This Is Us: Transracial adoptees praise Randall's storyline: 'My story is seen'

As This Is Us comes to an end, fans have their tissues ready for what is bound to be an emotional finale, after six series of moving storylines and following the ins and outs of the Pearson family.

Throughout the programme, a range of sensitive topics have been explored from eating disorders to men’s mental health, grief to racism, and, perhaps one of the most prominent of all, transracial adoption.

The beloved drama, starring Mandy Moore, Sterling K Brown and Justin Hartley, has featured narratives across generations of the Pearsons, going back and forth between years, as Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca (Mandy) adopted their third triplet, the teenage children suffered from the loss of their dad, and, as adults, they navigate their own way through the world and their relationships with each other.

Following the storyline of Randall’s experience as the Black adopted son, transracial adoptees have found their own narratives to have been represented and reflected, and enabled them to explore feelings and put into words emotions that were meaningful to them. spoke to some transracial adoptees to discover how witnessing Randall’s development throughout the series had impacted them, from viewing his sudden adoption to following him as he found his biological father and discovered the secrets he had been hidden from, to recognising the way in which the Black Lives Matter movement impacted him as he navigated growing up in a white family.

Joy Hoffman: ‘It’s the first time I’ve seen an adoptee be a main character’

Dr Joy Hoffman, 52, was adopted at the age of 10 months from Korea by a white family, and has lived in the United States ever since, marking most of her life and everything that she can remember.

Sharing what This Is Us and Randall’s character meant to her, she told us Randall’s experience of being different in his family, and the nuances within his family dynamics ‘deeply resonated’ with her.

Joy recalled a particular scene from the series, in which Randall, as a young child, wants to visit a particular swimming pool in a different area, and when his parents question him on why, they quickly discover that he wants to go there specifically because there are more Black families there.

Reflecting on this and how much it resonated with her, Joy shared: ‘Randall has already realised that he’s different and it’s not about not loving his family, it’s about feeling like “This is a very different experience for me, I don’t have anybody who looks like me and so I’m really curious about what this may be to be playing with kids who look like me,” and so I really like that episode because I’m not Black so that’s not my experience, and I would say that I don’t know that I really ever had these moments of “Oh I want to go play with Asian children” or anything like that. But I think what resonated with me was just this idea that first of all children are not colourblind, everybody likes to believe that they are, but no, they see colour they just don’t judge based on colour. They see the beauty of it but then they learn prejudice, from the people around them, the systems they’re living in and things like that, so I think some of the stuff that resonates with me for Randall is this concept of identity and coming into your own and realising you’re different and struggling with it, the idea that you love your family and you wonder about this other life that you might have had, you wonder about what it would be like to be around people who look like you especially when you are always surrounded by whiteness. So that resonated with me when I was watching that episode, like “Oh my gosh this is exactly what kids go through, this is identity development.” That was one of the first things that just really hit me hard.’

When she first watched the programme, Joy admitted she didn’t realise the show had an adoptee character. She said: ‘The very first episode I ever watched, the first one, where they bring the kids home from hospital but you don’t know they’re an entire family, you just see three different narratives and then you realise they’re all siblings and she adopted him. I remember the first time watching that I cried because it literally is the first time I’ve seen an adoption and an adoptee be a main character. They’re usually side-characters or extras, they’re in the episode once in a while like in Modern Family [speaking about Lily, Mitchell and Cameron’s adopted Vietnamese daughter] where she shows up once in a while but she’s not a main character, she doesn’t have a leading role and Randall has a leading role. He has a leading role, and they do whole stories around him and the way that they address his trauma and his nuances of loving his family and also being angry at his family, loving his mother being angry with his mother, all of those things deeply resonated with me.’

She continued: ‘There was the episode where his mum admits to him that she’s known his biological father and you see in episodes following Rebecca’s fragility and thinking she’s going to lose Randall or wondering if Randall is still going to love her and all these things, and basically making it about her, and that’s something that adoptees see a lot – so many adoptive parents make things about them. They only think about “Look what I did for you”, they don’t think about “What did that entail?” Yes, you gave me a better life and I don’t know anything about my country of origin or my language of origin, I literally lost all of that.

