This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 2, 2008 - To take account of race or to not take account of race, that is the question -- or at least it is in transracial adoption.
The rates of transracial adoption have increased dramatically in the past decades, and research and the law are trying to keep up. From the social research perspective we've learned a few things. Historically, research on transracial adoption found no differences in outcomes for kids adopted across race compared to same-race families.
However, more recent research has investigated the racial experiences of adoptees and concluded that they are not monolithic. It appears that parents' attitudes and behaviors related to racial socialization affect the experience of youth adopted transracially. In addition, for those children adopted transracially from foster care, it seems that problematic parent-child relations have more of an adverse impact compared to children adopted by same-race parents. All of this to say, it makes sense that race -- that of the parent and child -- would influence the dynamics of adoption.
Inherently there is nothing problematic about transracial adoption. In and of itself it does not cause maladjustment or foster psychological distress. However, the particular experience of being adopted transracially should not be minimized.
Children who are of a different race than their parents cope with feeling "different" and may feel alone and confused when faced with discrimination. We need to prepare parents for this reality and encourage them to acknowledge and validate these experiences even though it might be uncomfortable to address.
In addition, every child, including transracially adopted children, develops a sense of him- or herself. However, a key part of developing an identity for children of color often involves integrating race into their sense of self. This process involves integrating personal attitudes and beliefs about oneself and one's group in addition to integrating familial and societal opinions.
Racial identity is a process that needs to be supported, and parents of transracially adopted children need to be knowledgeable about it. Some parents might want to gloss over racial identity development because they see their child as part of the family and perhaps secretly hope that race won't matter as much. It would be important for those parents to be assured -- just as with any parent -- that the process of identity development can be tumultuous but does not negate the familial bonds that have been created. Most adolescents emerge from that process and reconnect with their parents if they have felt supported (if even from a distance) and validated.
Let me be clear, I am a proponent of across-race adoption. Too many kids need homes to make blanket claims that rule out the possibility of adoption for an entire group of people. However, I think that as part of preparing a family for adoption, parents who are adopting a child across race need to have thought about race as a construct that influences how society perceives people.
Heck, this sort or awareness should be a part of all adoptions involving children of color. Why single out white parents? Simply because people are from a particular racial background does not automatically make them aware of, or sensitive to, issues of race. Why not mandate training on racial identity development for all parents? It's just that important.
Even if we all agreed that parents seeking to adopt transracially should have some sort of training -- just as parents who adopt from another country undergo training to help understand the child's background -- legal barriers limit such efforts. In 1996, the guidelines were changed to enforce color-blindness in adoption so that the race of the child and parent becomes irrelevant.
I won't go into how problematic it is to take this stance (see previous column, "Seeing a different color isn't a problem"), but I will simply say that to be blind to a potential problem hinders you from finding a solution. Since this change, we still lack equity in adoption rates of African-American children who stay in foster care on average nine months longer than white children. Perhaps it needs to be re-evaluated.
When adoptive parents facilitate rather than ignore children's understanding of themselves and their racial background, the results are higher self-esteem, fewer feelings of marginalization, increased pride in their background, less distress and overall better psychological adjustment. Isn't that what we want for all children? If so, we should remove the legal red tape and support the movement within the system to take account of race in the adoption process.