Doing Race, Family and Culture Through Transracial Adoption
Watch this conversation with Professor Gina E. Miranda Samuels, herself a transracial adoptee researcher and expert. She talks to us about a few of the common experiences of race and racism faced by transracial adoptive families and people who are transracially adopted, and at issues unique to sub-groups within the community. We consider transracial adoption as a unique context in which children learn about race, ethnicity and culture, and what this might mean for parental socialization within and beyond families. This conversation took place on 11/19/19. A lightly edited transcript follows.
surprising given our interests that this issue of Transracial Adoption is a big deal for us at EmbraceRace. In thinking about this topic I read a couple of things that I had not read before,
namely that transracial adoption has increased substantially. And our guest,
Gina, will correct me if I'm wrong about this - but
transracial adoption has increased quite a bit over the last decade or so. And also that the majorities of Black children, Latinx kids, or Hispanic kids,
multiracial kids, and Asian American kids who are adopted are transracially
adopted. So, for kids of color, at least, adoption is largely a transracial
adoption phenomenon. We at EmbraceRace are very interested in race
and children and racial learning and culture, so transracial adoption and transracial adoptive families are a really important place to look and see the
range of challenges and opportunities that are presented in all of those
So... Thank you so much for being here, Gina.
Gina Miranda Samuels: Thank you for having me.
EmbraceRace: So, Gina, I know that you're a transracial adoptee yourself. I wonder if we could start there, and you could share some insights about your experience as a transracial adoptee.
Gina Miranda Samuels: Sure. The short version of my story is that I was placed into adoption, into foster care at birth. I have a single parent. My mother, my biological mother, was young, just turning 20, and had decided to give me up for adoption. So this was in 1968, and I've since met both of my biological parents. So I have more information now. Were we talking maybe five or six years ago, my story would have gone something like, "I'm not really sure exactly what my story is." There's not a lot about race in my case file. I was entered into DCFS, the Department of Child and Family Services, into foster care for nine months because they weren't certain about my race. So, at that time, the transracial adoptions weren't prevalent, and they didn't want to place me in the wrong home and find out that I'd gotten darker than what I looked at birth. So I was in foster care waiting to see what was going to happen as I got older.
In that meantime, while I was darkening up a bit, my mother adopted me as a single parent. She was 42 at the time and was a social worker working for DCFS, actually, in another department. And two years after she adopted me, she adopted my sister. She was not biologically my sister. We left Chicago area when I was five to live in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, which was quite a shift of a place to arrive to. So all of my growing up was done in OshKosh B'gosh, Wisconsin, a town of 50,000, and my summers were spent even north of there in northern Wisconsin at my grandmother's in a town called Ladysmith, Wisconsin, of 2,000. So I have many stories about that, which I may or may not share depending on where our conversation goes today.
So I grew up in Oshkosh, and I completed undergrad in social work and moved to Madison, Wisconsin where I, after finishing my MSW, came out and practiced. As a young person, I pledged I would never be a child welfare worker, I would never be that social worker that I had grown to have pretty strong opinions about as an adoptee. And lo and behold, long story short, I became a child welfare worker and found myself in the very position of having to make decisions about placing young Black and biracial children into foster families that were predominantly white because that's what was available in Madison, Wisconsin. So I have that as part of my experience, as well. A lot of what I talk about both comes from a personal experience but also from a professional experience of having been the caseworker and being on the other side of that and working with families who were making decisions to be foster parents of children of races that they did not share.
From that, I went off and taught for a period of time, did some other things, and then went back and got my PhD and started studying transracial adoption and multiracial identity development. So...
EmbraceRace: Gina, yeah, that is quite a journey.
Transracial adoption is a big space, and we know that you do other research, as well. I wonder if you could say more about what kind of research you've done on transracial adoption. And I wonder, maybe as a preface to that, if you wouldn't mind... You said, "Oh, I'm not going to be a child welfare worker," and then you became a child welfare worker. But are you willing to say anything more about what made you pivot?
Gina Miranda Samuels: I guess I'll answer the second part first. So what made me pivot? Really just a random occurrence ... I was working three jobs all at once as a young person and paying off debts and various things that one does when they graduate from graduate school at 22 years old. And I had to become a family caseworker, and I honestly didn't know that that was going to be a county social worker and a child welfare worker. So it was sort of a serendipitous life choice that I, in my early social work career, was really enjoying working with families and kids. I was directing an after-school program, an Afrocentric school program at the Urban League in Madison and left there to become a family caseworker. It was only after I had taken the job that I discovered that I was going to be a caseworker and do child welfare practice all the way starting from taking emergency custody of children, all the way through foster care and through termination of parental rights, and transferring children to placement workers in the adoption wing. So it was planned arrival to child welfare practice, but I oftentimes joke with my students that it's a profession that found me as much as I found it. And once we connected, it was love at first sight. I can't imagine starting anything else, but I certainly did not start my career with that intention.
