The Cultural-Racial Identity Model: A Theoretical Framework for Studying Transracial Adoptees

Amanda Baden & Robbie Steward. Handbook of Adoption: Implications for Researchers, Practitioners, and Families. Editor: Rafael A Javier, Amanda L Baden, Frank A Biafora, Alina Camacho-Gingerich. Sage Publication. 2007.

Multiracial children, transracial adoptees, and foster children in families wherein more than one racial or cultural heritage exists have a unique experience inside and outside the home that is distinctly different from children being raised in racially and culturally homogeneous families. Because healthy development of these children is contingent on their effective management of diversity-related issues both inside and outside of the home, psychologists and counselors must be prepared to accurately assess and develop appropriate strategies for intervention when psychological and emotional dilemmas become evident within these households.

Although there are increasing numbers of racially mixed families within general society, psychologists’ examination of the experiences of racially integrated family systems remains limited. To better inform the practice of psychotherapy with these individuals, guidelines for addressing the effects of racial integration within families must be developed. With this goal in mind, the Cultural-Racial Identity Development Model (Baden & Steward, 2000; Steward & Baden, 1995) was developed. This model addresses the compelling roles of both race and culture within families where racial homogeneity does not exist. The Cultural-Racial Identity Model serves as a framework for understanding and working with members of racially integrated families by attending to racial and cultural differences among parents and children and by considering the impact that the experiences and the attitudes of parents, peers, extended family, social support networks, and the larger community have on child development. The Cultural-Racial Identity Development Model was the first comprehensive guide for practitioners’ use with racially and culturally integrated families. This chapter focuses on explaining the Cultural-Racial Identity Model when used with transracial and international adoption. In this chapter, we review the need for a systematic means for understanding the identity experiences of transracial adoptees, describe the terminology used to understand transracial adoption, explain the framework used in the model, and discuss clinical applications of this model.

Definitions: An Introduction to Transracial Adoption

Transracial adoption refers to the adoption of infants or children by parents of a different race (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, 2005). International adoption, in which citizens from the United States (for example) adopt infants or children from other countries, is in some cases transracial but in almost all cases transcultural (or between cultures) (Zamostny, O’Brien, Baden, & Wiley, 2003). Thus, transracial adoption subsumes aspects of international adoption such that the adoptions involve racial and ethnic differences that are often determined by physical features. For the purposes of this chapter, transracial adoption will refer to all adoptions, both domestic (within the United States) and international (between the United States and foreign countries), that involve adoption across racial lines.

Race, as commonly defined, refers to heritage with a group based on geography and a common set of physical characteristics as manifested in traits transmitted via genetics such as skin color, hair texture and color, and facial features (Hays, 2001). Ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to dimensions of characteristics that are transmitted via socialization (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997) and to ancestry via shared biological history, values, customs, and individual and group identity (Hays, 2001). Finally, culture refers to traditions, history, beliefs, practices, and values that are passed from generation to generation via perception, beliefs, evaluation, communication, and action (Hays, 2001). Language, holidays, and religious beliefs can be shared elements that represent culture.

To comprehensively address transracial and international adoption, issues related to the psychosocial task of identity formation must also be defined. The construct of identity can be traced back to the Eriksonian concept of personal identity (Erikson, 1968) and was originally associated with the adolescent struggle for identity or the struggle to gain knowledge of self, others, and the self in relation to others (Erikson, 1980). During this struggle, individuals work to negotiate the ego identity versus identity diffusion crisis so that they can achieve an integrated identity. Marcia (1966, 1980) extended Erikson’s work to include a model that depicted four potential identity statuses that can describe individuals at various points in the process of identity formation. In addition to providing a delineated pathway along which identity might be charted, Marcia’s work suggested that identity formation consists of a process and that the pathway is not necessarily linear using stages but may instead be statuses that define a point in time in an individual’s life. Although Erikson’s work proposed that identity formation was a task for adolescence, contemporary thought supports the notion that identity formation is a lifelong task (Greve, Rothermund, & Wentura, 2005; Honess & Yardley, 1987; Marcia, 1987).

Over time, identity was applied to areas in psychosocial development far beyond vocational aspirations. In fact, given Erikson’s (1968) emphasis on the impact of the environment and the context in which an individual matures, identity as a construct was well suited for its application to issues surrounding race, ethnicity, and culture.

To adequately address the identity experiences of transracial and international adoptees, questions of race, ethnicity, and culture as well as racial, ethnic, and cultural identity must be included. Unfortunately, the definitions used when referring to racial, ethnic, and/or cultural identity have not been consistent throughout the literature. For example, researchers have used the term racial identity in their research when they are actually measuring aspects of racial labeling, racial group preferences, racial and ethnic categorizations, and acculturation (e.g., Andujo, 1988; Johnson, Shireman, & Watson, 1987; McRoy, Zurcher, Lauderdale, & Anderson, 1982, 1984; Shireman & Johnson, 1985, 1986; Zastrow, 1977). Fortunately, within the past 20 years, leaders in counseling psychology have clarified the concepts by further delineating how this component (racial identity) of individuals’ psychosocial identity formation can be defined (Atkinson, Morten, & Sue, 1998; Benson, Sharma, & Roehlkepartain, 1994; Cross, 1978; Cross, Parham, & Helms, 1991; Helms, 1990). Based on their work, racial identity has been consistently defined as the quality of one’s identification with one’s racial group and the psychological and internalized effects of race-based messages garnered from society and from one’s reference group (Helms, 1990; Helms & Cook, 1999). Ethnic identity has also been inconsistently defined in the literature (Phinney, 1990); however, a widely accepted definition incorporates individuals’ self-label, sense of belonging, attitudes toward their own ethnic group, and involvement in ethnic group social and cultural practice (Phinney, 1990). Last, the definition for cultural identity has also been subject to shifts in focus from terminology mirroring acculturation to that involving individuals’ relationships to their reference group. Typically, cultural identity has been defined as the culture with which one identifies as shown through knowledge, behaviors, and beliefs. More recently, Germain (2004) defined cultural identity as involving the process of “self-awareness achieved either through the collective experience within a membership group or the individual perception as we compare ourselves to a reference group” (p. 134).

