Moving beyond the Controversy of the Transracial Adoption of Black and Biracial Children

Rhonda Roorda. 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.

What are the implications for children who are adopted by parents who are racially and ethnically different? Do these children grow up to be psychologically healthy, and with which ethnic group will they identify? Will these children be able to function in dual societies when they become adults? Does race even matter? These are vital questions and concerns that have spawned intense discussion in the public arena and among social work professionals, political organizations, scholars, and families for more than three decades.

The issue of transracial adoption, particularly the adoption of Black and Biracial children into White homes in this nation, is a fascinating subject. The issue ignites great curiosity about the development of adoptees in this situation and the responsibilities and roles of the adoptive parents, siblings, the extended family, and the community in guiding transracially adopted children into healthy adulthoods. This type of adoption brings the issues of race, identity, love, belonging, forgiveness, and racial reconciliation into the forefront for adoptees and their adoptive families.

In recent years, transracial adoptees who were adopted in infancy or early childhood have come into adulthood and have generated numerous contributions to our understanding of the outcomes of transracial adoption. Through the personal accounts of adult transracial adoptees and via books, films, and scholarly work done by transracial adoptees or other adoption triad members, the knowledge, awareness, and familiarity with the issues linked to transracial adoption have grown substantially, but much more territory must still be covered. Transracial adoption and its attendant results and impacts must be studied and be viewed as a priority in academia and within our social structures for the sake of those who are directly involved—the transracial adoptive families and children.

This chapter will examine some of the groundbreaking research and critical thought at the heart of the transracial adoption controversy, which centers primarily on the identity formation of Black and Biracial children adopted by White parents. From that premise, the findings reflected in the book In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories (Simon & Roorda, 2000), which featured firsthand accounts about the experiences of Black and Biracial adoptees, will be explored. What do the findings reflected in that book and the impact of the transracial adoption controversy mean for Black and Biracial children adopted by White parents today? One useful way to answer this is to extract key information from these “pioneers” of the 1970s and 1980s who set the stage for the discussion and exploration of the study of domestic transracial adoptions to occur. Another way is to listen to the stories of those adoptees struggling with their identity and to learn from them. Using the perspectives offered in both the empirical and personal literature, researchers, practitioners, and leaders in ethnically diverse communities can better assist adoptive parents in creating strategic avenues through which transracial adoptees (children, adolescents, and adults) can most effectively develop a knowledge base that enables them to embrace their ethnic heritage(s) and communities, their adoptive families, and most important, themselves. This chapter aims to serve as a critical review of the literature and theory relevant to transracial adoption and as a practical resource for adoptive parents and those who are affected by and, in turn, affect the lives of transracial adoptees so that they can develop psychologically, culturally, and spiritually. Research, theory, and practice as well as my own experience as an adoptee and with adult adoptees tell me that we must possess a greater understanding of the issues that have an impact on transracial adoptees to promote their development into dynamic citizens able to move into racially, ethnically, economically, and socially diverse worlds. Finally, this chapter will consider where we go from here. It should be a call to action and is targeted at adult adoptees, parents, mental health professionals, clergy, policymakers, scholars, and the general public.

Lessons Learned: The Viewpoint of a Transracially Adopted Adult

As an African American woman, adopted across the color line, whose identity was significantly influenced by her genetic makeup, foster care, and her own journey of transracial adoption, I recognize and appreciate the complexities and challenges inherent in finding a balance within oneself. I have worked to reconcile the true value of “who I am” as a person in my own skin with my unique talents and abilities, to learn and incorporate my ethnic heritage, and to value the love I have for my adoptive family. I’ve done all this while nurturing the love I’ve developed for myself amid a society that too often defines the limits of a person based on race. The level of self-confidence and the development of my identity were truly contingent on my honoring all of who I am. This is hard work, and at moments I feel as though I am walking a tightrope ready to go off balance. Yet I have seen excellent examples of balance, through my own adoptive experiences as well as through listening to adoptive families throughout the country. Many parents are raising children of color cross-culturally and are successfully creating bridges into their children’s ethnic communities—efforts that are clearly in the best interests of their child and his or her blended family. This investment proves to yield unbelievable dividends. In cases like these, I see transracial adoption as a viable option for building families. I believe this choice must be viewed realistically, as a long-term commitment that requires awareness, intentionality, planning, flexibility, and humility on the part of adoptive parents, (biological) siblings, and adoptees. It also requires the guidance obtained through good and inclusive research on transracial adoption and through comprehensive training/counseling for adoptive families conducted by social work and mental health professionals.

Every child needs and deserves to be loved, to have shelter and nourishment. Every child deserves to grow roots in a family. But how do White adoptive parents raise Black and Biracial children to be culturally/racially confident and psychologically strong? The response to this question should expand the meaning of love to include empowering transracial adoptees to be able to successfully navigate and feel comfortable in different worlds simultaneously.

Transracial adoptees should be raised not only to be comfortable in their adoptive homes but also to be able to enter and thrive in a society that still perceives/judges individuals and their abilities on the basis of their skin color. Given this reality, the manner in which transracial adoptees choose to address the bias and complexities of racial relations will influence how they negotiate who they are, their personal/professional relationships and their worldview, and ultimately their success. Therefore, providing transracial adoptees early on in their lives with the tools that will teach them to value who they are as adoptees and persons with a rich cultural heritage is, in addition to love, essential.

