Transracial Adoption in the United States

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Transracial adoption is defined as “the joining of racially different parents and children together in adoptive families” (Lee, 2003). In the United States, most transracial adoptions involve the placement of a non-white child into a white family, and the placement of black children into white families has been the most common type of transracial adoption. There are two types of transracial adoption, domestic and international. One of the earliest examples of domestic transracial adoption was the Indian Adoption Project. This project was designed to remove Indian children from their families on reservation’s in an effort to assimilate them into mainstream society (Lee, 2003).

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Soon following this initiative other programs started to follow suit for orphaned African American Children. These types of programs, however, were met with resistance from the racial minority communities (Lee, 2003). The National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) argued that transracial adoption was a form of race and “cultural genocide” and they passed a resolution that called for an end of transracial adoption. (Lee, 2003).

International transracial adoption in the US reflects a “convergence of social and political factors at home and abroad” (Lee, 2003). Wars, poverty, lack of social welfare, and social disruptions in other countries have played a large part in providing international children for overseas adoption (Lee, 2003). Both international and domestic adoption is not without controversy. Because of this transracial adoption raises a set of complex issues and questions in adoption practice and policy. While the federal Multi-Ethnic Placement Act (MEPA) makes it illegal to prevent an adoption based solely on the race of the child or adoptive parents, transracial adoption has its opponents as well as its supporters. A number of people question whether it is in the best interests of children of color to allow them to be adopted by white parents (Lee, 2003). This subject has been a persistent debate among adoption specialist, legal advocates, mental health professionals, and civil rights advocates in this country for a long time (Griffith & Bergeron, 2006). This has been so despite cumulative research indicating that transracial adoptees can thrive and develop into confident adults with strong senses of identity and self-esteem (Griffith & Bergeron, 2006). Critics of transracial adoption believe that children and their potential adoptive parents should be of the same race and ethnic background. This essay will go over the different components of identity and mental health and how these two ideas are reflected in the transracial adoption debate.

The main question that identity asks is, “Who are you?” Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices that we make (Heshmat, 2014). Whether it’s our relationships or our careers, these choices reflect who we are and what we value (Heshmat, 2014). Sometimes these values may not represent who we really are, and it may end up creating an unfulfilling life (Heshmat, 2014). Lack of a coherent sense of identity leads to uncertainty about who we want to be or do in this life. Identities are not chosen per se, but rather they are internalized by the values of our parents, environment or culture that we grow up in (Heshmat, 2014). Identity is made up of many different components ranging from the physical, experiential to the emotional and cultural.

One of the main goals that all parents should focus on regardless of race is the development of the child’s Identity. The best way to achieve this goal is to have children grow up in families who match their ethnicity. According to this ideology, ethnically Asian children should be raised in Asian families, black children in black families, and Latino children in Latino families. Otherwise, they are at risk of developing a confused sense of identity (Hollingsworth, 1999). The cultural competence of adoptees in their culture of birth is developed through their participation in cultural activities: learning the language, participating in holidays, in meals where the traditional food of the country of birth is served, developing awareness of traditions, listening to music and seeing films from that country, and becoming conscious of one’s physical resemblance to people of the same ethnic and cultural group (Harf et al., 2015). By living with a different race family, the adopted children are believed to develop an identity crisis and struggle to preserve their cultural heritage and are prevented from developing survival skills necessary to deal with common social issues such as discrimination and racism (Hollingsworth, 1999). Research shows that adoptees that have not learned to cope with prejudice and discrimination are unable to manage racism in a healthy manner which leads to low self-esteem and negative racial identity (Butler-Sweet, 2011).

When the ethnicity, culture, and religion of the adopters and child are similar it is said to be a good fit, or compatible and this is what most adoption agencies strive for when matching children to their future parents. This obviously doesn’t occur in every case, in fact, the ethnicity, culture and or religion of the adopters and child in some cases can be very different. The priority here is the ensure that the child would be brought up by their adoptive parents with a clear sense of identity. In transracial placements, the fostering of a positive racial identity may be more complex and challenging to achieve, which can result in the adopted child reaching adulthood and feeling unsure about their identity (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012).

