Transracial Adoption Obstacles and How to Address Them  (Part Two)

This blog is part two of BPAR’s series on transracial adoption. Please read part one, Transracial Adoption: What Parents Need to Know for more resources and a history of transracial adoption. The clinicians at Boston Post Adoption Resources are in the process of compiling a comprehensive set of resources on these topics. We will link to them from this blog when the list is ready

Importance of Raising Transracial Adoptees in a Home that Respects Their Cultural Heritage

transracial adoptees


As the intake director at BPAR, I am often the first person who connects with the adoptee or family member seeking therapeutic services. One of the most common statements I hear from transracial adoptees is that they were raised in a very “white” community, where they were one of the only persons of color. Many experienced racial taunting or microaggressions, and most did not tell their parents about these incidents.

Research has highlighted the importance of cultural socialization for transracial adoptees. In their 2010 research study, “Cultural Socialization Practices in Domestic and International Transracial Adoption” (M. Elizabeth Vonk, Jaegoo Lee, Josie Crolley-Simic), the authors note that research around transracial adoption suggests that integrating the child’s culture while supporting and encouraging relationships with others from their culture is the best way to help them develop a positive racial identity as well as give them the skills to handle discrimination (McGinnis et al., 2009, p. 245).  However, they found that the most frequently used methods to introduce culture and race to most children may not be the most effective, because they typically required little contact with people of the child’s race and ethnicity.

Marta, a 33-year-old BPAR clinician who was adopted from Colombia, talks about how hard it was to grow up in a white community. She states, “I believed I was the only person in the entire world adopted from Colombia.” She remembers watching the tv show “This is Us” as an adult and identifying with Randall, who was also adopted transracially. There is an episode where Randall makes a mark in his book every time he encounters a black person like himself. Marta states, “I would have had no marks.” Over the years, the thinking has begun to shift, and adoptive parents have become more thoughtful about introducing their children to their cultural identity. There is a wide variation in the extent that parents include their children’s cultural heritage in their day-to-day life. Cultural lessons can include reading books, celebrating holidays, eating foods, and attending culture camps. Some parents enroll their children in language classes, and some make heritage visits to their country of origin. Jodi Waddell stresses the importance of living in a community that is diverse and socializing with members of the child’s ethnic community. She adds that it is essential for parents to “know the child’s history and understand the rich, powerful legacy they come from. Share it with them, so they can be proud of their history.”

In her article, “The Realities of Raising a Kid of a Different Race,” Karen Valby cites a 2008 report from the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, an adoption research and policy organization, that reaffirmed that “black children had a greater sense of racial pride when their parents acknowledged racial identity, moved to integrated neighborhoods, and provided African American role models.” The report also found that black kids whose white parents minimized the importance of racial identity became reluctant to identify themselves racially. Studies have shown that as a child gets older, their family’s involvement in cultural activities tend to wane. This is often because the child has expressed a decreasing interest in this exposure. The trick for the parents is to continue to openly address the child’s native culture and to provide opportunities, even if the child seems reluctant.

Liam, a 24-year-old adopted from South Korea, spoke to me about what it was like for him to grow up in a Boston Irish neighborhood. He remembers that his mother tried very hard to expose him to Korean culture. She sent him to Korean school, and they hosted a Korean exchange student in their home. He has baby pictures wearing traditional Korean gowns. He feels strongly that “parents should absolutely try to do these things, but not to push it too hard. Know that kids change over time, and maybe bring it up off and on.”

Cathy, an adoptive mom of two children of color, tried to find “every resource we could” when her children were young. She states, “We owned every book that had brown kids, we went to conferences, we even owned the book ‘The Black Parenting Handbook.” The family lived in a town which was “very white, it was not diverse at all.” They chose to move to a new community, and although it is “not perfect,” it is more diverse. When the children were little, they were involved in a play group with adoptees of color. Cathy notes, “It was nice to see our family reflected in other families.” The family joined a church that has several transracial families, and this connection has provided a supportive community.