Adoption across Race and Culture

Adoption was informally practiced throughout the history of civilization but was formalized in the 1800s to provide a means for placing orphaned children with couples or families wanting or needing children (Zamostny et al., 2003). However, according to the modern history of transracial and international adoption as documented by Lee (2003), the Indian Adoption Project (removing American Indian children from reservations to be adopted into mainstream American families) and the Korean War orphans (children orphaned by the war or biracial children fathered by military soldiers and Korean mothers were adopted by American families) mark the beginning of modern transracial and international transracial adoption to the United States, respectively. In the early 1970s, transracial adoption was criticized for its potentially damaging effects on children (National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972), and transracial adoption placements became much less frequent, especially domestic transracial adoptions. After a series of studies were conducted to disprove the criticisms of transracial adoptions, legislation was passed that allowed resurgence in transracial adoption placements (e.g., the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994). Today, transracial adoption has become an increasingly popular option for those wishing to adopt given widespread attention to new sources of infants available for adoption (e.g., China, Russia, Guatemala) (Child Welfare League of America [CWLA], 2003).

Clearly, despite concerns about the viability of transracial and international adoption, children have continued to be placed transracially and internationally, and many have grown into adulthood. Surprisingly little information about effective psychotherapeutic models and methods is available for this unique population, but much attention has been focused on the impact of transracial adoptive families. Researchers have begun to address these questions, but the most prominent issues that continue to deserve more attention include the following: (1) the effects of transracial and international adoption on the adoptees’ adjustment (e.g., Baden, 2002; Cederblad, Höök, Irhammar, & Mercke, 1999; DeBerry, Scarr, & Weinberg, 1996; Sharma, McGue, & Benson, 1998; Silverman & Feigelman, 1981, 1990; Vroegh, 1997; Wickes & Slate, 1997; Yoon, 2001; Zastrow, 1977); (2) the effects of transracial and international adoption on the adoptees’ racial and cultural identities (e.g., Baden, 2002; Brooks & Barth, 1999; Feigelman, 2000; Johnson et al., 1987; Shireman & Johnson, 1986); (3) techniques for raising and treating transracial adoptees (e.g., Bradley & Hawkins-Leon, 2002; Helwig & Ruthven, 1990; Jones, 1997; Lee, 2003; Liow, 1994; Rickard Liow, 1994); and (4) the ways that transracial and international adoptees identify culturally, racially, and ethnically (Baden & Steward, 2000; Bagley, 1992; Grotevant, 1987; Hollingsworth, 1998; McRoy et al., 1984).

In this chapter, the model that we propose goes beyond the question of differences between transracial adoptees and same-race adoptees or nonadoptees and instead addresses the differences or heterogeneity that exists within the group of transracial adoptees. The racial differences between adoptive parents and their adopted children necessitate attention to the experiences of these families whether or not they are affected by these differences. Historically, these differences were expected to cause problematic “racial identity” formation and adjustment issues (National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972). Subsequent research has worked to clarify these concerns, and legislation (e.g., Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 and Interethnic Placement Act of 1996) has prevented restrictions in adoptive placements based on these concerns. Assumptions about the impact of racial differences on adjustment have continued to suggest that racial differences may be the primary predictor of adjustment, and little attention has been given to the parenting issues that affect adjustment. Just as differences in racial oppression experiences between parents and children may have an impact, so may the manner in which adoptive parents address (or fail to address) adoption-related issues, racial issues, behavioral problems, and many other concerns. Essentially, the discourse around the impact of transracial adoption must become more complex and multifaceted.

To begin this work, Baden and Steward (2000) introduced the Cultural-Racial Identity Model to address the more complex status of transracial adoptees’ identities. They attempted to remedy the inconsistency that exists in definitions for constructs such as racial identity. For example, frequently, studies purporting to examine racial identity tended to investigate only the racial group preferences and objective racial self-identification of transracial adoptees and not their racial identity development (e.g., McRoy et al., 1984; Shireman & Johnson, 1986). These studies conceptualized racial identity as being the racial group (e.g., Black, White, Korean, Native American) to which the adoptees felt they belonged. This conceptualization of racial identity appears to be based on the acknowledgment or recognition of racial group membership rather than on feelings about, attitudes toward, knowledge of, competence within, or comfort with one’s racial group. Thus, these other conceptualizations of racial identity may actually contain information about the identities sanctioned by society rather than the actual identities of transracial adoptees.

To implement these suggestions for future research on transracial adoption, a guideline for observing and systematizing the study of transracial adoptees is needed. The Cultural-Racial Identity Model addresses potential variation in identity statuses of transracial adoptees. These identity statuses differ from previous models of identity, racial identity, and ethnic identity because of the distinction made between culture and race in the model. This distinction is vital given the mismatch that can occur for transracial adoptees between their physical appearance (i.e., their race) and their cultural practices. Moreover, although we chose to call this model the Cultural-Racial Identity Model, we chose to use the terms culture and race rather than culture and ethnicity for specific reasons. When we speak about race, we are actually referring to the sociocultural construction of race, or sociorace (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997), rather than the more traditional scientific classification or biological construction of race. In essence, ethnicity actually bridges aspects of both race and culture but does not allow for clear distinctions between both of them (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997). As a result, when examining the experiences of transracial adoptees, we believe that culture and race more clearly maintain the distinctions that we find vital to understanding their experience. Furthermore, use solely of the term ethnicity can be problematic given the ease with which individuals may choose to use the term ethnicity as an excuse to focus on the more familiar and less threatening concepts of culture and cultural activities as opposed to the very important, sometimes uncomfortable, and clearly socially constructed meanings that accompany race (Helms & Talleyrand, 1997).

