Race, Class and Culture: A Conversation with April Dinwoodie

This article was originally posted on Adoption Today.

Transracial adoptions are an increasingly common aspect of the adoption experience. While transracial adoptive families represent the most visibly obvious adoptive families, it is arguable that all adoptions – even those where families of experience closely resemble families of origin – are transcultural. No two families are exactly the same and no two families operate exactly the same. While ethnic influences play a part, a family’s culture is also informed by geography, socioeconomics and other aspects of our experiences that create family norms and values. Children who are balancing these realities of being transracially adopted require parents and professionals to be plugged into the macro and micro elements that impact their healthy identity formation. This is even more critical today at a time that race relations in America lend themselves to some pretty challenging conversations.

The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Beyond Culture Camp: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption study revealed that adoption is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for adopted people as they age and remains so even when they are adults. Furthermore, race/ethnicity is an increasingly significant aspect of identity for those adopted across color and culture and that coping with discrimination is an important part of coming to terms with racial/ethnic identity for adopted people of color. While there is an abundance of research and commentary about the importance of healthy identity formation and the development of children and young people, there is generally a lack of research and conversation about the importance of the healthy identity of parents. How can we help children or young people with healthy identity development surrounding differences of race, class and culture without digging into and understanding the healthy identity of the adults that play a significant role in their lives?

When it comes to transracial adoption, it is vital that we have a frank and productive conversation about our responsibility to address differences of race, class and culture in transformational ways. This is challenging but urgent in order to ensure both the emotional and physical safety and well-being of transracially adopted children and young people.

Talk to Yourself First

Yes, I really mean, talk to yourself. In order to authentically engage and understand where you are and where you uniquely hold differences of race, class and culture, a deep, internal dialogue is necessary. This exploration must begin with insight and empathy as a starting place. Only then can you ask yourself the pointed and tough questions that will help you do the necessary work on behalf of yourself, your child and your extended family.

  • What are your personal biases and prejudices?
  • What personal experiences have you had surrounding differences in race, class and culture?
  • Have you ever been in a situation where you are the minority? If so, how did that feel?
  • How do you define racism and discrimination?
  • Do you know and understand your trauma and triggers around differences of race, class and culture?
  • Do you know how people close to you manage differences of race, class and culture?
  • Have you ever started a conversation about race?

Literally asking yourself these questions out loud and reflecting on the answers you come up with is a worthy exercise. Getting more comfortable with these concepts, questions and language in general starts with you as an individual.  From there, the conversation can move to partners, spouses, children, extended family, friends and community members. As you do this initial work, the conversations and necessary actions will be more authentic and will come from a place of insight and empathy.

Be Proactive, Be Practical, Be Prepared

Bringing a child into your world is life-changing. Bringing a child into your life through adoption is transformational for everyone involved, and most pointedly, the child/young person. Bringing a child into your life who is a different race and has experienced a different class and culture than you and your family adds even more layers so being proactive, practical and prepared for what lies ahead is critical.

Be Proactive

If you are a prospective adoptive parent who is considering transracial adoption, start talking about race, class and culture now. If you are already parenting a child of another race, I hope you are already talking about these topics authentically and often. If you are not, it is never too late to start and it is critical that you do. These overall topics always seem to be culturally relevant or “trending,” but more than ever, it is critical to not wait for someone else to start talking. Don’t wait for the adoption professionals, the teachers or others to start the conversation. Most importantly, don’t wait for your child to open this dialogue.

I often hear parents say “my son/daughter is not ready to have this conversation…”  My response is almost always “are you sure about that?” or “are you simply not comfortable having the conversation?” More often than not, it is a parent’s discomfort with a topic projected onto a child or young person, not the other way around. Don’t wait for the perfect time. Make sure you are working hard to get comfortable with these topics that are complex but not impossible to navigate. And most importantly, remember that the more open and authentic you are with the conversations, the easier it will flow. If open conversations about challenging topics are embraced as the norm, it will simply become normal communicate in your family system.

