The development of racial identity in transracially adopted people: an ecological approach.

Author:Ung, Tien

Transracial adoption is something that happens both domestically and internationally. Therefore, the discourse about what the significant and contributing factors are to identity (eg race, ethnicity, culture) and their particular meaning, influence and impact on the transracially adopted person may vary by country, depending on current under standings and dialogues about race, ethnicity and culture in a particular location. The issues and process surrounding racial identity development that we propose here derives from policy, practice and data relevant to transracial adoption in the United States, though we believe that its main principles could be pertinent and useful to transracial adoption discourse in a non-US context.

The practice of transracial placements and adoptions has many implications--clinical, social, legal and political--yet the literature relative to this population does not adequately identify the prevalence or address the needs of transracially adopted people. For example, demographic statistics have not been gathered about the nature and prevalence of transracial adoptions since 1987 (Stolley, 1993). While federally mandated counting systems are in place that capture the number of public and international adoptions annually in the US, a complete compilation of national adoption statistics (including private adoptions) has not been collected since 1992 (Flango and Flango, 1993). Moreover, within the federally established counting system, there is no mechanism by which to identify transracial adoptions specifically. Subsequently, the prevalence of transracial adoptions can only be estimated.

According to the National Adoption Information Clearinghouse (1994), the most recent and complete report about adoption trends comes from Flango and Flango (1994) and estimates that 14 per cent of adoptions are transracial. However, it is likely that this approximation underestimates the prevalence of transracial adoptions when one considers that 61 per cent (approximately 77,484 children) of the 125,999 children in foster care in the USA in 2001 were children of colour (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2005). Additionally, in the last decade, federal government data indicate that immigrant visas issued to orphans coming into the US from another country increased by 49 per cent--from 11,135 in 1989 to 22,884 in 2004--China, Russia, South Korea and Guatemala being the four leading countries from which children were placed (US Department of State, 2006).

Similar to the absence of a formal and reliable counting system to capture the prevalence of transracial adoptions, theories about racial identity development for transracially adopted people have not captured the whole of the adopted person's experience. Empirical enquiries about such adoptions are driven ostensibly by the debate concerning the pros and cons surrounding the practice of transracial adoption placements, rather than on understanding the complex and dynamic identity needs of transracially adopted people. Although there is a plethora of research about the adjustment and developmental outcomes of transracially adopted people, findings from these studies are most often explained in the context of how well they support the practice. The implication is that positive adjustment outcomes support transracial adoption practice, whereas negative outcomes support its opponents. (For a full review of empirical studies about the history and mental health needs of transracially adopted people, see the work of Lee, 2003.)

We posit that in addition to adjustment and outcomes, transracial adoption research must include enquiry into the bio-psychosocial development of transracially adopted people. We propose to extend the underlying empirical question from, 'Does transracial adoption practice lead to positive or negative outcomes for the adopted person?' to 'How does transracial adoption practice inform identity development for transracially adopted people?' We suggest that identity in transracially adopted people is a multi-dimensional construct defined by the transactional processes between the internal and subjective awareness of the individual and their external and environmental experiences. Thus, an adequate theory of racial identity development for transracial adoptees must account for the inner experiences of this population, in addition to the impact of the environment on a trans racially adopted person's sense of self and identity, specifically as it is related to race. To this end, we submit that racial identity for transracially adopted people evolves from their social, cultural and political environments.

In this article, the authors propose a model for racial identity comprised of five dimensions: genetic racial identity, imposed racial identity, cognitive racial identity, visual racial identity and feeling racial identity (Harris O'Connor, 1999). To illustrate the nature of each dimension, they draw on content from published autobiographical narratives of transracially adopted people. Based on the authors' professional experiences and knowledge, a list of published autobiographical works by transracially adopted people was compiled. To ensure that this was as comprehensive as possible, local and national adoption experts were asked to review the list, provide feedback and make further suggestions. From these works, the authors independently identified excerpts indicative of each of the five proposed constructs. Excerpts from the works included as examples of a construct in the model denote selections where all three authors identified the same passage for the particular construct being explained. A review of relevant theoretical perspectives on racial identity follows as a foundation for the wider discussion of racial identity development as it pertains to the transracially adopted person.

Racial identity: a critique of relevant theoretical perspectives

The discourse on racial identity development over the last 30 years has been rich. Conceptions of it that might be applied to the transracial adoptee population include: (1) models of nigrescence, or the process of becoming black, and the various applications of this theory to other groups (Cross Jr, 1995; Helms, 1995); (2) ethnic identity development (Casas and Pytluk, 1995); (3) biracial identity development (Cohen and Ponterotto, 1995); and (4) racial identity in people adopted transracially (Alexander and Curtis, 1996; Baden, 2002).

Initially, racial identity development was written about as the process by which people of an oppressed race dealt with the psychological violence of oppression (Cross Jr, 1971). These writings can be summarised as an evolution of critical consciousness for the African American person to survive and combat racism; to transform perceptions about being Black from 'a self-hating to a self-healing and culturally affirming self-concept' (Cross Jr, 1995, p 157). The major assumptions that underlie this transformation are that racial identity is developmental and sequential, and the end result is finite, requiring positive reconciliation of internal racial conflict. Over time, the theory of nigrescence has evolved beyond a discussion of the individual stages of identity development to multi-dimensional layers of identity, which include consideration of the effects of racial group referencing or belonging on the development of a healthy racial identity (Worrell et al, 2001).

Helms (1995) extended and elaborated this work on racial identity theory to include the racial identity of the 'majority' group, which she calls 'White Identity Development Theory'. She argues that racism and oppression are states of being, created by the social meaning given to the term 'race'. She suggests that successful identity development for the individual depends on his or her ability to manage social conflicts generated by oppressive definitions of race in society. In her work, Helms underscores that this process cannot be understood completely without evaluation of the role of white identity. In this regard, Helms defines race as 'socio-race', and underscores that both communities and institutions create conceptions and perceptions of race. Helms's work makes possible a consideration of the influence of communities and institutions on the process of racial identity development. However, she does not consider the environment as a factor that has direct impact on the process of racial identity development. In fact, Helms maintains that racial identity remains a process defined by the individual's intra-psychic ability to cope with the socially constructed meaning of race.

Consideration of the direct impact of culture, and therefore environment, on racial identity was not fully developed and embraced until the evolution of literature on biracial and ethnic identity. This body of literature emerged subsequent to racial identity theories out of a need to highlight the complexity of identity development in people who are both racially mixed, and racially and ethnically different (Kerwin et al, 1993; Casas and Pytluk, 1995; Sodowsky et al, 1995). These...

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