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Understanding Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoption refers to when parents adopt a child from a different race than their own. Families who have been built through transracial adoption are known as multiracial families (Baxter, 2006). Transracial adoption is often thought about in terms of international adoption, which can often be the case. As international adoptions have been on the decline for the past 5 years (Harris, 2017), transracial adoptions are more commonly seen domestically. This is due to the fact that children of colour are over-represented in the children-in-care population. This section on transracial adoption will help prepare potential adoptive parents with tips, tools and techniques of parenting a child of a different race.

Understanding Acquired Brain Injury To give this some Canadian context, African Canadians make up 8% of the population in Toronto, but children of African descent make up 41% of all the children in care at the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto. This means that African Canadians are over-represented in care 5 times more than they are in the population (OACAS, 2015). This over-representation is due to many contributing factors: societal racism, lack of equal employment opportunities and lack of access to adequate housing to bring light to a few. Provincially, as of 2011, 25.5% of the children in foster care in Ontario identified as Aboriginal, with less than half living with a parent that identified as Aboriginal (Statistics Canada, 2016). As seen by these numbers, there are more children of Aboriginal descent living in foster care than families of the same background to care for them.

Some adoption professionals do not feel that transracial adoption is in the best interest of the child as they question if families can fully support a child of a different race to develop a strong and positive racial identity and meet all of their psychological needs (Morrison, 2004). Although finding a family match that is the same race as the child is ideal, many child advocacy groups support transracial adoption as a child’s permanency plan over the child remaining in foster care long-term (Baxter, 2006). When a child has been transracially adopted, it is the right of the child that their ethnic and cultural heritage is recognized, respected and celebrated by their adoptive family (Baxter, 2006). The thought should not be whether transracial adoptions will take place but how can the people surrounding the child do a better job to meet the needs of the child and effectively support the child’s development (Berger, 2015).

As a parent seeking to adopt, you cannot control what the outside world thinks of transracial adoption, but you can control your part in it. You can self-reflect on your motive for adopting a child outside of your race and take actions to make sure that the adoption is “child-centered”. This means putting the child’s needs first when considering a match. Transracial adoption should occur because you are the family that can best meet the needs of the child looking for a forever family (Vonk, 2001). The child’s needs are not only basic survival needs, but also supporting the child as they grow in their racial and cultural identity. When a child has a strong understanding of their identity, they are able to build a strong and stable self-esteem.

Identity Formation and Self-Esteem

Strong identity formation is imperative for any child to build a positive self-esteem, especially for a child that is adopted. Racial identity begins at a very young age. Children are able to recognize racial difference by three years of age (Baxter, 2006). Even at that young age, they are able to see the difference between colour and hair type. As they grow older, they begin to place value on and form beliefs of different racial based on what they learn from their immediate social circle and community around them.  The understanding of a racial identity for children is two-fold: first they are able to differentiate between races as a general concept and then they begin to negotiate their belonging to and understanding of their own race (Baxter, 2006).

By age 7, children understand other people’s emotional responses to their own race and to races that are different. They begin to realize and develop their personal beliefs about what it means to be of a different race. These beliefs are heavily influenced by what and who they are exposed to. The more positive ongoing exposure they have to people and aspects of their race, the more their positive identity formation and ultimately self-esteem will grow (Baxter, 2006).

In adolescence, children begin to search for strong identity connections as they begin to become their own person. This is when exposure to positive people and celebrations from their race is very important.  The more they have been exposed, the more connected they will feel. This connection will help avoid the feelings of isolation that can occur within transracial adoptees as they will already know how to access a community where they feel that they belong and have others that look like them (Baxter, 2006).

Carriere (2009) writes, “studies show that one distinct measure of a success in permanency planning is the ‘healthy identity development and formation’ of the child”.  According to Westheus and Cohen (1994), there are five different stages of identity formation for transracial adoptees:

  • Denial of difference: the child is consciously rejecting their own race or cultural group
  • Inner awakening: the child begins to recognize their own race or cultural group
  • Acknowledgement stage: the child begins to engage in positive conversation about the differences between their race and the racial majority surrounding them
  • Identification stage: the child actively looks to form connections with members of their race for social networks and information sharing. They can also reject white culture at this point as they are amplifing their racial community
  • Integration stage: the child is able to find a balance between their own racial identity and the racial identity of their adoptive family. It is very important that the whole family identifies as a multiracial family, especially at this stage of identity formation, so that both races and cultures can be openly celebrated.