I came to my research also from a place of not planning that I was going to end up being a researcher and thinking that I was going to get my PhD to teach, teach social work. I decided to do my dissertation on something that I felt, when I was a child welfare worker, there wasn't a lot on, that I was only speaking from my personal experience and wanted to read about what experts were having to say about my experience and was deeply dissatisfied, oftentimes, with what I read about transracial adoptive families and the need to either make them seem that everything's perfect or to say how awful it is, and we should never do it. And my experience was all of that and none of that.
So I decided to do my dissertation on transracial adoption and particularly focusing on people who are multiracial. I went about interviewing adults from the ages of 19 to 35 who had as their personal experience being adopted somewhere around infancy by white couples or single white parents, and asked them questions about that: what that was like, what they learned, what parents did that was helpful, what parents did that turned out to be not so helpful. Much of the things that I write about in the trainings that I do now come from that early research and work around exploring issues of identity development, and identity as a lifelong path.
EmbraceRace: Mm-hmm, right. Yeah, lots of follow-up questions, but I'm just going to sort of go into the general first. I'm wondering if you can give us a broad overview of the transracial adoptive community in the U.S., what it looks like today and if there are any trends we should be aware of?
Gina Samuels: I think usually when we talk about transracial adoption, I think the saying that comes most to people's mind is a Black kid with a white parent or parents. And that's sort of captured the public American imagination about what we are talking about with regard to transracial adoption. While that's certainly an experience that is real, my experience, increasingly the transracial adoption community is deeply ethnically diverse. There's many pathways to adoption. Most people who are adopted are not adopted through agencies and are adopted privately through arrangements that are arranged through biological parents, an attorney, and prospective adopters. So all of the statistics even that we have on transracial adoption are not fully accurate because there's so many routes through which people become adopted that we don't have a national system for capturing all of these and regulating them, counting them.
There's a pathway to adoption that happens through foster care. I talked about my own story earlier, and in that pathway, most of the children who come into foster care will never be adopted and will return home, as we hope that they should. That's the purpose of that system, but some children don't return home. And those children then become available to adoption, and they're public adoptions. And many of those adoptions are subsidized adoptions.
Then there are adoptions that happen with other countries, and those are international adoptions. Many of those adoptions happen through private agencies, and some of them are transracial adoptions. All of them are transnational and bicultural adoptions, but some of them are transracial adoptions. Most of those adopters are white adopters, and some of the places that adopters adopt when they become transracial adoption placements are China, Korea, etc. And those make up a huge portion of the transracial adoptee population, even though I think most people still think about transracial adoption as a domestic adoption issue. Then there are private adoptions that are domestic, and those include children who are U.S. citizens whose parents are oftentimes voluntarily surrendering them at birth but don't go through the foster care system, are privately arranging through an agency for adoption.
So the adoption community is made up of all of those pathways of accepting children and building families and making choices. And for many adoptive parents, those can be very overwhelming choices to choose among.
EmbraceRace: Wow, yeah, that piece about private adoption actually outnumbering these other routes, I had no idea that was true. I'm just curious. How do we even... I imagine that it would be very difficult to track, as you've said. How could we know that that route... that more transracial adoptees travel that route than through foster care, etc.?
Gina Miranda Samuels: Mm-hmm. Sort of through backtrack ways. Census data started collecting data about adoption. So that gives us a little bit of an idea about how families are being formed, and actually, there's a study that was just put out in 2017 by the Institute for Family Studies that did a survey of kindergartners. So it's sort of a post-adoption way of capturing who is adopted. In surveying kindergarten classes and understanding what are the proportion of kindergartners in 2017 who are adopted, what is their situation, what is their race, and what is the race of their parents, we can kind of backwards map.
We can't always know, necessarily, the way in which they were adopted, but it gives us some insight into, outside of the routes that are more tracked like foster care or like international adoption, what really is the diversity of the adoptee population? And what we're learning, at least from that study, is that among adoptees, for example who happen to be Asian, 90% of those adoptees who are Asian are also transracially adopted. Similarly, with multiracial adoptees, so adoptees who are mixed-race, of those adoptees, 64% of them are also transracially adopted. And 62% of Hispanic adoptees are transracially adopted, and 55% of Black adoptees. So, to the point that you were speaking to earlier, in terms of increasing transracial adoption, it's still the case that most white adopters adopt children who are also white. But it's also true that, of kids of color who get adopted, they tend to be transracially adopted. So it's this weird juxtaposition of who's available for adoption, who's adopting, and how that plays out for different communities, communities of color versus white adopters or adopters who are...
EmbraceRace: Thanks for that, Gina. And one of the points you lifted up as you were talking about what the session might look like is this issues of policies and practices, right ....
Gina Miranda Samuels: Mm-hmm.
