Learning to question

The very first piece of transracial adoption research I came across several years ago was Simon and Altstein’s well-known longitudinal study of 204 adoptive families from 1972 to 1984. At the time there was something I didn’t like about that study, but I couldn’t wrap my brain around what part or parts of it bothered me. I had the belief, like a lot of people do, that research studies are the ultimate authorities. I was unaware that a person could critique research. I took research to be the "absolute truth." Later, as I began to read more research and learn how to critique research, I was able to figure out and articulate what bothered me about the Simon and Altstein study.

I read a lot of research and I am still learning how to read and critique them. But I think that a lot of people do what I did — their gut says something ain’t right about this "statistic" or "finding" — and they question themselves.

Research is supposed to be scientifically objective. But we always have to keep in mind that there is going to be a bias in terms of what motivates the researcher herself or himself to take on the research in the first place. Where the researcher plays a big role in the study is in determining things such as who the subjects will be (including ages, geographic locations, occupations, etc.), what aspects of those subjects lives will be studied, and often times bias is built right in to the questionnaire itself.

The majority of the people doing research about transracial adoption are White. The majority of the institutions of higher education who support this research are run by White administrators. The majority of the funding institutions who finance the research are administered by White people.

Let’s take the Simon and Altstein example. This study examined 204 transracial adoptive families with the end goal of determining whether adoptees had positive outcomes in terms of well-adjusted racial identity, family identity, self-esteem, and so on.The methodology itself wasn’t bad, but I felt there was bias in the questions themselves.

It is also important that one looks beyond merely what a subject says about having a "positive" racial identity. Problematic to me is when white people define what "positive racial identity" means for a non-white person. We must question whether the measurement tools used, such as the Tennessee Self-concept Scale used in the Simon and Altstein study, is applicable to all racial, ethnic or cultural groups. Or, do they only do a good job of measuring white self esteem based on the kinds of factors that a white, middle-class person would consider as "good" or "positive?"

We must also consider  what is left out. For example, in the Simon and Altstein study, 66% of the Black adoptees stated that they were proud to be "Black" or "Brown" and 6% said they were proud to be "mixed." Only 11% would have preferred to be White. Yet 73% of these adoptees chose all White friends and 60% dated Whites exclusively. The reasons for these responses, according to Simon and Altstein, were due to the majority white neighborhoods, attended majority white schools of these families. While I recognize that environment plays a big role, I also wonder how much the authors were too willing to attribute these results only to environment and did not also look at whether there was a disconnect between these adoptees expressions to parents and researchers of their positive racial identity but perhaps feeling less sure of it internally.

Another study is the one by Feigelman and Silverman (1975) of transracially adopted Black and Asian children, in which their results were gathered from parental responses. This study was not truly an accurate portrayal of transracial adoptee adjustment – rather it was a study that showed how parents of transracially adoptees considered their adjustment. Surely, in this study, the adolescents could have been the respondents themselves.

Many adult adoptees do not feel any conflict until they are in their mid-life years, after marrying and having children of their own. Most longitudinal studies end with adoptees in their mid-20s — not at an age when identity constructions or self-definitions have solidified. Since most scholars who study or theorize about identity issues (racial or not) designate adolescence and young adulthood as being the times for a person’s identity construction, it is underwhelming for me to read that an 8 year old has "a positive racial identity." Well, of course most normal 8 year olds would say that.

I think we have to be careful about how we go about using children as research subjects. It has always been a hunch of mine that adopted children will not want to endanger or jeopardize their positions in their adoptive family. Any negative statements made might be (to a child’s concrete thinking) a reason for their possible disruption. And when you are talking about a population of children who have already experienced the reality of being removed from their first parents and placed with adoptive parents, most will do anything to keep from being displaced again.

As we know, a large portion of the research on transracial adoption has been conducted by adoptive parents and adoption professions. We are just now realizing a generation of adoptee scholars. And as someone interested in this field of research I am really looking forward to seeing what adoptee scholars are researching. Like anyone else, adoptee scholars must also be aware of their biases. However, I believe that adoptees in research will bring a different perspective and might introduce measurement tools and theories that non-adoptees have not considered relevant — or considered at all.

Feigelman, W., and Silverman, A.R. Chosen children: New patterns of adoptive relationships. New York: Praeger, 1983.

Rita J. Simon and Howard Altstein, Transracial Adoptees and Their Families: A Study of Identity and Commitment (New York: Praeger, 1987).

Rita James Simon, Transracial Adoption (New York: Wiley, 1977).

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

5 thoughts

  1. It’s funny because even though
    I am an adoptive mother, anything written by an ap
    or endorsed by an agency is
    suspect in my mind. It wasn’t
    always that way. Thanks.

  2. JR, as usual, you said a mouthful… so much to think about. I have to say that, although I am not adopted, I myself didn’t really know how to form questions or even opinions regarding racial identity until LN was born – what a boon for the world of academics that you’re a part of it!

  3. I am happy to read a professional questioning these things. That’s a good sign itself.
    I think what is studied and why and how the results are presented are very important, and at least for prospective parents that care about these issues, can be a very big influence on the decisions they make and expectations that have going into adoptive parenthood.
    The African American social worker association’s stance on the placement of African American children had a great influence on myself and my wife (who as you know is a social worker herself). We had mentored several children living in projects in Cincinnati, and we were prepared to adopt Arican American children. We felt we would do our best for them.
    But that strong influence changed that.
    Would I have made different decisions had someone strongly pointed out to me that I had no business adopting Korean children? I probably would have.
    It is a horrible thought for me now that I am so attached to my children, but it is the truth.

  4. Excellent post. Thank you for articulating it so well. You raise so many points that I think about often – I’m so happy to know I’m not alone in questioning some of the adoption “research” that is out there.

  5. Thank you for bringing all these thoughts and observations to us. I want to get better about thinking through and questioning research too. It is so obvious that there would be a white slant/perspective in research done by white people, but why is that news to us? Once again blindness is reinforced and presented as normal.

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