When I think about identity, race, and culture, I compare it to a poetic jazz improvisation composed of unique and colorful sounds, all playing significant parts that ironically rely on each other but ultimately transform each other. To me, the beauty of a jazz and poetry ensemble is that it cannot be fully felt or appreciated in isolation. It needs to be heard in its entirety. African American writer Mari Evans (1992) wrote about the role of African American poetry, and she described poetry as being traditionally the essence of a people’s culture that showcases who they are, what they feel, and how they view their surroundings. She stated:

We are the sum and substance of all that is past. Racial and ethnic identities and histories have significantly shaped the climate in which we presently move, determining not only how we appear physically, but why we live as we do and, most importantly, why we think as we do. (p. 644)

Mari Evans continued by saying, “who we are, then, becomes a complexity of past and present, and when we go in search of ourselves, we often find the keys to ourselves in the poetry that reflects the culture of our people” (p. 644).

My story and the stories of other transracial adoptees are intertwined in a mosaic that includes the poetic voices inside each of us, in concert with the beat of our racial/ethnic histories, and the “chord” that is instrumental in binding us to our adoptive families. For that reason, I believe that social work professionals, policymakers, and researchers who seek to determine the ways in which White adoptive parents can successfully raise Black and Biracial children will find that their answer lies in seeking a qualitative and holistic approach in research and practice centered on these adoptees, their experiences, and the relationship they (and their adoptive families) have with members in their ethnic communities. If the hope is to promote healthy self-identities and self-esteem among Black and Biracial transracial adoptees, it seems that instead of quantitative research, a qualitative and inclusive methodology may prove to be a more flexible and effective approach for exploring the impact of transracial adoption on the identities of these adoptees in the long term.

History of the Transracial Adoption Controversy

To get to the heart of the transracial adoption controversy, it is crucial to go back to the early 1960s to fully comprehend the tone and content that shaped the fears and concerns about Black and Biracial children being raised by White parents. The practice of transracial adoption would change the trajectory and the rhythm in which these children struggled for their identities. In the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, society became aware of the acute needs of parentless Black children in America. Because of the increasing number of organized groups committed to meeting the needs of these children, public and private agencies began to feel pressured to permit adoption placements with White adults (Kennedy, 2003). By the late 1960s, the opinion of many progressive adoption professionals and agencies regarding adhering to a strict race-matching policy in placing available children shifted and became open to transracial placements, as reflected in the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) Standards for Adoption Service in 1968 (Macaulay & Macaulay, 1978). In fact, Kennedy (2003) observed that the CWLA changed its viewpoint both to advocate for transracial placements and to be mindful that problems did not arise with transracial placements. Subsequently, in 1971, there was a surge in transracial adoption placements of Black and Biracial children into White homes in the United States (Simon, Altstein, & Melli, 1994). While the numbers of same-race and transracial adoptions that occurred annually prior to 1975 are difficult to determine accurately due to incomplete data obtained by the U.S. government, it is estimated that approximately 12,000 Black children from 1968 to 1975 were placed with White families (Simon et al., 1994). Within this 7-year period, the greatest number of Black children to be transracially adopted (2,574) were adopted in 1971 (Simon et al., 1994); as a result, this became the turning point when the controversy regarding placing Black children into White homes was publicly raised.

Deeply concerned about the loss of Black children from their communities, the Black community mobilized to reclaim its children (Townsend, 1995). Fueled largely by the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), opposition against the transracial adoption policy heightened. The controversy was further augmented and garnered national attention when in 1972, at the national conference of the NABSW, its president, William T. Merritt, announced on the record that “Black children should be placed only with Black families, whether in foster care or for adoption” (NABSW, as cited in Simon et al., 1994). The following excerpt taken from his speech embodied the tone and concern for the identity of Black children who were removed from their cultural heritage.

Black children belong physically, psychologically and culturally in Black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future…. Black children in White homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as Black people. The socialization process for every child begins at birth. Included in the socialization process is the child’s cultural heritage which is an important segment of the total process. This must begin at the earliest moment; otherwise our children will not have the background and knowledge which is necessary to survive in a racist society. This is impossible if the child is placed with White parents in a White environment…. We [the members of the NABSW] have committed ourselves to go back to our communities and work to end this particular form of genocide [transracial adoption]. (Simon et al., 1994, p. 40)

Also, during that same period, Leon Chestang (1972) became interested in the phenomenon of transracial adoption and its effects on the identities of Black and Biracial children. He recognized the dilemma that accompanies Biracial adoption and posed a series of critical questions to White parents who had adopted transracially or who were considering adopting a Black. He argued that transracial adoptive parents must consider (a) what they are “getting into” (p. 104), (b) whether they see their decision to adopt as humanitarian and without consequences, (c) whether they have considered the response or condemnation of friends and family, (d) whether they have thought about the personal consequences for their transracially adopted children, (e) whether they can relate to their children’s needs, and (f) whether the families are trying to work through their own or through society’s problems via the transracial adoption. Essentially, Chestang described the problems that Black children raised by White families are likely to experience and the outcomes of these adoptions. He predicted that, should these children survive, they have the potential to become catalysts for change in society (Chestang, 1972).

In response to the deep-seated concerns for these transracially adopted children expressed by those like Chestang and the NABSW, researchers and professionals primarily in the field of social work and child development set out to explore the legitimacy of such claims. Much of their work in the 1970s and 1980s was empirical in nature and looked at the extent to which Black/Biracial children adapted to their White adoptive families (compared with Black children adopted into Black families and White children adopted into White families). Their work also attempted to measure whether these children had a healthy sense of racial self-identity. A few landmark studies set the course for this exploration.

In 1977, Charles Zastrow, a doctoral student, compared the responses of 44 White couples who adopted a Black child with 44 White couples who adopted a White child. All these couples lived in Wisconsin and were grouped according to the age of their children and the socioeconomic status of the adoptive parents. All the children were reported to be preschoolers. In his work, Zastrow set out to measure the degree of satisfaction and difficulties both groups encountered with their adoptive placements. Data were obtained through in-home interviews with the adoptive parents and by reviewing the agency adoptive record material on these families. The outcome assessment of the study was then determined by the parents’ overall satisfaction with their adoptive experience. The results reported cited that the outcomes of the transracial adoption placements were as successful as the inracial placements (Zastrow, 1977). On a subtle but important note, many of the transracial adoptive parents in the study indicated that they opted to become “color-blind” and accept their child as an individual who is a member of their family (Zastrow, 1977, p. 81).

Ruth McRoy, Louis Zurcher, Michael Lauderdale, and Rosalie Anderson conducted exploratory studies in which they examined the self-esteem and racial identity of Black transracial adoptees compared with Black inracial adoptees (McRoy et al., 1982) and assessed the adoptees’ racial identities based on their adoptive parents’ perceptions of their children’s attitude toward their racial background (McRoy et al., 1984). In both studies, respondents—30 parents and 30 adoptees of at least 10 years of age in each study set—were selected from the Southwest, Midwest, and Upper Midwest regions of the United States and were identified through adoptive parents’ groups and adoption agencies (McRoy et al., 1982, 1984). Teams of Black and White researchers interviewed parents and children.

In their 1982 study, McRoy and colleagues found that while the Black parents who adopted Black children lived in predominately Black communities (70%) and the majority of White parents who adopted Black children resided in predominately White communities (87%), the adoptees in both groups still exhibited similar levels of self-esteem, believing that they were persons of value (McRoy et al., 1982). Their findings suggested that these adoptees possessed healthy and positive feelings of self-regard regardless of the race of their adoptive parents. Yet when these same researchers looked at the racial identity of the Black transracial adoptees, their data revealed a correlation between (a) the perceptions the parents had of their children’s identities and the communities in which they lived and (b) their children’s perceptions of their own identities (McRoy et al., 1984). For example, those transracial adoptees whose families lived in a racially integrated community and who were exposed to people physically resembling themselves tended to identify themselves as Black persons and inwardly adopted positive self-images of their blackness (McRoy et al., 1984). But those adoptees who were raised separate from their ethnic communities tended to develop stereotyped impressions of Blacks and believed that they were advantaged by being in White families rather than in Black families. Interestingly, those children of color who were segregated from their ethnic communities (as occurred for the majority of the transracial adoptees in the study) felt an acute feeling of differentness. To compensate for this alienation, they tended to dismiss the importance of their racial identity and heritage and acted like their White peers and family members so as to appear normal.

Another landmark study, conducted by Joan Shireman and Penny Johnson (1986), was designed to measure the racial identity of 26 Black transracial adoptees whose parents were White compared (and studied separately) with that of 27 inracial Black adoptees from Black adoptive families; all were studied at preschool age (4 years old) and at 8 years of age and were living with their families in Chicago. The researchers used the well-known Clark and Clark Doll Test to determine how each of these children viewed themselves racially. At the first time point (age 4), they found that 71% of the transracially adopted children identified themselves as Black compared with 53% for the inracially adopted Black children. At age 8, equal percentages of both groups of children identified themselves as Black and displayed positive images of their blackness. Inherent in the report of Shireman and Johnson and contrary to the expectations of opponents to transracial adoption was the underlying message that Black transracial adoptees developed and maintained their positive racial identity despite living in predominately White communities. In essence, based on the results of their 4-year longitudinal study that found only a small but insignificant difference between the ways in which Black transracial and inracial adoptees viewed their racial identities, Shireman and Johnson concluded that adoption, including transracial adoption, is a good solution for children and families.

In an anticipated report, Rita J. Simon, Howard Altstein, and Marygold S. Melli (1994) published The Case for Transracial Adoption and announced the findings of their 20-year longitudinal study that attempted to answer the question of whether transracial adoption is in the best interests of the child. From 1971 to 1991, Simon and colleagues initially surveyed 206 transracial adoptive families with White parents in the Midwest. Unlike in the studies discussed earlier, Simon et al. interviewed families with adopted Black children as well as families who adopted other children of color, including Korean and Native American adoptees. They examined how relationships developed, particularly between the adoptive parents and the adoptees, and how parents’ perceptions of their adopted children’s racial identities varied over time. The report conveyed a positive message for White, prospective, adoptive parents and policymakers—transracial adoption was assessed as a viable option for children and families. Simon et al. concluded that during adolescence and adulthood, the transracial adoptees in their study were aware of and comfortable with their Black racial identity. These authors clearly advocated transracial adoption and asked policymakers and adoption professionals to provide permanent homes for children in foster care regardless of race.

Critique of the Empirical Research

The discussion and controversy surrounding transracial adoption is likely to be affected by the individual’s connection to transracial adoption. For example, whether individuals are White adoptive parents in the process of caring for their Black/Biracial child, African American grandparents who informally adopted and fear the loss of Black children to the White community, or transracial adoptees in search of their identity, the lenses through which participants view their realities are important and valid to the discussion of transracial adoption. Sadly, these different viewpoints seldom get discussed on one stage because they appear polarized and on opposite sides of the abyss. Researchers and professionals in the field of child welfare would be remiss were they to fail to attend to those affected by transracial adoption. They must study this phenomenon from a multidimensional perspective to provide more enlightenment on how to assist adoptive parents in raising their Black/Biracial transracially adopted children to value themselves and how to most effectively navigate Black, Biracial, and White worlds as individuals and as persons of color.

