Transracial Adoption Works According to Adult Transracial Adoptees

Dawn Davenport


Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoptees tell Creating a Family that transracial adoption works.

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

04/11/2008 | by Dawn Davenport | Categories: Adoption, Adoption Blog, Blog | 27 Comments

27 Responses to Transracial Adoption Works According to Adult Transracial Adoptees

  1. Avatar Dawn says:

    Lenora, thank you for your honesty. I say, and try to remember on a daily basis, that adoptive families aren’t perfect families. They are real, often messy, families. I’m sorry you are struggling. There are some good therapist trained in adoption. I hope you find one, if you decide to go that route.

  2. Avatar Taryn says:

    Hello! My name is Candice Presseau, and I am graduate student in the
    College of Education at Lehigh University. I am currently completing
    my doctoral dissertation research study under the supervision of my
    advisor, Dr. Cirleen DeBlaere, and am interested in studying the life
    experiences and well-being of racial minority individuals who have
    been transracially adopted by White parents or a White single parent.
    It is our hope that with this study, we can contribute to the
    understanding of the experiences of adopted persons raised by parents
    with different racial backgrounds and experiences from their own. Your
    participation is essential to achieving this goal, so we hope that you
    will take part in our study.

    In order to participate, you must identify as a member of racial
    minority group, have been transracially adopted by White parents or
    single White parent, currently live in North America, and be 18 years
    of age or older. If you would like to participate in our study, please
    click on the link below and you will be directed to the online survey:

    Thank you very much in advance for your time! Please feel free to
    pass on this link to other people who might be eligible. If you have
    any question about this study, please feel free to contact me at This research has been approved by the Lehigh
    University Institutional Review Board (IRB# 397756-1).

  3. Avatar Alexander says:

    Thx for spending some time to describe the terminlogy to the starters!

  4. Avatar Lenora says:

    Well…I am a 37 year old trans racially adopted woman. And I am struggling. I played the ‘I’m happy I had a healthy home, and was greatful for what I have’ card for many years. Didn’t want to upset the apple cart, because my also adopted brother did enough of that in our family home. SO I was the good quiet girl..accepted everything with a smile! But! I am mad. Mad about how my adoptive family coldly told me my Mom was dead, mad about how I was not allowed to grieve that or go to her funeral – even though my bio and adoptive families knew each other and kept in minimal contact. Mad that I never really felt comfortable in my own skin as a FN child in a white home. Mad that they are insecure for me looking for my own security. Mad that they judge and criticize – things that are so unnatural for my calm and relaxed demeanor. Ugh! At 37..I’m still struggling and my adoptive family was fairly good. Never got beat or abused….just confused.

  5. Avatar Ursula M. says:

    As a transracially adopted adult I couldn’t agree more with this post. I will listen to the show after this, but I agree that I’m thankful that I was adopted. I am secure in knowing who I am, loved for who I am. I am a competent black woman who has a wonderful family tha tjust happens to be white.

  6. Avatar Dawn says:

    Yes, I will sometime, but I’m not sure when. Sign up for the weekly updates which include the upcoming week’s show topic to find out when that show will air. I book about 3-4 moonths out, so this type of show will not be scheduled until the fall.

  7. Avatar Suzannah McBee says:

    Will you be doing another radio show with adult adoptees. I LOVED this one.

  8. Avatar Dee says:

    Hi guys. We knew this all along. Thanks for pointing it out again. Why is it so hard for others to see?

  9. Avatar Heather says:

    I agree with this blog and I have listened to the show and thought it was terrific. The part that worries me is that I think that more needs to be done to find black families for black kids, and brown families for brown kids. Transracial adoption may work, but it is not ideal and I think that this fact is easy to overlook.

  10. Avatar Nick says:

    Thank you for posting some good news. Most of us in the process know it works, but outsiders often are clueless. Yes, it can a does often work well.

  11. Avatar Reanna Carmero says:

    Everything said can also apply to other forms of transracial adoption, whether it’s black/white, hispanic/white, or in my case black/hispanic. Underneath, we are all one family. I loved the question on your Creating a Family show where you had a panel of adults that had been adopted transracially when they were kids from a black woman wanting to adopt from Africa rather than adopt domestically here in the US. I have a good friend that is black and adopted from China. She didn’t do it because she had any racial hang ups, but because she and her husband felt a call from God to adopt a child from China. they are very happy and their child is doing very well. They will soon adopt an African American child domestically.