Theoretical Bases for the Cultural-Racial Identity Model

Identity Formation in Adoptees

As noted above, the process of identity formation is lifelong and for adoptees is clearly complicated by the issues associated with the seven core issues of adoption (Silverstein & Kaplan, 1988), namely loss, rejection, guilt and shame, grief, identity, intimacy, and mastery/control. Identity is one of those core issues and lies at the heart of much of the work in adoption. LeVine and Sallee (1990) theorized that adoptees must work to accept their adoptive status, and if they develop a clear understanding of the impact and meaning of their adoption, they will experience greater levels of adjustment. They also advocated that clinicians learn to distinguish between adoption-related issues (e.g., loss and belonging) and family dynamic issues (e.g., parenting). LeVine and Sallee depicted the process of acceptance of adoption as having five phases: (1) Phase I or preawareness, (2) Phase II or dim awareness of a special state, (3) Phase III or cognitive integration of biological and social differences, (4) Phase IV or identity crisis of the adopted adolescent, and (5) Phase V or concomitant acceptance of the biological and adoptive family. Clearly, this model suggests that adoptees become aware of their adoptive status and reach a cognitive awareness of their unique biological and social status as adoptees before they work on identity issues or get “1) a conscious sense of their individual uniqueness; 2) an unconscious striving for continuity of experience; and 3) a solidarity with group ideals” (p. 223). LeVine and Sallee theorized that adoptees’ attempts at achieving continuity with their past and solidarity with the group are more difficult, and their questions about their biological roots are most salient for them. These difficulties coupled with such early childhood traumas as abuse, neglect, and poor parental bonding may make adoptees more vulnerable to maladjustment, particularly in the form of narcissistic personality disorders. LeVine and Sallee also listed signs of maladjustment according to the phase of adjustment of the adoptees. Some examples are being unresponsive to adults, language deficits, rage, inappropriate affect, splitting, active rejecting of adoptive family, and emerging personality disorders.

Another model of identity for adopted individuals was proffered by Grotevant (1997). To gain a sense of their origins, adopted persons seek a sense of heritage and origins that are part of an adoptee’s identity. Although early conceptualizations considered identity development a task for adolescence, it is now recognized as a lifelong process (Grotevant, 1997). A more comprehensive adoptee identity framework was built on Grotevant’s (1987) developmental and multilevel process model of identity formation for all adolescents and was applied specifically to adopted individuals (Grotevant, 1997). Grotevant described the three aspects of identity most salient for adoptees as follows: (1) self-definition (the characteristics by which one is recognized as he or she self-defines within his or her historical context); (2) coherence of personality (the subjective experience of the ways in which various facets of one’s personality fit together); and (3) sense of continuity over time (the connections between past, present, and future that traverse place and connect relationships and contexts). These three aspects of identity were labeled the “self-in-context” (Grotevant, Dunbar, Kohler, & Esau, 2000) and consist of three levels: intrapsychic, family relationships, and the social world beyond the family. The primary task of identity for an adopted person was described as “coming to terms’ with oneself in the context of the family and culture into which one has been adopted” (Grotevant et al., 2000, p. 383).

Similarly, Dunbar and Grotevant (2004) used a narrative approach to empirically explore Grotevant’s (1997) identity statuses and found four adoptive identity types among their 145 adolescent adoptees: (1) unexamined identity, where the adoptees had not thought about adoption issues, responded with low emotion, and reflected no salience of the adoptive identity; (2) limited identity, where the adoptees were willing to think about and discuss adoption but did not view it as a prominent concern in their lives as reflected by their low depth of exploration, low salience of adoptive identity, moderate positive affect, and minimal negative affect; (3) unsettled identity, where the adoptees reported moderate salience of their adoptive identity, were moderately involved in thinking about their adoptive identities, and yet described low to moderate positive affect and moderate to moderate/strong negative affect; and (4) integrated identity, where most of the adoptees were moderately or greatly exploring their adoptive identities, saw their adoptive identities as significant, and reported substantial moderate to strong positive affect and low to minimal negative affect.

Thus, the adoption literature has not reached a consensus on the impact of adoption on identity. To answer this question, researchers must more clearly define the constructs of adoptee identity and operationalize it. Although identity is assumed by most of the adoption literature to be more complex for adoptees (Grotevant, 1997; Grotevant et al., 2000; Hoopes, 1990; Stein & Hoopes, 1985), the empirical literature has been slow to systematically address these assumptions. The literature has noted such concerns as the “adopted child syndrome” (Kirschner, 1990) and even included attention to the externalizing behaviors of adopted persons (e.g., Brodzinsky, Smith, & Brodzinsky, 1998; Miller, Fan, Christensen, Grotevant, & van Dulmen, 2000; Wierzbicki, 1993), but the empirical literature has not yet adequately explored identity development. In fact, Wilson (2004) suggested that methodological constraints such as the heterogeneity of the adopted population, lack of suitable comparison groups, and within-group differences might also explain the mixed findings.

Identity Formation in Racial Ethnic Minorities

As noted above, although racial and ethnic identities were defined by psychologists, examinations of racial and ethnic identities across disciplines have not consistently used those definitions or the measures such as the multigroup ethnic identity measure (Phinney, 1992) to operationalize those definitions. More recent empirical research has used qualitative research designs to examine racial, ethnic, and cultural identity (e.g., Friedlander, 1999; Huh, 1997; Westhues & Cohen, 1998), but researchers have not structured their findings according to any consistent or comprehensive model of racial identity. Interestingly, in these studies, questions of acculturation to Korean and American cultures, for example, and ethnic group pride were included in the structured interview protocols. Thus, researchers who examined the impact of transracial and international adoption designed studies that reflected their view of racial and ethnic identity as being highly similar to the models of racial identity as depicted in the models initially introduced by William Cross (1971), Janet Helms (1990), and Atkinson, Morten, and Sue (1993). Common to these models of racial identity is the premise that psychological adjustment and self-concept may, to a degree, depend on the racial identity of the individual. Individuals in particular stages or having particular statuses of development are believed to have poorer adjustment and poorer self-concepts. The parallel between this belief and that found in Erikson’s (1968) theory is evident.

