Finding racial mirrors for my child started early on. When my children were younger–maybe about kindergarten age–they were asked to draw portraits of themselves as part of a school art project. Both of their self-portraits were beautiful, of course (aren’t all of our children’s pieces art gallery-worthy, though?). Each of the masterpieces showed our children with a much darker shade than I had seen used before this time to portray themselves. This included the avatars they created both for school online learning, and at home for video games. They put dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin. It was not a shock by any means, and more like a, “ah, they noticed” moment, really. A relief.
We had received all the required training prior to our international adoption regarding how to prepare for becoming a transracial adoptive family, which is defined by definitions.uslegal.com as the process of placing a child who is of one race or ethnic group with adoptive parents of another race or ethnic group. In the U.S., transracial adoption is the placement of children of color or children from another country with Caucasian adoptive parents. And while the training was helpful in a preparatory way, real-time, hands-on experience can be quite different and have a way of throwing you into the “bet you never saw this coming” trenches of chapters uncovered.
We had many good conversations about skin color around this young age, especially. And it may not just include skin color, but overall identity, culture, family, tradition, and individuality. It was a time when the white gloves came off and they were being more and more exposed to the outside world, their peers. What people looked like seemed to matter more. It was determined, by our children, that while mommy and daddy were peach-colored, they were tan. Early on, this difference between us seemed to throw them and both talked about wanting to be more peach–in part because we were peach and in part because some of their neighbor friends and school friends who they saw most regularly were peach.
Of course, being peach and more susceptible to sunburn while covered in beauty marks–aka sunspots–I assured them they had beautiful skin and mommy and daddy loved them just as they were and wouldn’t mind being tan themselves. But skin deeper than that–we wanted to start early in helping our children not just to accept our differences as an adoptive family and physical differences in appearance, but to embrace their beauty and individuality.
In our home, it was examples like a simple kindergarten art assignment or something one of their friends would say that would prompt an impromptu casual conversation at the breakfast table or in the car about race and the differences that can separate us or serve to be bridges gaps that bring us together–to learn and grow as people regardless of color be it kindergartners or people in power. Our talks about race weren’t negative–but more the curiosity of a child trying to figure out her identity, where he or she fit in, and how we fit together.
Of course, there were other things that came up–not as light and fluffy as an art project that also demanded we have a family sit-down about race. One of these items was a second-grade video about Civil Rights Activist Ruby Bridges that caused my youngest to burst into tears. She wanted to know–like so many of us do–why a little girl had been treated so differently just because of what she looked like. And she wanted to know if it still happened today. It was in these moments that I realized how important it was for my children that it not just be my encouraging voice assuring them that they were beautiful and perfect just as they were (to this day they tell me all moms think their kids are beautiful and perfect), but to learn about and to be surrounded by others who shared similar features–more than words–but racial mirrors they could look up to, reach out to, and aspire to be like.
What Is Racial Mirroring?
Racial mirroring, as described by Dawinder S. Sidhu on scholarship.law.upenn.edu, refers to “efforts by one group to match the primary racial composition of another group.”
Further, the Adoption.org article, “What Are Racial Mirrors And Why Are They Important In Transracial Adoption,” explains that “the term racial mirror is largely used within the adoption community, where transracial adoption is prevalent. These people are incredibly important in transracial adoption to help children feel they are part of their ethnic community and to help them understand what it’s like to go through life as a part of that community when their family is a different ethnicity entirely.”
Why Is It Important for My Child?
While you may be the most loving, nurturing, wonderful parent ever (and no doubt you are), there is something to be said for children who don’t look like you wanting or needing a connection to others who do. This is in no way a slight to adoptive parents. And, in truth, in the safety and comfort of your home–race may not exist at all. Chances are good that your children see you for who you are just as you see them for who they are–physical features aside.
Still, when a child steps outside of the familiar comfort zone that you have created together, they find themselves in a neighborhood of other families who are not the same, do not look like them, and may possibly look at them differently. And even if that difference isn’t meant to be negative, parents soon learn that children typically like to fit in; they do not like to stand out (at least in the earlier years). They begin to take their cues from their friends and what they see and hear on the playground. And it doesn’t take racism to make a child feel different or less, sometimes it just comes down to the realization that a difference exists at all.
The article, “If Your Teacher Looks Likes You-You-May Do Better In School,” by Carl Boisrond, points to a study that found that “when students had teachers of the same race as them, they reported feeling more cared for, more interested in their schoolwork and more confident in their teachers’ abilities to communicate with them. These students also reported putting forth more effort in school and having higher college aspirations.
When students had teachers who didn’t look like them, the study found, they reported lower levels of these feelings and attitudes. These trends were most visible in black students, especially black girls.”
However others disagree, such as Zach Etheridge, a white man who taught at a majority-black high school for 11 years, who suggests in “Opinion: It Isn’t Race That Makes A Teacher The Best Role Model, For Students Of Any Color,” that appeared in the Atlanta.News.Now, “it’s good for black youths to see people who look like them leading their classrooms. But effectiveness at teaching and value as a role model, he argues, goes way beyond skin color.”
