their identity. And so microinsults were really the most common form of microaggression that we found in our study. And these comments often indicated bionormativity, an example would be when people even strangers or acquaintances would ask overly intrusive personal questions about a person’s adoption history, such as, “why did your birth parents give you up” or “why haven’t you tried to find your birth mom.” So there has the potential to be a lot of personal information that could be offered in a response, and that should be respected and handled with care.
And then lastly we have microinvalidations, which are the most subtle form of microaggression and microinvalidation invalidate or negate the experiences of the adopted person. So an example here could be with the theme questioning authenticity, where people would exclude, or deny, or devalue the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of the adopted person. Comments could include: “I don’t believe that you’re adopted” or “Are you kidding me? You can’t be adopted.” So those are some examples of each of those different types.
Dr. Emily Helder: I think, especially the ones on the more subtler end and maybe even including some of the microinsults really illustrate this whole distinction between intent and impact where perhaps people are committing these microaggressions without negative intent, but the impact is, is really significant. I wonder, you know, is, is that something that you’re thinking about as well, that distinction?
Dr. Karin Garber: Absolutely. So that’s a, that’s a great thought because this is an issue that we find in the larger microaggressions literature as well.
The idea that while oftentimes someone may not intend to convey a microaggression, the impact of the microaggression on the marginalized person can still be harmful. And we know that microaggressions, you know, from the broader literature can be related to negative psychological, emotional, and even physical health problems.
And so my research then is really at understanding the nature, function and impact of adoptive microaggressions. So there are some situations as exemplified by the research where microassaults occur to adoptive triad members and yes, the intent with a microassault is usually to harm.
However, by far and large, the majority of slights in our research appear to be unintentional and came from ignorance or lack of experience or knowledge of adoption. So while not every adopted person may see a microaggression in the same way, depending on how the person interprets a comment or behavior, microaggressions may be experienced or perceived as damaging, even if the person has good intentions.
So, I think in society, we often view microaggressions from the viewpoint of the initiator where we say, “Oh, they didn’t mean that they’re just joking.” Or “what’s the big deal it was just a small comment.” So at the same time, though, this is at the cost of the viewpoint of the recipient of the comment who may experience the microaggression as harmful.
So all of these slights may seem harmless when considered individually. But collectively can manifest that idea of death by a thousand paper cuts. And so microaggressions can collectively start to form what Mary Rowe calls microinequities or the quiet and really systemic discrimination that invalidates and excludes entire groups.
So when we interact and communicate with members of the adoption triad, it’s really important for us to be aware of our unconscious biases that we may be holding based on the stigmatizing narratives that our society has internalized about adoption so that we don’t enact and reinforce harm on a group of people who are already marginalized by society.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yes, yes. And a lot of your work as I was reading the chapter and reading some of your other work it focuses on adopted persons and their experiences and the themes that emerged for them. And in the chapter, you also review some of the research for adoptive parents and birth or first families.
And I wondered as you compare kind of the, the themes that are present for adopted individuals versus what’s in the literature for other members of the triad. Where do you see overlap or where do you see distinctions that you think are important to emphasize?
Dr. Karin Garber: In this case, I’d particularly like to highlight Amanda Baden at Montclair State University, who wrote a theory paper about adoptive microaggressions that represents many unique contributions. And as you’ve indicated while my paper highlights the adopted persons experience, probably the most. Baden’s paper also goes into a lot more depth with microaggressions that can be related to other members of the adoption triad including birth and first parents and adoptive parents. A handful of core things that I, can think of a bit more specifically, related to those groups are “phantom birth or first parents”, pseudo/inadequate adoptive parents,” “altruistic rescuers,” “cultural philanthropy,” and “infantilizing adoptees and birth parents.” Those are just some examples, I really recommend reading her original paper for a thorough rundown of each theme. But in providing more dimension to the experiences of the whole triad, we actually gain a greater understanding of how microaggressions and stigma have impacted perceptions of adoption as a whole, where they come from and how they continue to be manifested.