Focusing on an identity that broadly reflects the child’s ethnicity highlights the importance of developing a positive black, Asian, or Latino identity of a child as they grow up (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). Proponents of transracial adoption know the difficulties related to transracial adoption and conclude that, while these adoptees are slightly slower to develop racial awareness, they do eventually develop a secure ethnic identity (Butler-Sweet, 2011). Children can learn about their cultural identity from different sources, it doesn’t always have to be from their parents. Even if it had to be from parents, one of the most important criteria for matching when it comes to transracial adoption was that the prospective adopters had the ethnic, religious and cultural sensitivity to bring up their adopted children (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). This idea ensures that as the child grows up, they have the necessary support to develop a positive transracial identity which enhances the development of resilience to racism and discrimination in society.

Transracial adoptions are marked by observable physical difference between parents and children, and the lack of physical resemblance is a central element of the life-long process of adoption and as well as our identity (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). For both the child and parents, the similar appearance may enable a child adopted into a family of similar ethnicity to be seen by outsiders to ‘fit in’ (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). Children are more likely to have positive identity outcomes if the people they grow up with share physical similarities that help them identify with the families with whom they live with (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). Emphasis on resemblance by adoptive parents may, however, detract from placing the adopted child’s needs at the center. The idea of adoption should be about meeting a child’s needs, not a substitute birth child who physically resembles the adoptive parents’ children (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). Nonetheless, acknowledging the importance of resemblance, does raise the issue of invisibility vs visibility children (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). A child adopted into the same ethnicity will have the psychological and emotion security because they do not visibly or physically present a difference when it comes to their family members or those in their community (Wainwright & Ridley, 2012). However, a child that isn’t raised into a same-race family will often struggle with a sense of “being different” from those around them, acknowledging that they look different from their family and community members. These physical differences may have adverse effects on the adoptees due to the increased chance of discrimination.

Discrimination is defined as negative behavior toward a group or its members simply because of membership in that group (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). Studies show that transracial adoptees raised by same-race parents are less likely to be stressed from discrimination due to the protective nature that racial socialization has (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). On the other hand, as members of a racial minority group growing up in white families, transracial adoptees not only have to face the unique struggle connected to race but also managing experiences of discrimination (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). This chronic risk for discrimination in transracial adoptees being raised by white parents may be complicated by a lack of racial socialization, which promotes racial-ethnic pride and resiliency (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). Instead, transracial adoptees are often more exposed to white cultural orientations with inadequate socialization which leads to dealing with discrimination from their peers and community (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). This process is often challenging in transracial adoptive families because the parents do not have extensive knowledge of the adopted child’s culture (DeBerry, Scarr & Weinberg, 1996). When done the right way, racial socialization promotes culturally relevant habits and values that children will eventually need to use to adapt and assimilate into their new society (DeBerry, Scarr & Weinberg, 1996). When white parents struggle to provide the necessary tools to combat discrimination and racism in the community, transracially adopted youth may be particularly vulnerable to physiological distress (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013).

The frequency with which the adopted children experienced racism was strongly related to their level of stress. It has been well established that the persistent presence of direct and indirect discrimination takes a psychological toll on individuals (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). Although there is a link between the frequency of discrimination and stress, this link can be modified by the behaviors of the adopted children’s parents (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). Children who experienced high levels of racism or discrimination found that the experience to be less stressful when their parents had worked on promoting their cultural pride and prepared them for dealing with racism as they grew up (Leslie, Smith, Hrapczynski & Riley, 2013). On the other hand, children’s whose parents that didn’t provide the necessary education tended to have higher levels of stress.

Higher levels of stress experienced from a racist event were also associated with poorer mental health outcomes (Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone & Zimmerman, 2003). These outcomes highlight a special link between racial discrimination and mental health. Growing research suggests that children that experience discriminatory events can have adverse mental health consequences as they develop into adults (Sellers, Caldwell, Schmeelk-Cone & Zimmerman, 2003). In recent years, there has been a growing body of literature on the relationship between racial discrimination and mental health with transracially adopted individuals (Presseau, DeBlaere & Luu, 2019). However, the research is still relatively new and is in short supply. Few of the studies found that discrimination was significantly and positively associated with internalizing and externalizing problems (anxiety and cheating) (Presseau, DeBlaere & Luu, 2019). Similarly, perceived discrimination had a significant association with depression among adult transracial adoptees (Presseau, DeBlaere & Luu, 2019). Such findings demonstrate a consistent link between racial discrimination and psychological distress, as well as elevated mental health disorders among racial minority individuals (Presseau, DeBlaere & Luu, 2019). Rather than allowing these children’s racial identity to suffer, opponents of transracial adoption recommend that the children wait in foster care or other such facilities until a same-race parent is willing to adopt them (Swize, 2002).

