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Understanding Race and Adoption
by Joan D. Ramos, M.S.W.

The history and development of intercultural adoptions — adoptions between members of distinct racial, ethnic, national origin and religious groups — that have taken place in the United States since the end of World War II, play a role in how such adoptions impact children and families today. Most such adoptions, whether of children born in the United States or in other countries, follow the pattern of adults from the dominant culture group, adopting children who are members of heritage groups deemed to be of minority status in the United States. Within our country, children of color continue to enter the foster care system in numbers quite disproportionate to their population percentages, related to socioeconomic factors reflected in different racial and ethnic groups.

Children from throughout the world suffer most from the dire circumstances that affect large sectors of the populations in so-called “developing” nations. Accordingly, these children may become candidates for intercountry adoptions. The institution of formal adoption was originally developed to serve European-American children and adults and, only fairly recently, this focus changed.

Caucasian parents who adopt children of color have a unique opportunity to use their obvious family situation to be quite open about the realities of adoption. Both parents and children face additional and distinct tasks in building healthy, realistic identities.

The issue of identity — “Who am I?” — is more complicated for children growing up in adoptive families than it is for children growing up in genetic families. Intercultural adoption adds another layer of identity issues for the family as well as the child. European-Americans often fail to understand that the identity-development process is different for members of racial and ethnic minority groups than for members of the dominant culture. Most European-Americans are raised to think of themselves primarily as individuals, as the larger society no longer ascribes an ethnic group identity to most of the Caucasian majority. Most individuals of color, on the other hand, also have to deal with how the larger society perceives them — both as individuals, and as members of a group. A group affiliation and identity can also serve to help “minority” individuals develop survival skills.

The more awareness that intercultural adoptive parents have about such concerns, as well as a willingness to act on behalf of their child — even when it may mean changes in customary life patterns — the better prepared the growing child will be to live as an adult in a society where heritage still matters.

Ages and Stages:
Children’s Understanding of Race and Adoption

An overview of how racial and ethnic identity develops in interculturally-adopted children can provide a framework for planful parenting and counseling. The age ranges are approximate and are meant as guidelines for relative stages of child development.

• Birth to 3 years old: Toddlers become aware of physical race and skin color differences and learn names for specific groups. They do not comprehend the real meanings of these labels, and may be puzzled by the use of colors to describe both people and objects. Adoption issues at this point are primarily those of the parents: intercultural adoptive parents quickly experience reactions — positive, neutral or negative — from extended family and community. Some parents are not prepared for questioning and do not receive the same level of support that new same-race families do; some families are regularly praised for having done a good deed. Bonding between parent and child can be affected by a mutual adaptation process that includes cross-cultural factors. By 3, children can recite their own adoption stories, but with little comprehension. Toddlers may recognize that they and their families are the object of others’ curiosity.

• 4 to 6 years old: Preschoolers can usually identify their own racial or ethnic group and may place a positive or negative value on their own and other groups. Feelings about groups are acquired by absorbing societal messages from the media, literature, toys and their surroundings, even in the absence of contact or parental instruction. Children notice their own racial and ethnic differences from their parents and may express a desire to be the same race and ethnicity as the parents the children love. Some children act on this desire by avoiding sunshine, or trying to change their skin or hair color with chalk, flour or soap. By the age of 6, children notice that most of their peers are of the same race as at least one parent and that most of their playmates are not adopted. Peers question children about their ethnicity and family composition. Most children at this age have rudimentary knowledge about pregnancy, birth, adoption and their own situation.

• 7 to 11 years old: Latency age children usually have a firmer understanding of their own racial and ethnic identity and — given the opportunity — will explore what it means to be a member of this group. This can be a prime age for participating in group activities with a cultural or educational focus, as well as a time when role models are especially important. Adoption issues often come to the fore, especially as children’s understanding of their personal situations expands to recognize the losses they have sustained. Children may grieve for their birthparents as well as begin to question their place or sense of belonging in their adoptive families. Most children are comfortable with their interracial family status, especially if parents strive for open communication regarding adoption, race and related issues. These children are usually accepted by their dominant culture peers with whom they want to fit in. A child may assume a sort of celebrity status, especially if he or she is the one-and-only child of color. At early elementary school age, children are usually receptive to parents sharing adoption and heritage information at school, although some teachers and school assignments may not be sensitive to adoption issues.

