In the fifth season of NBC’s hit drama This is Us (2016-), Black transracial adoptee Randall Pearson is given space to grieve the loss of his birth mother, Laurel. By doing so, the show is able to hint at the unsustainability of colorblind kinship politics in adoptive families. As Lawrence (2020) has demonstrated, while early episodes of the series occasionally explored the intricacies of transracial adoption, the series has recycled many tropes from the 1980s Reagan-era sitcoms, Diff’rent Strokes (NBC, 1978-1985; ABC, 1985-1986) and Webster (ABC, 1983-1987), that also depicted Black children being brought up by white parents, through its centering of Randall’s adoptive parents Jack and Rebecca as white saviors, its persistent use of what Gray (1995) has called assimilationist discourses, and its dominant portrayal of the U.S. as a post-racial society.
Yet, in the wake of Summer 2020’s reckoning with the U.S.’s long-history of racial violence, This is Us’s fifth season saw Randall forcibly confront his white brother and sister about their white privilege and unmask the racial microaggressions present in their sibling dynamics. As I note in this short post, Randall’s journey to further reconcile his adoption trauma also contests dominant transnational/racial adoption discourses, in which grieving past lives is unspeakable or unacknowledged by kinship structures that privilege colorblindness and linear adoption narratives that erase an adoptee’s past prior to the moment of adoption. In addition to the contemporary political moment, Randall’s storyline may have been further advanced by the production decision to hire transracial adoptee and activist Angela Tucker as an adoption consultant, who worked with the writer’s room to bring a more authentic lens to his character.
In the clip above, we see Randall meet with the ghost of his birth mother. While in previous seasons Randall believed that his mother had died of an overdose soon after his birth, in this season five episode it is revealed that she survived only to be incarcerated in a California prison for drug possession. After serving her sentence, she returns to her hometown of New Orleans to live out the rest of her life before dying of cancer just a few years prior to Randall’s visit. Notably, Laurel’s tragic backstory upholds common adoption narrative stereotypes of Black women as drug-addicted birth mothers incapable of or unworthy of raising their own children and fails to critique systems that sought to criminalize families of color, such as the 1980s War on Drugs (Briggs 2012). By devoting this one episode to her life and suggesting her drug use began as a grieving mechanism after her brother was killed in the Vietnam War, the series fleetingly attempts to give nuance to Laurel’s character. Still, as a consequence of learning about his birth mother’s life, Randall begins to be able to own his adoption narrative from his own perspective.
Appearing to Randall, Laurel tells him, “All this sadness, it’s weighing you down. You have my eyes. I see so much pain in them. Aren’t you tired? You need to let the pain go.” He responds that he doesn’t know how. To which she replies, “Yes, you do.” Nearly fully submerged in the water, Randall lets out a full-throated scream of grief meant to symbolize a mental cleansing and the start of mediating some of his sadness. As Eng (2010) notes, melancholia can result from the transnational/racial adoptee’s feelings of loss being unnamed and made invisible by their adoptive families. Through being allowed to grieve, then, Randall can begin to make further meaning of the pain that stems from his transracial adoption. His grief is not simply overcome by his newfound knowledge of Laurel’s life, however. In subsequent episodes, we see Randall continue to see a therapist and start to attend a transracial adoptee support group to continue to make sense of his past. By acknowledging these losses and the complicated grieving process that stems from them, This is Us makes legible the suffering that some transnational/racial adoptees go through as a result of their adoption. This is Us is an imperfect text, but its most recent season offers its audience an alternative view to the popular transracial adoption-as-rescue discourse by centering the complexity of mixed-race families made through adoption.
Briggs, L. 2020. Taking Children: A History of American Terror. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Eng, D. 2010. The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gray, H. 1995. Watching Race: Television and the Struggle for Blackness. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lawrence, N. 2019. “Nothing New Under the Sun: The Reimplementation of 80s Sitcom Tropes in NBC’s This is Us.” In A Companion to Television, 2nd Edition, eds. J. Wasko & E.R. Meehan, pgs. 3017-324. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell.