Transracial and Transcultural Adoption: A Lifetime Journey, How do I decide? by Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg

Transracial and Transcultural Adoption: A Lifetime Journey. How Do I Decide? 
By Beth Hall & Gail Steinberg

When you are considering a domestic or international placement, this kind of adoption raises different questions than adoptions where children look just like their parents. Parenting is a developmental process. You won’t have all the answers at the beginning. Enjoy and grow! The world is full – and if you decide to adopt in this way your life may be about to get fuller!

Race is a “hot potato” issue, and most of us are afraid of being judged poorly because we don’t know as much as we wish we did. But nobody starts out with all the answers, and adoptive parents who raise children across racial, ethnic and cultural lines usually find out much more about themselves and the world than they could possible have anticipated before they become parents. If this possibility excites you, you are likely to enjoy the challenge. If it doesn’t, then move away from transracial parenting without guilt.

Transracial parenting is not for everyone.


Each of us is “hard-wired” in particular ways. That means we are comfortable in certain types of circumstances and are likely to make life choices that reflect our particular personality traits. Although personality traits are not usually changeable, understanding who you are can enable you to decide whether your temperament will lend itself comfortably to the issues you and your family will face. Transracial/transcultural adoption almost always means that your family becomes “public,” because your differences are readily apparent to others. Do you feel sick at the thought of the lady in the grocery store who asks inappropriate questions about your child or do you relish the thought of learning how to help your child develop the strength and capacity to cope with racial bias? As a parent, you will be “on display.” You will need to seek help from adult mentors of your child’s ethnic heritage who understand firsthand your children’s experiences in ways that you cannot. If you hate to seek help or dislike contact with strangers, such tasks will likely prove demanding for you. If you enjoy complexity in life, transracial parenting will suit your strengths. If you enjoy being different and standing out – great! If you like to blend in and go with the crowd, think again. If you are attracted to learning new ways of thinking, you will enjoy the challenge. Parenting should be enjoyed, not weighted down by tasks so foreign to you they will almost certainly feel like a burden. Look to your strengths. Acknowledge your weaknesses. Now is the time to determine the compromises you can live with forever or those that would create a lifetime of discomfort you may not want to take on. Parenting is not charity work, if it works great, if it doesn’t move on and choose other forms of adoption.


We all bring assumptions and unexamined ideas to new situations. You can expect to find that you carry within yourself both negative and positive internalized attitudes about adoption and race. Our society is biased in many ways and each member of society has learned the lessons society teaches us. But attitudes can be changed. Transracial/cultural adoptive parents are afforded continual opportunities to examine and develop new attitudes that expand beyond the simplistic and often inherently negative values held by a society undereducated about adoption and race. First, we must acknowledge where we are beginning from so we can become conscious enough to change.

“The first time someone asked, “Whose child is she?,’ I was unprepared to answer. Now the kids and I have three or four ways to respond, depending on our mood. The other night right before bed, our youngest began to cry. I heard my oldest son tell her, ‘People are mean. Because we are brown, some people don’t like us., I know it’s hard, but we can’t let them win.’ I wanted to run in and scoop them up, tell them I could protect them and that it would be ok.,. but I know I can’t do that.. Watching your five-year-old learn to toughen up is hard, but better tough than unable to survive.”

When you choose to become a family that is different from most, you must be prepared to confront your own biases in both overt and subtle ways. The first step in the process is also the one that never ends. Acknowledging your own racism and “adoptism” is painful, particularly since it means you carry prejudices against your own child. Though you may feel yourself free from these biases, it is more likely that you just don’t recognize them fully yet. If you think that racism is getting better, you probably aren’t dealing with it much. If you think that most people feel adoption is a good thing, you probably haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience people’s “special” reactions to special families. If you haven’t had much experience with these issues, your antennae are not yet well developed. The more you know, the more you will realize how much race and adoption matter. The more you realize how much they matter, the more you will know how much there is to learn. If growth and learning sound like fun, jump in. If confronting stereotypes and bias sounds overwhelming, here’s your opportunity to pass. Either way, you’ve expanded your thinking and been honest about some of the most hotly contested and visceral issues of our time.


Where we live and who we know, things we do and places we frequent – these are the factors that comprise our lifestyle. The truth is that you, and especially your child, will have a much easier time if your world is populated by people who share your child’s racial and/or cultural background. Most families who adopt transracially or transculturally are only beginning to assess their lives from the point of view of their child. Be honest with yourself. If your lifestyle isn’t as diverse as it could be, you can choose to change. More than our words, and regardless of our intentions, children take our actions to heart. If there are many people of color important to your life, you will deliver the message that people of color are important and valued. If your child is the only one, how will you avoid the message that she is an exception to her race, or that there is something wrong with his ethnicity? If you can comfortably imagine expanding your lifestyle in ways that may mean changing comforts and connections you currently enjoy, then transracial parenting will certainly offer you many opportunities to do so. If this sounds like a burden, you can modify and plan how to best manage the challenges for all of you.


How much do you really know about your child’s heritage? Most of us learn nothing in school about the history or contributions of people of color in America; consequently, we generally don’t know much. Don’t get discouraged here – get energized. There are whole new worlds you can learn about and help your child to discover. Recognizing what you know and what don’t know can light the path to future learning and growth. If you choose to do so, you can learn about anything you want to, at your own pace and in your own space.
What we know – and what we think we know. What is – and what has been. For the sake, strength and often the safety of their children, transracial families need to examine these questions more than most white families do. Schools teach us mostly European-based history and knowledge. Society teaches us to view the world from the point of view of white America, a point of view that sometimes includes immigrant- or minority-bashing to justify our history and current actions. Parents must understand the limitations to such “official” versions, going beyond what is easily available in order to learn more and to provide access to more knowledge for their child of color. Without positive history and a realistic understanding of current race-based realities in society, children will think that white is better and that people of color have accomplished little in their world. Such limited understanding cannot help but to undermine their own self-esteem and sense of ability and possibility. As a parent, you will have to safeguard and promote your child’s cultural legacy in order to offer him or her the opportunity to thrive.

Where Do I Go From Here?

Transracial/transcultural adoption is a lifelong journey, complex and challenging. It can work well for kids and families when parents are prepared to look at things from a new point of view. Most adoptive parents can tell stories about how they fell in love with their own most precious, best-beloved child, the child they love more and better than all the sweetest and most gratifying pleasures of the universe. Most parents raising a child not born to them can recount the wonders of coming to know that their family was destined to belong to each other and discovering for sure that, although blood may be thicker than water, love is thicker than blood. We know from personal experience that on top of all that, being white adoptive or foster parents of a child of color is as exhilarating and world altering as standing on your head for long periods of time. Upside down, everything looks different – is it the world that has changed or is it we who are different, looking at the world from a different point of view? We believe multiracial families are enhanced by developing the ability to catch a glimpse of each member’s unique vision, together deepening and pooling their collective insights, and wondering at the beauty and complexity of the world as seen through the differing prisms each person contributes.
Beth Hall and Gail Steinberg are the founding Co-Directors of Pact, An Adoption Alliance, authors of Inside Transracial Adoption and Below The Surface: A Self-Assessment Guide For Adoptive Families Considering Adoption Across Racial Or Cultural Lines Beth & Gail conduct numerous trainings each for local and national parent and professional groups on issues related to race and adoption, client assessment, services for adoptive families after placement, recruitment of families of color among other topics. They are both parents to children of different racial and ethnic heritage than their own.

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