EmbraceRace: ... that shape transracial adoption, and you've already alluded to some of those, including when you were a baby, you had this issue of how people feel and how adoption agencies, for example, feel and social workers, I think, at the time, felt about transracial adoption's importance. I think... I want to say it was especially for Black children being adopted by African American or Black parents to the degree that that was possible. That makes me... I want to offer sort of a two-parter. One is, again, what are some of these big policies and practices that are shaping what transracial adoption looks like now? But I'm also wondering about transracial adoptees and what feels like an increasing political identity. I feel like there is... Again, this is just my... doing EmbraceRace work and certainly having more and more contact with transracial adoptees, that there is more advocacy, right? There's more advocacy by transracial adoptees themselves and sort of the politics around it. Just wonder if you can say a bit more about those things.
Gina Samuels: Sure. So adoption and social work in our history in the U.S. and worldwide around race kind of implicates adoption pretty egregiously. So our early practices in the U.S. with racism and white supremacy, slavery, and Indian genocide all intersect in adoption and placing of children in families as ways of reconciling difference in culture. In the U.S., you have two major streams that implicate adoption, one being the placement out of Black children, and then also the history of Indian boarding schools and the placing out of Indian children into residential boarding schools and adoption literally explicitly for the purpose of eliminating culture. Those are these beginning politics.
Then, out of that, in the '70s, you start seeing advocacy from particular groups, ethnic groups that are attempting to try to remedy some of this, of: What are the rights that communities have in this nation to be self-determining to decide the best interests of their children? So you see, in the early '70s, the National Association of Black Social Workers making a statement about the best interests of Black children being with Black families and in the Black community. You also see similar advocacy happening during the same time, articulating statistics and consequences of forcibly removing Native children from their homes into boarding schools. But two very different pathways happened there, and they're much a story about rights of sovereignty that are different between African Americans and Native Americans.
In the Native American case, laws were able to be established that now we understand as the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives Indian tribes the right to determine the best interests of Native children and children with any kind of Native heritage. So what that allows is for, any time the system is aware that a child has American Indian heritage, there is a procedure that gives rights of the tribe to make first determination if there's anybody, family or anybody within that tribe or anybody of Native heritage first to be considered before that child is then allowed to be considered to be adopted out by anybody who's not Native.
In the case of children of color who are not Native, however, in the early '90s, there were a series of legislative acts that addressed this understanding that the thing that really was trapping kids of color, particularly Black children, in the system were social workers who preferred same-race placements and were sort of sensitized by the NABSW statement in '72, that they were reticent to then place Black children in white homes and that this was the cause of Black children languishing in foster care. So, in an attempt to eliminate that as a potential barrier, the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act and, a year later, the Interethnic Adoption Provisions were developed that state that no one can use race or culture as a reason to delay or deny adoption, primarily to white people but really to anyone. And it uses civil rights law to be able to protect those right.
There's been a lot of debate about whose best interest in that policy and whether or not that really was the barrier. We still have children who are over the age of five and six who are African American, particularly Black boys, who continue to languish in child welfare systems across our nation. So it's a complicated condition in foster care that we find ourselves in to do to address racial disproportionalities that particularly affect Black children in that system. But we do have these very interesting and diametrically opposed policies that message to social workers what the importance of race is in decision-making about families.
EmbraceRace: Thanks for that. And I guess we have a lot of questions coming in, and people really... a lot of parents who transracially adopted or people who are considering it or people who have kids, adults in their lives who've transracially adopted and need support still. We want to get to all that. But I'm wondering what transracial adoptees and families experience in the U.S. today, as in: How are they received? How are they perceived?
Gina Samuels: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I think it really varies. I think one of the things that I hear, at least, a lot in talking with parents today of really young kids is, "Well, things are different now," and this was more prevalent of a statement prior to our current president. But even now, I will hear people say, "This is a different world. Things are different now. Racism isn't as overt." But I have to say, in my 51 years, I find myself saying the same things. I find myself hearing the same things as when I grew up oh so long ago. Things have changed but have not changed.
So I do think there's some differences in terms of there's now a generation or adult adoptees, you all mentioned this earlier, in terms of it's becoming a political identity. So some of us has grown up. Some of us have gotten our degrees and studied this and can speak as experts on our own experience. We don't all speak with the same voice, and we all have very different opinions, and I think that's good. So you're seeing a lot more of that, of adult adoptees engaging in these debates and defining and redefining what the issues are.
I do think there are some common experiences that actually distinguish our community a little bit from, say, interracial families or interracial couples or places where families are living multiracially, but it's not because of adoption. And I think one of those things is where we tend to live. There's an interesting article Krieder and Raleigh write about understanding census track data as to where adoptive families tend to raise their children (Residential Racial Diversity: Are Transracial Adoptive Families More Like Multiracial or White Families?). Are they more like interracial couples in terms of choices they select in terms of diversity of community? Or are they more like white families? And what ends up coming out is that actually they're more like white families, and if they adopt Asian children, they live in whiter spaces than even white people do of similar economic background.
