The Adoptive Parent’s Responsibility When Parenting a Child of a Different Race by Ebony Mack, MSW, and Kristen Hamilton, MA, was Published in the August 2020 edition of Adoption Advocate (A publication of NCFA). (This article is beneficial in helping adoptive parents to better understand, affirm and honor their child’s racial identity.)
A Call to Adoptive Parents
The decision to become a parent often brings with it one of life’s greatest joys and carries with it a whole host of commitments and responsibilities to provide for the many needs children have: from food, shelter, and clothing to healthcare, education, and much more. In choosing to pursue the privilege of growing one’s family through adoption, adoptive parents are committing themselves to the responsibility of understanding and addressing the issues and needs specific to adoption, which can include loss, grief, identity formation, maintaining birth family connections, accessing health history information, and more. There is even more added responsibility in addressing the issues, privileges, and challenges that arise when adopting a child of a different race. In these situations, adoptive parents have the obligation to develop and build a family and wider community that promotes a strong and enriched racial identity, that understands and responds to racism, and that proactively and age-appropriately prepares, educates, and protects their child from racial inequality, racial discrimination, and all other forms of racism. Additionally, these parents must not only work through the challenge of raising a child in a society where racism exists – they also have the privilege and responsibility of learning, promoting, and participating in the child’s racial heritage, and grafting that heritage into the family.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “A positive racial identity mediates experiences of discrimination and generates optimal youth development outcomes.” On the other hand, failing to parent through a racially conscious lens can lead to poorer overall outcomes for adopted individuals and weaker parent-child relationships.
“I couldn’t go to my parents and share my distress because they didn’t understand. They looked at life through the lens of their white experience. They were unintentionally color blind. I desperately needed them to be color-conscious, to listen, and bear witness to my struggle…One of the most powerful things we can do as adoptive parents is to resist indifference. To not be color blind, but to be color-conscious—to awaken to what our children-of-color are going through.” – Michelle Madrid-Branch, transracial adoptee and adoptive parent
Recognizing that a permanent, nurturing, prepared family is in the best interest of children, and that many times such a family of the same race is not available in a timely manner, transracial adoption has been and will continue to be a vitally important option on the child welfare continuum for children to achieve permanency. Therefore, this article seeks to provide prospective and current transracial adoptive parents with a starting place for this work by defining and explaining concepts about race and racism, and hearing from those with personal experience. Age-specific guidance and suggested resources are provided for adoptive parents seeking to better understand, affirm, and honor their child’s racial identity. “Transracial adoptees will face unique challenges when it comes to identity formation. Not only must they learn to process their adoption in healthy ways, but they also have the added nuance of being the racial minority in their own families. Ultimately, you want your child to have a full, cohesive sense of self. As they grow and develop, it is healthy for them to grapple with their racial-ethnic identity and their adoptive identity.”
Accepting and understanding the parent’s responsibility in their child’s racial identity formation is the first step. But the real work begins as parents intentionally take action to become more informed, aware, and engaged on racial, cultural, and identity issues – a process that requires a willingness to be uncomfortable at times, and to recognize what within the parent needs to change.5 This is similar to the work that all adoptive parents should do in regard to their own history with attachment, trauma, and familial relationships in order to cultivate healthy, connected relationships with their children. In the words of Dr. Karyn Purvis, “You can only lead a child to a place of healing if you know the way yourself.” In the same way, transracial adoptive parents in particular cannot effectively cultivate and support their child’s racial and cultural identity if they have not at least begun the internal work themselves to understand and engage with their own thinking, attitudes, and experiences around race, culture, and ethnicity.