• 12 to 18 years old: Adolescence is usually comprised of early and late stages, but the span is included here because the progression is individualistic. This is a time of exploration, including determining the significance of race, ethnicity, culture, adoption, and examining how these apply to the individual. A teen’s past experiences with his or her ethnic group identity are important as they determine whether the adolescent’s identity now is positive, negative or in transition. Teens who have had little or no contact with members of their own group may model themselves after media images, which may be exaggerated and negative. Teens’ interracial family status can add another layer of embarrassment about their parents. Some teens form interracial friendships, while others may experience rejection from dominant culture peers who were previously friends. This may particularly occur with dating. Some adopted teens may meet others of the same racial or ethnic heritage for the first time in school, and may not be accepted by these individuals as they do not “act their color.” This can be a tumultuous time. Adoption issues may come to the fore in understanding self, contemplating searching for birth parents, and in the process of emancipating from their adoptive parents. The identity-building process will continue into the post-teen years.

Identity Challenges: How Common?

A major concern about intercultural adoptions has been that such an unusual situation would inevitably result in a gravely confused identity and social marginality for adopted individuals. Within the child welfare and mental health professions, there are a variety of opinions on outcomes, based on personal experience and philosophy, as well as clinical practice. The results of research that primarily focuses upon African-American children adopted by Caucasian parents answers some questions and raises others. As with children in general, most interculturally-adopted children appear to do reasonably well, although they face issues and concerns that may be ignored or minimized. There is evidence that while most early-placed interculturally-adopted children do well through their elementary school years, although most experience prejudice, often unbeknownst to parents, many experience additional issues in adolescence. Counselors throughout the country, in programs similar to ours at the Adoption Resource Center of Children’s Home Society of Washington, hear from parents of interculturally-adopted children and teens in numbers disproportionate to their small percentage of the population.

Nationally, statistics on numbers of domestic intercultural adoptions are unknown but are thought to be only a small fraction of the total estimated 50,000 non-relative adoptions annually. International adoptions constitute about 10 to 15 percent of this national total. When our agency ran a statewide post-adoption services program from 1992 to 1994, at least one-third of some 3,000 callers to our toll-free number were such families, representing both domestic and international placements.

Customary reasons that adoptive families may appear overrepresented among those seeking mental health services also apply to intercultural adoptive families. It also may be that those parents who are open about adoption may be those most likely to seek services. Adoptive parents of children who have special needs or are interculturally-placed, form the majority of most adoptive parents’ groups, and have the most access to adoption education. Some of the motivations that lead families to adopt interculturally may also have a bearing on the parental factors necessary to help children build strong identities. General adoption issues need to be taken into account. Infertility now appears a frequent motivation for intercultural adoption. There is often a socioeconomic distinction between families adopting children in foster care, public sector adoption, and families adopting children privately, either independently or through wholly private agencies. Most private sector adoptions have become costly.

For Caucasians, higher income levels tend to correlate to living in less-diverse communities. For the adoptive parents, and those who serve them in some private sector adoption services, placement practice may include elements of “rescue” and “color blindness,” as well as a service or business orientation. Perhaps because of the controversies surrounding intercultural placements, general societal taboos about honestly discussing race, as well as the lack of experience and training of many of those who work in the adoption and mental health fields about racial, ethnic and intercultural matters, services in this area have been slow to develop. Most adoption agencies do not offer post-placement services, and many adoptions now take place outside of agencies.

The few programs that do exist, typically focus on historic or symbolic aspects of race, ethnicity and culture. These activities are important and particularly appropriate for young children. Few programs look at the issues and process of racial and ethnic identity development. A growing body of experience indicates that a realistic goal for healthy development of interculturally-adopted people is to become bicultural to some degree. This means that such an individual is able to function both within mainstream society and as a member of his or her racial and ethnic group or groups.