So, what that tends to mean for the transracial-adopted person is that we're growing up in spaces where we're sort of by ourselves integrating all of these spaces on our own, without communities of co-ethnics or other kids and other families and neighbors to look at. It's a deeply diasporic community where you're growing up without a community of people who kind of get what it's like to have two white parents as opposed to multiracial kids who might have one of each parent, assuming that they are growing up in a heterosexual family where they were birthed. I think that's a common experience when I talk to a lot of transracial adoptees, which is kind of growing up in this sea of whiteness and having to navigate that with parents that are kind of secretly hoping and wishing that racism really isn't going to happen and that that's something that maybe happens to everybody else except for them.
I guess that then brings me to this other piece of what's oftentimes common, is this idea that white privilege or that a parent's adoptive white privilege can be passed on to their child and that, by virtue of adopting a child into a white family, that somehow you'll be able to prevent racism from coming to your child. Sometimes that comes with adoptive parents in the form of colorblindness, but in general, it is a way of doing difference that oftentimes leaves kids on their own to figure out race, to make meaning of what this means to have two white parents, whatever their adoption story is, and whatever skin they're in, to really take the lead in doing that. And sometimes parents will wait for their kids to ask questions about adoption or wait because they're not sure what age they should start those conversations. What oftentimes ends up happening unintentionally is it can teach the kids that this isn't an okay thing to talk about because we're not talking about it all the time, anyway. So, when you wait, it sorts of sets a context of leaving the kid alone to figure it out, or for it to be a really big deal when it didn't have to be, and it could've been something small.
EmbraceRace: Just something very much along... a question, really, along those lines, Gina, which is: Both over time and across groups of transracial adoptees, I'm wondering about what you can tell us about really the colorblindness trend? There's some trends. So my sense certainly is that when a lot of Asian American, I think especially Chinese, not really Chinese, East Asian babies two generations or more ago were being adopted significantly, certainly the conventional wisdom, my understanding is that the white parents who typically adopted them very much had a colorblind approach. Certainly my sense is that that's changed. I don't know how much, that in general more white parents... And transracial adoptive parents are typically white. That's fair, yeah?
Gina Miranda Samuels: Mm-hmm.
EmbraceRace: Right, so that more white parents now, and not surprising that we see quite of a few of these folks in our community, are trying to be more sensitive, attentive to racial identity, perhaps cultural identity of their children and thinking about implications, trying to be conscientious about that. But I'm thinking there are probably quite strong patterns between whether the white adoptive parent has a Black adoptive child, Asian American, multiracial, etc. So both of that respect and over time, what can you tell us about what we're seeing in terms of those parents' sensibilities?
Gina Samuels: Yeah. Yeah, I think there's great diversity. This is another space where that diversity in terms of the path that you find yourself on in coming to transracial adoption oftentimes says a lot about who are, how you understand difference, what kind of kids you're open to adopting, what kind of kids you're not open to adopting, how close or far you want to be from the biological family, a nation away, a world away, or a neighborhood away, a block away. And all of these things sometimes then sort families and parents into where they are themselves with being able to be close up to difference and deal with that in a way that can be erased or not. Our own understandings, I think, in our society about, Do Asians actually experience racism? People have a lot of stereotypes about that Asians don't experience racism. It's not as bad, or that Black people experience the most racism, or that light-skinned Black people don't experience racism, or that biracial kids will only experience half-racism or something like this.
All of these sort of imaginations that white people have about what other people's experiences are then cause them to show up in certain ways to their kids in terms of their preparedness and what they anticipate is going to be the normal race experience for their child. And I would say colorblindness still is a very big narrative among a lot of white parents and a lot of white people in terms of how they do race. I think it can sometimes, in the adoption community, manifest in a little bit more Pollyanna way of referring to us as rainbow children or rainbow families. So there's still a lot of family organizations that evoke those kinds of images about race that are not what I would say are brave ways of engaging race, but rather sort of recognize it as something that's flowery.
Then I would say the next phase that I've observed us going in as a community is trying to figure out: How do you deal with racial socialization, cultural socialization in what I would call It's About More Than Hair? So I think the next stopping point phase is like, "Oh, Black children's hair is different, and you need to figure that out." And while that is really important, I stand here before you as a Black woman telling you hair is really important, so please don't misunderstand me in diminishing that as importance, but it's such a starting place. It really is just symbolic about the degree to which a parent has on their radar an understanding of just how big the difference sometimes can be and what you're going to have to learn to do. Hair, dolls, culture camps, transracial adoptee camp, all of these things are important but are so deeply insufficient to really launch somebody with a sense of belonging and a solid, experientially-grounded sense of self racially, culturally in a community.
So I think we're still... We've got a long way to go in helping people understand: What does it really take to feel a sense of confidence, especially when you're going into communities of color dragging two white parents behind you. That's not always a ticket to belonging immediately, and acceptance. It's just not. So how do we help white parents be confident about that and figure out how to navigate that as a family? I think that's our next frontier as a community.
EmbraceRace: Yeah. Yeah. Well, yeah. I mean, one piece of advice for people on their webinar to join the EmbraceRace community. We have a lot of discussions about various... It's just very complex, right?
Gina Miranda Samuels: Mm-hmm.
EmbraceRace: And you have to be on the journey and willing to learn about many different... It's not one and done, right?
