This is Béatrice and this is her story: ‘‘I have Madagascan blood in my veins, but otherwise, yes, I’m closer to France […]. The family that adopted me is French, I took my first steps on French soil, I learned to talk in France and was educated here. But, well, I know that I am Madagascan and anyway I’m proud of it’’ . Our sense of self influences our mental and emotional stability. In Béatrice’s case, she has a clear ethnic identity, which positively influences her psychological well-being.
During adolescence, teenagers spend a majority of their time and energy attempting to figure out who they are and how they fit into society. The main factors influencing this pivotal time are culture, community, language, and family. For transracially adopted (TRA) children that differ from their parents culturally, racially, and ethnically, the formation of their identity is much more complex.
They must find a balance between their ethnic identity, and their adopted community identity.
Without a proper idea of who they are, they could be negatively impacted for the rest of their lives in their community, relationships, and general mental health. This potential threat to their identity affects 40% of all adopted children; however, the statistic is steadily declining as fewer children are being transracially adopted. The topic of transracial adoption and identity development has yet to come to a succinct conclusion. While there are studies that support the positive relationship between ethnic identity and overall psychological well-being, others determine there is no relationship.
The identity development of TRA children is essential for their well-being and is highly dependent on their interactions with individuals in their community and family when considering their sense of belonging, knowledge of their biological culture, and the effects of racism.
Critics of transracial adoption tend to focus on the impact it has on the mental development of the child. Lawmakers in Russia and Ethiopia have posed international adoption bans under the pretense that it is in the best interest of the child (Montgomery 1). Additionally, many European authors believe the adopted child should share the same culture as the rest of the family and if the child’s culture differs from the parents, then it will promote differences that hinder the family unit (Harf 2). Hollingsworth discovered that TRA children express significantly lower ethnic identity levels in contrast to in-racial adoptees. On the other hand, this study failed to consider the factors associated with ethnic identity development, which are necessary to fully understand its impact on TRA children.
Though it may seem that TRA hinders identity development, under the right circumstances, transracial adoptees are under no disadvantage in comparison to their non-adopted, in-racial peers. In fact, there was found to be little to no difference between TRA children and their non-adopted peers in terms of self-esteem levels (Ferrari 437). These findings demonstrate how under positive conditions, TRA children have equal opportunities to develop a proper identity that will assist them throughout their lives.
Though these concerns are valid, they cannot discredit the institution of TRA. Adopting international children into wealthier countries with limitless opportunities supplies them with the space to be whoever and do whatever they want to. Unfortunately, most of the time that leaves them desperately searching for who they are in relation to their birth and adopted culture. A study conducted by Laelia Benoit demonstrates TRA minors in France had an ambivalent sense of belonging. Some felt the color of their skin shaped where they belonged, while others stated it depended on where they lived. However, most of the time, they often felt more connected to their adopted country (“Shifting Views and Building Bonds…” 410-411). For these children, the desire to learn more about their ethnic culture creates a mental battle between where they feel they should belong. McRoy found that 11% of African American TRA children stated they would prefer to be white and their parents claimed 27% of their children self-identified as white.
By identifying with their adoptive parents’ culture, TRA children are at an increased likelihood of experiencing hardships during interactions with those who share their birth culture/race. To successfully gain a true sense of belonging that incorporates both cultures- their birth and adopted culture- TRA children can learn the language, try traditional food, celebrate holidays, learn of traditions, watch and listen to films and music, and learn how they physically resemble those who come from the same ethnic background. This process is termed “reculturation”, where TRA’s search to familiarize themselves with their birth culture, which is then their second culture. Not only will these activities assist them in balancing where they fit into both cultures, but it will also lead to the development of a strong ethnic and cultural identity. This is not only important for their own self-worth but contributes to healthy relationships with their family and community. Furthermore, if TRA adolescents fail to acquire a strong ethnic identity, it may lead to role confusion and an identity crisis later in life.
The accumulation of an ethnic identity is one of the main ways to prevent TRA children from being at a disadvantage with their psychological well-being and self-esteem. While the relationship between self-esteem and identity is complicated, Harf discusses how many studies show a positive correlation between cultural identity, high self-esteem, and psychological well-being. However, overemphasizing the birth culture of TRA children as well as their ethnic/racial differences was shown to negatively affect their overall well-being. An experiment by Mohanty uncovered that having a moderate level of ethnic identity correlated with positive self-esteem in comparison to high and low levels of identity, which were associated with low esteem.
To support this hypothesis, he discussed several studies, including those involving Korean-born adoptees and Chinese girls. Each of them concluded that there was a positive association between ethnic identity and psychological well-being. Thus furthering the demand for TRA’s to form their identity. Not only does an increased ethnic identity aid with having a higher self-esteem, but it is also associated with lower behavioral and mental problems. After childhood, transracial adoptees were found to be more likely than other adoptees to present psychiatric disorders, such as anxiety disorder, depression, and substance abuse. However, TRA minorities who have a strong cultural identity tend to outperform others in relation to intellectual ability, refraining from antisocial behavior, and abstaining from substance abuse. Additional studies indicate that acknowledging racial and ethnic differences correlate with decreased levels of delinquent behavior among Korean adoptees. Therefore, ethnic identity is a strong predictor for low levels of behavioral and emotional problems.