The way that adopted persons become bicultural is different than that of peers who are raised by same-heritage families. The idea is not to replicate the latter, but to create a healthy situation where dual heritages can flourish. There are also special situations in adoption that deserve attention, such as the identity concerns of biracial and multiethnic children; international adoptions in general and those of older-placed children from overseas, including children who have spent long periods in institutions; and adopted children with siblings who are their parents’ genetic offspring. As long as race matters in this country, there is an imperative for intercultural adoptive parents to raise bicultural children, to help them avoid becoming marginalized people with major identity difficulties.

What Parents Can Do

Parents can do a great deal to help their interculturally-adopted children become bicultural. Prior to adopting, parents can go through a process of self-examination and education, hopefully facilitated by placement workers, regarding their decision and steps that they may take to enhance family life. Consideration of place of residence, friends and neighbors, available schools and community activities, houses of worship, health and grooming needs, and language issues are all relevant. Parents can teach their child correct terminology about his or her own heritage and can create an atmosphere where all issues related to race are discussed openly.

Interculturally-adopted children need to see themselves reflected in the greater community both literally and figuratively. Parents can bring culturally-appropriate dolls, toys, books, art and music into their homes to provide positive images of their children’s heritage. Frequently, Caucasian parents may feel that this is all that is needed. In fact, using artifacts and educational approaches is only part of the process. More important are the nonverbal messages that children pick up from anyone who enters the family’s living room. Parents may need to stretch beyond their usual comfort zone so they can form intercultural relationships in the community in a natural way. This is also an important reason, when possible, to maintain ongoing contact with the child’s birth family or former foster parents.

Group Activities

While adoptive family support groups play a vital role, parents also may want to seek out general interracial family groups, as well as racial- and ethnic-based community groups. Depending on the interests of the parents, and later, those of the child, there are an array of civic, ethnic, recreational, sports, arts, music, cultural, educational, religious, political and anti-bias groups to choose from. It can be difficult for European-American parents without experience to make connections with members of diverse groups. Often the help of a cultural bridge person, someone who has a foot in both worlds, can be sought out. Some of the successful experiences of intercultural adoptive parent groups have been through group-to-group activities, with heritage-specific groups that have enabled long-term ties and friendships to develop. When adopted children are reluctant to become involved in ethnic-specific activities, often when parents make their first attempt during adolescence, parents can and should participate alone. Their involvement also sends a message.

Parents may also seek out activities for their children that are not part of cultural education programs, but which represent children’s interests outside of school — scouting, sports, music, church groups, and that have a high level of participation of children of a specific, or diverse, racial and ethnic group and similar social class. Such programs are easiest to find in diverse communities. It becomes difficult to form or maintain friendships when long commutes are necessary and the result can be a situation that feels artificial to the child. It is also hard to sustain the logistical efforts throughout the years.

When seeking activities for children themselves, parents need to become aware of avoiding “tourist parenting,” focusing on symbolic or ceremonial aspects of culture often through visits to special events, but not on contact with contemporary people going about their daily lives. Many adoption groups offer culture camps, which are a useful adjunct to year-round involvement with ethnic-related activities, but alone cannot fill the bill for identity development tasks. Holiday celebrations, special events and museum exhibits all have their merits. More important are relationships that develop in the natural context of community. In some locales, mentoring programs may be available.


As we move into the 21st Century, intercultural adoptive families will continue to be a visible part of the increasingly diverse fabric of American society. While most child welfare and mental health professionals see benefits in same-heritage placements, today we also know that intercultural placements are viable if appropriate planning and supports are available. All children in care will benefit from improved permanency planning.

The social and political factors surrounding such placements cannot be ignored, as they are an integral backdrop to the process of building biculturality into family life. The continued existence of racism and inequality need to be faced head-on by parents working to raise children in times when youth are seriously at-risk in our country. Increased attention to the unique issues connected to adoption, as well as to children’s racial and ethnic identity development needs by parents and those who work with them, will go a long way to promote optimal mental health for the interculturally adopted children who will become tomorrow’s adults.

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