Transracial adoption has elicited strong responses for over five decades, with the country split between two extreme ends of the spectrum. On one end, transracial adoption is compared to cultural genocide, while on the other, transracial adoption provides children of color with better opportunities and diverse cultural experiences.1

There is little agreement regarding transracial adoption. However, what is certain is that colorblindness and a lack of cultural competency pose significant threats to children who are transracially adopted.

A Short History

Transracial adoption was prohibited before 1948. Most adoptions since have comprised of white parents adopting children of color. In general, society praises adoptive parents, but placing adoptive parents on a pedestal has created a problem of white saviorism in transracial adoptions.2

Payton Altman headshot Payton Altman, Marquette Class of 2025, is a law clerk at La Fleur Law Firm, S.C., Milwaukee, and plans to practice in family law after graduating.

In the 1990s, the legislature adopted acts that negatively impacted transracial adoptions: the Multiethnic Placement Act (MEPA) and the Adoption and Safe Families Act (ASFA).

MEPA prohibited adoptees or prospective adoptive parents from denial because of race, color, or national origin. This act also expanded the “best interest” rule to allow the courts to consider race, color, or national origin to determine a child’s best interests regarding adoption. However, this provision was removed.3

ASFA disallowed the consideration of race in the adoption process, which inevitably harmed transracial adoptees.4

The Problems of a Colorblind Approach

The current adoption system in America fails to account for or consider the identities of transracial adoptees.5

Disallowing race as a consideration in adoptions does not eliminate racism or the impact on the sense of self of transracial adoptees.6

This colorblind approach by the legislature reinforces the effects of colorblindness on adoptees. Unfortunately, by expressly disallowing race as a consideration, the legislature has taken a stance that negatively impacts transracial adoptees. Transracial adoptees already struggle with a lack of diversity, finding a sense of self through racial and cultural identity, and report feeling disconnected from their birth culture at high rates.7

The actions and inactions of adoptive parents, by participating in the colorblindness portrayed by the legislature, contribute to these adverse feelings. According to the National Library of Medicine, colorblindness is

an ideology or worldview that minimizes the role of systemic racism in shaping outcomes for people of color and attributes racial disparities to the bad choices and poor behavior of racial minorities8

Cultural Competency in Adoptions

Children of color can and do flourish when placed with transracial adoptive parents. However, a vital aspect of the success is the adoptive parents moving past colorblindness, being aware of the motivations behind the adoption, and embracing cultural competency. Understanding the concept of cultural competency is vital to the success of transracial adoptions.9

Cultural competency in the context of adoption is defined as

the ability to respect, engage, and understand individuals who have different cultural or belief systems, where the elements of culture include, but are not limited to … ethnicity.10

While race should not be the only factor – nor the principal factor – when considering whether to place a child in the home of potential adoptive parents, it is essential to examine the best interests of the child in the context of race. In particular, children of color adopted by white parents are statistically likely to live in white neighborhoods. Similar circumstances have arisen in other forms of transracial adoptions where the environment itself is isolating due to a lack of diversity.11

While it is the norm that transracial adoptees reside in neighborhoods where no one looks like them, parents can incorporate cultural competency by seeking spaces where the child can build relationships and learn about their culture from people who mirror the child’s race. This helps the child create a positive sense of self, as transracial adoptees struggle often with understanding who they are and what their place is in the world. Having a lack of identity and feeling disconnected from one’s cultural identity increases the risks of internalized racism as well as self-hatred. These feelings can resolve in lifelong struggles, such as transracial adoptees having trouble navigating social relationships.12

Transracial adoptive parents who are proactive in finding a community that mirrors that of the child and who continuously expose the child to diverse experiences can significantly decrease these adverse risks. Children in transracial adoption succeed most when the adoptive parents embrace cultural competency by being sensitive and aware of race and ethnicity. This helps the children of transracial adoptions cope and overcome race-related issues, whether social or related to the self.13

It Takes a Community

It is not the sole responsibility of the adoptive parents involved in transracial adoptions to ensure the child’s success. While the adoptive parents have a vital role in the physical, cognitive, and psychological development of the child, it is the responsibility of the legislature and courts to enable race to be considered during the adoption process.

It is impossible to ensure that every, or even most, adoptive parents embrace cultural competency when raising a child in a transracial adoption. It is possible, however, for the legislature to reinstate laws like the initial provision of MEPA that allowed the consideration of race.

Doing otherwise is taking a colorblind approach and has detrimental effects on the children of transracial adoptions. When race is involved, silence and inaction are forms of oppressive behavior and governance. Inaction is action and transracial adoptees are suffering from the failures of legislatures and society to embrace cultural competency.

This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Children & the Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Children & the Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.


1 Twila Perry, “Race, Color, and the Adoption of Biracial Children,” 17 Journal of Gender, Race and Justice 73 (2014).

2 Julia Steggerda-Corey, “Altering the Legal Adoption Framework to Serve Historically-Underserved Transracial Adoptees,” 54 Texas Tech Law Review 537, 539, 540 (2022).

3 Perry, “Race, Color, and the Adoption of Biracial Children.”

4 Steggerda-Corey at 537, 544.

5 Steggerda-Corey at 546-47.

6 Cynthia Mabry, “Love Alone is Not Enough” in“Transracial Adoptions – Scrutinizing Recent Statutes, Agency Policies, and Prospective Adoptive Parents,” 42 Wayne Law Review 1347, 1381.

7 Steggerda-Corey at 537.

8 Ebiere Okah, Janet Thomas, Andrea Wesby, and Brooke Cunningham, “Colorblind Racial Ideology is Associated with the Use of Race in Medical Decision-Making,” Health Service Research (2021).

9 Elizabeth Vonk, “Cultural Competence for Transracial Adoptive Parents,” Social Work Vol. 46, No. 3 (2001), 250.

10Cultural Competence in Adoption,” Adoptive and Foster Family Coalition, New York.

11 Steggerda-Corey at 537, 547.

12 Steggerda-Corey at 548, 549.

13 Vonk at 250.