Insight for Inter-Racial Families

Date: October 16, 2020 l Author: Mariana Caro, LCSW & Daniela Bolla, BSW

There are so many beautiful things to celebrate about adoption—at times, in an attempt to make each family member feel as welcomed, we can forget some crucial things that need to be acknowledged.

One of the things that is often missed, specifically within inter-racial adoption, is the importance of open and honest conversations around race. We know that acknowledging racial differences can feel uncomfortable, but it is critically necessary to acknowledge the realities of your new family.

Believe it or not, research has shown that children start to acknowledge racial differences as young as six months old and show signs of racial bias as early as 4 years old. Your children know they look different than you; their peers know, and your biological children know. Which is why it’s important to acknowledge and discuss race within the safety of your family. Here are some important things that parents and caregivers in inter-racial families need to consider:

1. Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable
First, we have to get comfortable with sitting with discomfort. So often, the hardest part of a challenging conversation is the first 10 seconds. And on the other side of those first 10 seconds there is an open door for extremely important moments with your children.

  • Before starting, here are some questions to ask yourself:
    • As the adult, what do I need in order to lean into the discomfort of this topic of race?
    • Why might this topic be uncomfortable for me? What racial biases are present within me that need to be acknowledged?
    • What might be some excuses that cause me to avoid talking about race with my foster/adoptive children?
      • i.e. “I don’t want them to feel different” “I’m creating a problem that isn’t actually there”

Oftentimes we fear that by bringing something up, like racism or prejudice, then we are giving the problem power. However, what we know is that when we name the hard thing or feeling we empower ourselves and our children to be able to process and own our stories.

2. Accept that this will be an Ongoing Conversation
Embrace that the topic of racial differences will be an ongoing conversation, not just a one-time “talk”. The most important step is to start the dialogue; just show up and let them know you are going to intentionally pursue acknowledging the reality of racial differences and the complexities of this reality.

There are many wonderful things to celebrate in your racial differences, and they should be included in this ongoing conversation. There are also some hard truths that need to be acknowledged. One of those hard truths is the presence of racism and prejudice. We have to acknowledge that racism is a real, global problem.

Their experiences may be different than yours; that’s okay, let them tell you about it. We have to let children know that the racism they experience is not their fault, nor is it just in their heads. When we don’t open the door for these conversations, we leave them to believe the lies in their heads or to go to other people for answers.

It is extremely likely that at some point in your child’s life, someone will discriminate against them. If/when this happens, the hope is that they share this with you. You need to be ready to talk through that. Your impulse might be to try to make the pain go away but in doing so you miss the opportunity to sit in the pain with them and really hear them out.

Overreaction or dismissing can cause your kids to shut down. Remember that it’s very hard for children to talk about racial differences if you do not let them know it’s okay. They may feel guilty about wanting to learn about their culture of origin or talk about their biological family’s roots. They may feel guilty for still feeling different from you—which is why your role is to start the conversation.

  • Here are some tips for creating a safe space to discuss racial differences
    • Be prepared – educate yourself. Start reading books and looking up content specific for inter-racial adoption.
    • Listen – start to listen for the moments when your child feels different. See these as opportunities to validate and celebrate them.
      • Ex: When they talk about their hair being different; when they bring up that someone at school asked who their real mom is.
    • Be Intentional with Conversation Starters
      • Ex: Pick movies that reflect their race and then use them as a bridge to start a conversation.

3. Listen to Understand More Than to Respond
The third thing that we want to do is listen to understand, rather than to have the perfect response. While it is the adult’s responsibility to open this door and acknowledge that it is okay to talk about racial differences, once the door is open, allow the child to lead.

  • Here are some things to consider before starting:
    • How deep into this conversation do they want to go?
    • How deep into this conversation am I prepared to go?
    • Am I prepared for whatever comes up – their own discomfort; their own avoidance; their own anger, frustration, confusion?

Sometimes it’s just about opening the door and then being intentional in the day-to-day to ensure that it remains open. Make space for them to tell you what they need, and pay attention to where they are developmentally.

Again, show up, get comfortable with discomfort, and avoid reacting in a way that tries to minimize the pain or “make it all better.”

4. Invite Diversity Into Your Life
We also want to invite the diversity in. Different is beautiful, and in a culture that screams the opposite, it’s so important to be intentional about portraying this message in your home. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Have representation - toys, movies, and role models in your home that look like them
  • Have books that reflect your child’s race and culture
  • Learn about their culture; educate yourself and invite new culture into your family just like you invited that child into your family
  • Then teach them about their culture; allow them to connect with their roots.
  • Start new traditions that are more rooted in your child’s culture
  • Learn about their unique beauty and healthcare needs (hair, skin care, etc.)
  • Is your community representative of your whole family?
    • Do you have close friends of other cultures and races
    • If not, what are some natural ways to expand the diversity of your community?

Don’t Do This Alone
Lastly, do not do this alone! Be willing to ask for help – it’s okay to not know everything. Join an interracial adoption support group, or start one if there isn’t one near you. Find community events that are relevant to your child’s culture (ie. food, music, dance, etc.).

Know that you won’t always get it “right," but effort is always better. Show up, be willing to mess it up sometimes, and ask for forgiveness when you do. Your willingness to acknowledge truth will go farther than you can imagine in making your children feel welcomed into your home as their whole selves.