So, you know, further with more research, I think we can start gaining an understanding as a field of how some of these different themes actually may play into each other from a lot of these different papers from maybe different perspectives of the adoption triad. So just like some examples, you know, if adoptive parents are considered like “pseudoparents” or “altruistic rescuers,” how does this impact the experience of non normativity felt by adopted people that was a theme that we found in our research. What does it mean if an adopted person feels a sense of loss in their adoption yet are made to feel they should be grateful. Those are combining themes for both of our research. So these are some of the more complex types of questions that we can further investigate, with a fuller picture of how microaggressions may be impacting adoption and the adoption triad as a whole.
Dr. Emily Helder: Great. And as we think too, I mean, so far we’ve talked mostly about the adoptive aspect of the adoptees identity, but, you know, we all have such multilayered aspects to our identity. So I was curious too, if you could say a bit about how maybe some different aspects of identity might intersect with microaggressions, I’m thinking especially about tranracial adoptees, for example.
Dr. Karin Garber: So, you know, studying intersections of adoptive identity with other identities is such an important part of the work as the adoption community is incredibly diverse. So Amanda Baden partnered with Ellen Pinderhughes who’s at Tufts University and together with their research teams, they’ve done some tremendous empirical work on adoptive microaggressions, specifically with Chinese transracially adopted children between I think the ages were five to nine years old. So they looked at the racial microaggressions that these adopted individuals experienced using Derald Wing Sue’s framework and the adoptive microaggressions they experienced using Baden’s theory and the researchers have discovered a lot of really interesting findings.
One, for example, just being that there were more reported adoptive microaggressions compared to racial microaggressions that these adoptees reported. And so the researchers believed that this indicated that race may be a more taboo subject to bring up in social situations, social interactions.
So that kind of gives us a lens of how these different identities are coming together in a person’s lived experience. I’ve also done research on the intraracial and intraethnic microaggressions that are experienced by Korean American adult transracial adopted individuals. And this study added to the literature in that not only do transracially adopted individuals experience microaggressions from their White peers, but they also experienced invalidation and challenging experiences with their same race and ethnicity peers. And so this may come up in something like feeling not “Korean enough” or being taught by others, how to quote unquote, “be Korean” in a very specified and essentialized way.
So this isn’t to say that some participants did not also mention feeling empowered by their experiences with other Korean and Asian Americans as well, as there was some solidarity that was felt with the groups. But you know, the study really illustrates the fluid and multidimensional nature of identity and the really diverse socio-cultural experiences that adoptees can have, if their transracial adoptees.
So as I’ve been trying to sort of convey, it’s a very complex picture.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Yes. There’s so much more avenues for research and to explore it further. Turning to more kind of practical applications, you know, as you think about say adoptive parents, maybe who would really seek to prepare their children on how to respond when they experience these microaggressions or perhaps seek to prevent them within their family, within their friend networks. I’m curious do you have, you know, pieces of advice that you derived from the research that you’ve done?
Dr. Karin Garber: Yeah. I would say that the first major skill to hone would definitely be awareness. So using the themes in the research as a guiding point for being able to recognize the different types of microaggressions as they occur.
So, you know, if adoptive parents, for example, are aware of these instances, then they can find a way to support their children through active dialogue. They could be proactively educating teachers, students, other parents, or school administrators in schools on adoptive issues, such as thinking of creative ways, for example, to do the family tree assignment, which may be confusing and upsetting for some adoptees, parents can also model to their children different ways of responding to microaggressions.
So parents can also practice and decide on stock answers with their children to common microaggressions beforehand, and then be able to debrief with them after a microaggression incident occurs and in practicing is also important for adoptees to know how and when to set boundaries, if they’re ever feeling uncomfortable, and responses to microaggressions may change based on the adopted persons kind of developmentally where they are, or where they are in their identity, or the relationship to the initiator, uh, the relationship of the initiator to the recipient or a desire to engage or disengage with the initiator at the moment. I think parents can also find, you know, adopted mentors with whom their children can discuss difficult microaggressive incidents or parents can be, you know, quietly supportive in the background until the adoptees ready to have that discussion about microaggressions.
And I think once adoptive parents understand the microaggressions better and can recognize them as they occur, that’s when they can provide more education to the entire family about microaggressions and how they can sort of buffer against these issues. So that would include siblings, especially if they’re not adopted, being able to talk about, you know, what do you say when someone asks an intrusive question about the family and how do you describe how different families are formed in different ways?