Relationship Between Racial Identity and Eriksonian Theory

As discussed above, the construct of racial identity has been defined in numerous ways across different disciplines. However, within the field of psychology, one theorist is largely credited with its development (Cross, 1971, 1978) and others with its expansion and refinement to other racial groups. Also, Janet Helms’s work on racial identity has led the field in more recent decades (Helms, 1990, 1995). Their work built on and advanced the ideas of Erik Erikson regarding the sociocultural influences on identity (Erikson, 1968). Essentially, Helms (1990) described racial identity as being composed of a combination of personal identity (one’s feelings and attitudes about oneself), reference group orientation (degree to which one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are based on the values, ideologies, etc., of a particular racial group), and ascribed identity (one’s overt and expressed affiliation with a particular racial group). Helms and Cross (Cross, 1971, 1978) also posited that racial identity is related to psychological types or statuses that develop in response to racism, oppression, and other racial information in society and that at various stages or times in individuals’ lives, different people and institutions are influential in the development of racial identity. For example, during early childhood and infancy, parents and adult authority figures are most influential on racial identity, whereas peers or cohort and nonfamilial social institutions (e.g., school, media) are more influential during late childhood and adolescence. Models of racial identity are essentially similar and typically include several stages or statuses of development in which people go from a state of unawareness of race through embracing their own culture exclusively and then on to a commitment to advocating for all oppressed groups and eliminating oppression. For example, Helms’s (1995) People of Color Racial Identity Model has the following six statuses: (1) conformity, where the individual identifies with Whites, rejects his or her own racial group, and denies the importance of race; (2) dissonance, where the individual experiences racial confusion and a disruption in his or her views of the world; (3) immersion, where the individual shifts idealization to his or her own racial group and denigrates Whites and where the individual replaces negative or missing information about his or her own group with positive information; (4) emersion, where the individual feels solidarity, a sense of community, and feelings of comfort with his or her own racial group and when surrounded by that group; (5) internalization, where the individual has pride in his or her own racial group and is also able to critically and objectively analyze racial issues and respond to those from his or her own group and the White dominant group; and (6) integrative awareness, where the individual has positive views of his or her own racial group and racial self, is able to recognize and resist racism and oppression, and has cognitive complexity around race so that the individual can value his or her own and other racial groups.

As these models depict, culture and race affect individuals’ experiences, identity, and development across multiple domains. Individuals from ethnic minority groups, or people of color (POC), must negotiate additional complexity in their identity formation given that their process of identity formation includes multiple sources of identification, including their own racial and ethnic group as well as the dominant, mainstream White racial group (Phinney & Rosenthal, 1992). Phinney and Rosenthal (1992) identified differences between the dominant culture and adolescents’ cultures of origin as primary factors in adolescents’ abilities to integrate ethnic identity into self-identity. They also posited that a positively valued ethnic identity is necessary for the construction of a positive and stable self-identity (as described by Erikson, 1968).

The role of culture in identity has been more complicated. Although the literature frequently refers to the construct of cultural identity (e.g., Atkinson & Gim, 1989), a comprehensive and cohesive definition is difficult to determine. As with the terminology for race, culture, and ethnicity, cultural identity and racial identity are often used interchangeably. More purposeful definitions for cultural identity were offered by Dalal (1999), who loosely defined cultural identity as a subjective sense of belonging to a group of people based on one’s “cultural home.” Jensen (2003) further delineated cultural identity as being formed by endorsing a worldview (e.g., beliefs about human nature, relationships, and moral and religious values) and a set of behavioral practices (e.g., behaviors related to traditions, food, dressing, and recreation) that bond people within a community. Whaley (1993) reviewed the literature on cultural identity formation for African American children and found that interactions among cultural factors, cognitive-developmental processes, and social experiences determine identity formation. Whaley argued that young children (between ages 2 and 6) have not reached cognitive developmental stages at which they can accurately racially self-identify. Thus, racial awareness and cultural identity increase with each successive stage in Piagetian cognitive-developmental theory. Ultimately, the importance of cultural identity in racial ethnic minority adolescents varies according to “the degree of identification with their ethnic/racial group, level of self-exploration and self-awareness, and cross-cultural social experiences” (p. 414). Whaley also found that children’s self-esteem was affected by the degree to which children feel competent in areas that they value and by the level of regard or support they perceive from significant others. Thus, personal efficacy, or competence, is likely to be relevant to the identity formation of adolescents.

Identity Formation in Transracial Adoptees

One of the early attempts at understanding the identity experiences of transracial adoptees was offered by Falk (1970) and Zastrow (1977), who predicted that Black children would learn the special meanings and value of being Black in America through their birth parents and their community. When Black children are reared in White families, they also learn the values and meanings of their White middle-class families. Zastrow poignantly described two potential outcomes for transracial adoptees’ identity experiences:

At some point the TRA [transracially adopted] child will cast off the protectiveness of the family of orientation and establish his more-or-less independent identity in the community of his choosing. If in this new circumstance he finds himself forced into situations where he is identified stereotypically and he is without prior experience in coping with them, he may face an identity crisis … His identity will be with the white world while others assume that his identity is with the black world. His rearing establishes the white world as his referent, and his new peers demand that his referent be the minority world. (p. 57)

Clearly, Zastrow anticipated the need for a more detailed understanding of identity for transracial adoptees. He believed that adoptive parents could provide the necessary guidance and affection for transracial adoptees to develop a positive self-concept and the social and interpersonal skills needed to successfully cope with the environment. Furthermore, exposure to the history and culture of the transracial adoptee’s birth culture and racial group should help trans-racial adoptees obtain more information regarding the meanings and values associated with their birth culture and race.

Another conceptualization of the racial identity of transracial adoptees was proposed by Loenen and Hoksbergen (1986), who addressed attachment relations and identity issues in intercountry adoptees in The Netherlands. Although they perceived similarities between transracial adoptees in The Netherlands and those in the United Kingdom, they, like other researchers, questioned the notion of a “single identity.” Instead of a single identity, they advocated for terms such as situational identity and identity options. Loenen and Hoksbergen stated,

A black youngster living in a white family and in a predominantly white society needs to be appreciated and accepted for having a range of identities which are more or less salient in different contexts at different times in his or her life-cycle. He or she needs to be encouraged and assisted to develop his or her black identity in a situation which may deny or discourage it. (pp. 25-26)

However, they cited the lack of “relevant” Black communities in The Netherlands as complicating this process.