  12. Avatar megan says:

    The research supports what every social worker could have told us–transracial adoption works. I respect what you say about it not being ideal and us needing to do more to find families of color for kids of color. This is something we all need to hear again and again.

  13. Avatar Leah says:

    I loved the show. Some of it was hard to hear, but I’m thankful for the opportunity to hear the truth from the experts. You present an important point of view. I hope my sons and daughter are as well adjusted as most of your panel and I hope if they are not, that they find a life’s work and peace as the last panelist. Thanks again for all you do.

  14. Avatar June says:

    I couldn’t agree more. thanks for sharing this information and continuing to provide accurate information and education to those of us who have created our families through adoption.

  15. Avatar Enya says:

    I LOVED this show and was truly touched by listening to the adult adoptees talk. It was brave of you to allow have the diversity of experiences on the show. I loved what one of them said about their adoptive family being THEIR real family. I also liked that they didn’t gloss over the problems, but perservered through them. We really haven’t had issues yet, but I hope I remember this show and your blog on research so that I can remember that if/when we hit some bumps, we too will work our way through it because that’s what families do.

  16. Avatar stephany says:

    It’s not that those of us who say we support transracial adoption think it is the very best option; we think it is the best option for these kids who need homes right now. I’m a huge supporter of finding black families for black kids, hispanic families for hispanic kids, and asian families for asian kids. It’s just that this is not always practical and kids need practical solutions.

  17. Avatar Lucy says:

    Great show and blog topic. I have now subscribed to the radio show on iTunes and will keep reading the blog. I like your practical and positive approach, but also that you tackle the tough topics and don’t candy coat them for us. Keep up the good work.

  18. Avatar Frieda says:

    Thank you for the show and for this blog. We need to hear the full story, which iincludes the positive. I found the show absolutely fascinating and wished it could have been 2 hours since the questions were still coming in.

  19. Avatar scott says:

    Food for thought and hope for the future with our kids. I love all the resources youve provided under your Adoption Resources/Transracial Adoptions. It is truly the most comprehensive list and resource we’ve found. Thanks for all the work.

  20. Avatar scout says:

    awsome post thanks for the great info i obtain from your website keep up the great work

    thanks a bunch

  21. Avatar Jayne says:

    Thanks for the show–all your radio shows are terrific. I share your love of research and appreciate your summary. I think I heard you say that not all research is as positive as this one, but I guess overall the findings are that transracial adoption works. It seems like these findings would impact the experts more. We have two AA children adopted domestically and we have faced very little prejudice or problems, but my kids are still young, and I worry about what will happen when they are older. Thank you for sharing this view that things may be just fine. pLease add me to you email list for updates and notice of the upcoming week’s show and blog topic.

  22. Avatar Monica says:

    The part about kids being embarrassed to introduce their parents to their friends the first time breaks my heart. As I await our daughter from Ethiopia, it is good to realize that although it can, and I’m sure will, work out fine, all is not perfect. I wish I could protect my daughter from this embarrassment and from other unwanted attention, but I’ll have to settle for just loving her a lot and letting her know that she is the light of my life.

  23. Avatar Monaco Jones says:

    I’m glad the transracial adoptees answered my question. At first I was a little nervous about transracial adoption but now I feel more confident that it does work out. Maybe after I adopt my first child domestically, I will go to Russia or Guatemala for the next one.

  24. Avatar Rebecca says:

    Those of us in the midst of it know it works now, but it is nice to have the reassurance of research and adult adoptees to confirm our experience and give us a glimpse of what awaits us in the future. This show with the adult adoptees was great, but then I’ve loved all your shows. I subscribe and download it to my iPod and listen every Thursday morning on the way to work. Thanks again.

  25. Avatar Maralee says:

    Thank you for addressing this topic. I find that I sometimes forget how different my husband and I look from our Liberian son. He is what my family looks like and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

  26. Avatar Julie says:

    Hi, Dawn, I heard the program and thought it was great. I am so thankful for adoptees who are willing to share their stories. Thank you for following up with research on the topic!

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