Real Talk on Race is CBC Montreal's special series exploring personal conversations and experiences around race in the city.

For adoptees Kassaye MacDonald and Manuelle Alix-Surprenant, growing up in Quebec was a happy experience.

But as transracial adoptees — MacDonald was born in Ethiopia and Alix-Surprenant in South Korea — coming of age in white families and predominantly white neighbourhoods made for a complex relationship with their racial identity.

"When I was a kid, I didn't even realize it was a transracial adoption," Alix-Surprenant said of growing up in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. 

"I always considered myself as a white kid." 

For MacDonald, the realization that she was a different race from her parents hit her when her family ventured outside the "homogeneous white environment" of her small Eastern Township community.

"It was only when I was around people that looked like me, that's when it came back to me, like 'Oh yeah, I'm black, I'm not white.'"

I didn't even realize it was a transracial adoption. I always considered myself as a white kid... - Manuelle Alix-Surprenant

​Alix-Surprenant recalls a similar moment of recognition when she moved to Montreal at 16 years old.

"I remember walking down the streets in Montreal for the very first time when I was a teenager and meeting Asian people and they would nod to me," she said. 

"This is when I started realizing that I was something else than white."

Despite happy childhoods and supportive parents, MacDonald and Alix-Surprenant increasingly felt an integral part of themselves was missing.

"I'd feel this sadness, like why can't I be around people that look like me?" MacDonald said.

Manuelle Alix-Surprenant

Manuelle Alix-Surprenant was adopted in 1984 into a family from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. (Submitted by Manuelle Alix-Surprenant)

'A sense of loss'

MacDonald and Alix-Surprenant's desire to reconnect with their roots grew stronger, eventually leading both women back to their countries of birth.

"One day in my early twenties, I woke up and I didn't want to go back to South Korea — I needed to go back to South Korea. It was a really strong feeling and I had to do it," Alix-Surprenant recalled.

But Alix-Surprenant said leaving her adoptive family to find her birth family felt like a "loyalty conflict" — a feeling shared by MacDonald.

"I'd feel this sadness, like why can't I be around people that look like me?" - Kassaye MacDonald

"Sometimes we have very mixed feelings in the sense that we love our families but we also feel a sense of loss too," MacDonald said. 

"We don't really want to express that to our adoptive families, because we don't want to hurt them."

Despite that, MacDonald said her adoptive parents understood her desire to be around people who looked more like her and shared her birth culture.

"They realized that it wasn't about them. I wasn't mad at them."

'Love is not enough'

But MacDonald and Alix-Surprenant maintain that transracial adoptees need more than supportive parents.

"Love is not enough," Alix-Surprenant said.

After returning from a trip to South Korea, Alix-Surprenant searched for a space to reconnect with other international adoptees — a space that didn't exist.

"In 2006, I couldn't find anything for adoptees in Quebec. The only thing I could find was about adoptive parents. I told myself, if it doesn't exist, I'll create it," Alix-Surprenant said.

And so began L'Hybridé, an organization that brings together international adoptees to talk about their experiences, allowing them to ask questions they don't feel comfortable asking their adoptive parents. It also provides support for those seeking their birth parents.

Similarly, MacDonald co-founded Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora, which brings together Ethiopian adoptees like herself.

"Sometimes what happens is that adoptive parents really like to talk about their childrens' stories, but I believe that it's up to the child to actually define and articulate his or her own experience," she said.

MacDonald and Alix-Surprenant also noted a tendency for adoptive parents to assert their colour-blindness.

"If you're bringing in a child of a different race in a community that's homogeneous, you really need to go the extra mile to make sure that they have access to people who look like them," MacDonald said. 

Kassaye MacDonald and Aselefech Evans

Kassaye MacDonald (left) and her Ethiopian Adoptees of the Diaspora co-founder Aselefech Evans. (Submitted by Kassaye MacDonald)

'Need to have racial mirrors'

That advice was echoed by Kathy Murphy with Children's Bridge, an Ottawa-based adoption agency.

"If you are adopting transracially, [it's] so important for you to understand that your child will need to have racial mirrors," said Murphy.

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"They need mentors from their racial and cultural community in their lives. They need to be going to diverse schools, living in diverse neighbourhoods. They should not be the only child of [a] minority [group] in their classroom, in their school."

Looking back on her childhood, MacDonald now recognizes the importance of having access to "racial mirrors."

"Seeing people that look like you who are successful, that do a lot of different things — it gives you this confidence," she said.

Despite their reservations, neither adoptees are against transracial adoption. But they stress that would-be parents must do their homework. 

MacDonald, Alix-Surprenant and Murphy all agree there is one great place to start.

"One of the important voices to hear is the voice of the adoptees that have gone before us," Murphy said.

Kassaye and Manuelle's recommended resources for transracial adoptees