There is a mismatch in the number of minority children awaiting adoption and the number of the same race parents interested in adopting. There is a disproportionately high number of minority children waiting to be adopted (Swize, 2002). This causes the children’s adoption to be postponed waiting for a racial match to be found. There are not a lot of minorities looking to adopt but there are plenty of white parents looking forward to adoption. Supporters believe that this delay into an adoptive home may be detrimental to the child’s social-emotional and cognitive development (Swize, 2002). As a result, post-institutionalized children may suffer from severe delays and difficulties after being adopted in their new families (Juffer et al., 2011). Most of these adoptees are referred to mental health services more often than nonadopted children. Many often experience maternal separation, psychological deprivation, neglect, abuse and malnutrition in orphanages or poor families before adoptive placement (Juffer, & van IJzendoorn, 2005). Adopting these kids provides a healthier environment and these children are more likely to handle their mental health issues better (Swize, 2002). A child’s wellbeing drastically increases the earlier they become part of a permanent and stable environment. In fact, adoption usually offers improved medical, physical, education and phycological opportunities for these children. With these new opportunities research has documented children’s recovery and these adopted children greatly benefit from adoptive placement. They show catch-up growth in all domains of development, outperforming the children still in institutional care (Juffer et al., 2011).

In conclusion, transracial adoption is the legal adoption of a child of a different race or ethnic group by a family of a different race or ethnic group. The most common transracial adoption in the United States is that of a black child with white parents. This type of adoption is the most obvious form of adoption because of the often-observable race-related phenotypical differences between parents and their children. Transracial adoption is a highly controversial topic that asks many questions regarding mental health consequences for transracial adoptees, and the parents’ role in overcoming racial differences to facilitate positive racial socialization and identity. Interracial adoption evokes intense debate between those who consider transracial placements positive for children and society and those who consider them harmful to the minority children and the community.

One of the most vocal opponents of trans racial adoption includes the National Association of Black Social Workers who believe that black children should be placed only with black families. They believe that minority groups should belong physically, psychologically and culturally in that same minority group in order to achieve a positive identity and racial socialization. By reaching racial socialization these children are better able to adapt and cope with discrimination and racism that minority groups face in their community. Where socialization is important supporters of transracial adoption believe that by modifying the parent’s behaviors and encouraging them to teach their children their culture will make the process of belonging in society easier. Therefore, resulting in decreased feelings of stress and physiological distress which leads to a decrease in mental health. On the other hand, opponents believe that mental health issues are more prevalent due to the traumatic history of the children, and transracial parents don’t know how to properly deal with this type of situation. Instead, these children should stay in foster homes or institutional facilities until a same-race family wants to adopt. That way the family will have the generational knowledge of how to provide and teach the child. There are many ideologies and components to this debate and every question asks the question, what is the best way protecting the well-being of the adopted children.


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  8. [bookmark: _Hlk7686769]Leslie, L., Smith, J., Hrapczynski, K., & Riley, D. (2013). Racial Socialization in Transracial Adoptive Families: Does It Help Adolescents Deal With Discrimination Stress? Family Relations,62(1), 72-81. Retrieved from
  9. Presseau, C., DeBlaere, C., & Luu, L. P. (2019). Discrimination and mental health in adult transracial adoptees: Can parents foster preparedness? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 89(2), 192-200.
    Sellers, R., Caldwell, C., Schmeelk-Cone, K., & Zimmerman, M. (2003). Racial Identity, Racial Discrimination, Perceived Stress, and Psychological Distress among African American Young Adults. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 44(3), 302-317. Retrieved from
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Transracial Adoption in the United States. (2021, Mar 19). Retrieved from