Extended family should be aware of adoption and microaggression issues so they don’t accidentally miscommunicate with the adopted person and make them feel separate or aside from the family. And, you know, as you’ve talked about, friends should also be aware of these things so that they don’t unknowingly commit a microaggression as well, because oftentimes it is unintentional.
So this is all really in the service of, you know, not shaming people, but actively and proactively supporting the adoptive family and individual. And then lastly, I’d just say if you’re a parent who commits a microaggression, because it can happen. That has definitely showed up in various parts of the literature, just truly listen to your child and, you know, try what you can do to lessen any defenses, own it, validate their experience, and process it together.
If you know, if your, your child is willing and really seek to understand how they’re feeling about it. And of course, resolve to change.
Dr. Emily Helder: That level of communication and non defensiveness seems so valuable. Yeah. Yeah. Anything you would add related to practitioners or professionals that might interact with adoptees or members of the triad? Any other advice for them in, in those roles for preventing microaggressions?
Dr. Karin Garber: So, yes, practitioners, I say to ensure to develop, you know, your intake forms or initial consultations or whatever it is to ask about family background questions without using bionormative language. Because that’s sort of an environmental microaggression and when working with adoptive clients try to avoid using language like “real parents” or “your own children,” things like that with adoptive families and further, I think, broadly being aware of bionormative assumptions that you may have as a practitioner are really so key and it’s about making the unconscious conscious. So again, it’s important for us as practitioners to not reoppress our clients in ways that they’re marginalized outside in the external world. So use the preferred language of your clients, have discussions with them about the terms that they use and why.
Discuss with adoptive parents the different themes and if they’ve encountered them and how to respond, understand that microaggressions may impact the adoptive individual or the family as a whole. And sometimes there can be microaggressions within the family. And if you see them occurring, for example, in a family therapy session, be aware and be able to intervene and discuss and process between the different family members.
In terms of supporting adoptees and actually addressing the microaggressions. If the client is willing, it can be helpful to process through different situations in order to aid them in understanding what considerations push them to respond or not. As I’ve said earlier, learning to set boundaries around, you know, that adopted persons comfort is really key. So if the client is comfortable processing through all the different emotional reactions, they may have had to a microaggression, that could be really important because often microaggressions in the external world are quick, brushed aside ignored, but being able to sit in a space with someone to talk about it and pause and be intentional is, is really healing.
And then lastly, I’d say as a, as a practitioner, if you, again, you yourself commit a micro-aggression a very powerful thing that you can do is model how to respond in taking feedback. And so we all commit microaggressions. It’s inevitable. So it’s important to really understand how to respond in these moments. Pause, work through the tension or the rupture, and that can be a really corrective, emotional experience for adoptees who are often out in the world, responding to microaggressions. And again, never get to reflect on the situation and never have closure around it.
Dr. Emily Helder: Right, right. Oh, so many helpful suggestions. Thank you. As we end I’d love to hear, is there, either research that you have planned in this area or future research that you’d love to see as, as kind of next steps building on what’s already been done?
Dr. Karin Garber: So, my latest research as I’ve sort of alluded to earlier was around Korean American adoptees experience with intra-racial and ethnic microaggressions. So these types of microaggressions have been called for in the wider microaggressions field, but there hasn’t been a lot done in this area yet. So this is really a budding area in the literature. So I would also hear anecdotes from transracial adoptees about experiencing these types of microaggressions from their same race or ethnicity, non-adopted peers.
But the research hadn’t been completed yet, to know much about the phenomenon. And so from these things that I found in the research, I started to create an assessment tool for being able to measure the specific types of these specific types of microaggressions. And so I still have more that I’d like to do with developing that specific tool. And I also wanted to give a quick shout out to Keara Sherman, who’s at the University of Missouri, Kansas City. And she recently utilized our research to aid in creating a scale on adoptive microaggressions as well that’s great. And so I think these types of assessment tools will enable us to investigate adoptive microaggressions, relationships with different health outcomes. And I think that’s really essential to the growing literature.
Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Yes. That’s so exciting. I haven’t seen that tool yet. I look forward to looking for that. So, well, thank you so much both for writing the chapter, which is such a valuable contribution to the lived experiences section of the handbook, and also for taking the time to share a bit about your work.
So thank you so much.
Dr. Karin Garber: Absolutely. Thank you so much again.