Gina Miranda Samuels: Yep.
EmbraceRace: Okay. Gina put together some great resources for you all, and I'm going to put them in the chat window, as well. That study of where families adopting transracially end up living... That's really fascinating.
Gina Miranda Samuels: And for people who are interested and nerdy, the U.S. census has all kinds of reports on families and special reports on adoption and multiraciality. I would encourage people to do that. And then also, in my book with Kelly [Faye Jackson, Multiracial Cultural Attunement], we also have, after every chapter, "Learn more" and "Know more" [sections]. So there's also resources in there that I would encourage people to check out.
EmbraceRace: There's a question here about the role of white saviorism in transracial adoption and the impacts it has on adoptees. Hopefully, adopting as a white family transracially doesn't make you someone who engages in white saviorism, but are you seeing sort of a connection?
Gina Miranda Samuels: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's an identity path that most white people, especially liberal white people or Christian white people or white people generally have to reconcile in their own identity around power. What does it mean to do good for others that are then oftentimes portrayed as needing help from others? I think that that's a natural thing that all people need to work through and certainly then comes to a head because the world engages adoptive families in this way. The world will come up to a white adoptive parent and say, "Oh, my gosh, you're so amazing. You're such a good person. You've done such an amazing thing," and oftentimes aren't fully conscious of what they're doing. And sometimes that's a thing that is rejected by the parents.
So the parents have to learn how to talk other white people through that way of gushing about what they've done, but also the way that that then lands on the kid that's sitting there thinking, "Wow, I was a piece of garbage that somebody picked up, and this other person is getting all kinds of accolades for being brave enough to do something so difficult and hard and unusual as to want me." The people who say those things are never intending to say something that hurtful or harmful to the child. But from a child's perspective, to be the person that is the recipient of the saving oftentimes leaves you, as an adopted person, with a lot of identity work around trying to understand: Who is your birth family? How do you feel good about yourself when the world understands your birth family as something that you should've been rescued from, or your birth community or country as something that you should feel lucky to not be close to anymore when that is oftentimes a loss that is deeply invalidated for most adoptees?
There's a really good quote from the Reverend Keith C. Griffith, and he says, "Adoption trauma is the only trauma in the world for which everyone expects the victim to be grateful." So I think that savior way of engaging transracial adoptive families often does that kind of invalidating of that loss and also the invalidation of the complexity of the communities to which the adopted person comes from and belongs to and could potentially belong to. But it complicates it and adds incredible baggage to understand adoption as the rescuing of someone.
EmbraceRace: Super thoughtful answer, thank you so much. I have a very thoughtful question here from Mary, who wants to be pointed, it's another resource request, to good resources for extended family, that is grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. And one reason I and we love this so much is because, as we said, EmbraceRace is first and foremost for parents, but we always super mindful to talk about caregivers, meaning not only family members but pediatricians and child therapists, all of these adults, coaches in the lives of children who very often don't see themselves. Parents and teachers, obvious, but lots of other adults have a role to play, sometimes a significant... Certainly grandparenting now can be major, as well as aunts/uncles. As Mary suggests, I know that there's certainly some adoption agencies that even specialize in transracial adoption or have transracial adoption as a significant part of their work that try to provide at least some guidance to adoptive parents. But if you're talking about a white family and an extended family that is perhaps exclusively white, all of these other folks don't have, didn't make the choice, and don't necessarily have any kind of preparation but can play a significant role.
I can tell she feels that. So, yeah, anything you want to say about that in general, and any particular resources aimed at these extended family members?
Gina Samuels: Yeah, I think this is one place where we're really narrow at how we understand adoption generally. It really is very myopically about placing this child with these parents, and then we go away and think magic happens. Magic can happen, but so does the extended family happen, and as you said earlier, they didn't choose this. So sometimes, even when parents think that they've had these conversations about how are people going to show up, when the thing actually happens, and people actually show up, how they show up, I think there's a lot of support that's needed for parents about: How do you navigate the racism of your biological family or your family broadly? How do you do that? And for extended family about how to show with a child of color that you may not have imagined having as part of your family, but how do you think now? How do you rethink about what a safe school is? How do you rethink about that family cabin that you love so much up in norther Wisconsin where I had to go?
So it requires the whole family to rethink, How are we a place that is nurturing a child that might have a very different experience of our family and our family traditions than we do, our beloved family traditions that may or may not come off as quite beloved? And I think that that doesn't mean that families can't change and that grandparents can't change. I hear a lot of people say, "Well, she's old. She's grandma. She can't... I've seen people change in amazing ways, even in late life. But it does require a lot of help and support, and it requires parents to draw some pretty clear boundaries of safety around their nuclear family should they have circumstances where their extended family is not a safe spot for their kids in the meantime, while the extended family is working out how they're going to engage with the child.