Be Practical

While love is indeed a key ingredient, it is not practical to think that love is enough to manage the complex dynamics of transracial and transcultural adoption.  In today’s world, many still believe the best way to incorporate cultural and racial differences is to ignore that they even exist – a misguided and impractical attempt to be a colorblind society. The reality is that color isn’t ignored. Instead, it often serves as a basis for discrimination. We see this in news stories of violence against people of color and in statistics that show young men of color comprise the majority of our prison populations. In combating this issue, the goal is not to achieve a colorblind society but rather one that celebrates, instead of victimizes, these differences. For families of adoption, particularly those who combine racial and cultural differences, it is essential that they engage in transformational dialogue and behavior surrounding these issues. Yet too often, families are not provided with the education or challenged to meaningfully think about differences in race, class and culture, and how they will impact their children and family.

Be Prepared

As a conspicuous family in the world, you may not always have control of the conversation directed at you or happening around you related to how your family looks and how it came to be. The unfortunate reality is that people will ask intrusive questions of you and your child: “Where did your daughter come from?”, “What is she?” and “Where are her real parents?” Now these questions go well beyond the difference of race and some apply more broadly to adoption but being prepared for these intrusive conversations is critical. Even worse than the noisy customer at the grocery, will you be prepared when your child returns home from school and someone has called them the “N-word” or made a derogatory comment about the shape of your child’s eyes? Hopefully, this will never happen but odds are it will at some point. This is when all of the important work that you have done with yourself, your partner, spouse and/or support team around you and your child will come in to play. In these critical times, you will have already been talking as a family unit about the possibilities and what to do when and if such things happen. Having discussed this prior to it happening won’t completely take away the sting or make it all better, but it may well will lessen some of the sting and you will have already created a safe place for your child to share and process these jarring experiences.

Know when to Talk and Know when to LISTEN

Make sure you are listening to yourself – hearing what makes you most uncomfortable down deep. When you challenge yourself and your own identity surrounding race, class and culture, it is likely you will tune into so much more than you ever imagined. This is critical as you parent transracially through adoption.  One of the most important listening exercises is with your child’s family of origin.  Research consistently reflects the importance of extended family connections for all, but most markedly, for the adopted person. Openness in adoption is becoming more and more the norm but it takes effort and commitment to truly listen and build bonds and relationships with your child’s family of origin. Getting as much information as possible from the people who share your child’s genetics is critical. It may not always be easy but it is critical.

Make sure you are listening to what is being said around your child and family.   While you can’t impact every conversation, be sure you are listening because you can be sure that your child is. Someone once said to me “adopted children have big ears” and as an adopted person myself, I believe this is spot on. We are often tuned in to so much more than we let on or share. With this in mind, you can listen and go back to conversations that may have occurred after the fact to process together with your child. Current news can also be a good way to practically have a conversation about challenging topics in an age-appropriate way. If there is a major news story that is receiving a lot of attention, it is likely visible to your child so bringing these elements into conversation is important. Another critical place to listen is school. Listen for dynamics that may be impacting your child at school. Make sure you are listening to what is being taught especially related to history and civics. The more you listen and know the better champion you will be for your child.

Having this conversation about transracial adoption often leaves me agitated and inspired all at once.  I am agitated because of the harsh and painful reality we face in this country surrounding differences of race, class and culture.  I am agitated because somehow the naïve humanitarian in me believed as time marched on the divisiveness would wane, ushering in less racism, less bias, less pain.  I am agitated that with all that we know about healthy identity development for transracially adopted people; there is still not a requirement or standard for training ALL adoptive parents that are adopting outside of their race.

At the same time I am inspired.  Inspired because over the last several months parents and professionals have shown up in my workshops to have this critical and transformational conversation head-on.  They have entered a space ready to engage, share, listen and learn.  I’ve been blown away by the depth, authenticity and bravery participants have shown as the conversations unfold.   I am inspired by so many parents I know today that are not buying the cute but unreal idea that love is enough and while fiercely loving their kids they are going the extra mile to make sure they are digging down into their own identity.  And I am inspired by professionals who are making it a priority to have transformational conversations with parents and not glossing over the realities their families may face.

If you are a transracial/transcultural family, talking about race, class and culture authentically and often is critical and it is just the beginning. Conversations must also be activated into behaviors and infused into your family, extended family and as much as possible into your community. Adding deep love to a deep reflection and understanding of identity, privilege and place in the world as adults and parents, gives children every opportunity to fully embrace their complete identity, to love all parts of themselves and to be prepared for the conversations that will echo throughout their lives.


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