The problem with developing a racial/ethnic identity is that it insinuates choosing one culture over the other. However, bicultural identity integration (BII) “reflects how individuals who experience more than one culture organize and combine their dual cultural backgrounds”. Ferrari and colleagues conducted a study displaying how BII correlated with increased levels of psychological well-being a year later in comparison to ethnic and national identity. While BII is shown to positively affect the TRA child, it is only one of many approaches to dealing with dual origin and therefore should not be recognized as the “correct” way. Obtaining an appropriate knowledge and acceptance of the TRA child’s biological cultural background is an important step in identity development.
Contrary to what many people may think, the adoptee is not the only one responsible for this step in their life. The adopted parents also play an important role. While some parents actively expose their child to their biological culture, many also close them off entirely. Furthermore, a majority of parents adjust the amount of information they tell their child according to their questions. The role of the parent is to create a comfortable environment where the child feels safe enough to explore their ethnic identity. When interviewed, many TRA children described a fear of hurting their parents if they expressed interest in their birth country and parents. If the adoptive parents allowed their children to explore their racial identity, then the overall well-being of the child could be exponentially higher.
As mentioned previously, it is important not to overemphasize ethnic differences. When families ignore or constantly acknowledge these racial distinctions, feelings of isolation increase in the TRA child. A specific case involves the parents of the TRA child constantly attempting to teach their child about their African American heritage and stressing the importance of their racial and cultural differences. As a result, the child expressed lower adjustment levels in adolescence. These studies demonstrate the necessity to not isolate TRA children due to their physical and cultural differences within their family.
Another question is whether the age of the adopted child impacts the development of their identity. Though the study by McRoy supports the idea that TRA children lack a sense of belonging, she discovered that in adulthood, those same individuals were comfortable with who they were and had a strong racial identity (“An Organizational Dilemma…”150). This leads to wondering whether adolescence factors into the identity development process. According to Padilla and colleagues, identity development commences in a child during the foreclosure stage where they can recognize race. Next, during early adolescence, the child becomes aware of racial discrimination. It isn’t until the moratorium stage where the child begins to discover how they fit into that ethnic group (“Influence of Age…” 56). Therefore, after discovering higher identity levels in late-adopted adolescents in comparison to the identity of children who were adopted before the age of 1, they were not surprised (50). This demonstrates how age facilitates the ability to develop an ethnic identity.
In addition to TRA minors gaining a knowledge of their birth culture, the accumulation of an ethnic identity is greatly impacted by racism and discrimination. It is well known that not only will transracial adoptees differ from their parents ethnically and culturally, but also racially. Due to these physical differences, TRA children are more likely to experience discrimination in their daily lives. Racism may come in the form of harassment, assault, isolation, and bullying. According to Harf, applying the techniques of cultural socialization (i.e., the way in which parents inform the child of cultural values and norms) is said to encourage the child’s pride in their heritage (“Cultural Identity and Internationally…” 2). By having pride in their birth country, adoptees also demonstrate improved self-esteem levels. This enables them to better cope with racial discrimination.
Racism negatively affects the emotional development of the TRA child in multiple ways. They are shown to have sleep issues, lower self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and overall psychological distress. Ferrari demonstrated in her study how ethnic identity managed to minimize the dangerous effects of discrimination on the self-esteem of the TRA child (“How international transracial adoptees…” 437). The relationship between racism and ethnic identity further supports the need to assist transracial adoptees in developing the tools that will benefit them throughout their lives in their adopted society.
Those who oppose transracial adoption base their entire argument on their belief that TRA children are under a disadvantage when it comes to their psychological well-being. However, this is proven false by several studies that discuss the implications of having an ethnic identity on feelings of belonging in their society and family, gaining knowledge of their birth culture, and how they cope with experiences of discrimination and racism. If the parents of the TRA children assist them in developing an ethnic identity that is neither ignored nor overemphasized, then transracial adoptees are capable of living comfortably in their society. Though many may still be discriminated against, it shouldn’t have a detrimental effect on their self-esteem and well-being. In this case, the advantages of transracial adoption outweigh the disadvantages.
Despite the steadily declining rate of transracial adoption, it continues to be a powerful opportunity for the child and parents, ultimately diversifying their family. It leads to important questions about race and ethnicity that broaden the perspective of their community. Additionally, TRA children are capable of having an overall healthier identity than their peers if handled in a correct matter. This allows them to grow up happily confident with who they are and what they can do for their society. Transracial adoption also grants children opportunities that they might not have had otherwise in their birth country. The world needs to be more open to the idea of transracial adoption and become knowledgeable about the good it can do for each country involved. After all, we are the ones preaching love and acceptance for all. Transracial adoption may be k