Cultivating healthy racial identity in our transracially adopted or foster children is a long-term parenting game. Scientists have discovered that children develop racial awareness as young as infancy.

helping transracial adopted and foster kids develop healthy racial identity

Awareness of skin color, hair texture and color, eye color, and so on grows with exposure throughout the pre-school years. It would be incomplete to assume that guiding our kids to racial awareness is going to be enough.

It’s imperative for adoptive parents first to understand the formation of that awareness. Then we can be about the business of learning how to cultivate a space in which our transracial adoptees develop a healthy racial identity as they age.

Creating a Family recently did an excellent radio show/podcast with Dr. Gina Samuels that defined racial awareness and spurred some big questions about racial identity formation across a child’s development.

4 Questions to Ask

These four questions to ask throughout your child’s racial identity development can be practical tools that parents should re-visit frequently, because though the questions won’t necessarily change, the answers will as our children grow to adults.

1. What relationships are necessary for cultivating racial identity?

As with most things in adoptive parenting, “relationship is key.” Dr. Samuels said it well:

“our sense of ourselves… the master of identities that matter in our society… comes with a bunch of assumptions about the relationships that we’ve had, the families that we’ve grown up in, the people we know, the kinds of foods we eat, the languages we are inclined to speak….”

It’s crucial, then, that we regularly examine the nature and quality of the following types of relationships as our child ages and develops his identity:

  • My child’s relationship with me, his parent – am I building a safe connection between us in which he can explore his growing sense of identity and share that with me?
  • My child’s relationship with other adoptees – do I provide opportunities for my child to build relationships with transracial adoptees in similar stages of understanding identity?
  • My child’s relationship with others of the same race – have I created the occasion for my child to be in relationships with people of his race, not just adoptees, regardless of my own race?

Starting all of this when your child is young gives you time to model a wide variety of relationships in your own life. We realize that isn’t always feasible, especially when adopting older children. No matter when you adopted or began fostering this child, you can teach him about what to look for in relationships that will support him as he grows into his racial identity. The conversations are foundational and can be expanded upon as he grows to adulthood.

Moving from Racial Awareness to Racial Identity

2. Where do we find those relationships?

Your local school district is likely where your children will spend most of their time between classes and extracurriculars. If your district is not diverse or if the representations of your child’s race are very limited, your family could discuss changing school districts. You might be able to add some connections in extra-curricular activities with people of your child’s race. Changing school districts is not always an option, but it’s a conversation worth having over the stages of your child’s identity development.

Adoption and foster communities are often tight-knit groups. Some of your best resources for relationships and support will likely grow out of those connections. If you are fortunate to have a local support group, attending in-person events with the same people will offer organic opportunities to connect with families in similar stages of forming a racial identity. These relationships will be good additions to you and your child’s quest to build a healthy racial identity.

If you are part of a faith tradition, there could be many opportunities for your child to develop vibrant, rewarding relationships with other persons of color. You might have to work a little harder than your child to develop a relationship with adults of your child’s race or culture.

For those who do not participate in a local church, mosque, or temple that offers a diverse community, talk as a family about how to change that. You could find a few supplemental programs hosted by other faith communities, in addition to regular weekly attendance in your home church. For example, some transracial families allow their teens to attend a youth group of their choosing in addition to regular services in the home church as a family. For some families, it might mean joining a new faith “home” altogether, where the white parents are the minority among the worshippers.

Joining community clubs or service organizations is another idea to consider increasing diversity. The benefit of joining a service organization is that you are also teaching your children the value of generosity and community engagement.

3. How do we forge those relationships?

Here are a few ideas from other BTDT parents that I’ve gleaned in conversations from our online community and in my community of moms.

  • Just put yourself out there – This is hard for introverts but try to connect with your “why” and allow yourself to start small.
  • Make a date – Invite another transracial adoptive or foster mom out for coffee. Ask an older mom of your child’s race to lunch.
  • Get the kids involved – Pay attention to which kids your child is drawn to and set up a playdate or two. If it falls flat or goes nowhere, keep trying until you and your child find a good fit.
  • Celebrate a lot – Check out the local race-specific and cultural events. Attend community holiday celebrations. Invite another family of your child’s race to join you. Ask your kids whom they would like to invite.
  • Work with the professionals – Seek out a black pediatrician in your community. Find an Asian market to shop. Eat at an authentic Hispanic restaurant. Take your child to hair salons where you can choose stylists of your child’s same race. Be open and friendly — and a repeat customer!

4. What if my child wants no part of those relationships?

Yep. Your kids will not always jump up and down with joy at your efforts to develop their racial identity. You might get a big sigh and eye roll for your efforts. I find it helpful to mutter under my breath “This too shall pass” when I get the eye roll. Here are a few things to remember when you are getting resistance.

  • Do it for your growth – Widening your circle of relationships to include people of your child’s race is stretching for your own sense of self. These relationships will enrich your life. The connections will strengthen the love and honor you feel for your child’s origins.
  • Keep modeling it – Your kids might not welcome your efforts, but they are still watching. They are storing their impressions of your desire to support them and navigate with them.
  • Set small goals – Pick one or two things from the answers to these four questions and work on those. The next time you ask yourself the questions, try another goal.

The beauty of asking these same four questions over your child’s process to form racial identity is that the answers won’t always be the same. The questions can be your launching point – or your accountability – to gauge how you are supporting your child. They can open doors to great conversations as your child becomes a young adult.

Your Best Is Okay

Finally, a word of grace to all you hard-working parents out there. It’s okay to manage your expectations and your priorities according to your family’s unique needs and dynamics. Focusing on healthy racial identity might not be the MOST important part of adoptive parenting for you right now. That is okay. The next time you ask these four questions, your priorities and your child’s needs might be very different. You can rise to those needs then.

If you are like the other transracial adoptive or foster families I know, you are often overwhelmed with all the things that you “should” prioritize. Your calendar is already full of therapy sessions, medical appointments, IEP meetings, date nights, and family time. So much to juggle! Find the proper priority for YOUR family. But circle back and keep asking the questions as your child grows. There’s no right answer, just do the best you can for your child and your family.

When you ask yourself these four questions, where can you see room for attention? Would you mind sharing one area in which you might choose to focus on growth?

Image Credit: US Army, Edward N. Johnson