Transracial Adoption — What Parents Need to Know (Part One)
The decision to adopt transracially is nuanced and complex. Although I have been working on this blog about transracial adoption for quite some time, recent events have underscored the underlying racism and white privilege still very much present in our country, and they have highlighted the importance of talking with all children about race and racism. Much of the research about transracial adoption suggests that adoptees face a range of challenges, and the way parents address these challenges will affect how their child copes with feelings of loss and isolation, discrimination, and their racial and ethnic identity. As we work with adoptees and their families, we pay particular attention to issues transracial adoptees describe so we can provide the best treatment for our families. For this blog, I interviewed several transracial adoptees and an adoptive parent to hear their first-hand stories about their experiences.
In this first installment in a two-part blog series, we will learn more about the history and background of transracial adoption. Tomorrow we will post a second blog to cover problems and solutions for transracial families.
History of Transracial Adoption
In the past, transracial adoptions in the United States have been controversial. In the 1990’s, black social workers expressed strong reservations against placing black children in white homes. However, there were also concerns at the time that children of color were spending more time in foster care because social workers were trying to match the ethnic and racial makeup of the adoptive family. In 1994, Congress passed MEPA (The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act). The goal of this act was to increase placements for children of color. MEPA required that social workers make a strong effort to increase the number of racially and ethnically diverse foster and adoptive parents; however, it “prohibited the use of a child’s or a prospective parent’s race, color or national origin to delay or deny the child’s placement.” (CWLA)
Since the passage of MEPA, studies have indicated that some children have been placed in permanent homes more quickly, but once in those homes, parents were not prepared to support their ethnic education. A study completed by the GAO (Government Accountability Office) in 2004, however, found that white children spent an average of two years in foster care while black children spent an average of three years in foster care. A 2017 study by the Institute of Family Studies, “The Changing Face of Adoption in the United States,” compared adoptees in kindergarten in 1999 with adoptees in 2011. During that time period, the number of transracial adoptions, many of which were international adoptions, rose 50%. The demographics of the adoptive parents, though, barely changed, the majority continuing to be “white, older, well-educated, and relatively affluent.” (Zill). In the United States today, estimates are that over 40% of adoptions are transracial.
Importance of Exploring Race and White Privilege
It is important for adoptive parents who choose to adopt transracially to explore and recognize their own white privilege and their feelings about race and racism prior to adopting. Parents need to feel comfortable talking about race with both their child and people in their community. Jodi Waddell, an adoptive parent who works at Bright Futures Adoption Center, notes a paradox: Transracial adoptees receive the benefits of white privilege and opportunities, but they also face stigma and injustice that people of color and other marginalized people face. Waddell stresses the importance of parents “stepping out of [their] comfort zone and asking uncomfortable questions.” She recommends Robin Diangelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism? to all prospective parents of transracial children.
Nishta Mehra shares her story in her 2019 memoir, Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion. She describes what it is like to grow up as a “brown girl,” the child of Indian immigrants, growing up in a “white world.” As an adult, she and her white partner adopt a black child: “‘Not seeing’ color is, of course, a form of privilege; it means that things are oriented around you and others like you… For the rest of us, even if we wanted to, not seeing is never an option” (p. 30).
In her memoir All You Can Ever Know Nicole Chung describes the advice her parents were given when they brought Nicole, who is of North Korean heritage, to their hometown: They were encouraged to take a “color blind” approach. She writes (p. 29), “No one ever so much as hinted to my parents that adopting across racial and cultural lines might prove a unique challenge, one they needed to prepare for specifically.” It was felt that it would be best to act as if Nicole looked exactly like her adoptive parents. As an adult, however, Nicole realized that this approach left her feeling that she was not allowed to talk about her racial identity, nor did she feel comfortable sharing with her family incidences of discrimination at school. She writes (p.35), “My parents, I assumed, would never accept this. To them, I was not their Korean child, I was their child, their chosen gift from God. They had waited so long and then they had gotten me, and there was no room in this radiant narrative to explain why I did not quite fit in. It would have felt like the greatest of betrayals to tell them I didn’t belong in this place, this town, this life – all they would hear, I felt sure, was that I didn’t think I belonged in our family.”
Sharon, adopted from South Korea at five months old, talks about growing up in a predominantly white community. Her parents felt that it was most important to “treat me as part of our white family.” They introduced her to very little Korean culture. Sharon felt she was lucky to be adopted, and “I didn’t want them to feel I was disrespectful. I wanted to show them that I was happy and grateful.” As a result, however, she realized when she was much older that this approach affected her sense of self and her racial identity. Although when she was younger she typically spent time only with white people, she has come to understand in adulthood how important it is to spend time with “more people that look like me.”
