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Lesson 5 of 7

Microaggressions and Transracial Adoption

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Written Lesson

What is a Microaggression?

Unfortunately, many adoptive parents and adopted children become accustomed to hearing and witnessing “microaggressions.”

These seemingly unintentional or offhand slights imply a child’s adopted status (or a parent’s adoptive status) – or race or culture – indicates some form of inferiority. Individually or in aggregate, microaggressions can be withering.

Microaggressions toward Adopted Children and Adoptive Parents

All members of the extended family of adoption (adoptee, adoptive parents, birth parents) are likely to experience microaggressions based upon the fact that they’re “named” in adoption. These often occur in person and sometimes in the media, such as on TV shows and movies.

For example, it’s common for adoptees to hear comments suggesting that they should be grateful to have been adopted (thus minimizing their loss), and there are all sorts of descriptions of adoptive families that imply they’re somehow less legitimate than biological ones. Similarly, birth mothers – and sometimes other members of their families – are frequently the subjects of negative stereotypes, stigma, shame and verbal slights.

Being confronted with microaggressions, particularly when they come regularly, can chip away at self-esteem and be traumatizing; it can be especially painful to watch a loved one (e.g., child or parent) try to handle these affronts. Below are examples of microaggressions that are both common and deeply hurtful. They can come from friends, relatives, co-workers, strangers and, of course, in depictions of adoption and its participants in news and entertainment media.

There’s little data on how best to prepare your family for adoption-oriented microaggressions, but most experts believe talking at an early age with your children about the issues they may confront is a good idea and can help dismantle the stigma of secrecy by normalizing adoption.

In the data below, adoptees’ quality-of-life scores are broken down by the age at which they learned they were adopted (corrected for coping mechanisms available at each age).

Many experts agree that, as adopted children grow up, they face complex questions around identity and loss. Receiving support and therapy from an early age can help children build a “scaffolding” for wrestling with these questions in a healthy way.

Race-Based Microaggressions

Children of color can be subjected to hundreds of microaggressions per month (English, Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology), irrespective of whether they’re adopted. That means children of color who are adopted, particularly by white parents, get the double whammy of being taunted or demeaned both for their race and the way they entered their family.

It’s the responsibility of all parents to help their children develop and maintain healthy self-esteem, and part of that challenge is to teach them how to handle these intentional and unintentional slights.

However, since 40% of US adoptions are “transracial,” many adoptive parents have little first-hand experience dealing with the sensitive subject of discrimination against racial minorities, let alone guiding their children on how to handle it.

To address the subject, many experts favor two powerful tools: “cultural socialization” and educating children about the biases they are likely to face (sometimes called “preparation for bias training”). There is data showing a corroboration between those tools and improvements in children’s self-esteem, sense of identity, and ability to cope.

Cultural Socialization

Cultural socialization is when everyone in the family works to weave the race, culture, and heritage of the adopted child into the fabric of their lives. These include _the history, music, food, film, books, and other facets of that child’s birth culture. _

One example of a cultural socialization opportunity exists in Chicago, where Styles4Kidz provides hair-styling services for transracial families. There, non-African American parents can learn to perform this task themselves, while they celebrate the tradition involved and keep their kids feeling confident and proud. You don’t need a nearby training salon to accomplish the same goals; you can simply go with your children to a barber shop that knows how to cut Black people’s hair, so they can feel welcome and you can learn some basic skills.

Transracial Adoption Hair

Not surprisingly, research strongly suggests that social culturalization significantly benefits transracial adoptive families. A study of 241 US families in which the Caucasian parents adopted from Korea showed that the children were 26% more likely to have higher self-esteem when their families practiced social culturalization.

Preparing Children to Deal with Tough Issues

A first step in training children about the biases and other issues they’ll likely have to deal with is having frank discussions with them about the reality that people may say and do hurtful things based upon race and ethnicity. These can be hard conversations to have, especially with a younger child, but it’s important to do so in age-appropriate ways.

Keep in mind that these discussions aren’t just about delivering bad news, but also about preparing your child how to respond both within themselves and to other people. Without your guidance, an unsuspecting child will be forced to understand it on their own.

In a study of 66 adolescents who had been transracially adopted, data showed that respondents whose parents practiced “preparation for bias training” (and cultural socialization) felt less stress after hearing racist remarks than those whose parents didn’t use those tools. This was particularly true for respondents who encountered a high number of racist comments growing up.