Huh (1997) studied 40 internationally adopted Korean children and their 30 families to determine their ethnic identity process. She found that Korean adoptees’ attitudes toward their birth culture and ethnic group membership fit into a developmental model. From the ages of 4 to 6 years, the adoptees reported a pseudo-understanding of adoption, noticed physical differences between themselves and their parents, desired physical similarity with parents, and denied the importance of ethnic identity. Children from 7 to 8 years of age acknowledged their adoption and understood it, could identify their own and others’ ethnicities, and either favored Korean culture (if their family valued Korean culture) or showed no interest (if they had no exposure to Korean culture). During the period from ages 9 to 11, adoptees tended to question about and grieve for their birth parents, accepted the differences between themselves and their parents and others, and were proud of the differences, but some children were apathetic about their ethnicity and identified as “American” or “human.” In the last stage studied, adoptees from ages 12 to 14 typically asked fewer questions about birth parents (they felt they had all the information they were likely to receive), were focused on their friends, and worked to integrate their Korean ethnicity and their American cultural values into their identity. Huh also identified four attitudes that Korean adoptees were likely to express toward their culture and ethnicity throughout their lives and which will likely change continuously. These attitudes are “(1) denial of importance of ethnic identity; (2) disfavor toward both Korean and American cultures; (3) apathy toward Korean culture and assimilative attitude toward American culture; (4) affection for both Korean and American cultures” (Huh, 1997, p. iii).

The research on racial, ethnic, and cultural identity of transracial adoptees supports the need to better understand the process of identity formation for this population. Furthermore, theoretical and political links between healthy or positive racial identities and adjustment and self-esteem were made, but mixed support for their predictions has been found (Lee, 2003). Tizard and Phoenix (1995) critiqued the evidence regarding the relationship between self-esteem and racial identity and found that despite the theorized dependence of self-esteem on racial identity, few studies have assessed both constructs in the same children. They questioned assumptions regarding the “inextricable link” between self-esteem and racial identity and suggested an alternative theory in which self-esteem and other aspects of mental health are developed primarily in the context of individuals’ most salient and important relationships (i.e., as children, these relationships are within the family). Racial identity in Black children, for example, although influenced by the family, would develop through their relationships with the dominant/White culture. In this conceptualization of racial identity, Black children, regardless of their adoption status, may hold some negative feelings about their racial identity but still maintain healthy self-esteem and adjustment. On the other hand, those with poor family relationships, but with high or positive racial identities, may still have low self-esteem and poor psychological adjustment.

Tizard and Phoenix (1995) shared the view of Steward and Baden (1995) regarding assumptions of homogeneity within cultures and racial groups. Advocating a “positive” Black identity as if it were a commonly shared state disregards the vast differences among people of African descent. Tizard and Phoenix acknowledged the problematic nature of children misidentifying themselves (i.e., believing they look White or are White when they are not), but they made distinctions between a self-identification problem and an identity problem. They also suggested that racial identity be considered using a frame borrowed from gender identity conceptualizations as follows: (1) the degree to which individuals’ identity is based on perceived similarities between themselves and others in the group, (2) the extent of awareness of a common fate, and (3) the degree to which membership in the group is central to the ways individuals think of themselves.

Recent conceptualizations of identity depart from Erikson’s (1968) conception of identity as a task for adolescence and instead recognize it as a lifelong process (Grotevant, 1997). Similarly, Helms (1990) considered racial identity development to take place and change continuously throughout one’s life span; however, transracial adoption researchers have frequently attempted to measure racial identity in adoptees before they are developmentally prepared to struggle with issues of race and identity. Hollingsworth’s (1998) results demonstrating that “racial/ethnic identity may decrease as transracial/transethnic adoptees become older” (p. 314) also call for a better understanding of the effects of age on transracial adoptees’ identity. Perhaps transracial adoptees begin the process of racial identity formation at a later age, or perhaps Hollingsworth (1998) depicts transracial adoptees’ racial identity at the height of their struggle (i.e., adoptees in the studies that Hollingsworth analyzed all had average ages less than 18 years). Bagley (1992) described identity formation as a long-term process and cautioned that “uncertainty and unhappiness at one point in a child or adolescent’s development may simply be a transient phenomenon as the individual copes with certain problems in the formation of personal identity, at different points in the life cycle” (p. 101). Based on this reasoning, Bagley advised against studies of adoptees before the crucial phase of adolescence because of their tendency to be misleading, and he suggested final assessments of adoptions when adoptees are young adults.

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model

Rationale for Developing the Model

The racial, ethnic, and cultural identities of transracial adoptees have been the focus of much of the attention and criticisms of transracial adoption (e.g., CWLA, 2003; National Association of Black Social Workers, 1972). The empirical literature addressing transracial adoption has primarily examined its effects on the adoptees’ racial identity, self-esteem, and psychological adjustment. However, despite all the evidence showing similar levels of adjustment and self-esteem between transracial adoptees and intraracial adoptees (e.g., Andujo, 1988; Benson et al., 1994; Cederblad et al., 1999; McRoy et al., 1982, 1984; Silverman & Feigelman, 1981; Simon & Altstein, 1987), the practice of transracial adoption continues to be debated and controversial (Bradley & Hawkins-Leon, 2002). Baden and Steward (Baden & Steward, 1997, 2000; Steward & Baden, 1995) viewed this controversy as resulting from a lack of theory conceptualizing the unique experiences of transracial adoptees, especially their racial identity and cultural identity. They also critiqued existing theories of racial identity (e.g., Helms, 1995) and found that they were not applicable for transracial adoptees because of the inherent racial differences that exist between transracial adoptive parents and transracial adoptees. Although it is widely recognized that the experiences of transracial adoptees differ from those of intraracial (same-race) adoptees and of nonadoptees, prior to the Cultural-Racial Identity Model (Baden & Steward, 2000; Steward & Baden, 1995), no systematic means for depicting that experience existed.