‘Those are feelings of loss of culture, of language, every time I walk into a Korean grocery store and people start speaking Korean at me, I feel really stupid, and then I get angry because “Why wasn’t I taught this when I was younger?” I don’t feel Korean enough ever. That feeling of guilt that I didn’t pass this onto my kids but knowing I couldn’t, I didn’t learn it either.’

Joy added: ‘One of the things that This Is Us does really well is show the dynamics between Randall and Rebecca, but Rebecca also handles it really well and I think she handles it in ways that adoptees wish their parents would handle it, which is triggering for me, because I watch it and I cry with Randall and I cry with Rebecca and I cry just watching the dynamics and I cry like “Oh my gosh this is beautiful” but then I get really upset because this is not my story. I can’t have these conversations with my mum, she shuts them down completely.’

Joy recalled a conversation Randall has with his sister Kate, who then relays it to their brother Kevin, trying to explain to Kevin why Randall always felt different. ‘Kate goes back to Kevin and tells him to listen to Randall, because Kevin’s like “He’s had a good life,” and she’s like “He’s not saying that he didn’t,”’ Joy explained.

‘When white adoptive families make it about them, I think it’s because deep inside there is this feeling that they know that we’re different and they were just hoping that we wouldn’t figure it out, or that their love would be enough, and I always want to say to my mum “Your love was always enough,” but the world outside is s***, and you didn’t prepare me for the world outside, because your answer was always “Well, you’re one of us, you’re our family and we love you.” That’s great and I believe you and that’s fine if I’m going to stay locked up inside all the time with my family who loves me, but I don’t, so the first time someone called me a racial slur, and I came home and said “What is this?” instead of saying “That’s horrible, that’s racist, let me talk to you teacher or the child’s parent,” she said “You just ignore that, you’re not one of them.” I mean so literally discounting me being an Asian, telling me I’m not Asian and then telling me to ignore it, that’s not how you address racism, the way you address racism is that you tell someone that they’re racist. So I grew up thinking these comments are okay and colourblindness. As a child, you don’t unpack that, like what does that mean? You’re one of us like in the family name, or one of you being raised in your culture, and you don’t unpack that as a child, but unpacking that as an adult – it’s a lot.’

Viola Helen: ‘My story is seen’

Viola Helen, 25, was adopted from China at the age of 14-months by a white, single parent. She told us how Randall’s storyline in This Is Us helped her feel ‘validated’, saying it was ‘the first show [she’s] ever felt seen in’.

She told us: ‘It’s the first show that I would say I feel seen, my story is seen, especially because it is difficult for adoptees to speak to non-adoptees about our issues that we do face.

‘Randall is my favourite character for obvious reasons and following his story arch, especially in the episode where he finds out about [his father leaving him at a fire station], I was in absolute tears. That was so powerful and so moving, his whole story has been done so well by This Is Us, so when I do talk about my own adoption experience I do refer to This Is Us quite a lot because I think it’s easier for non-adoptees or people who don’t know anything about adoption, especially transracial adoption as well, it’s just easier for them to understand through the show than necessarily me talking about it, and it’s easier for me to direct them to the show than to open up personally because it is a very personal and vulnerable topic.’

She continued: ‘I think Randall’s storyline, which isn’t delved into too much until later on in the seasons, but obviously from the start we know that he’s adopted, and I think because he’s an adult in the show it really helped me realise, I always knew that we all have issues as adoptees, and I always knew it was going to be a life long journey, but seeing Randall who was a grown man who was still struggling with his identity, and all these feelings about his background and his adoption, really helped me validated. More so that I appreciated that they were showing this in the show because I felt like non-adoptees or people who don’t know anybody who is adopted, it’s just overwhelmingly seen as a positive thing, and while my mum’s my mum and I do love my life and I’m very appreciative of everything, it is so overwhelmingly seen as positive.