But what are the implications of transracial adoption on the adoptees? The empirical studies highlighted in this chapter reflect the history and spirit of the core research that has been done on the transracial adoption of Black and Biracial children by White parents. The empirical literature has reported findings that suggest that children of color generally adapted to their White adoptive families and their predominately White surroundings (Zastrow, 1977); these transracial adoptees possessed a healthy sense of who they are (McRoy et al., 1982) and were aware and proud (to varying degrees) of their Black identities (Shireman & Johnson, 1986; Simon et al., 1994). Furthermore, they were expected to grow into well-adjusted members of society (Simon et al., 1994). While some of the research cautiously expresses concern about the potential identity development conflicts that may arise among Black/Biracial transracial adoptees living in predominately White settings (McRoy et al., 1982, 1984), the consensus of the empirical research was that Black children in the United States had adequate adjustment and racial identity (Alexander & Curtis, 1996). Love was assumed to be enough when raising these children regardless of race or ethnicity (Simon et al., 1994). Interestingly, the ages at which the children were studied, the lack of examination of transracial adoptees during adulthood, and other methodological issues, although noted in some reviews of the literature (Hollingsworth, 1997), have not diminished the impact of these findings. However, the perspective that love is sufficient must be further examined.

Certainly, the research conducted on transracial adoption is useful in several ways. First, it brought attention and resources to learning, in greater depth, about the effects this type of adoption had on families and adoptees over time. It also sought to find value in transracial adoption as an opportunity to provide permanent placements for children in need of homes. As an African American transracial adoptee, I am particularly attentive to the studies that home in on the identity development of children of color adopted by White parents, which in the majority of cases have been within predominately White communities, schools, and places of worship. These landmark studies suggest that most, if not all, transracial adoptees seem, at the point at which the particular study was conducted, to have the ability to successfully adapt to and identify with their adoptive families. Also, these children seemingly possess the inner ability to reciprocate the love their adoptive parents and siblings have for them, transcending the color line.

However, these landmark studies were limited in several important ways. First, they relied primarily on childhood to make their assessments, and racial identity was only studied during childhood, whereas researchers have recognized that racial identity is more crucial and of primary concern during late adolescence and adulthood (Baden & Steward, 2000). Second, this empirical research, which set the framework for this discussion on transracial adoption at a practical level, is by nature designed primarily for the benefit and reassurance of White adoptive parents (and other interested parties in support of the transracial adoption policy). They effectively give White adoptive parents a “stamp of approval” that transracial adoption has been proven to be in the best interests of the child without even considering or thinking about the adults these adopted children become and without fully challenging these same parents and holding them accountable for considering and incorporating the racial and ethnic richness their adoptive children bring into the fabric of their family. These studies make it much easier for parents, educators, and society to minimize (a) the racial and physical differences between White parents and their transracially adopted children and (b) any potential conflicts that could arise as transracial adoptees attempt to negotiate their racial identities by believing in the “color-blind” perspective or the denial of differences method (e.g., they see adoptive children the same way as they see all children). On the contrary, this message says families do not have to change their lifestyles or priorities as a family to assist their children of color in developing their racial identity because they do not view the children’s racial identity as important and because they are uncomfortable with all these issues.

Another possible unintended consequence of the traditional empirical research is that it could influence how the identity development of Black and Biracial transracial adoptees is understood and viewed. The design of the bulk of the research essentially measures the level of these children’s racial identity and self-esteem within a narrowly defined concept which consists of (a) how these children view themselves and (b) how their adoptive parents (who may assume theirs is a “color-blind” philosophy) view their transracially adopted children, solely within the confines of their adoptive families and within what the parents perceive to be a safe, nonthreatening environment. This research bias may mistakenly be used as an excuse to avoid learning about the racial identity components that are part of their children’s lives; instead, they believe that racial realization is static or fixed (e.g., “My child is an individual who is happy and happens to be Black, end of story”). Furthermore, the framework and methodology of these studies considerably limited transracial adoptees’ ability to (a) freely provide responses to research questions, (b) raise questions about their racial identity outside the comfort zone of their adoptive parents, or (c) share experiences that surpassed or were beyond the understanding, expectations, and biases of the researchers. According to my conversations with more than 45 young adult transracial adoptees from various racial and ethnic groups throughout this country, I found that it was challenging for a significant number of these adoptees to become adequately comfortable and self-confident enough to explore and nurture their racial identities. They expressed fear that they would compromise the “unspoken” boundaries within their families or potentially, in the adoptees’ minds, jeopardize the love their adoptive families had for them (personal communication, 1999–2005).

To move beyond the limited confines of previous research and perceptions is an integral component of learning more about raising successful and competent Black and Biracial transracial adoptees. Ideally, the insight gained from future transracial adoption research will examine the identity development of transracial adoptees within the context of their relationships with their adoptive families, the adoptees’ racial and ethnic communities, and the larger society. This research can create an intended consequence of empowering these adoptees to feel secure in their multifaceted realities and to be continuously curious and interested in refining their racial identities.