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model was also developed in response to the critiques of transracial and international adoption research. For example, Tizard’s (1991) review of international adoption research indicated that the majority of studies did not examine the degree to which adoptees endorse a mixed cultural identity; rather, these studies had transracial adoptees choose between their adopted and birth cultures as the only viable options with which they could have identified. This limitation in racial and cultural identity research for transracial adoptees is confounded by the paucity of research that compared immigrant children raised by their birth parents with transracial adoptees. Without such comparisons, a clear understanding regarding the degree to which “the identity conflicts of the intercountry adoptees stem from living in a white culture, rather than with white parents per se” (p. 754) cannot be accurately understood. Given that racial identity involves feelings of affiliation and pride in one’s racial group, a systematic means for reflecting the impact that the transracial and international adoptees’ experiences (e.g., growing up in a racially mixed family and choosing racial and cultural self-identifiers) might have on their racial and cultural identity is greatly needed (Trolley, 1994-1995). Trolley sought the identification of variables “which promote pride in one’s native culture and how the benefits of both cultures can be integrated” (p. 261).

To accurately capture the racial and cultural identity processes for transracial adoptees, clinicians and researchers must recognize that despite the presence of some similarities between biracial or multiracial nonadoptees and transracial adoptees, some substantial differences exist between the groups. Although parallels can be discerned between these groups, we believe that the state of being adopted further complicates and qualitatively alters the experiences of transracial adoptees. The Cultural-Racial Identity Model can describe the identity experiences of nonadoptees raised in racially mixed families, but a clear understanding of the impact of adoption on their experiences must be incorporated. In fact, findings regarding identity for biracial young adults indicated a nonlinear journey toward racial identity and the need for different conceptualizations of racial identity—some identified as Black and some as White, but most preferred an interracial identity if given the option (Brown, 1995). Of particular interest for the Cultural-Racial Identity Model was the finding that biracial individuals reported differing public and private identities. This compartmentalization seemed to evolve due to the desire to maintain their interracial self-perception while simultaneously attempting to adhere to social expectations that they ignore their White backgrounds (Brown, 1995). Biracial adults’ conforming behavior appeared to be both a coping mechanism (resulting from families’ conditioning and from societal expectations) and a conscious and often sudden decision when their interracial or White self-perceptions were criticized. Predictors of racial identity were cited as (1) messages from family or friends regarding racial group membership, (2) acceptance by Blacks within their social networks, (3) racial status laws, (4) contact with various racial groups, (5) exposure to both Black and White cultures, and (6) physical appearance or phenotype. According to Brown (1995), these results reflected the emotional cost of having a White identity for biracial adults, the societal pressure for them to identify as Black, diminished identity conflict with an interracial identity, and lack of institutional recognition of an interracial identity.

As Brown’s research reflects, the process of racial identity formation for biracial adults already has multiple complications, yet the component of adoption status was not even added to this process. To add all these components into one model, we must account for the impact of having two parents who are racially different from their child or children (Tizard & Phoenix, 1995), transracial adoptees who may also be adopted internationally (Meier, 1999), transracial adoptees who are also multiracial (Simon & Roorda, 2000), and transracial adoptees who may have little if any contact with their birth culture or people from their own racial group (Huh, 1997).

Description of the Cultural-Racial Identity Model

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model (Baden & Steward, 2000; Steward & Baden, 1995) consists of two axes: the Cultural Identity Axis and the Racial Identity Axis. The final model combines these two axes into a single model and a single graphic representation. This final model consists of 16 potential cultural-racial identities. Before describing the final model, the two axes will be presented.

Baden and Steward separated culture from race (i.e., unlike previous models of racial identity and ethnic identity) by creating two dimensions: racial identity and ethnic identity. As described above, they defined culture as consisting of the traditions, history, beliefs, practices, languages, and values passed between generations. Relying on the vast amounts of literature describing various cultures in the United States and abroad, Baden and Steward acknowledged that the racial groups and ethnic groups living in the United States have differing sets of customs, beliefs, languages, and so on (i.e., cultures) that are associated with those racial and ethnic groups. For example, Chinese Americans tend to endorse particular values, beliefs, and the like that compose the Chinese American culture. Similarly, African Americans tend to possess a culture unique to their racial group. Although Baden and Steward acknowledged that individuals belonging to these racial groups do not necessarily endorse all the cultural values, practices, beliefs, and so on, associated with these groups, a culture common to African Americans and Chinese Americans and other racial ethnic groups does exist in the United States. However, in the case of transracial adoptees, the adoptees are from a different racial group than their adoptive parents and can potentially endorse a cultural identity that could be associated with their country of origin or racial ethnic group (i.e., hereafter referred to as birth culture) or with their adoptive parents’ racial ethnic group or some other group(s) altogether. Thus, at least two different racial groups as well as two different cultures can be represented within transracially adopting families. For this reason, Baden and Steward developed the cultural identity axis to represent four possible combinations of cultural endorsement.

The Cultural-Identity Axis has two dimensions: (1) adoptee culture dimension, or the degree to which transracial adoptees identify with their birth culture (i.e., if the adoptee is Korean, to what degree does the adoptee identify with Korean culture) and (2) parental culture dimension, or the degree to which transracial adoptees identify with their adoptive parents’ racial group’s culture (i.e., because most transracially adopting parents are White, to what degree does the adoptee identify with White culture).

Transracial adoptees’ levels of identification with a culture or cultures are determined by their levels of knowledge, awareness, competence, and comfort with their birth culture, the culture of their parents’ racial group, or the cultures of multiple racial groups or no cultural group affiliation. Four types of cultural identities (e.g., Bicultural Identity, Pro-Self Cultural Identity, Pro-Parent Cultural Identity, and Culturally Undifferentiated Identity) can result based on transracial adoptees’ level of identification with two dimensions (the Parental Culture Dimension and Adoptee Culture Dimension). For example, transracial adoptees identifying more highly with their adoptive parents’ racial groups’ culture (i.e., the White culture) would be high on the Parental Culture Dimension and low on the Adoptee Culture Dimension; thus, the adoptees would have Pro-Parent Cultural Identities. This identity may have similarities to the conformity status of the POC Racial Identity Model (Helms, 1995). Transracial adoptees identifying more highly with their birth culture than with the culture of their adoptive parents would be low on the Parental Culture Dimension and high on the Adoptee Culture Dimension; thus, they would have Pro-Self Cultural Identities. Such an identity may mirror the immersion and emersion racial identity statuses of the POC Racial Identity Model (Helms, 1995).

