Adoption outside your ethnic group


The likelihood is that if you decide to adopt in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa and you are not “black zulu” you will be adopting a child who does not come from the same racial group or ethnic background as you. We need to look at the psychological and emotional ramifications of such an adoption. It is easy to say that a child will learn the family, church, community culture and that is so. However, sooner or later, because of the physical and visible and obvious differences between the adopted child and his/her adoptive family-there will be curiosity about the differences and interest in having questions answered in a way which addresses the issues that arise from these.

The implications of Race versus Culture

The term ethnicity involves both race and culture. “Race” means a person’s genetic make up and involves attributes such as skin and eye colour, hair texture, and other distinctive racial features. Ethnicity involves cultural background, such as Jewish, Arab, Zulu, Xhosa etc. There are hundreds of possible ethnic identifications. “Culture” means lifestyle, traditions and behaviours that might have nothing to do with genetics, but are often distinct between groups of people. Culture is a chosen behaviour. Race is a physical characteristic beyond anyone’s control. Your choices about blending your child’s heritage into your family’s culture will shape your future together in unique ways. The main point is that, whilst biology is important, environment and culture will determine who your child becomes.

The Breakdown of Racial Barriers

The fact that the world is becoming a smaller place due to modern travel and communication has opened up world trade and interaction and allowed people to learn about other cultures and heritages more easily.

As society progresses and science learns more about the realities of genetic and environmental influences, these artificial barriers between people will become less important. We are all physically different from each other. The traits that some people seem to pinpoint as racial characteristics (such as skin colour, eye shape etc) do not have to stop family members who are racially different from feeling close and accepted by each other.

However, children who recognize their racial differences within a family or community can have negative conflicted feelings at some time during their developmental years. Parents must be willing to acknowledge and help resolve these difficult feelings or it can lead to children feeling disconnected from their adoptive family. This is particularly true in the adolescent years when teens are struggling to establish their identity.

Culture plays an important role in child development

The arguments against cross racial / cultural adoption seem to be mainly about preserving a specific culture rather than about the genetic make up of the child and prospective parents. Those who argue against it say that by placing a child in a family of a different race, the adoptive child loses his connection with his racial group and heritage and that group’s culture is eroded by this loss. Consider the following questions:

  • What is my attitude towards the culture of my child’s biological family?
  • How will my extended family respond to a child who is different to them?
  • How will my neighbourhood and community react to a child of a particular race?
  • What steps will I take to promote attachment and cohesiveness within my family?
  • What can I do to help my child feel connected to her cultural and racial background?

As you answer these questions keep in mind that, according to Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall, experts in the field of transracial adoptions, children adopted by parents from a different race live with two racial realities – one from their family of origin and one from the family they are adopted into. These children cannot choose between their families and their race without experiencing serious psychological harm. As an adoptive parent, it is your job to make sure that your child never has to choose, and that she can accept and live with both realities.

Good News about Trans-racial Adoptions

A study by Rita Simon and Howard Alstein indicated that: “Thinking back and with the knowledge of hindsight and the experience accumulated, 92% of adoptive parents would have adopted outside their ethnic group again, even knowing the challenges and problems they would face” A 20 year study of trans-racial adoptions (386 black children and 204 white families who adopted them) indicated that children generally do well with adoptive parents of another race and that “trans-racial adoption causes no special problems”. In fact it may produce adults who possess superior interpersonal skills and talents.

Think about Your Own Motives

Adopting a child who is ethnically different from you requires you to become educated about what that other ethnicity entails. Having a heart full of love and wanting to build your family through adoption are prerequisites, but adoption is a unique adventure and can get complicated, even without the challenge of parenting a child from a different ethnic background. Powerful and positive motives (for example those which consider the orphan situation in South Africa) need to be tempered with education and research as well as a clear-eyed assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses for taking on what can be a complicated challenge. It is one thing to want to do good in the world and another to live in a family that faces the possible challenges of a trans-racial adoption. You need to think not only about what your beliefs are, but about what kind of family you are most comfortable building and supporting. If you believe that adopting a child from a different racial and ethnic background would be too challenging for you then this is the right decision for your family.

Attitude and Pressure from Relatives

Your extended family’s preconceived ideas will either help or hinder your choice to adopt a child of a different race. Relatives may say you should “stick to your own kind” or may make racist remarks. Your challenge with family members who resist such an adoption is to lovingly educate them and try not to take comments to heart. However, if family members are openly hostile or even just cool toward your child, you have to tell them that their behaviour is unacceptable and that there will be no contact until their attitude and behaviour changes. If in addition to the adopted child you have biological children or other adopted children of the same race as you, this stance is critical. Your child is your first priority and a relative’s feelings are secondary.

Strategies for Parenting a Racially Different Child

Your challenge will be to demonstrate to your child that you cherish her differences because they are part of what makes her a special individual. Short or tall, fair or dark skinned, curly or straight haired, a child’s physical appearance should be taken for granted; never say anything that disparages characteristics that cannot be changed.

Stress how your child is similar to you and the rest of the family. Come up with 2 or 3 similarities for every difference that you comment on, so your child can feel firmly connected to her place in your family. Use statements that emphasize commonalities and strengthen the family bond.

Your child makes your family different; be ready to deal with the reactions of people who are uncomfortable with or even afraid of differences. If you and your family obviously enjoy not only your own blended culture, but others as well, you will provide a positive example to your extended family and community.

Helping Your Child Connect with Her Heritage

By demonstrating that you are interested in the cultural heritage of your child’s racial / ethnic group, you are accepting everything about her. You are also validating her lineage and her physical realities. Doing so may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile.

Find adults who come from the same ethnic and racial background as your child. Enlist the help for example, of black friends as mentors. Your child needs to see other faces and body types similar to hers, especially as she becomes and adolescent. There are many ways to help your child connect to her ethnic and cultural heritage – think of these. Some families make an effort to incorporate celebrations and traditions from many countries and different cultures and ethnic groups, so they can all feel truly connected to people all over the world.

Talk about Differences but don’t focus exclusively on Differences

Some adoptive parents worry that separating their children’s specific heritage interferes with family solidarity and bonding, but talking about differences in a positive way can be helpful. However, most experts as well as adoptive parents of grown children caution against overemphasizing your child’s racial heritage over your family’s culture. You should trust your instincts and knowledge of your own child as you raise her to be the best person she can be. Don’t go overboard – take your clues from your child, especially as she approaches adolescence.

Adolescents can be very sensitive about being made to feel different. Some children will express curiosity about their birth families at this time and others will prefer to settle into their school and social lives. They may even become hostile if you bring up their culture and ethnicity outside your family and you may have to back off.

Experienced adoption professionals and adult adoptees advise you to really get to know your child, to observe her and figure out how she’s different from and similar to you in personality, and not make assumptions based on her heritage. They suggest you consider such things as her taste in food and music, whether she has an intense or relaxed personality, her body type etc. As you notice differences, you should acknowledge them in a loving, validating way, just as you would notice and cherish differences between you and your biological children. Your children, adopted or biological are totally different people from each other and from you. Be careful not to overemphasize distinctions, or your child may feel odd and disconnected.

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