While there are many studies and opinions on the matter of racial mirrors for children in school and out, it sort of feels like common sense–skin shade, features, cultural and/or economic background aside–that picking someone out in a crowd who looks like us or acts like us typically makes us feel more comfortable and at ease. At the same time, race does not need to be a defining line in the sand and you most certainly should not live your life wondering if every choice you’re making on behalf of your child is right or wrong.
What you can do, however, is research and learn about the studies and opinions like those above and see how and if they do fit into your family situation. By being alert to your child’s needs and staying in front of things you are much more likely to be aware of and addressing her needs in the best and most organic way.
The World As a Rainbow
In reality, there is no perfect scenario for parents hoping to save their child from having race brought up at some point in their lives–or at some point in their lives noticing these differences all on their own. In truth, we are not just a black and white world. We are shades of every color, no one-size-fits-all physical features, we are families with disabilities and gifts and there are no rules when it comes to what families should look like. This is especially true in 2020 when we have so many blended families from so many different backgrounds.
Know that there is nothing wrong with being a transracial adoptive family. It’s not so much dealing with that aspect of it as it is making sure this child whom you love with all your heart has access to the resources she may someday search for. It’s making sure she understands that it’s okay to come to you with questions and feels comfortable talking about the “hard things” when she’s ready.
Where To Find Racial Mirrors
One of the easiest places to find racial mirrors is working with your adoption facilitator, social worker, or adoption support group–ahead of your adoption if possible so that this element in your life is available to you as you become a family with your adopted child. You will find families who look just like you and who are dealing with the same situations you are. Ask all the questions, cultivate relationships, and be prepared to share as much with others as you listen. Becoming an adoptive family makes you a future resource for another family just like yours.
If you are in an open adoption situation, start there. Work with your social worker to work toward building healthy relationships with family members who may provide support and guidance in ways that you may feel unsure about.
Seek out what is all around you within your community. If you take a walk through the mall, for instance, you’ll find it’s an anthill of activity tailored and targeted to different audiences–conservative and refined shops, cutting edge hip, and futuristic. There are stores geared toward sports geeks and movie geeks and foodie (geeks?) and, well, every interest under the sun. We tend to be creatures of habit, so looking for racial mirrors may require you to walk through some different doors.
Similarly, it is not that difficult to search out establishments run by or frequented by people that “look like us.” Be it school, sports, family vacation spot, where you shop and run errands, choose to spend your weekend, or where your children play–if you look more closely, you will probably find that for the most part you are surrounded by people who look like you. This does not make you racist, by the way. We are, in many cases, what we have learned from our parents and others who influenced our early lives and if they didn’t venture too far from their comfort zone, chances are, you may not have ventured too far–to this point–either.
Get Involved and Stay Involved
Finding racial mirrors should not be an annual event, but a more consistent way of life for your family. It’s great if you find a community event or festival in your area and make plans to attend–but attending just once a year–or maybe just once ever is not enough.
Find multiple opportunities and make a point to mark them on your calendar. Network with the people you meet to see what opportunities there might be for you or your child to become involved in so that you are not just an outsider looking in, but seek out opportunities to stay active and involved for the long haul. If there are adoption support groups offering the opportunity for your child to bond with other children of similar circumstances, give it a try. Connecting with others who are like us is a powerful thing even between two little ones bopping around on the playground. What may seem like a very lighthearted interaction to you may be a life-changing moment for your child.
It’s Okay to be Different
Acknowledging that you may not “be enough” for your transracial child is not a negative thing, but a strength. You are enough for your child in all the ways that matter between parent and child–no doubt. However, not being afraid to notice that you look different is a common sense decision on a very primal level that can have a long-lasting and positive impact on your child who will be taking her cues about what’s normal from you.
When you stop to think about it, as an adoptive parent, you took a leap of faith in adopting a child from a different culture or background who did not look like you. This took some courage knowing that there might be some ups and downs and a learning curve. Taking that same courage to step out of your comfort zone and making an extra effort to enable your child to find racial mirrors with whom she can establish relationships and experience diversity–maybe not found within your four walls–is merely a continuation of your initial decision to grow your family through adoption in the first place. Your child will only benefit and thrive as a result of knowing (through your encouragement and guidance) that race does not need to be a dividing factor, but an opportunity to learn and grow both inside of our homes as well as within our communities.
The adoption journey is a lifetime commitment. If you are interested in learning more about adoption, please visit Adoption.org.
Sue Kuligowski is a staff storyteller at Adoption.com. The mother of two girls through adoption, she is a proposal coordinator, freelance writer/editor, and an adoption advocate. When she’s not writing or editing, she can be found supervising sometimes successful glow-in-the-dark experiments, chasing down snails in the backyard, and attempting to make sure her girls are eating more vegetables than candy.