In transracially adopting families, racial differences also exist among family members. Steward and Baden viewed these differences as affecting both racial/ethnic self-identification and the allegiances and friendships of transracial adoptees. Using the definition of race as noted above, racial groups were defined using heritage based on geography and physical characteristics as well as by incorporating affiliations and social relations with others from the same or different races. Research and theory suggest that transracial adoptees may make decisions about their racial group membership based on societal pressures (Brown, 1995; Huh, 1997; Lee, 2003) and the degree to which they have an achieved racial or ethnic identity (Phinney & Rosenthal, 1992). Choosing racial and ethnic self-labels or self-descriptors may also be influenced by the transracial adoptees’ feelings about and affiliation toward their racial group. Labels chosen that do not “match” one’s appearance, heritage, and birth origins have been used to warn the transracial and international adoptive community about the importance of “healthy” racial identity. Like the biracial adults in Brown’s (1995) study and the transracial adoptees in Tizard’s (1991) review of international adoption research, Steward and Baden chose to view “mislabeling” as indicative of racial identity status rather than as symptomatic of an unhealthy identity.

To account for varying racial ethnic self-identifications of transracial adoptees and for the role of allegiances and friendships in transracial adoptees’ experiences, Steward and Baden developed the Racial Identity Axis in the Cultural-Racial Identity Model. The Racial Identity Axis has two dimensions: (1) Adoptee Race Dimension, or the degree to which transracial adoptees identify with their own racial group (i.e., if the adoptee is African American, to what degree does the adoptee identify with African Americans) and (2) Parental Race Dimension, or the degree to which transracial adoptees identify with their adoptive parents’ racial group (i.e., because most transracially adopting parents are White, this dimension involves the degree to which the adoptee identifies with Whites).

Transracial adoptees’ levels of identification with a racial group are determined by assessing the degree to which the adoptees self-identify as belonging to their own racial group or their parents’ racial group. They also consist of the adoptees’ comfort level with people from their own racial group and their adoptive parents’ racial group. The transracial adoptees’ comfort level with different racial groups involves their allegiances to those racial groups and the friendships they have with members belonging to different racial groups. In other words, these racial identities are determined according to the degree to which transracial adoptees (1) accurately identify their own racial group membership, (2) are comfortable with their racial group membership, and (3) are comfortable with people from their racial group, from their parents’ racial group, or from multiple different racial groups. Four racial identities are possible: Biracial Identity, Pro-Self Racial Identity, Pro-Parent Racial Identity, and Racially Undifferentiated Identity.

The final model combines the Cultural Identity Axis and the Racial Identity Axis into a single model. The Cultural-Racial Identity Model represents the pairing of each of the four types of possible cultural identities with each of the four types of possible racial identities. The resulting model has 16 identity statuses to describe the identities of transracial adoptees.

To better describe how transracial adoptees develop characteristics of each of the 16 cultural-racial identities and what may affect transracial adoptees’ progression through and entrance into each of the identities, descriptions of environmental or contextual factors likely to affect the identities of transracial adoptees were formulated.

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model provided a description of the potential identities of transracial adoptees, but Baden and Steward (1997) also sought to more fully depict the types of family and social rearing environments that might lead to the various cultural-racial identities. They developed a graphic representation that reflected some of the choices that adoptive parents make regarding how and whether they will address racial and cultural issues (Lee, 2003) and how they will frame the relationships in adoption (Kirk, 1964). That is, Baden and Steward sought to depict the contextual and familial situations, attitudes, and characteristics that would produce transracial adoptees from each of the 16 potential cultural-racial identities in the Cultural-Racial Identity Model.

Essentially, Baden and Steward (1997) posited that “parental attitudes and beliefs that either affirm or discount the transracial adoptees’ culture and racial group membership” (p. 10) would influence the development of the various cultural-racial identities. Their concept of affirming or discounting culture, race, or adoption is mirrored in adoption literature. David Kirk (1964) reflected on the “shared fate” or the inherent differences that exist between adoptive parents and their adopted children. He advocated for acknowledging differences rather than rejecting differences as a means for more effective parenting, authenticity, and adjustment. Similarly, building on the concept of cultural socialization in the literature, Lee (2003) identified strategies that transracial adoptive parents may use to cope with racial differences and to promote or hinder racial and cultural identity development. He identified four strategies: (1) cultural assimilation (deny or downplay racial and cultural experiences), (2) enculturation (exert effort to teach children about birth culture), (3) racial inculcation (actively teach coping skills for dealing with racism and discrimination), and (4) child choice (provide opportunities but adjust based on child’s wishes).

Baden and Steward’s (1997) framework for understanding the influence of parental attitudes and characteristics on transracial adoptees’ cultural and racial identities suggests that the degree to which parents, extended family, and the environment affirm (i.e., acknowledge, accept, approve of, reflect/mirror) transracial adoptees’ race and ethnicity and their birth cultures will influence their identity formation and status. Similarly, discounting (i.e., decreased emphasis, lack of interest in, lack of acceptance of, lack of presence in life) transracial adoptees’ race and ethnicity and birth culture will be likely to affect their identity formation and status. Figure 7.5 depicts the affirming and discounting factors to indicate that the environments in which transracial adoptees are raised can (1) either affirm or discount the adoptive parents’ culture and/or racial group membership, (2) either affirm or discount the transracial adoptee’s birth culture and/or race, or (3) have some combination of affirming and discounting the adoptive parents’ and transracial adoptee’s cultures and racial groups. Baden and Steward (1997) cautioned that the attitudes and characteristics in this framework were not likely to be due to explicit/intentional efforts, behaviors, beliefs, and the like, nor did they necessarily result from inadvertent or unintentional efforts, behaviors, beliefs, and the like. Rather than attempting to predict how active or passive adoptive parents may be in the transmission of these attitudes to transracial adoptees, Baden and Steward instead warned that the child-rearing context (including extended family, schools, teachers, community leaders, and peers) may also contribute to affirming or discounting contexts.