‘When I went in university in particular a lot of people I spoke to, when I said I was adoptive, their response was that “You’re really lucky,” and I even get that now, and that just really irritates me because why am I lucky? I am lucky obviously but there’s so much that I’ve been through that is not lucky, and I’m very unlucky to have gone through those things, so the fact that the show was depicting his adoption struggles resonated with me a lot, because I do struggle a lot and all my other friends struggle a lot but nobody really realises that we have these struggles because it seems so positive, like, “Oh you’ve got such a better life now, you’ve got all of these opportunities, you’re very lucky to have grown up in the “Western world or whatever,” and yes while that is true, people completely forget about the things that we have lost as adoptees, and the identity struggles, and loads of other things. So the fact that this show does cover all of that, I’m very grateful. I do resonate with the storyline and I love that but the thing I love most is that they’re showing it and making people aware that people do struggle and it is a thing, more than anything else.’

Speaking about how Randall’s experience as an adoptee differed from hers, Viola considered Rebecca and Jack’s dynamics as adopted parents of a different race: ‘I think it’s nice to see that they’ve done a transracial adoption because I know that domestic adoptions (if it’s a white family adopting a white child), there’s still those issues but it’s very different and I think a Black adoptee with a white family is even more difficult than other transracial adoptions and I liked that they showed Rebecca and Jack both really try to put in the effort, not as much as my personal experience, they could have done more, but that’s just them as characters, I think they did do it very well in the show.

‘My mum has been very big on making sure me and my sister stay connected to our roots. Ever since I can remember we’d always go every Saturday to the Chinese centre, we started having Mandarin lessons there from the age of three, also Chinese dancing. My mum took us back to China loads of times, I go back to China at least once a year if I can, I’ve lived in China, I still keep up with my Mandarin, so I still feel very connected to the culture, so I like that they bring in that aspect of a transracial adoption, where you can feel really disconnected. Some of my adopted friends, I see other transracial adoptees do struggle with feeling connected to whatever country that they are from. Some of my friends struggle a lot, to the point where they consider themselves white, which I find really upsetting and sad that they struggle with that, but I think there are those issues and I’m glad they’re touched on in the show.’

She continued: ‘I think Rebecca’s treatment of Randall is a fair experience of adoption, but it wasn’t my experience. I think Rebecca could have done more, but I think it’s very representative of how adoptive families do behave.’

‘The representation of an adopted character has meant so much. I love it. It’s one of my favourite TV shows, and as I said, it’s the first show I’ve ever felt seen in, and I’m glad that he’s raised the issues and made people aware.’ Viola added that adoption should be featured more in film and TV, ‘because it is very rare,’ but admitted that when people do ask her about adoption, she points them towards This Is Us, ‘because that’s the easiest way for me to say that this is what we go through, and it is represented very well and very accurately, in my opinion.’

Hannah: ‘For me, Randall feels authentic’

Hannah, 26, was adopted at the age of 6-months from China, by a white single mother, and was raised in the United States.

When considering the portrayal of adoption in This Is Us, and asked if the representation depicts a fair or accurate picture of adoption as a whole, Hannah explained to us: I think whether the portrayal is “fair” and/or “accurate” is a complicated question because I don’t think there’s one way to experience being adopted: we all have different experiences, and while some may find his experience inaccurate or untruthful, others may find solace in it. It’s important to me to recognize that adoptees are not a monolith, and one of us does not speak for all of us. I also wouldn’t want to call his portrayal “fair” or “accurate” when I’m not a Black adoptee.’

She continued: ‘I think for me, what makes Randall’s character special is that they explore how he feels about his adoption — the “good” and the “bad.” And he gets to feel things and say things and just be heard. In a way, it feels almost unrealistic to have him be able to say things and just be heard. It can be so daunting for me and other adoptees — especially transracial adoptees, I think — to share how we’re feeling: how it feels to be different from the rest of your family, to realize you never had a say in the most pivotal moment of your life, etc. For me, Randall feels authentic. He’s more than just his adoption, sure, but his adoption is such a large part of who he is, and we see the ripple effect. 