There aren't a lot of resources that include or even consider extended family as positive resources, which they certainly can be, or as potential sites where racism and all kinds of other things can come in very intimate spaces and ways to children, starting very, very young. So I would say this is one place where there's not been a lot of work. I know my colleague, Kelly, has written a little bit about the role of grandparents in socializing kids to their own ethnic backgrounds in situations outside of transracial adoption. But in the condition of transracial adoption, we don't have access to relatives who can do that socialization in our extended family anywhere. Oftentimes, the work is anti-racist work as opposed to helping us to make inroads into communities of color.
EmbraceRace: Gina, you've prepared a list of resources on transracial adoption for us and even a tip sheet with guidance for what adults who have transracially adopted kids in their lives should consider or people who are thinking about it. I wonder if you could just, in a brief way, talk about: What are the things that parents transracially adopting do that are most helpful or not at all helpful? Broadly.
Gina Miranda Samuels: I think one of the really important things that transracial adoptive parents either get really right or get really off is how to handle when their kid comes to them with a situation that's likely about racism. And the helpful is to connect on the emotional level and not spend a lot of time trying to figure out: Was it racism or not? In a lot of the trainings that I've done, I find that white parents sometimes spend an incredible amount of time wanting to diagnose the experience and target and getting followed, and: Was that racism? Were they really followed? Did that cashier really look at them oddly or ask them for something? Was it racism?
Incredible energy is spent in a way that myself and any of my other friends of color would never spend all this time trying to figure it out, things that you may never, ever be able to figure out. Parents who get it right are able to be in that moment with their kid when this thing happens and connect on an emotional level and be able to talk it through with them about how their child experienced that and not spend time asking their kid to prove, Were they sure that it was racism? or invalidate how their child is experiencing that.
I think the other thing that parents can get right is that, when you're adopting, this kid should not be your first person of color in your life. Unlike families that find themselves parenting biracial children out of interracial union, oftentimes parents who are adopting, this may be the first time they've had a person of color in their intimate space. And when that's true, it creates a very weird dynamic for that child to be that adult's first opportunity to see the world in a way that that adult should be at least a little bit able to lead a child through various communities and having had those experiences. So I think, when I've talked to people and certainly in my own life, it's a lot easier when a parent has already had friendships and experiences and a whole history of connection in an ethnic community that that child that they're going to be raising will also need to find their way through. And when that parent doesn't have those kinds of relational anchors themselves, it's a game of catch-up that sometimes is really hard for parents. And oftentimes kids outpace their parents, and that creates really awkward role reversals for parents and children.
And I would say the last piece, which is an adoption issue, is just parents getting around this idea that sameness is not the only space through which we can connect to one another, and that difference can also be a place of really profound connection interpersonally. But I think white people oftentimes don't have these opportunities in their lives to understand that or to practice that or to see that, especially with regard to race. So when difference, race difference comes into the family, oftentimes parents try to minimize those differences and maximize sameness as opposed to being able to do... seeing this and difference together as both places of connection and appreciation and authentic bonding as a family.
EmbraceRace: Gina, thank you. I want to pull back and ask about this big question of expectations of transracial adoption as as a sort of phenomenon and a growing phenomenon. I'm thinking especially of transracial adoptees and transracial adoptive families are one of those populations, along with mixed-race families in general, multiracial children, of whom people sometimes think, "Oh, that's going to save us from themselves," virtually speaking.
Gina Samuels: Oh, yeah.
EmbraceRace: The browning of America, right?
Gina Samuels: Yes.
EmbraceRace: Not only demographic change but the growth of these, again, mixed race identity folks who arrive there from different pathways. What, in general, do you say? What's your response? Can you respond to that expectation ...?
Gina Samuels: Yes. Yeah, I think that's crazy. I think there's no way that just because I'm biologically multiple things that I have the answer to problems that we have been struggling with as human beings for millennia. That's just ridiculous. I understand why people would hope for that, but multiracial people aren't new. Mixed race isn't new. We've been mixing for a long time as people. So we still haven't figured it out, how to be together with each other despite our mixing. I certainly think that there are opportunities when you embody something that is seen as such polar opposite, that it does give you opportunity to see worlds and try on different ways of being from that space from that space of marginalization. But I don't believe there's any sort of evidence that, as mixed race people or mixed race families, that we have any bigger share of the market of utopia or an answer to problems. And sometimes we embody those problems in our families and live them and reify them more than we do rectify them.
So I think we are as flawed as anyone else and as vulnerable and as hopeful and strength-based and all of those things as any other family, and we do deal with some things that are different and distinct in our particularity, but I don't believe that just by virtue of putting people together, that we have some magic that happens that we're going to rescue the rest of the world from racial problems that we've created and continue to live. I think we're in, and we should be part of the solution, and we're part of the problem, and we should join together as a collective in finding a path forward. But I don't think we're necessarily going to lead us out in some magical way.
EmbraceRace: Let me do a little bit of devil's advocacy there to push it a little bit.
Gina Samuels: Yeah, go for it.