Federal Legislation

A significant addition to the discussion on transracial adoption was the introduction of two complementary pieces of federal legislation enacted in 1994 and 1996 based largely on the transracial adoption research conducted by social scientists in the 1970s and 1980s; in effect, these two pieces of legislation changed the face of the national policy on adoption from strictly upholding same-race placements to accepting transracial placements (Alexander & Curtis, 1996). Authored by former Senator Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) out of the need to address the plight confronting many children, especially the disproportionate numbers of children of color waiting and available to be adopted in the U.S. child welfare system, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994 (MEPA; 1994) was passed by the 104th Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. MEPA was designed to prohibit agencies (those managing foster care/adoption placements and receiving federal assistance) from delaying and denying the placement of children based solely on the race or national origin of the adoptive or foster parents or the children involved (Part E, Subpart 1). However, the vague language inherent in the MEPA statute created confusion among child welfare agencies and practitioners regarding the implementation guidelines in the law, so Congress passed an amendment, the 1996 Interethnic Adoption Provision Act (IEPA; 1996), to strengthen the initial intent of MEPA (Fenster, 2002).

The effect of MEPA and IEPA made it clear that same-race foster care and adoption placements would no longer be legal except in those cases in which it was specifically justified by the needs and best interests of the child (Fenster, 2002). In other words, if there is a Black child available for adoption, and a qualified White couple (or parent) that meets its needs is available and willing to adopt this child, under the MEPA/IEPA statutes, an adoption plan must be made for both the child and the parent(s) expeditiously. The agency or case worker cannot stall placement indefinitely in anticipation of a potential Black couple (or parent) to provide a home for the child. Although race cannot be a factor in determining placements for a child in the majority of cases, the hope of MEPA/IEPA, as outlined in its implementation guidelines, is to encourage agencies to be creative and aggressive in their recruitment efforts to find a more ethnically/racially diverse pool of parental applicants who reflect the ethnic and racial diversity of the children in the system and who are willing to foster and adopt these children (Hollinger & The ABA Center on Children and the Law National Resource Center on Legal and Courts Issues, 1998).

How MEPA/IEPA will play out in the following years and whether these two pieces of legislation in conjunction with good child welfare practice will drastically reduce the number of children in the system by moving them into viable permanent homes is still uncertain. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Administration for Children and Families (Children’s Bureau, 2004), the estimated number of children in foster care from 1999 to 2003 slightly but steadily decreased from 567,000 children in 1999 to 523,000 children in 2003, a 7.8% (roughly 44,000 children) drop over a 5-year period. We can only hope that the trend will continue and that the displaced children in the child welfare system of the United States will be expeditiously granted loving, supportive, and permanent homes. The next step for those children of color who are placed in transracial adoptive homes is learning to address the complexities of their identity living within White families. The pressing issue then becomes how social work practitioners, mental health professionals, and parents can assist these children in this effort.

Complexities of Identity: Beyond Adjustment

The fact remains that MEPA/IEPA constitute the law, but ultimately how that law is carried out is based on how case workers and agency professionals interpret the law as well as their attitudes toward these laws. In a recent study, Fenster (2002) surveyed 363 social workers (158 African American and 205 Caucasian), who were categorized based on their identification as members of either the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) or the NABSW, throughout the United States about their attitudes toward transracial adoption—in this case, Black children being adopted by White parents. The goal of the study was to determine whether social workers generally favored transracial adoption as a social policy and if social workers were divided by race in their views about transracial adoption. Interestingly, although the study did not indicate how many of the Black (or White) social workers were in a position to make placement decisions within their agencies, the results did show that the race of the respondents was a dividing factor in how these social workers viewed transracial adoption; Black social workers who identified more strongly with their ethnic group were more opposed to transracial adoption (Fenster, 2002). Thus, as these findings indicate, NABSW members (given the position of the NABSW in 1972) were less supportive of transracial adoption placements than were nonmembers (Fenster, 2002). Fenster concluded that, on average, the respondents had positive feelings about the transracial adoption policy, but only 43.5% of the social workers surveyed in this study were Black (Fenster, 2002). What does this mean for Black children placed by White social workers into White homes? Will these social workers be more inclined to help prepare White parents to raise children of color by exposing these children to their cultural heritage and the rich Black experience, while also appropriately and creatively operating within compliance of the MEPA/IEPA statutes? Or will these same social workers, out of fear of potential lawsuits or personal discomfort, choose to achieve the easier task of not educating the parents about the racial/cultural sensitivities that may confront the family?

It can be argued that the case against transracial adoption articulated by the NABSW and other opponents of transracial adoption over the past 35 years has not been supported within academia or in the halls of Congress because it has not been sustained by empirical data (Altstein, 2006; Turner & Taylor, 1996). In spite of the failure to meet academic criteria, there is immeasurable value that can be obtained by extracting firsthand knowledge from the Black community on the issue of transracial adoption and the transracial adoptees who have lived transracial adoption.

Truly, it proves to be easy for transracial adoptees, in the short term, to deny their Blackness, especially when issues of racism, inequality, and injustice test “minority groups.” It is also easy for transracial adoptees, in the short term, to be unresponsive to the challenges that affect Black America. Clearly, more work must be done by adoptive families and adoptees to incorporate the values of African American history and experiences within the core values of the family structure so that these transracial adoptees can authentically identify and become comfortable with the development of their identities both within their homes and within society. To support these goals, those in the Black community, whether they are leaders or citizens, cannot stand on the sidelines indifferent to learning more about transracial adoption and to building relationships with Black and Biracial adoptees and their families.

Transracial adoptees need the Black community and the Black community needs transracial adoptees for the long term to promote a cohesive future. As some of the interviews collected by Simon and Roorda (2000) reflect, it is clear that White adoptive families need the Black community. All must hold each other accountable and do what is difficult and responsible for the integrity of the families, research, and society.

