The Thinking 

Transracial Adoption: The Undiscussed Issue

November 10, 2009


Since 1971, American parents have, by conservative estimates, adopted more than half a million children from foreign countries, particularly girls from Asian orphanages. These children have been given loving homes, but the cultural and psychological implications of these adoptions are seldom discussed. A study released on Monday by the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute examines the first generation of adoptees from South Korea and concludes that many have struggled with ethnic and racial identity.  This conflict typically was mild in early childhood but intensified in adolescence and adulthood.

“Race/ethnicity is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for those adopted across color and culture,” the report states. It also says,  “A significant majority of transracially adopted adults reported considering themselves to be or wanting to be White [sic] as children.”  In an article in the Sunday New York Times, two Korean adoptees speak of their satisfaction with the study:

“This offers proof that we’re not crazy or just being ungrateful to our adoptive parents when we talk about our experiences,” said Mr. [Joel] Ballantyne, 35, who was adopted at age 3 and who grew up in Alabama, Texas and, finally, California.

Jennifer Town, 33, agreed.

“A lot of adoptees have problems talking about these issues with their adoptive families,” she said. “They take it as some kind of rejection of them when we’re just trying to figure out who we are.”

Some 468 adopted adults responded to an online survey for the study, making it the largest study of its kind, the authors of the report said. The Times article, an unusually candid discussion of the report, also quotes another adoptee:

Sonya Wilson, adopted in 1976 by a white family in Clarissa, Minn., says that although she shares many of the experiences of those interviewed in the study — she grew up as the only Asian in a town of 600 — policy changes must address why children are put up for adoption, and should do more to help single women in South Korea keep their children. “This study does not address any of these issues,” Ms. Wilson said.


Karen Wilson writes from England:

It’s a growing problem with selfish white people who remove Asian and African children from their families, homes, countries and cultures and pay scant attention to the effect on the child. The psychological and social problems are profound. Madonna adopted a little African boy, removing him from the proximity of his father, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents. No doubt he will have a materially prosperous start in life but can this compensate for the fact that he has been wrenched from his own culture and language? 

Here is an article from the Guardian in which a transracial adoptee says:

David, now a 45-year-old academic, of dual heritage – white and Arab – was adopted by a white couple in 1962. ‘Love is not enough,’ he said, ‘and there’s a living community struggling with the consequences. Where do these children [placed in white families] get their linguistic, religious and cultural knowledge from? The main problem is the under-theorisation of the issues.

‘The experience of racism had a profound impact on me. It would have been helpful for people around me to have had an understanding of that and of the cultural issues that one inevitably struggles with. It’s about a sense of isolation – one never fits in with either community. We exist in a third space, outside other communities. It is a debilitating experience. We need a radical rethink on transracial adoptions.’

His parents were ‘supportive and loving’, but for David that did not counteract what he describes as a ‘lifelong experience of verbal and physical abuse and various types of sophisticated institutional racisms’. He has found tremendous similarities with other interracial adoptees and says: ‘All of us are on a journey, but it will have no resolution for us. I don’t think they [social workers] have a grasp of the enormity of it. People aren’t tracked through life. Mental health services have no grasp of it.

‘It’s not simply a case of whether children should not be placed in white families; a family setting is always preferable. But it would need parents prepared far more than they are, prior and during the adoption process. “We’re liberal parents, we’ll do all we can” – this is just tokenism. “We’ll explain Eid, we’ll explain Ramadan,” a few Islamic books around the house … that’s not good enough, that’s just insulting.’

A survey found the following:

In one survey of adults who had been adopted as children, around 46 per cent of white people said that, even though it was a positive adoption, they felt a sense of not belonging. With transracial adoptees that figure leapt to almost three-quarters. ‘Research is scant: there are a lot of small-scale studies but there is a real drought of understanding. I think the foot has been taken off the pedal for black and ethnic minority children whose needs, meanwhile, have been continuing to grow. Interracial adoption is a relatively new phenomenon, an 18-year period really,’ said Sue Cotton, head of adoption services at the children’s charity NCH.

The overall findings to date are not optimistic and are quite similar to the findings of identity confusion reported in mixed race children. There must be a case for limiting this growing social pathology.

Laura writes:

Of course, not all international transracial adoptions involve “selfish white people.” In many cases, couples are sincere in their desire to help orphaned children. Judgment on this matter may sometimes be clouded by the equally strong desire to experience of parenthood. 


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