As noted above, the attitudes and characteristics that lead to an affirming or discounting environment may be explicit, intentional, active efforts or they may be inadvertent, unintentional, passive messages. For example, parents may intentionally or inadvertently promote or expose transracial adoptees to attitudes and contexts that are prejudiced toward or discriminatory toward the adoptee’s racial or cultural group. In this case, the context in which the adoptees were reared may affirm the parents’ racial and cultural groups and discount the adoptee’s racial and cultural groups. Furthermore, although parents serve as the primary source for conveying attitudes and for creating the child-rearing context, transracial adoptees may also be affected by other aspects of their context as well. For example, schools, teachers, community leaders, and peers may contribute to the creation of the contexts to be described. Although this model does not account for the degree of intentionality of the attitudes and resulting contexts that adoptive parents provide, the degree of intentionality is an area to which clinical attention should be paid.

Transracial adoptees raised in a parent affirming-child affirming context were likely to have peers and role models from both their own racial group and that of their adoptive parents. The environment may contain images, attitudes, role models, friends, and extended family who are affirming and supportive of the adoptive parents’ racial and cultural groups as well as of the transracial adoptee’s racial and cultural groups. The predominant attitude in this category is acceptance of both racial and cultural groups. If not mediated by exposure to knowledge highlighting different racial histories and past and current attitudes of racism, a potential drawback to this attitude is the possibility of denial of the racial climate and the conflicts regarding race and culture in this country.

A parent discounting-child affirming context is likely to result when the adoptive parents focus on the racial group and culture of the transracial adoptee to the extent that they may disregard or neglect to account for their own racial and cultural group. The role models to whom the transracial adoptee has been exposed may result in the approval of the transracial adoptee’s racial group and the culture of his or her racial group. With or without intending to do so, the adoptive parents may minimize the role of their racial and cultural group, which, ironically, is often the dominant White middle class. In this case, adoptive parents may minimize or fail to account for the power and impact of those of their own racial and cultural group in their environment. The adoptee may be exposed to positive role models from his or her racial group and be exposed to role models from the dominant group that were framed as somewhat ineffectual or insignificant. The predominant attitude shown is acceptance and approval of the transracial adoptee’s racial group and birth culture and discounting or minimization of the adoptive parents’ racial group. The drawback to this attitude may be in the failure to acknowledge and present positive role models from the dominant race and culture so that the adoptee may engage in a dichotomous belief system about race and may assume discrimination and oppression when there is none.

A parent affirming-child discounting context may be due to adoptive parents who are preoccupied and focused on their own racial and cultural group to such a degree that they may disregard that of the transracial adoptee. Positive role models for the adoptee may tend to represent the parental racial and cultural group without equal or similar attention given to role models from the transracial adoptee’s race and birth culture. The adoptive parents may have little interaction with and/or knowledge of the transracial adoptee’s race or birth culture, thus resulting in an exposure bias toward their own racial and cultural group. The predominant attitude may be acceptance and approval of the parental culture without attention or exposure to the role of the transracial adoptee’s racial group membership and the culture of his or her racial group. This attitude may impede the transracial adoptee by failing to recognize, affirm, and accept individuals physically similar to the adoptee. Although this may be unintentional, it may convey a disrespect for or dislike of those similar to the adoptee and may cause an identity confusion that is difficult to resolve. Again, a dichotomous belief system is likely to result.

Transracial adoptees reared in a parent discounting-child discounting environment may endorse a “human race” or a “color-blind” society and attitude as healthiest, so the adoptive parents may not attend to the racial and cultural groups of both the parents and the transracial adoptee. Instead, they endorse a disposition attesting to the equality of all races without attention to or preference for any in particular. Positive role models may be from multiple racial groups, including parental and adoptee’s racial and cultural groups, but when exposure to the role models occurs, the race and culture of the role models may not be addressed and attributions for success and health may be made to other characteristics or attitudes. The predominant attitude could be one of attributing importance, power, success, and happiness to individual characteristics not based on race or culture. This attitude has considerable appeal, but the danger may be similar to that found in the parent affirming-child affirming attitudes—denial. The parents and adoptees may be unrealistic about discrimination and oppression and fail to understand the dynamics in society based on racial and cultural group membership.

Other factors likely to have an impact on the cultural and racial identities of transracial adoptees are the attitudes and degree of emotional support given by the community (schools, social agencies, teachers, peers) and extended family members, including grandparents of the transracial adoptee. Finally, the support networks established by the adoptive parents may affect the adoptee. These factors will influence identity due to their status as alternative sources of feedback for adoptees and the level of influence they may exert on parental and adoptees’ attitudes and beliefs.


The Cultural-Racial Identity Model is the first theoretical model to separate cultural identity and racial identity. The implications for its use are vast and point to the need for the empirical validation of the model. Its use with the populations already identified in this chapter must also be empirically validated.

Following empirical validation, the Cultural-Racial Identity Model will be a comprehensive framework for researchers to use with individuals raised in racially integrated families. The model can also serve as a guide for transracial adoptees and adoptive parents to better understand and guide their life experiences. Furthermore, psychotherapeutic practitioners can use the model as a guide for determining the counseling needs of those raised in racially integrated families, particularly as they differ from the needs of individuals raised in same-race households. The information to be gleaned from the use of this model as a framework for research and practice will allow those from racially integrated families to be better served and for their unique experiences to be addressed appropriately and comprehensively.

The Cultural-Racial Identity Model represents an important step in addressing the needs of individuals who have multiple identities with which to describe themselves. The strength of the model is in its willingness to account for heterogeneity within groups that have previously been studied without respect for the uniqueness within these populations. With the information gleaned from the application of the Cultural-Racial Identity Model to groups such as transracial adoptees and biracial individuals, psychologists, social workers, adoption workers, and others in the helping professions will be better prepared to address the adjustment, identity, and self-esteem problems that have been of such concern to opponents and proponents of transracial adoption alike.

Reflection Questions

  1. When considering identity formation for adoptees, how would you try to integrate adoption identity issues with cultural and racial identity issues? Why?
  2. How would a domestic transracial adoptee (e.g., African American child adopted by White parents) identify differently from an international adoptee (e.g., Korean child adopted by White parents)? Why?
  3. How would a transracial adoptee who was reared in a parent affirming-child discounting environment identify on the Cultural-Racial Identity Model? Why?