Birth Culture vs. Race: What to Do?

Birth culture is oversized in our adoption community.

Teaching Adoptees about their birth country’s culture is a significant focus in adoption-targeted events and media and has been for nearly thirty years. Camps, weekend events, magazines, television, and websites are frequently built around the birth culture concept. Unfortunately, birth culture education is often used in place of an equally, and sometimes more important, component of an Adoptee’s identity – race. We all recognize that race and birth culture are two separate things, but they are frequently lumped together in adoption resources and this generally results in the replacement of race-focused discussion. I’ll illustrate birth culture’s current role, the importance of race talks and offer some tips for talking about race with your child.

Understand that birth culture is a component of Adoptee identity. It is just that, a component – a part of a greater and more intricate whole identity. Likewise, race is also a component of an Adoptee’s identity. An important concept to understand is that the meaning and value of these two components to an Adoptee ebbs and flows over time. It will change over their entire lives, sometimes day-to-day and sometimes decade-to-decade. Also, there isn’t necessarily a correlating relationship between the two – an Adoptee may find one part more important than the other at times or may feel both or neither are important to them; this is true for all components of the greater Adoptee identity.

You’ve sent your kids to language classes, culture camps, festival days – are you doing something wrong? This takes some evaluation. By supporting your child’s birth culture education, you affirm their ethnic identity, validate their membership in that ethnic group, and encourage an interest in which they’ve expressed enthusiasm – good things. But that last part is important to consider. It doesn’t help and may be counterproductive to force your children to attend birth culture focused activities if they’re resistant or uninterested. This could be attributed to a number of things, including their own confusion about their identity and feelings that birth culture activities further confuse them. Your child may develop resentment for things associated with the activity; this could include resentment to their own ethnic group. Additionally, it’s important to identify what your child likes about birth culture activities, because what they like may simply be that they “get to be with other kids who look like them” or, in the case of adoption-specific programming that they “get to be with other kids like them.” If that’s the case, there are other, more direct ways to help support that environment.

We’ve found that, in the thirty years since birth culture has been used as the sole tool to support Adoptees, that it is not the end-all-be-all which it was once believed.

So what’s the problem? Doesn’t birth culture help to develop a child’s racial identity? It does, but in a specific and limited way. Birth culture education helps the Adoptee establish a sense of ethnic pride and awareness, elements that can help self confidence. However developing a racial identity (and therefore a more complete Adoptee identity) takes more than that, it takes a whole support system of which you are the primary architect – we’ll discuss ways you can start building this system below.

Additionally, many adoption-related programs focus on culture because it’s more accessible and it feels safer. To some people, birth culture fulfills the Adoptee’s need for a racial identity. We’ve found that, in the thirty years since birth culture has been used as the sole tool to support Adoptees, that it is not the end-all-be-all which it was once believed. A more holistic approach to identity is superior and this includes talking about race. Conversations about race are more difficult, but know that that’s Ok. It’s in these difficult conversations where we can find the most growth.

You can see that race and birth culture are often overlapping concepts in the adoption community, but that does not make them replacements for one another. Unfortunately, there are very few Adoptee groups that offer any kind of race education. I encourage you to seek them out, though. Support them in your own adoption community and ask for them from adoption groups. All of Holt International’s Post Adoption Services for young Adoptees (including our Camp and Day Camp) are designed with race education in mind, as our self-evaluation revealed its importance. And of course you can take action in your own home! We’ve discussed this subject before, but here are three more tips for talking to your child about race:

  1. Understand that your child is the expert on their experience. Their experiences with race and racism are what they see and know. Only they can report on how a comment or situation made them feel. Mentors that share your child’s race or ethnicity may help teach your children how to talk about their experiences, because articulating their experience is often the most challenging part of talking about it.
  2. Make race a casual and normal topic of conversation. This is meant to strip away the scariness of a conversation about race. It doesn’t have to be scary – not for you and not for your child.
  3. You cannot take their journey for them, but you can be a more well-informed guide. Do this by learning as much about race and racial identity as possible. This can include and should not be limited to reading books, finding webinars, attending workshops, and enrolling in a college course on race.
  4. Be proactive. Race and racism exists. Even though you may not see your child as a person of color, much of the world does and so do many of the children in their environment. Acknowledging your child’s race is not the same as being racist. So we must equip our children with some tools to use and, at times, be proactive on their behalf. An example of providing survival tools would be having a conversation with your child about different strategies to deal with racism;, discussing different scenarios and what are appropriate ways to respond.

Use this information to provide your child with more complete options for their identity. There’s a lot more to explore even beyond birth culture and race. But only you have the power to offer a diverse array of support to your child beyond the pervasive idea of birth culture.

And please write to me at [email protected] and let me know what you’d like to see in terms of diverse programming for young Adoptees! We’re always interested to hear your opinions to help guide us.

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