EmbraceRace: So I think what the people who take that stance are often saying is at least two things sometimes not made explicit. One is that white... through, again, these different ways of, as it were, mixing with or incorporating racial difference into their own families or at least extended families, that that's happening much more than it used to 50 years ago, number one. And two, that the mechanism of change, really, is the effect of that on the white people in the families, that if you have more and more... I saw one study, very hard to do this in a way that would lend lots of credibility to these results, but one study claiming that 60% of white people in the United States now say that their extended families are multiracial. So if that's true and if this sort of closeup encounter with, again, racial difference in the form of perhaps children, most often children they love, gosh, does that collectively create some sort of change in the sensibilities, perceptions of people who didn't have that kind of compelling reason to change before? And you think no.
Gina Samuels: I know... So you're a guy. You're married to a woman. Does being married to a woman undo sexism in our country?
EmbraceRace: OK, point well taken.
Gina Miranda Samuels: So, I mean, I'd like to say that, in this case, heterosexual men who have wives and maybe have daughters, that that has a potential to open you up to seeing masculinity and patriarchy and male dominance in a new way, but it may not. We won't get into that.
Gina Miranda Samuels: But I just want to just invite you to consider a condition that we've been living with as human beings for a long time, and we still have sexism. We still have misogyny, and many of these men who are the most egregious offenders of these things are married to women and have daughters. So I think it's reasonable to hope that, if we were to have these intimate relationships, that they would undo some of the insidiousness of white supremacy and racism and eurocentricity and monoracism, but it's not an automatic. It's a starting place for it to potentially happen, but there's so much contentionality and work that needs to happen for our undoing of all that we know. So we play those same hierarchies and inequalities in our own families unconsciously and reproduce it as opposed to undo it.
EmbraceRace: So, again, lots of questions, we won't get to all of them. But what are the differences between the experiences of multiracial children and those of children of color who are monoracial when they are adopted by white parents or white-appearing parents?
Gina Samuels: Yeah. I think some of it... Increasingly, the more that we have interracial couples who have biological children, when you're light-skinned, and you're walking around at least with one of your parents, it is a little bit more difficult for people to understand. Are you adopted, or is it a biological child situation? I think there's some level of outness that happens for kids who are not racially ambiguous and identify as single race or are darker-skinned from their parent, where there's automatically an assumption that you're adopted and that that's how this all happened. As opposed to, for kids who are mixed race with white, in particular, and with at least one white parent, that there's some other biological story that could explain your racial difference.
I think that's a... You stick out a little bit more when you're not mixed race with white and who have white parents and have to understand and explain your connection to whiteness. You know, "Why do you talk the way you do? How is it that a Korean person talks like a white girl? What's that about?" And how do you explain that to other Koreans who look at you and see you but that the way you move through the world and the way you talk, culturally, is not anchored in someplace familiar. I think there's ways of explaining your family that are more socially-available narratives for people to understand if you're mixed race and transracially adopted that if you are not mixed race and transracially adopted.
EmbraceRace: I wanted... Our time, unfortunately, is almost done. It went so quickly. This has went fabulous. I wanted to share one quick anecdote...
Gina Samuels: Oh, great.
EmbraceRace: ... that so, I don't know, just opened things up for me with respect to transracial adoption, this one particular person's experience, although, as she tells, it definitely is not emblematic only of her experience. A short story, a woman, Asian American, I think mixed race Asian, adopted by a white family becomes a living organ donor for a distant cousin. They become very, very close, very, very close, talking two or three times a day two years after. She has two young children. He, the cousin, and his partner are very supportive, sending care packages, super close because that's obviously an intense experience. And she said that that experience and their relationship sort of lifted up for her this concern that had been latent and intensified it, which was this: when my... She said, "When my parents, my white parents, who are in their 70s, when they die, will I still be a member of this family?"
Gina Samuels: Yeah. Yeah, that's very common. That's very common. I just talked with a friend of mine who's also adopted, and both of us talked about our parent dying, and we felt like orphans. It makes no logical sense, but it's a strong emotional feeling that kind of comes from your first abandonment. Yeah, very common, that these are lifetime identities. You can have it all figured out and be a fancy professor, and something can happen in your life, and all of a sudden, it comes forward again for you to do some more identity work.
EmbraceRace: And I wonder, Gina, in talking to her, I got the sense that what made this relationship with this distant cousin to whom she donated an organ, part of what made it so remarkable is, my sense was, that she didn't feel... She didn't have anything approaching that relationship with other extended members of the family. So it made it that much more pronounced. I wonder, is your sense that... Is it just sort of a significant part of the experience of being a transracial adoptee that, that aside, the nature of your relationships, the intensity of your relationships with family notwithstanding, it's likely that this is going to be a concern? Or is it fair to say that it might be greatly exacerbated if, in fact, you don't have close ties with family members?
Gina Samuels: I think regardless of your close ties, it's just an issue. It's just a thing. It just is a fact of your beginning, and it doesn't have to be a devastating thing. But the idea that being close to somebody undoes a trauma before is just not... They're different things. They're related and tied to different parts of you, and as you move through your life, they are like strings that get played and get bubbled up for you. And it has nothing to do... My feeling that I was an orphan had nothing to do with, and I don't think would have been made less or more... I had a wonderful relationship with my mom. So it was, as it would be for anybody to lose a parent who they are best friends with, it was devastating. But as an extra layer of loss, when you recognize you've already had a loss earlier that you are still kind of figuring out. So it isn't... I don't think it's something that you can undo with love. It just is a part of... It's an added part of who you are.
