Five Potential Side Effects of Transracial Adoption

Because families aren’t born from rainbows and unicorn sh*t

A trans- anything nowadays is controversial, but one trans- we don’t hear enough about are transracial adoptees. This small but vocal population got their title from being adopted by families of a different race than theirs — usually whites. But adoption, the so-called #BraveLove, comes with a steep price; often, transracial adoptees grow up with significant challenges, partly due to the fact that their appearance breaks the racially-homogenous nuclear family mold.

I am transracially adopted. My work is an outgrowth of my experience, research, and conversations with other members of the adoption triad; that is, adoptees, birth parents, and adoptive parents. This piece is a response to the misunderstandings and assumptions surrounding transracial adoption, and I hope it brings awareness to some rarely-discussed side-effects of the practice. While this isn’t an exhaustive list, by any means, these are just a few of the struggles that many transracial adoptees grapple with on a daily basis.

1. Racial Identity Crises, or “You Mean I’m Not White?”

Racial identity crises are common among transracial adoptees: what’s in the mirror may not reflect which box you want to check. I grew up in a predominantly white town that barely saw an Asian before — let alone an Asian with white parents. Growing up, I’d forget about my Korean-ness until I’d pass a mirror or someone slanted their eyes down at me, reminding me that oh yeah, I’m not white.

There’s a simple explanation for this confusion: “As members of families that are generally identified as white,” writes Kim Park Nelson, “Korean adoptees are often assimilated into the family as white and subsequently assimilated into racial and cultural identities of whiteness.”

Being raised in an ethnically-diverse area with access to culturally-aware individuals would help keep external reactions in check, but still belies the race-based role you’re expected to play in public. Twila L. Perry relates an anecdote illustrating the complexities of being black but raised in a white family:

“A young man in his personal statement identified himself as having been adopted and reared by white parents, with white siblings and mostly all white friends. He described himself as a Black man in a white middle-class world, reared in it and by it, yet not truly a part of it. His skin told those whom he encountered that he was Black at first glance, before his personality-shaped by his upbringing and experiences-came into play.”

Positive racial identity formation might be transracial adoption’s greatest challenge since much of the dialogue related to race and color begins at home. Multiracial and interracial families sometimes have difficulties finding the language to discuss this problem, so it’s an uphill climb for transracial parents (Same Family, Different Colors is a great study on this).

Parents can begin by talking openly about their child’s race. Acknowledging differences is not racist, nor does it draw negative attention to your child’s unique status in your family. Instead, being honest about it places your child on the path to self-acceptance.

2. Forced Cultural Appreciation ( à la “Culture Camps”)

Picture culture camp like band camp (no, not quite the band camp talked about in American Pie). The big difference is that, unlike band camp, culture camp expects you to learn heritage appreciation in the span of just one week instead of how to better tune your trumpet. Sometimes adoption agencies sponsor such programs, designed to immerse an adoptee in an intense week or two of things like ethnic food, adoptee bonding, and talks with real people of your race, as opposed to you, the poseur.

These camps often get the side-eye — and rightfully so. Critics argue that “fostering cultural awareness or ethnic pride does not teach a child how to deal with episodes of racial bias.”

Much like part-time church-going does little in the way of earning your way to the Pearly Gates, once-yearly visits with people that look like you won’t make you a real whatever-you-are. I know culture camps aren’t going away, so a better solution would be using these events as supplements to whatever you’re doing at home with your child, not as the sole source of heritage awareness. And yes, racial self-appreciation should be a lifelong project.

3. Mistaken Identities -aka — “I’m Not the Hired Help”

Transracial adoptees’ obvious racial differences provoke brazen inquiries regarding interfamilial relationships. Having “How much did she cost?” and “Is she really your daughter?” asked over your head while being mistaken for your brother’s girlfriend does not contribute to positive self-image. It publically questions your place in the only family you’ve ever known, setting the stage for insecure attachments and self-doubt.

Mistaken identities aren’t just awkward, they’re insulting. Sara Docan-Morgan interviewed several Korean adoptees regarding what she describes as “intrusive interactions,” and found that “participants reported being mistaken for foreign exchange students, refugees, newly arrived Korean immigrants, and housecleaners. [One adoptee] recalled going to a Christmas party where someone approached her and said, ‘Welcome to America!’”

