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Understanding Transracial Adoption | By Susan Solomon Yem

Understanding Transracial Adoption | By Susan Solomon Yem

My favorite photo of my daughter and me is one where we are seated side-by-side looking straight at the camera.  What I especially like is that we have the same expression on our faces.  That might not be so unusual, but nothing else about our physical appearance is similar.  I am white and my daughter is Southeast Asian.  


According to data collected in Census 2000, one in six adopted children are of a different race from their parent.   My daughter came into our family as a six month old through the foster care system, but most adopted children of different races are born outside the United States.  85% of international adoptions are transracial.


A Trend from Hollywood?

Because of the publicity surrounding adoptions by Madonna, Charlize Theron and the Jolie-Pitts, it might appear that transracial adoption is a recent phenomenon gaining in popularity as a result of the experiences of these celebrities.   It’s not.  Since the 1990’s international adoptions have more than doubled from 9000 per year to almost 23,000 per year as of 2004.  


Author and adoption educator, Judy M. Miller says, “while we as a society are deeply enamored and influenced by Hollywood, in this case they’re kind a late.  There are thousands of parents who adopted transracially for decades.” Miller,  who wrote What to Expect from Your Adopted Tween (NliveN), is a birth and adoptive parent of three; “there are kids in the U.S. and all over the world who need permanent, loving, nurturing homes.  


Preparing for Delivery

Cathy and Rob McIlvoy, who live in San Mateo, adopted Ian and Noah as newborns.  Already parents to two biological sons, the McIlvoys pursued adoption to enlarge their family because pregnancies were difficult for Cathy.   “When we started the adoption process, we didn’t care about race or gender,” recalls Cathy.  “But because Ian is bi-racial, we wanted our second adopted child to be bi-racial, too.  We didn’t want Ian to be the only one in the family who looked different.” The McIlvoys were open with their sons about their births “From Day One, our boys’ adoptions were never taboo subjects. It was normal conversation.”


“An adopted child has to form not only his biological identity, but his adopted identity and then merge the two,” says Miller.  “It’s complex work.”

While Rob and Cathy McIlvoy read lots of literature to prepare for their sons’ arrivals, organizations such as PACT, an adoption alliance (, in Emeryville, offer extensive education to prepare parents to adopt across racial lines.  Katie Stickles-Wynen, a transracial adoptee (TRA) herself, explains, “The Building Community Across Cultures program allows parents to really look into their lives and communities to see if they can support a child of color.


“We require our families to immerse themselves in communities of color, connecting with individuals and families.  We want our adoptive families to identify service providers who share the race of the child they will adopt, evaluate the schools the child will attend to assure they can support children of color and even learn the child’s birth language, if necessary.  One workshop on transracial adoption is not enough.”


Forging an Identity

The Millers have woven together a multi-racial family – Chinese, Guatemalan and white – that honors and embraces differences and similarities, but that does not mean there aren’t challenging conversations.   “We tackle difficult issues such as racism, discrimination, and stereotyping.”

Some adoptive families, like the McIlvoys deal with hurtful accusations.  “There was an assumption that I slept around,” recalls Cathy who also remembers Ian getting frustrated by a third grade classmate who kept asking him who his real mother was.   


Stickles-Wynen explains, “Every adoptee struggles with the questions, ‘where do I fit in, where do I come from;’ but TRAs have the extra layer of race and all its complexities.  If a TRA is the only child of color in their surroundings, it can be very confusing,” says Stickles-Wynen.  “They often think they are white and when they grow up and move out of the house, they face a harsh, brutal and sometimes dangerous reality.”


Ian used to rub the skin on his arm, trying to change the color.  For ten years he did not want to be the color he is.  He’s come to accept it now, but as a college student, he identifies himself as Caucasian on forms.”


Eighteen-year-old Noah is trying to figure out who he is.  “Male TRAs face different identity struggles than females,” says Stickles-Wynen.  “Girls are naturally curious because of the mother/child connection.  Boys may wonder about their differences, but they don’t always verbalize it.”


Maintaining  Cultural Connections

“My husband and I have exposed our kids to their cultures of origin since they arrived in the U.S.,’ says Miller.  “Our kids are fluent in their birth country languages, but until recently my daughters have been meh about learning their cultures.” Stickles-Wynen adds, “the youth I work with who deny their culture usually do so because it is suddenly introduced to them at ages 8-12 when they are just discovering who they are.  Exposure to birth culture should start at infancy to assure they will better connect with traditions.” My daughter, Channy, admits to harboring some jealousy when she meets people who can speak Khmer, “people who don’t have any Cambodian blood in them know more about my culture and language than I do.  As a kid, I didn’t care.   But as an adult, I’m starting to wish I knew a little bit more.”


Keeping the Family Bond

Is there a higher likelihood that transracial adopted children will disconnect with their adoptive families as adults?  Stickles-Wynen responds, “I’ve seen it happen.  A 19-year-old man told me he is done going to family reunions because he is sick and tired of being the only person of color in the family. “When TRAs are raised in a diverse community and have parents who supports them in their racial identity they are less likely to disconnect.”Stickles-Wynen advises families that a colorblind approach is detrimental to TRAs.  “If parents ignore race, they ignore their child and set them up for a very difficult journey.  Do the work, get uncomfortable, be challenged and become advocates.”



Susan Solomon Yem is the mother of five multi-racial, multicultural biological and adopted children and grandmother of one. She writes about parenting, education, and women's issues for an international audience and is especially focused on supporting parents who are raising children on their own through the content she creates for SINGLEMINDED Parenting. Her #IamNotanOther stories celebrate multicultural and multi-racial identity.

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