Developing comfort with physical appearance: Many transracially adopted children, particularly those with dark skin, express the wish to be white. A Netherlands study of transracially adopted 7-year-olds (the same age as Maya, btw) found:
For many children a white skin color was so desirable that they rubbed themselves with white body lotion, cream or white chalk, or, alternatively, tried to ‘wipe off’ the brown color. One boy wrote a white skin color at the top of his list of gifts wanted from Sinterklass during several years.The same study found that children adopted from Sri Lanka and Colombia who expressed the wish to be white or to have been born into the family had more behavior problems as reported by teachers and parents. This wasn’t the case for Korean children, who had lighter skin than that of Sri Lankan and Colombian children.
Several studies have found that transracially adopted children struggle more with acceptance and comfort with their physical appearance than do children in same-race placements. Appearance discomfort has been linked to higher levels of adjustment difficulties in transracially adopted children and young adults. One study found that those raised in heavily white communities were twice as likely as adoptees living in racially mixed communities to feel discomfort with their racial appearance. And recall that in the Institute’s Beyond Culture Camp study, 78% of Korean adoptees considered themselves to be white or wanted to be white as children.
Belonging and feelings of inclusion/exclusion: A study of transracially adopted Korean young adults found that experiences of belonging and exclusion in interactions with whites and Koreans contributed to racial and ethnic identities. Two patterns were identified: “personal identities” that are primarily self-created and “relational identities” that are more affected by experiences of belonging and exclusion. The adoptees in the study reported experiencing belonging with their families and friends and a sense of exclusion from some whites based on race, and a sense of exclusion from some Koreans based on culture. In the Beyond Culture Camp study, Korean adoptees were less likely than white adoptees to feel welcomed by others of their own race.
Cultural competence: How do you incorporate being Korean, Chinese, or African-American into your identity when you are raised by white parents in the U.S.? Early studies, as well as more recent ones (citing a study as recent as 2003), found parents adopting transracially were more likely than not to minimize racial differences and emphasize a color-blind approach. Families tended to acculturate their children into the majority culture and often did not help them integrate their own race into their identities.
Big mistake on the part of parents! Studies of transracially adopted adults found that those who received support from their parents for cultural socialization to their birth culture perceived their parents as warmer and more affectionate and had greater feelings of belonging than did adoptees whose parents did not offer such support. When cultural socialization was provided by parents, the adoptees’ sense of marginality decreased and self-esteem increased. A 2007 study found greater cultural socialization was associated with fewer aggressive and delinquent behavior in Asian adoptees.
Unfortunately, according to studies, most adoptive parents provide relatively low levels of cultural socialization opportunities when their children are young (primarily through books or cultural events) and the levels of cultural socialization decline further as their children grow into adolescence.
In the Beyond Culture Camp study, Korean adopted adults who scored higher on the Cultural Socialization Scale (indicating parental efforts to provide socialization to the child’s racial/ethnic group) reported having more positive parent-child relationships and family functioning, and having higher life satisfaction and self-esteem. Thus, cultural socialization is linked with other positive outcomes, not just cultural competence.
Incorporating race/ethnicity in identity without lower self-esteem: The Beyond Culture Camp study found that racial/ethnic identity was of central importance to the Korean adoptee respondents at all ages, and continued to increase in significance to young adulthood. Sixty percent of them indicated their racial/ethnic identity was important by middle school, and that number grew during high school (67%), college (76%) and young adulthood (81%). Positive self esteem and comfort with racial identity were strongly associated for Korean adoptees, and those who felt comfortable with their racial identity were more likely to have a stronger ethnic identification, higher life satisfaction, and to have experienced less racial teasing.
Coping with discrimination: A key life skill for transracially adopted individuals is the ability to cope with discrimination, particularly when adoptees belong to racial groups that experience significant discrimination. One study of different racial/ethnic groups of transracial adoptees found that African Americans, particularly males, experienced the highest level of discrimination. Studies of transracially adopted adolescents and young adults have found that perceived discrimination is significantly associated with behavior problems and psychological distress. The Culture Camp study found that transracially adopted individuals who reported less racial teasing came from more diverse communities and more functional families, and they also as adults had more positive adjustment outcomes (higher life satisfaction and self-esteem).
The manner in which parents respond to these challenges facilitates or hinders children’s development: Recent research has focused on parents’ approaches to cultural and racial socialization and examined how different approaches affect aspects of their children’s ethno-racial identity and psychological adjustment, finding that when parents facilitate their children’s understanding of and comfort with their own ethnicities, the children show more positive adjustment in terms of higher levels of self-esteem, lower feelings of marginality, greater ethnic pride, less distress, and better psychological adjustment.