Nicole Beede writes in her article, “The Trauma and Healing Involved in Being a Transracial Adoptee,” published in the Elephant Journal 10/10/20, “Being ‘colorblind’ is not an acceptable way to view race; and claiming to be colorblind actually communicates to others that differences are negative. I ask people to recognize that being one of the few people of color in every space we enter is something that TRAs (Transracial Adoptees) are conditioned to expect. In my case, this expectation has led to repressed anxiety and trauma that manifest internally and externally as anxiety, depression, and manic energy, with a loss of identity.”
Transracial Adoptee Experiences with Micro- and Macroaggressions
Adult transracial adoptees have described experiences with microaggressions that have been difficult as they grew up, especially if they were raised in a largely white community. Research suggests that when parents make fewer attempts at addressing racial bias or recognizing racism, it has a direct negative impact on their child’s racial identity (Lee, 2003, p. 242.) Marta, age 33, a BPAR clinician who was adopted from Colombia, had many experiences with microaggressions growing up. She did not see her parents as supportive or recognizing these experiences for what they were. “My parents invalidated these—they would say, oh, they didn’t mean it that way, or, ‘You’re being sensitive.’ I started questioning myself, especially since I had no support from other people of color.” Sharon states that she experienced microaggressions when she was younger, and they have continued today. She wishes that she had been empowered to address these directly when they occurred. “In the past, I laughed things off, but that doesn’t help change things for the better.” Parents who have adopted transracially have spoken about being approached by strangers and asked intrusive questions about their children. The underlying message? You look different from your parents and the community, so you must not belong. A second message is often that of the “white savior”—the implication that the transracial adoptee must feel “grateful” that they have been “saved.”
Cathy, an adoptive mom of two children of color, states that her family has not experienced a lot of overt racism, and in general, she feels that many people have been “welcoming of the children, and the kids have been acknowledged in a positive way.” However, they have experienced microaggressions, often toward her and her spouse. Cathy states, “People have said things to me. They can be so nosy, but they generally mean well.” Once, at the grocery store with her youngest child sitting in the grocery cart, “a woman asked me if the food was for my family or the child’s family.” Cathy explained that those were one and the same, and when the woman kept asking questions, Cathy turned away and did not answer.
So, the underlying question is, how can white parents raise transracial children in a way that honors the child’s culture and diversity and prepares them to handle racism and microaggressions? It is important for parents to recognize more nuanced racism and microaggressions. They need to be open to exploring their own feelings about these issues. Waddell comments that microaggressions can at times be “unintentional, they are not always to inflict harm. But, every transracial family will face this.” A guidebook that BPAR recommends is Transracial Parenting in Foster Care and Adoption: Strengthening Your Bicultural Family by the Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (www.ifapa.org).
Takeaways for Parents of Transracial Adoptees
- It is important to be prepared and model responses for your kids. Parents instinctively want to protect their children, but Mehra stresses, “So often it seems that what parents object to is messiness, to exposing their children to a narrative that will blow up any notion that life is orderly and predictable, that the world operates fairly, that parents can keep their kids from being exposed to unpleasant things.”(p. 110)
- Allow your child some control over responses. You can discuss beforehand how your child might want to respond to intrusive questions and remind them that they do not have to answer if they do not want to. Model responses when they occur while you are with your child. Review other options, such as walking away and not answering.
- Prepare your child: You will experience inappropriate comments and questions, so we can prepare together ways to respond that feel comfortable. Mehra adds,“Powerful though the urge is, I know that to shelter my child would only render him dependent on me; my task is to prepare him, not protect him.” (p. 113)
A Few Resources for Parents and Children Around Race and Racism
(Note: The clinicians at Boston Post Adoption Resources have complied a comprehensive set of resources on these topics on our Transracial Adoption Resources page.)
- This Book is Anti-Racist: 20 Lessons on How to Wake Up, Take Action, and Do the Work —Tiffany Jewell
- Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice —Marianne Celano
- Coretta Scott King Book Award Winners: books for children and young adults that demonstrate an appreciation of African American culture and universal human values
- 31 Children’s books to support conversations on race, racism and resistance
- Adoption is a Lifelong Journey by Kelly DiBenedetto, Katie Gorczyka and Jennifer Eckert, Boston Post Adoption Resources
This concludes part one of a two-part blog series on transracial adoption. Part two, to be published tomorrow, will explore more issues that arise in transracial adoptions and offer various solutions and advice from transracial adoptees. Please subscribe to the Boston Post Adoption Resources mailing list to be notified when other blogs are posted.
Written by Erica Kramer
Boston Post Adoption Resources
“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