For decades, white Americans have adopted children of color here in the United States and from other countries such as South Korea, Guatemala, China and Ethiopia. In many cases, these children are raised in white families with no awareness of the culture they came from. This was particularly true in the past, says licensed professional counselor Susan Branco Alvarado, who specializes in counseling clients who were adopted, adoptive families and birth families.
“It used to be that back in the day, they [transracial adopted children] would just assimilate, but we’ve come to a point where we know that backfires,” says Alvarado, an American Counseling Association member who is a clinical assistant professor and division director of the Loyola Clinical Centers at Loyola University Maryland.
Even so, many families today are still unprepared for the challenges that transracial adoption can pose, Alvarado says. For that reason, counselors can serve as a vital source of information and support, she adds.
“In part due to poor pre-adoption preparation, there is an overall lack of awareness of the importance of racial and ethnic identity development in the transracial adoptive family life cycle,” Alvarado explains. “Professional counselors can assist by emphasizing the real burden this places on the child — not to guilt or shame parents, but rather to encourage their empathy and understanding of what their child may experience.”
If white parents fail to acknowledge their adopted child’s race, they are leaving the child unprepared for a world in which he or she will be perceived as a person of color, Alvarado says. Children in transracial adoptions may face teasing or bullying not only because they might be different from their peers, but also because they do not look like their parents look, she adds. And even if these children have schoolmates of color, they still may find themselves feeling like outsiders because their primary exposure has been to white culture, Alvarado explains.
Experts encourage white parents with children of color to do their best to expose children to their birth culture or race instead of focusing so much on assimilating them to the parents’ culture. “More parents are [now] doing things like culture camps, birth country visits, taking Chinese lessons or going to an African American person to cut the child’s hair,” Alvarado says.
Alvarado acknowledges the value of these efforts, but she adds that research shows it is even more beneficial when the whole family is immersed in the adopted child’s birth culture. For example, instead of living in a predominantly white neighborhood, it is helpful for these families to move to a more diverse location to live among people of color.
Counselors obviously shouldn’t tell a family where to live, Alvarado says, but they can provide the family with support and information. For instance, Alvarado recommends that counselors help parents look for community organizations that support people who are part of the child’s birth culture or racial group. For help with this and other aspects of transracial adoption, she recommends Pact (pactadopt.org), a nonprofit adoption organization whose mission is to serve adopted children of color. Pact not only places children of color but also provides support and resources for adoptees of color and their families. Parents can also find local transracial adoption organizations or connect with support groups online.
Counselors should also understand that even though white parents have adopted children of color, they still may hold racial biases of which they are unaware, Alvarado says. “Ask parents to look at their own biases,” she urges. “Ask them, ‘What were you told growing up? How are you demonstrating implicit bias and not being aware of it?’”
If children sense a bias in their parents, Alvarado says, it may make them reluctant to approach their parents with questions about their backgrounds or let them know when they are experiencing problems at school due to being “different.”
Even parents who have exposed a child to his or her birth culture and are living in a diverse neighborhood should be aware that the child will be curious about his or her history. This can cause feelings of exclusion or loss because the adoptive parents can never be part of that culture group. They can learn about it, but they will never “belong” to it, cautions Alvarado.
“Counselors can take a preventative role with families with younger children in preparation for adolescence by normalizing and validating the developmental aspect of searching and seeking out one’s history,” she says. “One way to highlight the significance of learning about one’s ancestral identity is to spotlight the boom in the DNA testing and genealogy markets in our country and around the world. Counselors can offer adoptive families research that provides the rationale for supporting adopted persons’ need to explore their histories. Finally, counselors can offer a respectful and accepting presence to validate potential feelings of loss, rejection, fear and worry that adoptive parents may experience in response to their child’s search journey.”
Counselors who work with transracial — or any — adoptive family should also examine their own biases, Alvarado emphasizes.
“It is important to note that counselors need to first examine their own bias and presumptions about adoptive persons before engaging in this work with families and individuals,” she says. “While much progress has been made in destigmatizing adoption in this country, many persons hold long-standing beliefs and misunderstandings regarding search and reunion.”
Contact Susan Branco Alvarado at firstname.lastname@example.org
Related reading: See Counseling Today’s December cover story, “Investigating identity” wp.me/p2BxKN-4wI
Also from Counseling Today: “Counseling transracial adult adopted persons” wp.me/p2BxKN-3CE
Laurie Meyers is senior writer at Counseling Today. Contact her at LMeyers@counseling.org
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.