The Significance of Overcoming Racial Stereotypes: My Journey

When I was about 12 years old, my adoptive family and I had recently moved to the city of Takoma Park, Maryland, a predominately Black neighborhood. We lived on the top of the hill in a geodesic dome. During that time, my brother and I worked for the Washington Post delivering newspapers. Our paper route was located in the adjacent neighborhoods. The challenge for me, especially on Saturday mornings when I needed to walk down our street to get to my route, was to avoid the Black males in our neighborhood because I felt that they might harm me. I thought I was good at avoiding them. I could usually dodge them from a distance. I willingly walked a mile or more out of my way so that I would not come in contact with these Black males. One particular morning, I happened to walk down the street as usual but I did not notice the young Black man in front of me until I could feel his breath on my face. In a panic, I dropped my bag and my cart and ran up the street to my home. I was so shaken up by what seemed to me his invasion of my world that I vomited in the bathroom.

It was at that poignant moment I knew that I had a deep fear of Black of males that had the potential to paralyze me. Even though I lived in a Black neighborhood, I had allowed myself to insulate my world with primarily White friends, who attended the same private Christian elementary school that I did, as well as friends from church. I had absorbed the values, the experiences, and the stereotypes about people of color from the perspective of White mainstream America, from the other side of the abyss, without questioning if any of those values/experiences conflicted with who I truly was. Although I was an African American, I had no understanding about how people of color were judged and ill-treated simply from a quick and casual observation. This man, this Black man, who was in front of me that Saturday morning, had simply said hello, and I had reacted to him as if I had seen him premiere on the nightly news as a criminal who had just been arrested for a horrible crime! I was Black, yet I sat in the same living room with my family and took in the same images over the television airwaves of news broadcast stories, ads, and drama series that negatively portrayed Black people. My family was not aware that these images struck me in a more personal and negative way than it had appeared to them, and they did not provide commentary about these media “realities.” Equally unenlightened, neither did I seek to aggressively find positive images of people who looked like me. I was too ready to digest the prepackaged images that were delivered to me by the television tube and other media, in part because I was more concerned about not causing waves in my family; the result was that my self-identity was harmed and slowly sacrificed. To attempt to reconcile these disparate realities, I sadly overcompensated and rationalized to myself on the surface that I was far removed from these poor images of Black Americans I saw portrayed on television and in print media.

Obviously, these images set the trajectory of how I responded to Black males in society and how mainstream America has pigeonholed this segment of the population. Nevertheless, because of that morning walk on the streets of Takoma Park, Maryland, I realized that my journey would be longer and more complicated than just my need to overcome my fear of Black men. I came to a committed awareness that for me to succeed in achieving my unique purpose, I needed to develop, one step at a time, more quality relationships with people of color based on their character instead of a 30-second sound bite on the nightly news. I would also have to eradicate the shallow and stereotypical images in my mind of persons of color by replacing those images with more informed images of people who looked like me and were making lasting contributions to humankind. This challenge led me to reflect on myself as an adoptee, as a Black female, and as someone who was and is blessed with God-given and genetically ingrained gifts and talents. Out of that process, through lonely moments, tears, anguish, and triumph, a book was birthed; my painful labor helped to deliver a broader and deeper understanding of how race and identity have an impact on the transracial adoptee.

Identity: In the Voices of Adult Transracial Adoptees

In the spring of 2000, with the support of transracial adoptees, adoptive parents, adoption groups, politicians, leaders, and caring people in the Black and White communities, and those in the social work and law professions, In Their Own Voices: Transracial Adoptees Tell Their Stories (Simon & Roorda, 2000) was published. This book used a narrative format and primarily provided a forum for young adult Black and Biracial adoptees to discuss in their own words, and in their own rhythm and style, their experiences of being raised transracially adopted. This text presented the history and legal status of transracial adoption as well as the controversy surrounding the issue. Those represented in the book are now young adults. The project brought together the prolific scholar Rita J. Simon and her colleagues (also scholars in transracial adoption) with the improvisational-like stories of adoptees who were living lives shaped by transracial adoption. The project results were indispensable and provided a more informed insider’s understanding of how to most effectively raise psychologically strong and culturally confident Black and Biracial children adopted transracially.

Simon and Roorda (2000) wanted to go behind the scenes in the lives of Black and Biracial adoptees around the country and see (1) if they experienced similar (or different) challenges/successes throughout their lives, particularly when moving into arenas of higher education, career, dating, and home ownership; (2) how they developed their identities and attempted to juggle their divergent worlds; and finally, (3) whether they believed that “love was enough,” based on their experiences as children of color adopted by White parents. As an adoptee, I believed early on that there was a depth and complexity within me that reached far beyond the scope of research models, mail questionnaires/surveys, and focus groups used in the traditional studies identified earlier in this chapter. While those parameters are valuable in giving clinical researchers a “snapshot in time” to assess the general thoughts and behavior of the respondents, they do not show the mental, emotional, or physical progression required for individuals to get to a certain point in their journey under their unique circumstances. We sought the stories of these adoptees that we believed could only be obtained by connecting as adult adoptees (Roorda and the interviewees).

The stories from the adult adoptees interviewed by Simon and Roorda (2000) revealed several interesting points. First, a reoccurring theme among most of the adoptees was that they expressed feelings of sincere love and loyalty toward their adoptive parents and their appreciation for having the opportunity to grow within a family through adoption. Second, the adoptees in this book identified with and embodied key character-building values taught to them by their adoptive parents, which clearly contributed to their inner confidence. These values included love, trust, honesty, and respect for one another, hard work, and education. Tage Larsen, who is a professional classical trumpet player and at the time of this interview was playing in the President’s Own U.S. Marine Band, said that his parents taught him to “work hard and stay focused and determined” (Simon & Roorda, 2000, p. 252).

