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Is Transracial Adoption Harmful to Kids?

Research debunks a common misconception.

Critics of adoption have sometimes argued that children need to grow up in families who match their ethnicity, lest they develop a confused sense of identity. According to this viewpoint, ethnically Asian children should be raised in Asian families, black children in black families, Latino children in Latino families. But in practice, because most adoptive parents in the U.S. are white, many adoptions are transracial, as minority children are placed in white families. Are these children at risk for problems as they make sense of themselves as minorities in white families and communities?

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A recent study adds to substantial evidence that concerns about transracial placement have been overblown and that, in fact, children are capable of developing a solid sense of identity and family regardless of the racial composition of their families. The study examined self-report data from about 600 adopted adolescents, some of whom were white and some of whom were racial minorities, including Asian, Latino, black, and mixed-race adolescents. All were adopted by white Minnesota families. Results showed that white adoptees and transracial adoptees did not differ in their feelings about adoption, pro-family attitudes (e.g., agreeing “I enjoy doing things with my family”), or anti-social behaviors. Some group differences in attitudes and behavior went against the hypothesis of transracial harm: Asian adoptees reported more pro-social behavior (e.g., helping others) and less aggression than white adoptees. Parents of transracially adopted adolescents were reported (by both themselves and their children) to talk more with their children about race and ethnicity than parents of white adoptees, contradicting the contention that white adoptive parents generally tend to avoid conversations about race.

Of course, all research has limitations. For example, the Minnesota study did not include children from Native American ethnic backgrounds, a group for which some of the most heart-rending legal decisions regarding placement in-culture versus across-culture have played out. The subgroup of black adoptees in the study was small, and trends suggested that black and mixed-race adoptees, more so than Asian, Latino, or white adoptees, reported discrepancies between their perceptions and their parents’ perceptions regarding communicating about race within the family. Future research may benefit from closer examination of implications for specific minority races (e.g., black vs. Asian vs. Latino), who likely experience different treatment in society at large.

Despite the limitations, these results fit with patterns of data collected over decades indicating that transracial adoption is not harmful. For example, a large-scale study involving thousands of participants found no self-esteem differences between adoptees and non-adoptees, regardless of whether they were adopted across-race or within-race. Another study found that adult Korean-American adoptees (adopted in childhood by white families) were just as likely as white adoptees to agree that “I am happy with being a member of my ethnic group,” “I feel good about my cultural or ethnic background,” and “I have a clear sense of my ethnic group background and what it means for me,” although the Korean-American adoptees also reported more agreement with the statement that “I have spent time trying to find out more about my ethnic group, such as its history, traditions, and customs.” Other research has found that well-being among international adoptees is best predicted by their perceptions of harmony between their birth and adopted cultures and sense of belongingness to the adoptive family, more than by their strength of identification with their birth ethnicity.

Do such findings mean that the adoption community can ignore issues of race? Of course not. Racial stereotypes and discrimination are still pervasive in society, and transracially adopted children benefit from families who are aware of these issues and open to discussions about them, both within the family and within broader society. Nor does the research mean that identity development will always be smooth sailing for adoptees. However, the research does imply that policy regarding domestic or international adoption should not be influenced by the misconception that children do better in same-race adoptive families.