The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (n.d.) writes that “positive racial identity depends on our ability to identify fully with our ethnic roots, yet remain confident that race or ethnicity does not limit our opportunities in life”. 

Some suggestions for fostering positive identity formation and self-esteem in youth are:

  • Support the children or youth to explore their culture in various ways
  • Maintain connections to people and mentors who look like them
  • Encourage the child to build an identity where they feel a sense of belonging to the adoptive family’s culture and their own
  • Openly speak with your child about the racism that they will experience and help prepare them with the necessary survival skills

When a child develops a positive racial and cultural identity and self-esteem, they will be able to build the skills necessary to face the world with confidence and resiliency.

How to Talk About Discrimination and Racism

Discrimination and racism can be very prevalent when family members of different races are brought together through adoption. It can be a very complicated and emotional topic to confront and work through with your children. Even though this can be difficult, it is really important to acknowledge the different life experiences that a child can have based on their race or culture. Some take a ‘colourblind’ approach to dealing with racial differences. Colourblindness, although well intentioned, can be very detrimental to children who are of a racial minority (Samuels, 2012).

When someone says they are colourblind, they mean to say that they do not see any difference between people. What colourblindness really says is that to be equal we have to be the same and if we are different we are not equal. It ignores the differences between people instead of celebrating them. This can cause fear or shame in the child that is the racial minority in the family as they become worried that their differences will be “found out”. They can begin to wonder if their difference is ever recognized, whether their adoptive family will still love them the same and think of them equally. Because of this, colourblindess can cause rifts instead of bonding between parents and children of different races. What can be more beneficial for children who are transracially adopted is for the family to face racism together so that the parents can help equip children with the survival and coping skills necessary to protect themselves physically and emotionally against discrimination (Samuels, 2012). Having a mentor or role model of a similar racial or cultural background can also be valuable to “walk with the child when experiences cannot be shared with parents” (Crawford, 2017). Older youth or elders will be able to share a lived experience when facing racism that parents of a different racial background will not have experienced (Crawford, 2017).

When survival skills are mentioned in regards to combating racism and discrimination, it refers to the parents’ ability to “prepare their children of colour to cope successfully with racism” (Vonk, 2001). These skills can be instilled in children by:

  • Confronting instead of minimizing incidents of racism that the child experiences
  • Teach your child to talk about racism they experienced instead of silently internalize the hurt that they feel
  • Validate the child’s feelings of hurt and anger
  • Confirm with the child that racism and discrimination are not fair
  • Have a “no tolerance” stance on racism and discrimination in your home and social circle
  • Never place blame on the child for the racism or discrimination that they face
  • Ask your child if they would like support in dealing with a racist or discriminatory situation they are or have experienced (Vonk, 2001).

Speaking to children about racism and discrimination will take different forms at different ages.  It is important to meet the child where they are developmentally so that they can process the information and protective strategies that are being shared with them. Tips for sharing this information depending on the child’s developmental age can be found in Dana Williams’ “Beyond the Golden Rule: A Parent’s Guide to Preventing and Responding to Prejudice”. This is downloadable at www.tolerance.org. (The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, n.d.).

Questions to Ask Yourself 

Confronting discrimination and racism can be very uncomfortable for those who are not impacted by it every day. It is okay to be uncomfortable. Every time you ask a question or speak out against prejudice, it is a chance to gain and build knowledge. The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (n.d.) suggests to “ask questions, seek information and forge through the discomfort and anxiety” of the issues that accompany transracial adoption. Asking yourself questions can help navigate the journey and identify your own beliefs and biases about other cultures and races. The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (n.d.) explains that “every person has biases, and uncovering them is a lesson in self-awareness and an opportunity for personal growth”. Some questions that are also suggested by The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association (n.d.) to explore are:

  • How many friends do you have of another race or culture?
  • What types of things do you seek to know about other cultures?
  • Do you attend multicultural events and celebrations?
  • Have you incorporated other races and cultures into your home life?
  • Are the schools/educators in your area diverse with children of many cultures?
  • How do your extended family members view people of a different race?
  • How can I prepare my family to experience racism when we are a transracial family?
  • How can I advocate for multicultural educational materials in the schools?