‘In one episode, he says: “It has defined my life, being adopted. It’s defined my life even when I didn’t realize it was defining it. And I think part of that, at least for me, is that this big, giant thing happened to me, and I didn’t have any say in it.” It’s so rare that an adopted character speaks like this. 

‘Often, the adopted characters are young and adoption simply happens to them… that is, we don’t see much else. We don’t see how their adoption shapes them into an adult, how it impacts their friendships and relationships. Sometimes it’s a plot twist, like with several characters in Pretty Little Liars [Spencer’s character discovered she was adopted surprisingly when she was a late teenager], and never explored on an emotional level at all. In a lot of instances, adoption is something that happens and then is done. For me, it feels like there’s always something missing. Like writers want to bring up adoption, but they don’t know how to talk about it. With This Is Us, we see the circumstances that led to Randall’s adoption, we see his birth parents as young adults, and we see him grow up with the Pearsons and start his own family. We see and experience all of it.

‘There’s another episode where Randall goes to an adoptee support group and an attendee says: “Lately, I’ve been letting myself feel something I think I’ve known deep down for my entire life. I wish I’d never been adopted. I made the mistake of telling my adopted family how I’ve been feeling. I said, ‘I love you, but I wish I never knew you. Because if I could go back in time and choose, I’d choose to stay with my bipolar birth mom.’ Now half of them won’t talk to me.” That’s so powerful to see on a show as popular and as raw in emotion as This is Us. I still can’t believe it, to be honest. It wasn’t Randall who said it, but all the same: Randall’s journey led him to an adoptee support group, where other adopted characters shared their experiences of adoption, and it wasn’t all happy. 

‘I think there’s an expectation in society that adoptees should feel grateful to have been adopted, and for This is Us to spin that around and show how adoption affects Randall so deeply… It’s something I think I’ll always be in awe of and appreciative of.  I hope that This Is Us has moved the needle, however slightly, towards more open and honest conversations about adoption – and hopefully these conversations centre adoptees. I would love to see more writers explore adoption in the way the This is Us writers have done with Randall Pearson.’

Henry Coburn: This Is Us ‘has opened the door’

Henry Coburn is a mixed-race adoptee, who was adopted at birth. He and his two adopted sisters are all mixed-race, with white mothers and Black fathers, and were adopted by white parents. Being a mixed-race adoptee in a white family, Henry shared how his experience looking for his biological parents really resonated with Randall’s.

‘The 2020 protests were what sparked me looking for my biological parents, as I was thinking about racism and thinking about my upbringing, I started thinking about how having white parents had impacted me,’ he told us. ‘They raised us pretty colour blind, like, “Race doesn’t matter, we don’t see you any different,” and I kind of just adopted that mindset, but in 2020 it became clear that that’s just not reality, like nobody is colour-blind, and that’s when I started looking.

‘It was really hard because, this is something that really resonated with Randall for me, my parents lied to me about what information that they had, so I always thought that there was no information, but turns out there was a box full of letters and pictures and stuff like that, so those two things, finding out there’s actually information to look with and being confronted with racism is what drove me to start looking.’

Opening up about discovering the box of letters felt, he said: ‘I felt pretty betrayed and hurt, like I haven’t talked to my mum since it happened, I mean briefly, she knows that I know and that I’m hurt but we haven’t talked about it and discussed it. Like Rebecca, both my parents hid this information to protect me, and because they thought they were doing the right thing, and also to protect my relationship with them.’ He added that ‘it’s the action that’s the problem not the information’.