How to Talk About Racial Identity

Talking about race is hard, but it is important to start the conversation at the very beginning. Jodi Waddell recommends that parents have conversations organically with their children, throughout everyday life, in order to help the child develop a sense of themself that includes their racial and ethnic identity. Marta recalls how difficult this was for her growing up. She states, “I remember being insecure about anything about me that was not identifiably ‘white.’ When I was 11 years old and feeling insecure about the hair in front of my ears, a normal genetic trait for a Latina woman, my adoptive caregiver’s response was to send me to electrolysis. This reinforced there was something wrong with me, and the solution was painful and permanently erased a part of my body that was connected to my roots.” It wasn’t until she went to a magnet high school and met her first boyfriend, who was half black, half white, that her racial identity began to shift. Marta declares, “He modeled for me how to be half-and-half, how to be fierce about who you are. He was so comfortable with who he was, he modeled that for me. There was nothing he wanted to change about me.”

Cathy, the adoptive mother of two, has spoken to her children about race and racism throughout their lives. “We talk a lot about race and racism and who has the power. We want them to understand the history, but not have to carry it.” Cathy adds, “They are raised culturally white, but when they walk out our door, they are seen as black.” She worries about how they are treated, and talks to the kids about how unfortunate it is to “be perceived in a dangerous way. This is not a conversation that white parents have to have with their kids.”

Waddell encourages parents to talk with their children about discrimination. Parents need to be prepared themselves, so they can prepare their child. They should remember that their experience and their child’s experience will be different. It is important to make strong connections with others who have the same racial or ethnic makeup as your child. This provides rich experiences for learning more about your child’s culture, as well as great role models and mentors for your child.

Liam states, “I have this in-between feeling about everything. There’s this idea of being a Twinkie – I feel white inside, but Asian outside.” He adds, “There’s this discord—I connect better to the Boston Irish side, I have a lot of grit and I will always stand up for family and friends. But, Korean is still a large part of who I am.” Liam remarks that his interest in his heritage and his adoption has ebbed and flowed over the years. As he has grown and changed, he has become more open to sharing his story, and he has noticed that people tend to be “very curious” about him once they learn he is adopted. In high school, he recalls, “I was a closed door. I did not engage in a lot of conversation about my adoption. I wasn’t open to my story. I had to do a lot of tripping and falling until I felt more comfortable telling my story.”

Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom, author of the graphic memoir, Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption,” was interviewed in Electric Lit on 1/28/20. She speaks about her trip to Korea to search her birth family, and how, in spite of the pain and feelings stirred up, it also helped her to connect to her heritage and culture. She remembers growing up in Sweden and what this was like for her: “ [What] I struggled with growing up was about trying not to be Asian, not to be an adoptee, trying to be white, trying desperately to fit into something that I could never fit into.” She adds, “It took me over 30 years to just accept the fact that I’m Asian. I finally feel comfortable with that. I don’t feel disappointed when I see myself in a mirror, or I feel disappointed, but on my own terms. But I don’t feel anymore that I wish I was blond, or that I wish I had blue eyes. I can acknowledge a lot of things that I had just been pushing down in my desperate need to fit into all these narratives about what I’m supposed to be as an adoptee.”

Giving Voice to Transracial Adoptee Feelings

As adults, the women and men who I have interviewed have spoken about what it was like to live in a community where they did not look like the majority of their peers. Liam states, “I grew up in a very white community. I now realize I stuck out like a sore thumb. I felt I didn’t belong.” As he has grown, therapy has helped him “to put less pressure on myself. It’s important to remember you are not alone….A longing for belonging is also big, but that is not always talked about.” He feels more comfortable now sharing his history with  “anxiety and mild depression, and how the roots for these are in my adoption story.”

There is a narrative out there that adoption equals rescue. Over and over, the adoptees that we speak with talk about the danger of this narrative, and certainly it was a topic at BPAR’s Voices Unheard adult adoptee creative forum. It places a burden on adoptees to deny any struggles they have with their story and suggests that they should only focus on the positive aspects. Transracial adoptions encompass an added layer where adoptive parents are seen as “white saviors.” Nicole Beede writes, “Adoptee voices are often muted, and narratives of transracial adoption tend to be idealized. Take, for instance, the trend on social media to martyr adoptive parents—which consistently bothers me—when referencing adoption: the idea that adoption is only beautiful and joyous. The public denies the fact that adoption is also deeply personal (for the adoptee, the birth family, and the adoptive parents), sad, and confusing. The idea of adoptees being ‘lucky,’ ‘chosen,’ and ‘grateful’ should not be the focus of our culture’s conversations about adoption.”