Obvious racism aside, transracial adoptees often find themselves having to validate their existence, which is something biological children are unlikely to face. Docan-Morgan suggests that parents’ responses to such interactions can either reinforce family bonds or weaken them, so expecting the public’s scrutiny and preparing for it should be a crucial piece in transracial adoptive parent education.

4. Well-Meaning, Yet Unprepared Parents

Sure, they’ll be issued a handy guide (here’s one from the 1980s) on raising a non-white you, but beyond a few educational activities and get-togethers with other transracial families, they’re on their own (unless online forums count as legitimate resources).

Some parents may good-heartedly acknowledge your heritage by providing dolls and books and eating your culture’s food. Others may mistakenly adopt a colorblind attitude, believing they don’t see color; they just see people. But, as Gina Miranda Samuels says, “Having a certain heritage, being given books or dolls that reflect that heritage, or even using a particular racial label to self-identify are alone insufficient for developing a social identity.”

Regarding colorblindness, Samuels explains that it risks “shaming children by signaling that there is something very visible and unchangeable about them (their skin, hair, bodies) that others (including their own parents) must overlook and ignore in order for the child to be accepted, belong, or considered as equal.”

As mentioned in point #1 above, talking about color while acknowledging your child’s race in a genuine, proactive way can counteract these problems. This means white parents must acknowledge their inability to provide the necessary skills for surviving in a racialized world; sure, it might mean admitting a parenting limitation, but working through it together might help your child feel empowered instead of isolated. Talking to transracial adoptees — not just those with rosy perspectives — will be an invaluable investment for your child.

I’d also suggest that white parents admit their privilege. White privilege in transracial adoption is beautifully covered by Marika Lindholm, herself a mother of transracially adopted children. Listening to these stories, despite their rawness, will help you become a better parent. By acknowledging that you may take for granted that being part of a societal majority can come with dominant-culture benefits, you open your mind to the fact that your transracial child may not experience life in the same way as you. It doesn’t mean you love your adopted child any less — but as a parent, you owe it to your child to prepare yourself.

5. Supply and Demand

During the early decades of transracial adoption (1940–1980), racial tensions in the United States were so high that few people considered adopting black babies. People clamored for white babies, leaving many healthy black children aging in the system. (Sadly, this still happens today.) And since adoption criteria limited potential parents to affluent white Christians, blacks encountered near insurmountable adoption roadblocks.

Korea offered an easy solution. “Compared to the controversy over adopting black and Native American children,” says Arissa H. Oh, author of To Save the Children of Korea, “Korean children appeared free of cultural and political baggage…Korean children were also seen as free in another important sense: abandoned or relinquished by faraway birth parents who would not return for their child.”

After the Korean War, adopting Korean babies became a form of parental patriotism — kind of like a bastardized version of rebuilding from within. During this time, intercountry adoption fulfilled a political need as well as a familial one. Eleana H. Kim makes this connection as well: “Christian Americanism, anti-Communism, and adoption were closely tied in the 1950s, a period that witnessed a proliferation of the word “adoption” in appeals for sponsorship and long-distance fostering of Korean waifs and orphans.”

Although we’ve seen marked declines in South Korean adoptions, intercountry and transracial adoptions continue today, retaining some of their politically-motivated roots and humanitarian efforts. We need to keep this history in mind since knee-jerk emotional adoptions — despite the time it takes to process them — have serious repercussions for the children involved.

Photo by Liane Metzler on Unsplash

But we can make it better

None of this implies that transracial adoption is evil. Not at all. Consider this missive as more of a PSA for those considering adoption and a support piece for those who are transracially adopted. I’m aware that I’ll receive a lot of pushback on my work, and that’s okay. I’m writing from the perspective of what I call the “original transracial adoption boom,” and I consider myself part of one the earliest generations of transracial adoptees. Advancements in the field, many spurred by adoptees like myself, have contributed to many positive changes. However, we still have work to do if we’re going to fix an imperfect system based on emotional needs and oftentimes, one-sided decision making.

As one fellow adoptee activist says: #JustListen.


Sunny writes about transracial adoption, race, and the American family. She also contributes to Intercountry Adoptee Voices, an adoptee-led site supporting research by intercountry adoptees. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.