EmbraceRace: Mm-hmm. You just have to support your children in that feeling, let them have the feeling.
Gina Miranda Samuels: Mm-hmm. Yeah, this is normal.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, yeah. That's great to single out. So, Gina, again, millions of questions here. Thank you so much for this time and, everyone out there, thanks for your questions. Gina, I said, provided a lot of resources, and some of these questions that people had, some of them are more about talking to kids about race in general, things that we really encourage you to go to EmbraceRace for. And we'll certainly send Gina these questions.
Gina Miranda Samuels: Thanks.
EmbraceRace: We won't have to answer all of them, but if there's something that's quick... So thank you so much, everybody.
Gina Samuels: Thank you.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, professor and transracial adoptee, Gina Miranda Samuels, thank you, thank you, thank you. I think you gave... The amount of insight and information you gave in a very short time was amazing.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Gina Miranda Samuels: Oh, thank you.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, we appreciate you.
Gina Samuels: Appreciate you.
Books and Articles
New and experienced parents sometimes find books a helpful place to increase knowledge. There are many websites that also offer a host of resources and links for both parents and children, including adults who were adopted. These are only a few books that include topics related to today’s discussion of transracial adoption, including issues specific to adoptive parents.
Baden, A. L. (2016). “Do you know your real parents?” and other adoption micro-aggressions. Adoption Quarterly, 19(1), 1-25.
Chang. S. H. (2016). Raising mixed race: Multiracial Asian children in a post-racial world. New York: Routledge.
Eldridge, S. (2009). 20 Things adopted kids wished their adoptive parents knew. New York, NY: Dell Publishing.
Hamako, E. (2015). An introduction to monoracism. Chicago: DePaul University.
Jackson, K. F. & Miranda Samuels, G. E. (2019). Multiracial cultural attunement. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Steinberg, G., and Hall, B. (2013). Inside transracial adoption: Culture-sensitizing parenting strategies for inter-country or domestic adoptive families that don't "match." London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Rockquemore, K., and Lazsloffy, T. (2005). Raising biracial children. California: Alta Mira Press
Krieder, R., and Raleigh, E. (2016). Residential Racial Diversity: Are Transracial Adoptive Families More Like Multiracial or White Families?, Southwestern Social Science Association, 97(5), 1189-1207.
Blogs & Online Support
Please be aware that online resources, including Facebook groups, can and do change quickly. Many are not routinely, critically, or closely monitored, so beware! Many private adoption agencies also have links to resources for adoptive parents in particular, and post-adoption supports. There are also many adoptee and adoptive family support groups, support groups, and local activities too many to list. Please search online for these opportunities to engage with persons and families shaped by transracial adoption within your local communities. The below named resources are only a few suggested places to start!
American Adoptions News has a resource page for parents as well as for adoptees primarily focusing on domestic adoptions.
Considering adoption is an online resource for persons exploring adoption both domestic and international. They also have resources for birth parents considering adoption of their infants. The website has information including adoption statistics, current issues in adoption, and resources for adoptees that can be found here.
Creating a Family is a national non-profit infertility, adoption and foster care educational resource. They provide high quality, free and low cost information and educational supports to families and professionals through online trainings, courses, and podcasts. These trainings, podcasts and courses are available to anyone and can be easily accessed through their website.
Dr. Amanda Baden is a researcher, scholar and clinician whose work focuses on transracial adoption and transnational/international adoption in particular. An insider to transnational adoption, her webpage features myriad resources on adoption, including information about adoption conferences and current research studies.
Dr. JaeRan Kim is a social work scholar, insider to adoption and writer on contemporary issues of social justice, ethics and adoption. Her blog and web page feature a host of writings and reflections on race, culture and adoption politics and social work practice.
Holt International is an organization that focuses on international transracial adoptions and has developed post-adoption services for adoptees and their families. The website here, includes post adoption resources, information relevant to all in the adoption triad: birth parents, adoptees, and adoptive parents.
I am adopted is a blog created by Jessenia Arias with many resources for adoptees, including those of Black and LatinX heritage. She emphasizes the importance of building a sense of purpose and worth by helping adoptees find their voices.
Rhonda Roorda is an insider to adoption, international speaker and author of research on transracial adoption. Her web page features her published work and links to resources primarily centering domestic transracial adoption.
The Lost Daughters is a blog founded in 2011 and collaborative writing project by a group of women aged 20-60 with a range of adoption experiences. Their writing features diverse politics and perspectives on adoption that are all joined together by the shared value of “adoptee voice matters.”
Return to the top of this page to watch or read our Talking Race & Kids online conversation with Gina Samuels: Doing Race, Family and Culture Through Transracial Adoption.