I’ve always been fascinated by transracial adoption. Of course, I adopted transracially, so that certainly accounts for some of this fascination, but my interest long predated our adoption. I think what is most intriguing to me right now is the disconnect between research and public perception. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because on the Panel of Adult Transracially Adoptees, I interviewed a panel of adult transracial adoptee about transracial adoption from their perspective. In preparation for that show, I re-read a lot of the research on transracial/multiracial adoption. The research is almost unanimously clear: transracial adoption can work, and work well, for both children and families.
Transracial adoption has been a popular research topic, but I rediscovered one of the best studies in terms of thoroughness, follow-up, and inclusion of same race adopted children and birth children. Rita Simon and Howard Altstein started their research in 1972 and followed 204 families for 12 years. These families had 366 children; 157 were transracially adopted, 167 were white birth children, and 42 were white adopted. Of the transracially adopted children, 76% were black and 24% were Native American, Asian, and Mexican. The majority of children were under the age of one when adopted.
Simon and Altstein published a number of reports during the 12 year period, but the 1984 follow up was the most interesting to me since the children were adolescence and early adults (the median age of the transracial adoptees was 14.9)—old enough to have an opinion and to have experienced more racial issues. The study was designed to find out “about their sense of belonging in the family, the sibling’s ties to each other, how they described themselves racially and socially, their scholastic and career goals, and, most of all, their feeling about having been transracially adopted.”
Simon and Altstein evaluated closeness to parents, siblings, grandparents, and other relatives and concluded that the transracial adoptees were as integrated into their families as were the children who had been born into them. The parents’ evaluation of their relations with their children was also very high for all of the comparison groups- transracial adoptees, same race adoptees, and birth children.
The transracially adopted kids were doing about as well academically as were birth children and adoptees of the same race. Seventy-five percent of the transracial adoptees planned to go on to college, while 94% of the birth children planned to go. No particular academic or behavioral difficulties were found in this study. (Not all research supports this finding.)
There were no significant differences in self-esteem between the transracially adopted children , the same race adopted children , and the children born into the families. When the black transracial adoptees were separated from the entire transracially adopted group, their self-esteem score was identical to that of the birth children. All of the groups (transracial, same race, and birth) scored well in terms of self-esteem. With a score of 10 indicating the highest self-esteem and 40 the lowest, the mean score in all groups was between 18.0 and 18.5.
This transracial adoption study did not measure “adoption outcome” or adoption success, but they noted that 18 of the 96 families interviewed in 1984 were experiencing serious problems. In seven of these cases, the problems were attributed to serious mental, physical, or emotional handicaps present at the time of placement. (All seven of these children were 4 years old or older when adopted, and all had been in foster homes and institutions prior to adoption.) In the remaining 11 cases, both difficulties in the parents’ relationships and learning disabilities and developmental delays in the children were thought to be the cause of the serious problems these families experienced. In only one of the 18 cases did parents view the problems faced by the family as being race related.
Opponents of adopting across racial lines cite concern that transracial adoptees will have confused racial identities that will plague them later in life. This report found that 66% of the black transracial adoptees stated that they were proud to be black or brown, 6% stated that they were proud to be of “mixed background,” 17% said that they did not mind what color they were, and 11% professed that they would prefer to be white. Among the 22 nonblack transracial adoptees (Korean, Native American, and Hispanic), 82% answered that they were proud of their racial heritage, 9% responded that they did not mind what color they were, and 9% declared that they would prefer to be white. A fascinating finding was that the birth children’s responses were almost identical to those of the nonblack transracial adoptees, except that 7% stated that they would prefer to be black, Hispanic, Native American, or “different.” It is important to note and painful to hear that about one-third of the transracial adoptees said that they were embarrassed when they had to introduce their parents to new friends or when they were the only nonwhite in a group.
The transracial adoptees did have more white friends than black and dated whites more often than African Americans. Seventy-three percent of black transracial adoptees indicated “white” as their choice of friends, similar to the choice of the nonblack transracial adoptees. White children were chosen as friends by 89% of the birth children and by 69% of the white adoptees. All of the groups, however, had black friends. Sixty percent of the transracial adoptees dated whites exclusively, 11% dated blacks exclusively, and 27% dated both blacks and whites. Among birth children, 78% dated whites exclusively, 6% dated blacks exclusively, and 10% dated both blacks and whites. The authors attributed the white preference in friendships and dating to the mostly white neighborhoods in which a high proportion of the transracial adoptees lived and the predominantly white schools they attended.
Although the panel of adult transracial adoptees was not necessarily a representative sample, their discussion reflects a similar feeling to the Simon and Altstein study. I tried to select a panel that varied in age and race: one Native American adoptee in her 50’s, one black adoptee in his late 30s, one Korean adoptee in her early 30’s, and one Korean adoptee in her late 20’s. In retrospect, I realize that Sandy, the Native American adoptee, was not necessarily representative of adult transracial adoptees since her adoptive family was highly dysfunctional, and her adoptive mother was mentally ill. She did, however, add a counterbalance to the otherwise rosy picture of transracial adoption painted by the other adoptees on the panel.
I thought it was interesting the number of questions we received from adoptive parents on how hard to push transracially adopted kids to attend cultural activities and language lessons of their birth heritage. The consensus of the adult adoptees was to encourage, but not push, and they gave some specific suggestions of how to do this. We also received a number of questions about what parents can do to help a child feel comfortable about looking different from the rest of their family and community, and how to handle teasing by peers.
My favorite question though was the simplest: “What did your parents do right?’, and then we received a follow-up question: “What do you wish they had done differently in raising a child of a different race?” I loved the panel’s honest answers. We also talked about how to find the balance between honoring our child’s birth culture and focusing too much attention on their differences.
Although adopting across racial and ethnic lines is not without its complications, what came through for three out of the four adoptees on my panel and for the vast majority of transracial adoptees in the Simon and Altstein study was the deep commitment to their families and contentment with being transracially adopted. As this study concluded, “For the children . . . their adoptive parents are the only family they have and the only set of parents they want.” Likewise, the vast majority of parents in the study express a deep satisfaction with transracial adoption and would recommend that others adopt children of a different race. Transracially adopted families have all the warts and blemishes of other families, but at the end of the day, we are first and foremost a family.Image credit: kintzlejordan