There should be no question after reading In Their Own Voices that the love, stability, and care provided by the majority of the adoptive parents to their Black and Biracial adult children, particularly during their childhood and adolescent years, was immeasurable and contributed to building a strong foundation for the adoptees. Yet what emerged from this project that was not emphasized in previous studies was the fact that love, while essential to the development of a healthy self-esteem and identity, was not enough when raising children of color who have been adopted by White parents. In fact, race and ethnicity do substantially matter in the fundamental healthy upbringing of transracial adoptees. This realization was especially clear to many of the adoptees as they entered into society as adults. There is a point, it seems, where the perceptions of society toward Black and Biracial adoptees living within their White families converged with society’s perceptions of other Black Americans. Obviously, as children adopted transracially become adolescents and then adults, they are eventually viewed and judged through society’s eyes using the same lens as they do for other African Americans. We see race and ethnicity issues moving to the forefront even more as adult transracial adoptees marry Black and White spouses, parent children of color, work in corporate America, or attend higher education institutions. I believe that some transracial adoptees do perceive themselves to be capable and even confident. However, in my opinion, far too many (based on this project and meeting more than 100 adult adoptees of color in this country) unfortunately left their adoptive families without an adequate plan or knowledge/experience base to strategically negotiate the new societal terrain away from their “safe” adoptive family structure.

“Aaliyah,” who was born and raised in the predominately White environment near Grand Rapids, Michigan, struggled throughout her adolescence and into adulthood with low self-esteem and feelings of differentness from her adoptive family. She found herself desperately seeking answers from within the “city,” at times putting herself in harm’s way physically and psychologically. In her search for identity and happiness, she described herself as “going this way and that way and not knowing which way to turn” (Simon & Roorda, 2000, p. 193). While wanting to remain close to her adoptive parents, she acknowledged in the interview that there began to be a growing racial and cultural divide between the three of them. She stated,

I feel like we’re [her adoptive parents] totally different. Since I’ve grown up from a teenager to an adult, I’ve changed a lot because I’ve lived in the city and have seen that side now. I lean toward that. I don’t think my parents ever really liked my boyfriend (who’s from the city). They thought all the decisions I made were wrong. (Simon & Roorda, 2000, p. 185)

Aaliyah struggled with not wanting to lose her parents’ love and the values they taught her yet having an unexplainable need to explore her Black identity. Her search, which turned out to be both aimless and harmful to her at the point of the interview, kept her stuck, unable to navigate her course effectively in the Black community (or in the White community). The result has been that she is unable to truly achieve her potential because she has lost her inner compass and confidence. Unlike Aaliyah, Seth Himrod, who was raised in Evanston, Illinois, had parents who were more educated about the difficulties of race. At the time I interviewed him, he was a stockbroker and a single father living next door to his adoptive parents. And while Seth personified a good and honest man with a high caliber of professionalism, his parents’ best efforts could not shield him from the harsh realities of society, he explained:

As I got older, I stopped being this cute little boy and others perceived me as this Black teenager and a menace to society. Apparently, I was liable to rape, kill, or whatever. I got pulled over by the cops; I got slammed against the wall with a flashlight up in my face. Questions were thrown at me, like what am I doing? Where am I going? You fit the description; come over here, we got to talk to you. Those things are what anger me. The fact that I was able to go to my dad and see his pain and outrage, the same way as I was feeling even though he never experienced it, was a support system for me. He never had a cop do that to him. Instead of asking me what I was doing, he’d tell me I should be upset about what happened. (Simon & Roorda, 2000, p. 296)

Raised in a predominately White suburb of Chicago, cut off from her ethnic community of origin, Rachel is an adult adoptee who is supportive of transracial adoption, but who carried a lingering sentiment throughout the interview of sadness and confusion. She believes that this was, in large part, because she did not know about her ethnic heritage. Because of this growing sense of insecurity, she ended up having difficulties with fitting in physically within the White community and also being totally comfortable in the Black community. When asked about her views regarding White parents adopting Black children, she said,

I think they [White adoptive parents] need to make sure that the children stay in touch with their roots. It’s essential that they know the history and background of their people. I feel as though I’ve lost touch with who I am. (Simon & Roorda, 2000, p. 157)

As advice for adoptive parents raising Black and Biracial children as well as other adoptees, Simon and Roorda (2000) indicated that it was helpful to them as children when they and their family members were exposed to the African American community through the friendships made through church, school, and support groups. Also, opportunities where the family as a unit could naturally discuss and celebrate adoption through “life books” and other celebratory events had a positive impact. Sadly, what was missing for most of the adoptees interviewed in this book were Black and Biracial role models and mentors in the lives of these individuals, leading up to and into their adult years. Why is that important? Because too many of these adoptees were disillusioned when they entered the “real” world, and this was magnified by not having the depth of understanding about how to maneuver in life with dark skin. And far too many believed that once they recognized they needed the Black community or that they shared a common bond, the Black community in general would be immediately receptive to them rather than suspicious of them. There are cultural differences among Black/Biracial children raised in White homes versus those Black children raised in same-race homes; it takes someone familiar with both perspectives to patiently share their knowledge, love, and time with the other about the world in which they live. Transracial adoption is still a controversial subject, and the act requires conscientious effort toward and long-term focus on building stepping-stones for these children and their adoptive families as a unit. We must look beyond the immediate comfort of these children’s families to the long-term outcomes of these children’s lives as adults, their belief systems, and their interactions (or lack thereof) with their ethnic communities.