Asking these questions will help prepare yourself and your family to build your transracial home. The self-reflection that comes with asking yourself these hard questions will not only help you to understand where you are in your transracial adoption journey but also the positions of the other important people in your life.

Tips for Multiracial Families

We have identified some of the difficult conversations to be had and obstacles to be faced when pursuing transracial adoption. Now, let’s talk about some tips for when you have adopted transracially. These tips will help set your child and your family up for success:

  • Live in a diverse community where your child can attend a diverse school. This will allow your child the opportunity to make connections with people and find mentors who are from a similar cultural or racial background.
  • Learn to speak your child’s first language or find a cultural or language program for your child to join as an extracurricular activity.
  • Have the child’s cultural music, food, movies and traditions be a part of your everyday family life.
  • Attend community cultural events to meet children and adults with a similar background to your child.
  • Openly fight racism in front of your child so that they know it will not be tolerated in any form (Berger, 2015).
  • Recognize the importance of identifying as a multicultural family and value multiculturalism as an asset.
  • Speak often about race and culture in a positive and interested way (The Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association, n.d)
  • Use media as a way to introduce difficult conversations while speaking at a level appropriate for your child’s age and demeanor (Crawford, 2017).

These are not the only answers to successfully supporting your child’s identity formation and self-esteem, but it is a good place to start. Be creative and find what works for your child and family. It is okay to make mistakes, no one is perfect and parenting is difficult. What is important is how you pick up, how you address the issues with your child and family and continue on to live as a strong multicultural family unit. Ask for suggestions or advice from those around you who are at a different spot in their adoption journey or who are a racial match with your child. An open and honest community surrounding your family can make all of the difference on the most difficult of days.

Transracially Adopted Child's Bill of Rights

When thinking about adopting children of another race, it is important to keep in mind what they deserve out of the placement. Below is the Transracially adopted Child’s Bill of Rights. It is a great guideline to read through to see if you and your family are able to meet the needs of the child you are hoping to be matched with, because the need to be connected to culture and identity is not just a need for a child, but a right.

Transracially adopted Child’s Bill of Rights

Adapted by Liza Steinberg Triggs from ‘A Bill of Rights for Mixed Folks’ by Marilyn Dramé

  • Every child is entitled to love and full membership in her family.
  • Every child is entitled to have his culture embraced and valued.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that this is a race-conscious society.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that she will experience life differently than they do.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who are not looking to “save” him or to improve the world.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that being in a family doesn’t depend on “matching.”
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that transracial adoption changes the family forever.
  • Every child is entitled to be accepted by extended family members.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that, if they are white, they benefit from racism.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who know that they can’t transmit the child’s birth culture if it is not their own.
  • Every child is entitled to have items at home that are made for and by people of his race.
  • Every child is entitled to opportunities to make friends with people of her race or ethnicity.
  • Every child is entitled to daily opportunities of positive experiences with his birth culture.
  • Every child is entitled to build racial pride within her own home, school, and neighbourhood.
  • Every child is entitled to have many opportunities to connect with adults of the child’s race.
  • Every child is entitled to parents who accept, understand and empathize with her culture.
  • Every child is entitled to learn survival, problem-solving, and coping skills in a context of racial pride.
  • Every child is entitled to take pride in the development of a dual identity and a multicultural/multiracial perspective on life.
  • Every child is entitled to find his multiculturalism to be an asset and to conclude, “I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Film/Video Resources

  • A Place Between (https://www.nfb.ca/film/place_between_the_story_of_an_adoption/)

Description from the website: "A Place Between - The Story of an Adoption is a dramatic story of the reconciliation between biological and adoptive families. But much more than that, it is the journey of a cross-cultural adoptee who struggles to find balance between his families' different ethnicities and traditions and to discover how and where he fits into each world.”

