Race and Cultural Identity: What to Consider BEFORE You Adopt

Race and Cultural Identity:  What to Consider Before You Adopt   
Laura Teeter, LCSW, Family Specialist

In our lifetime, definitions of race and ethnicity have continued to grow and expand.  Despite this, we as a society are still very much divided by color lines, and human nature drives us to categorize and compartmentalize groups of people based on perceived differences.  This is a key issue in adoption, as most families determine early on in their process what race children they feel most prepared to parent, as well as how their newly formed family will interact with the world. 

While many who choose adoption come to understand the complexities of raising a non-biological child, some still have a strong desire to parent a child who will resemble and blend into their family as seamlessly as possible.  This may not be to the extreme of matching hair or eye color, but there is a clear intention to avoid being a “conspicuous family”.   Understandably, families want to prevent the pain and discomfort of having the legitimacy of their family questioned simply because it was formed through adoption.  Sometimes, there is an underlying belief that adopting a child of the same race will create a sense of “normalcy” and societal acceptance for them and their child.       

Some families decide that they are comfortable considering a biracial child as long as the child partially shares their own race.  Again, this decision is often motivated by a desire for connection, as well as the hope that the child will bear some resemblance to the adoptive family.  Sometimes, the family does not think through the possible scenarios and is surprised when the appearance of their child is not what they anticipated.  For example, they might feel conflicted if the biracial child they adopt has a dark complexion, and to the outside world, they are a white family raising a child who is clearly of another race.   It is important to acknowledge that even within the same race, there can be prejudice and divisions based on skin tone. 

Recently, in the news there were two separate stories of twins with the same exact genetic makeup, yet their physical appearances were quite different from one another.  The moral of the story being, there are never any guarantees.  

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2123050/Look-The-black-white-twins-turn-seven.html

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2011/sep/24/twins-black-white

 On the other side of the spectrum, we also have families who express an openness to adopt a child of any race. We welcome these families, and at the same time, caution that families who are adopting trans-racially are often confronted with unique challenges and concerns.  They must be adequately educated, prepared and supported in order to be successful.  It is naïve for families to think that the world will be color blind and celebrate their diverse family, no matter how open and willing they  themselves are to welcoming a child of another race into their hearts and homes.   It is equally unrealistic to think that familial love and acceptance will ensure that a trans-racially adopted child will never struggle with issues of identity or race.      

So, what does all of this mean if you are contemplating adoption? 

First and foremost, it is critical for you to be honest with yourself about your strengths, limitations, comfort level and concerns around issues of adoption and race.  If you are considering a trans-racial adoption, learn as much as you can about the potential joys and challenges before embarking on your journey.  Be aware that adopting a child of the same race (or a biracial child) is not a guarantee that your family will be shielded from intrusive questions and stares.  Even if your child does resemble your family, it is still important to honor his/her ethnic and cultural heritage, and to proudly and openly discuss his/her adoption.  One of your many responsibilities as a parent will be to support your children as they create their own identity, which will largely be shaped by their experience of race, as well as through the lens of their adoption story.  You can never walk in your children’s shoes or truly understand how their journey may be influenced by perceptions of culture, identity and race, nor can you predict how their identity will evolve over their lifetime.  As a parent, you will be charged with instilling a confidence in your child and family that will meet other’s curiosity with as much comfort and ease as possible.  The best way to do this is to embrace and claim your unique identity as an adoptive family, honoring all of its many elements. 

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