Transracial Adoption: Negotiations between Heritages

Earlier this year a group of MA students from the Institute of Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester undertook work placements here at the RACE Centre. Three of the students, Emma, Jasmine, and Jo, worked on developing subsections from the Gender, Relationships and the Family section of the library, ensuring that our books are up to date and recommending new titles for purchase.

In this guest blog, Jasmine shares some of what she learned from working on the Family Relations subsection.

Cover of In Search of Belonging with collage of photographs
Figure 1 In search of Belonging: Reflections by transracially adopted people, edited by Perlita Harris, GE.3.01/HAR

The 2-month placement has been a fruitful journey. I worked as a library intern, and my main task was to audit books on family relations and research the background of authors and the context of books to build a database of the library’s collection. My time at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre taught me about race relations and community cohesion in Manchester and the U.K. from various professional perspectives. I have come across multiple topics and issues that I had never noticed. In particular, books on transracial adoption have made up half of the family relations section; they have provided me with new insights on the social issues and somehow resonate with my experience as an immigrant, the stress of integrating into the local community and the frustration in connecting with my heritage.

The upcoming sci-fi film After Yang (2022) has caught critics’ attention with its futuristic setting and transracial adoption theme. It is surprising to see such a film, both because of the cutting-edge story and because transracially adopted children have rarely been given a voice by the mainstream media. Through the lens of this inspiring movie and the book In Search of Belonging: Reflections by Transracially Adopted People (2006) edited by Perlita Harris, this blog will discuss the history of transracial adoption, cultural conflicts and the growing-up experience of adoptees and adopters.

What is Transracial Adoption?

Transracial adoption is a form of adoption that refers to placing a child of one racial or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another racial or ethnic group. Adopting children from abroad or other cultural groups began after World War II. The beginning of the Korean War (1950-53) and the Vietnam War’s ‘Operation Baby Lift’ (1975) saw the spark start of the most significant wave of international adoptions. Most children were adopted in America, Canada, Europe and Australia. In the 1970s, transracial adoptions gained massive popularity in the U.S. as the number of available white infants declined, and the number of prospective adoptive parents continued to grow (Source: The Adoption History Project).

Transracial adoption is a controversial and emotionally laden topic in the foster care system and was not encouraged for an extended period. In the U.K., it was not until 2014 that the Adoption and Children Act 2002 was amended and removed the requirement that due consideration be given to the ‘child’s religious persuasion, racial origin and ethnic and linguistic background’. In the early years of transracial adoptions, most adoptive parents were white, often had biological children, and were Christian. Adoption was mainly driven by humanitarianism at that time, but are transracial adoptions in the child’s best interest?

Who am I?

In Search of Belonging (2006) is a collection of poems, short articles and diaries written by transracial adoptees who reflect on their most profound experiences and feelings since they discovered they were adopted to a different country or racial/ethnic family. As most of the adoptees addressed, issues related to differences in race have affected them throughout their lifetime. Sometimes a transracial adoptee is the only member of their race within their family, neighborhood, school, or workplace.

In the book, some adoptees confess to feeling different from their peers, leading to alienation, feelings of shyness, low self-esteem, and self-consciousness. The lack of diversity also disconnected them from their racial or cultural heritage. Transracially adopted children face challenges in coping with being “different”; they may struggle to develop a positive racial/ethnic identity and deal with discrimination.

Book open at pages headed the transracial adopters shopping list
Figure 2 ‘The transracial adopters’ shopping list’, by Shakti, from ‘In Search of Belonging’

Parenting

The way of parenting becomes of paramount importance to help transracial adoptees develop a bond with their cultural heritage. Our race and culture are an essential part of our identity as individuals and in our communities, but a transracial adoptee has the additional challenge of navigating potentially complex racial and cultural identities. Hence, issues related to racial differences will need to be addressed in a sensitive and caring way. 

After Yang White man with moustache, Black woman with short hair, behind young male East Asian robotic figure and young 
chinese girl with plaits
Figure 3 After Yang, directed by Kogonada

In the movie After Yang (2022), an American couple (a white father, Jake and a black mother, Kyra), purchased a “cultural techno”, Yang, to impart a sense of Asian identity to their adopted Chinese daughter, Mika. His duty was to give her a grounding in the culture of her native country, as both Jake and Kyra know nothing about the Chinese culture and are busy with work. The movie hints that helping transracial adoptees maintain their cultural connections is the key issue in parenting and the most significant problem for parents. As transracial adopters, parents have the responsibility to understand and learn the adoptees’ cultural heritage. Relying upon others to do their job, such as purchasing Yang in the movie, is not a desirable way to build intimacy and good family relationships. If parents fail to present a supportive attitude in encouraging adoptees to maintain their cultural heritage, transracial adoptees will struggle to embrace their racial/ethnic identity, and might feel lost and left out.

Comparing After Yang and In Search of Belonging

I would recommend both the film and the book as a starting point to understand this foster care issue. After Yang is a futuristic film that covered a lot of different problems, which limited its ability to have an in-depth discussion around transracial adoption. The film sets an excellent reminder of the necessity of quality time in raising transracial adoptees. Adopters should not pass the buck to others and rely on external resources, such as schools, to build their self-esteem and self-confidence.

There are a lot of unique and moving stories collected in In Search of Belongings. Instead of politicalizing the issue, projecting or formulating a view, taking a stand, the book allows us to forget all the arguments for and against, and listen to the voices of adoptees themselves. I remember reading Carol Moy’s chapter ‘More Thoughts’; Moy as a black, transracially adopted girl growing up in a white community, she was always encouraged to look as skinny as other white peers when at school. The problem of self-image has followed her even though she has grown up. Although she has been praised for her athletic proportions, she still worries that her life would be more successful if she had the physical type of a white girl.

‘ Maybe if I’d seen someone else in my family who looked like me I wouldn’t have spent so much time trying to be someone or something I’m not.’
Carol Moy ‘More thoughts’

In this day and age, there are still many people struggling with body positivity, and from Moy’s words, I can imagine how much extra stress transracial adoptees will have in loving their bodies. In Search of Belongings is more than a piece of social research, it is also a healing process for adoptees, as some have never spoken about their transracial adoption experience until writing for this book.

I would recommend you check out other books on the shelf after going through these materials. There are more books that talk about transracial adoption from a professional perspective that are worth reading, such as Loving Across the Color Line: A White Adoptive Mother Learns About Race (2000) by Sharon E. Rush and Ethics of Transracial Adoption (2001) by Hawley Fogg-Davis. I have also selected a few more books on transracial adoption for the library’s new purchases, so please come and check out the latest books in the future!