Henry shared: ‘I love This Is Us, it’s genuinely one of my favourite shows and I’m pretty bummed it’s ending, I think they do a pretty good job. I love the characters, even the ones that frustrate me. I think they do a really good job with his childhood, I don’t think they do the best job with his adult experience as an adoptee. Being an adult adoptee is such a complicated experience, and we’re very rarely listened to, and also, you can tell This Is Us doesn’t condemn adoption and lots of adoptees do. I don’t think they give a fair voice to people who are against adoption, which the vast majority of those who are against it are adopted.’

Henry himself is against transracial adoption, saying: ‘I think it’s too complicated of a situation to have a white person raising in a racialised body, but adoption as a whole, I think the way it happens now is unethical – it’s basically rich people buying poor people’s babies, but I don’t think adoption should necessarily be abolished, but maybe looked at with a closer lens.’

Reflecting on seeing an adoptee perspective highlighted, Henry said: ‘It’s been really great and has opened the door for a lot of discussions and helped me realise things in my own experience. Watching This Is Us is when I realised that being an adopted person means you’re in a minority group, it’s not just something that happened to you. It shapes your whole experience, it’s also made lots of other people want to listen to adoptees, so it’s been really, really great.

‘I have had friends who watch the show around me and it’s given me a way of safely talking about my experience. A huge problem for adoptees is that most rhetoric centres the adoptive parents, and not the actual children and it gives a way to brush your feelings off onto someone else, like be like “Randall’s experience…”, so you don’t have to deal with the vitriol of someone just not wanting to listen.

‘I want to say I’m glad to see how they portrayed Rebecca, even though it would have been nice to see an adoptive parent be better, I’m glad that they did it like that, because it’s accurate. The people who are centred are the adoptive parents, and it’s not necessarily their fault, because all the messaging that we’ve heard is centred around that, like adoption is a means for people to complete their family, not necessarily a means for a child to go into their home, so yeah I like that they did that because Rebecca is a good person who loves her family, her centring herself isn’t a malicious thing, it’s just what she’s been programmed to do.’

Henry recalled a scene from the programme where Kevin confronts Randall, saying: ‘They’re talking about the adoption, and Kevin accuses Randall of being ungrateful and that scene really resonated with me, because it’s something that gets thrown in our faces all the time as adoptees. If we complain about anything, we’re ungrateful. It makes me think about experiences with my friends and stuff, for example, my parents helped me with this house and I told one of my friends, and they said something like, “It’s so interesting that you can criticise adoption but you let your parents buy you a house,” and I was like, “That’s not fair.” If I was biologically related to my parents, they wouldn’t say the same. I think about that scene constantly.’

He added: ‘One thing that I thought was really interesting was that Randall never tries to build a community outside of his family, I know the show really is focused on Pearsons and Pearsons alone, but it’s odd for an adoptee who is struggling through that, especially a transracial adoptee, to not reach out and build his own community. I think that could have been a really important storyline to explore, like how the Pearsons’ would have reacted, for him to get that autonomy for him. But it wouldn’t have been easy.

‘Another thing is, I don’t think they ever touched on how hard it is to immerse yourself back into Black spaces after being raised by white people. I know he goes to a private school [with a large Black community], but they don’t really explore that, which was really interesting to me.’

Speaking about the way in which Rebecca and Jack adopted Randall at the beginning of the series, taking home a third baby from the hospital after devastatingly losing one of their biological triplets, Henry added: ‘I quite like that they did that,’ speaking about the way in which the moment felt ‘rushed’. He continued: ‘Since they weren’t the hopeful adoptive parents trying to adopt a baby, it bypasses a lot of the harmful stuff that happens, but it does leave out a huge chunk of the story, but I also think it helps. One of the reasons I think Randall’s story is so unique is because he was adopted, kind of on a whim, like his parents didn’t have any other reasons, but oftentimes people are looking for a blank slate when they look for a baby, and that’s what they’re going for, and because they just wanted to adopt Randall I don’t think that was behind their intentions. So in terms of not endorsing a harmful representation or harmful practices, I think it was better, but it does miss out on what actually happens.’

This Is Us is available to watch on Amazon Prime.

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