How Do We Define Belonging?

Ethnic heritage can mean different things to different people.

Adoption expert Lois Melina on talking with adopted children about unknown birth family information

Parents who adopt internationally or transracially learn early on that they must honor their children’s ethnic heritage. We gladly comply and try to acquaint our children with the traditional practices of their heritage — distinctive foods, holidays, and costumes.

Yet many adoptive parents say that their children, especially as they get older, aren’t interested in anything having to do with their ethnic heritage. And adult adoptees often say they feel alien in the company of other members of their ethnic group. Parents may feel that, despite our best efforts, we’ve failed our children.

Parents who adopt transracially in the U.S. are, more often than not, members of the dominant cultural group. Most of us have not experienced being immigrants. Our own ancestry may be so mixed that we do not identify with any one part of it. We navigate our day-to-day lives secure in the knowledge that we understand social customs. Unless we choose to, we don’t have to think much about our ethnicity because, despite differences in religion, ancestry, or geographic residence, we are surrounded by people with whom we have much in common.

Most of us toss around terms like “ethnicity,” “ethnic identity,” and “culture” as though they were interchangeable. In fact, it’s a lot more complicated. Parents who adopt transracially need to understand what it is they are hoping to nurture in their children, and in what ways they are limited in their ability to accomplish their goals.

Critical Terms

Simply put, “ethnicity” is a matter of biologic and historical fact. It’s the group from which one is biologically and historically descended. National origin is only one aspect of ethnicity, however. Some ethnic groups were divided by war; some by religion. Some were allowed to speak their traditional language, others were not.

“Ethnic identity” is the feeling of belonging to a group, not only due to shared ancestry, but also because of a common history and common beliefs and behaviors that grew out of that history. “Ethnicity” is the group. “Ethnic identity” is a sense of belonging to a group.

“Culture” is the term we use to describe the tools and practices that a group has developed to enable its members to survive in the world. They can include religious practices, language, customs, and traditions, as well as art used to express beliefs. Culture can be derived from ethnicity, and culture gives a group its distinct identity.

But ethnicity is not the only source of culture. During the 1960s, “hippie culture” was developed by young people with common social and political beliefs — many of them in opposition to those of the dominant culture at the time. Their dress, music, and language expressed the belief that they could not trust authority.

Parents who are members of the dominant cultural group, whatever our individual ethnic or religious backgrounds, can identify with one or more of the ethnic groups whose beliefs dominate our culture: white, Christian/Protestant, European. For the most part, we haven’t had to distinguish between cultural practices and their underlying beliefs because they are so deeply embedded in our world.

For example, our culture expects adult children to establish their own households. Even when young adults return home to live, as so many do today, we expect the return to be temporary. We don’t see this as having anything to do with ethnicity or culture. We only know that adult children are expected to be self-sufficient. Parents have “earned” freedom from supporting their grown sons and daughters. Both beliefs express the emphasis American culture places on individualism.

Individualism is naturally valued in a country that was settled by people who left extended families in Europe when they immigrated, or who left families in the East to homestead in the West. In other parts of the world, such factors as population density and greater value placed on the “clan” than on the individual mean that multiple generations or many members of an extended family live under one roof.

Adoptive parents frequently make great efforts to expose their children to cultural practices associated with their ethnic heritage, but if they don’t understand the underlying beliefs or historical significance, these efforts may have little impact. It’s no wonder that transracially adopted children often grow up feeling ill at ease among members of an ethnic group whose culture reflects values other than those they’ve known growing up.

How Do I Identify?

When someone’s behavior is considered “typical” of an ethnic group, he or she is said to be an “ethnic practitioner” or to have an “ethnic personality.” Some members of ethnic groups criticize those who do not display ethnic identity in this way. They use terms like “oreo,” “twinkie,” and “apple” to describe African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans who display “white” behavior — who are “white” on the inside despite their skin color.

Transracial adoptees can be vulnerable to this kind of criticism. They may react by taking on an “ethnic personality,” though they may not be aware of or agree with the underlying beliefs.

Ethnic identity, of course, is only one aspect of a person’s overall identity. Some experts note that people have “situational ethnicity” — times when they feel a strong sense of connection to others on the basis of shared ethnic background, and times when they don’t.

Transracially adopted individuals will often feel closely connected to the cultural group in which they were raised. However, there will be times when their physical appearance or awareness of political events cause them to feel an intense bond with people of the same ethnic heritage. Rather than feeling torn by this seeming disparity, adoptees can recognize it as part of their overall identity.

Am I Authentic?

Ethnic identity is more complex than it appears on a census form. And transracial adoptees are not the only ones who struggle with attempts to pigeonhole people by ancestry, appearance, or behavioral patterns.

For example, African-American politicians who embrace a conservative political agenda may be viewed as “sellouts” by other African Americans. At the same time, even liberal African Americans may rail against the idea that liberal politicians should always expect the black vote.

Immigrant parents may feel they are fighting a losing battle if they want their children to maintain the traditional values of their ethnic group, but their children are eager to blend in to American culture.

What is different for transracial adoptees, however, is that they generally do not have a readily available guide to their ethnic heritage.

They need knowledgeable mentors and access to institutions controlled by members of their ethnic group. This is why adoptive parents are encouraged to live in ethnically integrated communities, attend ethnically diverse churches, and send their children to racially integrated schools.

The goal is not for adoptees to take on beliefs and practices that do not serve them, or to be able to “pass” as people raised in a different culture. It is for children to be aware of the connections they have to people with whom they share ancestry or a common history and to be willing to explore those common bonds.

Much of this will be the responsibility of the adoptees themselves as they reach adolescence and young adulthood. As they proceed with integrating the diverse aspects of who they are, they will explore their ethnicity and attach meaning to it.

But as children grow up, it is up to adoptive parents to create an environment in which diversity is sought and valued — not just diversity of skin color or gender, but diversity of ideas, experiences, and world views.


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