  • aka Dan- A Korean Adoptee Story (http://bit.ly/akadanplaylist)

Description from the website: "aka Dan" is a documentary project chronicling Dan Matthews' journey to Korea in summer 2013, centering around his struggles with identity and family during the IKAA (International Korean Adoptee Association) 2013 summit, his first live concert performance in Korea, and his reunion with his Korean birth family.”

  • Closure (http://closuredocumentary.com/)

Description from the website: Closure is “a documentary about a transracial adoptee who finds her birth mother, and meets the rest of a family who didn't know she existed, including her birth father.  A story about identity, the complexities of trans-racial adoption, and most importantly, closure.”

  • Somewhere Between (https://tubitv.com/video/312542/somewhere_between)

Description from the website: “Somewhere Between tells the intimate stories of four teenaged girls. They live in different parts of the US, in different kinds of families and are united by one thing: all four were adopted from China because all four had birth parents who could not keep them, due to personal circumstances colliding with China's "One Child Policy". These strong young women allow us to grasp what it is like to come-of-age in today's America as trans-racial adoptees”.

  • Struggle for Identity: Issues in Transracial Adoption (http://www.cultureunplugged.com/documentary/watch-online/play/51562/Struggle-for-Identity--Issues-in-Transracial-Adoption-Special-Edition)

Description from the website: “A thought-provoking 20-minute video presenting a group of adoptees who discuss their experiences growing up in transracial adoptive families. They delve into complex issues such as confronting stereotypes, fitting in with their culture of origin and learning to define themselves in terms of race and culture. Included in the video are interviews with several adoptive parents who discuss the obstacles they faced in raising children of a different race. The compelling voices of experience are touching and often brutally honest in their observations.”

  • Struggle for Identity: A conversation 10 years later (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tniwTSOENCw)

Description from the website: “Struggle for Identity: A Conversation 10 Years Later is a captivating follow-up to the original Struggle. John and Michelle return to reflect on their experiences participating a decade ago in the first film, and why they have made transracial and multicultural adoption their life’s work. They discuss their lifelong journeys as transracial adoptees with candor and passion. The two explore issues of racism, the visible and public nature of transracial adoption, loyalty and attachment, transracialization and creating multicultural families through the lens of their personal experience and professional training.”

  • The Adopted Life (http://www.theadoptedlife.com/episodes/)

Description from the website: “The Adopted Life began as a personal blog to process the complexities of being a transracial adoptee. It is now a platform for adoptee empowerment.”

References

Baxter, C. (2006). Transracial Adoption. Canadian Paediatric Society. Paediatr Child Health 2006,11(7): 443-7.

Berger, C. (2015). Transracial Adoption: It will Change your Family Forever. Pact: An Adoption Alliance.

Carriere, J. (2009). You Should Know That I Trust You… Phase 2. Indigenous Child Welfare Research Network.

Crawford, S. (2017, October 10). Email.

Harris, K. (2017). International Adoptions Decline Rapidly in Canada. CBC News. Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/international-adoptions-canada-decline-1.4253698

Iowa Foster and Adoptive Parents Association. (n.d.). Transracial Parenting in Foster Care and Adoption: Strengthening your Bicultural Family. Retrieved from http://www.ifapa.org/pdf_docs/TransracialParenting.pdf.

Morrison, A. (2004). Transracial Adoption: The Pros and Cons and the Parents’ Perspective. Harvard Black Letter Law Journal, 20, 163-202.

Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies. (2015). Race Matters in the Child Welfare System. Retrieved from http://www.oacas.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/Race-Matters-African-Canadians-Project-August-2015.pdf

Samuels, G. M. (2012). Not Just “White Parents with Kids of Colour” The Importance of Racial Identity Work for Parents. Pact’s Point of View: The Newsletter for Adoptive Families with Children of Colour.

Statistics Canada. (2016). Study: Living Arrangements of Aboriginal Children Aged 14 and under, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/160413/dq160413a-eng.htm?HPA

Steinberg Triggs, L. (1996). A Transracially Adopted Child’s Bill of Rights. Pact Press.

Vonk, M. E. (2001). Cultural Competence for Transracial Adoptive Parents. Social Work, 46(3), 246-255.

Westheus, A. and Cohen, J. (1994). Intercountry Adoption in Canada: Final Report. Human Resources Development Canada.