Raising Children of a Different Heritage



by Susan Waugh -- based on a presentation by Lois Melina at the BC, Adoption 2000 Conference

As the white mother of two Chinese daughters, I was very interested in Lois Melina’s workshop, Raising a Child of a Different Race or Ethnic Background. Much of the current controversy surrounding intercountry and transracial adoption, centers on the ability of parents of European heritage to adequately raise and prepare children of a minority racial or ethnic group for adulthood.

People of colour often feel that white parents cannot give their children of colour a sense of racial identity, or prepare them for racism. The authors of Inside Transracial Adoption, Gail Steinberg and Beth Hall, say that even to suggest that white parents can do as good a job as same-race parents is in itself a manifestation of white privilege.

Melina agreed that white parents likely cannot do as good a job, but she feels that we can become more sensitive and open to our children’s experience. She said we need to consider if it is a reasonable tradeoff for giving children permanency within a loving home.

When our children are small, they are protected from racism by our presence. When they start school, they begin to be evaluated by society on the basis of their race, sometimes in the form of overt racism.

Children who lack strong senses of racial identity can develop low self-esteem, and grow into an insecure, sad, or angry adults, who feels that they do not belong anywhere. Melina cited William Cross, the author of Shades of Black: Diversity in African-American Identity, who says that a strong sense of racial identity can protect children from the negative effects of racial hostility. Those who don’t feel they belong to their group may suffer more from racism, and feel it is directed personally, rather than at a strong group, to which they belong. Racial identity not only counters the negative effects of racism, it gives children the confidence to move freely from one group or culture to another.

A common mistake white parents make is to tell their kids that "race doesn’t matter." It may not matter to white parents, but it matters to non-whites. Denying this denies our children’s experiences. Both parents and kids can under or overestimate racism. A sense of belonging puts racism into context. Race is, after all, only one reference group (others might be church, artistic endeavors, or sport) that will vary in importance throughout life.

Melina defined the first component of racial identity as racial awareness - being able to identify your racial group based on physical characteristics. Most children, can do this by age four.

She defines racial identity for transracial adoptees as a sense of belonging, or spiritual connection to a group with physical traits, a history, a social identity and a culture that white parents do not share. History, and cultural and social values are especially important.

We need to help our children learn and honor their groups’ history and culture. To help us with this task, she pointed out we need to take to heart the adage that "it takes a village to raise a child," and actively seek out help with this task.

Our task is also complicated by the layers of child development and adoption issues and losses. Adoptees may feel losses and disconnect from their parents and ancestors. They may also wonder what their people experienced and contributed to the world adn how it shapes them. Transracial adoptees may also experience a sense of loss regarding their racial group and country of origin.

Another major piece of racial identity is self-esteem. Studies show that transracially adopted kids have high self-esteem. However, this may be due to non-race related accomplishments, such as academics, or sport. When our children are in a situation where they are evaluated only on the basis of race, they may feel lost, because they don’t know how they feel about themselves as members of their ethnic group.

Melina says that when whites explore a minority culture, they often focus only on the "tip of the iceberg", such as music, food, costumes, dance and art. These manifestations are in fact only the observable expressions of the culture. The deep "below the water" values and history are the true heart of a culture. These include such concepts as time (Does the culture focus on the present or its history?); family (Is it nuclear, or tribal?); kinship (Is bloodline more important, or the only form of kinship? ; How does adoption fit in?); Responsibility to community (What is the importance of the individual versus community?); spiritual versus scientific values?

We need to expose our children to a set of values we may not understand, and may not be part of our values. We need to distinguish between skills and values, and understand that we can use a group’s skills, without adopting their values. For example, we may barter in the marketplace in a foreign country, without using the barter system when in Canada.

It is also difficult for us to give our kids a full sense of racial identity, because our kids are surrounded by the dominant culture and its values. Kids develop much of their sense of racial identity from what they are taught non-verbally, by parents, media, and peer groups. This holds true even for minority parents raising their children here. Amy Tan’s books describe the tensions between a parent centered in Chinese culture, and a daughter who tries to reconcile her mother’s values with her experiences in the white dominant culture. Transracially adopted children don’t really feel this tension.

We need to seek out guides into the world of our child’s culture. We can find them if we live in a racially/culturally mixed neighborhood, and seek out schools that are diverse, and honor many cultures. We need to put ourselves into situations where we meet people who share our child’s heritage such as school, sports teams, guide and scout groups. Melina warned that we may be viewed initially with suspicion, and may need to we clarify that we want to learn from the group to help our children learn and honor their culture.

Most importantly, our children need to participate in their ethnic group, and not just be exposed to it. This exposes children to the real values behind the observables, and can be what Melina described as "one of the great joys" of transracial adoption, a joy she feels is unique to transracial adoption. As parents, we can open up to other values and world views, and incorporate these into our life and family and community. We can honor our children by showing them that we did not just adopt them, are willing to be adopted by their birth culture. Ideally, the whole family will looks openly at all cultures and values, and choose those that resonate with them to adopt as their own.


William Cross’s Stages of Development for Racial Identity

Pre-Encounter: In this phase, the belief is that race is unimportant, or a stigma, and that whites are superior.

Encounter: People often go through this phase as young adults. The encounter is an event or series of events that catches a person off-guard, and challenges ones view of onesself. Melina told the story of her Korean daughter, who was in a Korean church in New York where she was approached by a minister who assumed she spoke Korean. Her daughter was stunned and unprepared to deal with someone who didn’t see her as a white woman’s daughter, but as a young Korean woman who could speak the language of her heritage.

Immersion: In this phase, a person becomes immersed and absorbed in their racial heritage. Often, this process manifests itself through superficial expressions of culture, such as dress, music and food. Ideally, the result is a more serious look at the values that underlie these expressions. Teenagers often go through this phase, and may drop friends who are not members of their group. Parents with a "race doesn’t matter" attitude prime their children to get stuck in the pre-encounter phase, while those with a militant attitude may keep their children in the immersion phase of development.

Internalization: Parents and children need to get to this final phase. Here we have absorbed and internalized a culture’s values. We can move from group to group, and understand which values apply, and do not feel we betray one group when we move to another group.