Many possibilities and outcomes are achievable by families who transracially adopt children. For those gains to be realized, families must heed the lessons learned from pioneers (critics, researchers, adoptive parents, adoptees) who first ventured on this journey and apply these lessons to making blended families more dynamic. Are adoptees and adoptive families willing to grab hold of these opportunities and blessings and move beyond the controversy associated with transracial adoption? I know that adoptive parents and children have the will, commitment, and perseverance within them not only to move beyond survival but also to flourish and be successful.

To plan for the future, transracial adoptive families should create a strategic “Multicultural Adoption Plan” (MAP) for the long-term enrichment of each family member, particularly the adoptive child. The goal of this MAP is for the adoptive family to become knowledgeable about and comfortable with the adopted child’s racial/ethnic heritage and adoption experiences. With the whole family’s involvement in learning about and understanding the important and necessary steps that transracially adopted children need to take, the children will have greater support in their efforts to develop healthier racial identities and senses of self. The ultimate hope, of course, is that with this caring support, adoptive children will flourish and fulfill their unique purpose in society. In the following section I give an example of one such plan. This MAP outline comes from my personal adoption experience and from listening to many adoptive parents/children across the country.

A Multicultural Adoption Plan

Strengthening the Heart and Mind of the Adoptive Parent: Preparing to Embrace Your Child of Color

The successful adoption of children of color by White parents requires those parents to be willing to experience the close encounters with racism that their children—and they as parents—will have and to be prepared to talk to their children about them. Ultimately, they need to examine their own identities as White people, going beyond the idea of raising a child of color in a White family to a new understanding of themselves and their children as members of a multiracial family (Tatum, 1997, p. 190).

  • Examine reasons for choosing to adopt transracially: Are the adoptive parents committed to raising their adopted children into adulthood with the goal of maintaining a lasting and respectful relationship with their Black/Biracial children even if their child ultimately decides to closely identify with the African American community?
  • What are their views of the adopted children’s ethnic communities of origin? Do the adoptive parents hold views of superiority, inferiority, or equality toward their adopted children’s ethnic communities compared with the White community? Whatever the adoptive parents’ views, children will see the truth. Will adoptive parents realistically put their children’s best interests first, even if they have not yet become entirely comfortable in associating with those from their children’s ethnic/cultural heritage?
  • Build up the reservoir of knowledge regarding the transracial adoptees’ ethnic/cultural heritage and adoption: Read! Read! Read! Become educated about racial issues, the history of African Americans in this country, and the sometimes difficult losses that are also a part of the adoption story.
  • Plan to raise children of color by assessing the community, relationships, and resources of the adoptive parents: Examine the current situation of the adoptive family. Encourage the adoptive parents to be reflective and examine themselves to ensure that a social agenda was not part of the reason they wished to transracially adopt. Be sure that the reasons for adopting are to form families and are not related to altruistic causes. Consider whether there are African Americans in the community/place of worship/place of work into which the children will be adopted. Have the adoptive families established any genuine relationships with African Americans, or do they have any African American friends/acquaintances? Begin building safe, nurturing environments for the transracial adoptees to insure that they are comfortable with people who look like they do.
  • Develop smart support systems for the adoptive family in this transracial adoption experience: To be helpful to transracial adoptees, families need to locate and create a network of support persons/systems that will help guide them in this transracial adoption process. Do not put the burden on the children—the parents’ job is to teach and comfort their children in times of difficulty. Children should not be the primary resource for parents about race, nor should their role be to comfort their parents regarding any discomfort they might have about race.

Creating a Solid Foundation for Children to Begin Developing Stepping-Stones to Healthy Levels of Self-Esteem.

  • Embrace children’s emotional, physical, and spiritual identity and bring it into your family: Spirituality anchors racial identity, providing hope and purpose. When teaching children to tap into this source, their religious and moral values are nurtured. Children learn that to be Black and to be able to survive requires a hard-won, tenacious resistance of the psyche—a resistance that recognizes the interdependency of African Americans on each other, on the history that shaped our (African American) faith, and on faith itself. For resisters resist with the body, mind, and spirit (Ward, 2000, p. 257).
  • Share with children their adoption story: Do this using age-appropriate language and honoring children and their need to be loved. Revisit the children’s story over time as questions may change. Some of these questions are as follows: 1) Where do I come from? 2) Who am I? 3) Where do I belong?
  • Listen to children.
  • Advocate on behalf of these children at home, at school, and in the community.
  • Expand the worldview of the family: Explore possibilities!

Reflection Questions

  1. In what ways can African American and White scholars collaborate on future research projects on race, identity, and adoption?
  2. As researchers, therapists, and parents interested in transracial adoption, have you examined your own thoughts about your views toward different ethnic/racial groups and about the inherent complexities for the transracial adoptee in confronting issues of loss, identity, self-esteem, and love, living in paradoxical realities?
  3. What relationship-building strategies can your agency develop that will create linkages in racial/ethnic communities for reciprocal educational, recruitment, and support purposes?
  4. What resources are available in your adoption agency, counseling center, or home that address the subjects of adoption, transracial adoption, and race/culture?
  5. How can more attention be focused on data and information organizations to develop a universal database tracking transracial adoptive families and adoptees for more comprehensive research conducted on this important issue?
  6. For parents: Beyond the cuteness of your child or even the cause for why you adopted your child, are you committed to encourage your child to embrace his or her racial heritage and identity and work diligently to uphold that commitment even when your child grows to become a Black/Biracial man or Black/Biracial woman in this country?
  7. As it relates to transracial adoption, when one looks at the decision-making roles in foster care and adoption agencies, academic institutions, clinical centers, and political arenas, are there African American and other persons of color present at the table?