Primary Focus: The Best Interest of the Child

In her interview about her new graphic memoir, Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom stresses how critical it is for the adoptee to have control over their journey. She recommends that an adult adoptee should “listen to yourself” and do what feels comfortable. Adoptive parent Cathy stresses the importance of being open to learning and educating yourself, and cultivating and accessing resources and support. Cathy has found the support she has received from her church and support from Boston Post Adoption Resources has been invaluable. Both individual therapy and group therapy have helped her children address a variety of concerns. Meeting other adoptees and their families through groups “has been great. Being with other kids who understand is so helpful. The parent group is awesome too. You don’t have to explain, they get it.”  Cathy also spoke about engaging in the community. She suggests, “It is so important to be an advocate, be out there banging the drum.” She has been pushing the school to hire more teachers of color, and she has joined the PTO to continue to advocate. “We are far from perfect, but parents should not be afraid to try.”

Sharon notes that transracial adoption is wonderful, but it also comes with challenges: “Adoption is great, so many great things come out of it, but we have to acknowledge some of the not-so-great things, too.” She wishes that her parents “had been more open to Korean culture, or asked me if I was interested in learning more about it. “ She felt worried that she would be seen as “disrespectful” or they would feel “hurt” if she asked more about her adoption. She feels it is important to “have a more open dialogue,” to acknowledge that her story was unique. Sharon recommends that adoptive parents give more resources to their children, and provide them with opportunities to explore their culture.

Nicole Chung, author of All You Can Ever Know, talks about how important it has been for her to speak honestly with her parents about her transracial adoption. She states (p. 208) “It feels like my duty as my white family’s de facto Asian ambassador to remind them that I am not white, that we do experience this country in different ways because of it, that many people still know oppression far more insidious and harmful than anything I’ve ever faced. Every time I do this, I am breaching the sacred pact of our family, our once-shared belief that my race is irrelevant in the presence of their love. But withholding hard truths and my honest opinions would also sell short the love I have for them, and they for me. The fierce wish I still harbor for them to understand me for who I am, stand with me in love and full acceptance, persists because they chose me and they raised me: we are one another’s responsibility.”

All of the people that I interviewed for this blog stressed the importance of connecting with others and accessing services from places like Boston Post Adoption Resources. Feedback about groups at BPAR has been striking: children, teens, parents and adults have stressed that connecting with other adoptees and adoptive parents has been powerful and supportive. Nicole Beede writes, “The most helpful thing for me has been connecting with other TRAs, as we understand and validate each other’s experiences.” Sharon shares that, over the last year or so, she began to research resources to help her process her adoption. She has found books (including Nicole Chung’s memoir cited here) and podcasts to be very helpful. Organizations such as BKA (Boston Korean Adoptees) and therapy at BPAR have been an important part of her journey: “They have been eye-opening and reassuring. I’m not the first person to go through this. It’s OK, it’s part of who I am.”

Written by Erica Kramer
Boston Post Adoption Resources

Parents may be interested in:

BPAR’s book, Adoption Is a Lifelong Journey, by Kelly DiBenedetto, Katie Gorczyca, and Jennifer Eckert

Two BPAR blogs about “This Is Us” –

How BPAR Could Support the This Is Us Family

What This Is Us Means to Adoptive Families

Sources cited:

“Review of the Multiethnic Placement Act”  Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) – 9/21/07

“The Changing Face of Adoption in the United States” – by Nicholas Zill, 8/8/17; Institute for Family Studies

White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? by Robin Diangelo

Brown, White, Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion by Nishta J. Mehra, 2019.

All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung

“The Trauma and Healing Involved in Being a Transracial Adoptee” published in the Elephant Journal 1/10/20 by Nicole Beede

“Cultural Socialization Practices in Domestic and International Transracial Adoption” – by M. Elizabeth Vonk, Jaegoo Lee, Josie Crolley-Simic; Adoption Quarterly, 13:227–247, 2010

“The Realities of Raising a Kid of a Different Race,” Time, by Karen Valby

Palimpsest: Documents from a Korean Adoption,” by Lisa Wool-Rim Sjoblom

Interview in Electric Lit, 1/28/20

About Erica Kramer, MSW

Erica Kramer, MSW, is Operations and Intake Director at Boston Post Adoption Resources. To read her bio, please visit BPAR's Team page.