As the numbers of both transracial adoptions and interracial relationships have increased, the notion of family has expanded in recent decades beyond the traditional monoracial nuclear family. Changes in both of these factors have influenced family compositions and resulted in a larger number of immediate families (i.e., parents and their children) comprising more than one race and, subsequently, individuals and families who identify with multiple races. As this population increases, it is critical for mental health professionals to develop greater knowledge of, and competence in, working with multiracial families.
Multiracial families are those consisting of parents of different races and their biracial/multiracial offspring. Within the realm of the interracial family literature, however, there has been disagreement as to the meaning of the term multiracial. Some theorists assert that the term should be used only to describe a family composed of more than one race (e.g., a multiracial family), stating that offspring of interracial marriages have only two racial heritages (i.e., they are biracial). Others have used it to describe both families and individuals, asserting that children of a monoracial parent and a biracial parent or of two biracial parents may identify with more than two races and, therefore, would consider themselves to be multiracial. Furthermore, parents of the same race who adopt a child outside of their race also comprise multiracial families. It is important to note that multiracial families are determined by the race, not the ethnicities, of their members.
Political and federal policy changes have caused an increase in the number of interracial unions and, thereby, multiracial families, in the United States. Before 1967, 16 states still deemed it unlawful to marry outside one’s racial group. Following the Supreme Court ruling of the case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned the last antimiscegenation law, the prevalence of interracial marriages increased substantially. Approximately 13% of marriages in the United States include persons of different races, and interracial marriage rates for Asians and Latinos/as are nearly 3 times that of Blacks and 5 times that of Whites. In fact, by the late 1990s, more than 30% of Asian or Latino/a individuals had spouses of another race (most often White). Such changes have caused a considerable increase in the population of biracial children and multiracial families in the United States.
According to the 2000 Census, there are nearly 7 million self-identified biracial and multiracial people. Of those responders who reported a multiracial background, 93% reported two races, 6% reported three races, and 1% reported three or more races. Overall, approximately 1 in 40 persons identify as multiracial, and by the year 2050, it is estimated that 1 in 5 people will identify as multiracial.
Policy changes throughout the past several decades also have changed the face of adoption, permitting more in-country transracial and international transracial adoptions and increasing the number of multiracial families in the United States. Large numbers of interracial adoption placements began in the 1940s with a growing prevalence of international adoptions. Adoptions of Black children by White parents were not as prevalent during the 1940s and 1950s, but they grew in number during the 1960s and peaked in 1971 with approximately 2,500 Black/White transracial adoptions. In the 1970s the numbers of transracial adoptions with Asian and Latino/a children steadily rose. Because of the disproportionate number of children of color in the foster care system and the prevalence of White parents looking to adopt, legislation was passed in 1994 to encourage the practice of transracial adoption. The Multiethnic Placement Act stated that placement agencies could not delay an adoption based solely on racial factors. When agencies still did not follow this act, it was reinforced in 1996 with the Removal of Barriers to Interethnic Adoption Act and then in 1997 with the Adoption and Safe Families Act. Since that time, the number of multiracial families formed by transracial adoptions has increased.
A substantial amount of research has addressed racial identity development in people of color and White individuals of monoracial families, yet there is a distinct void in empirical literature pertaining to the racial identity development of individuals living in multiracial families. Moreover, the literature on multiracial families is predominantly conceptual and theoretical in nature and tends to focus on models of identity development.
Multiracial identity may be more complex than monoracial identity in that multiracial individuals have a choice of how they identify racially: with the race of either one of their parents or with the race of both parents. Society generally has held the false notion that a “solid” sense of identity is one in which an individual identifies exclusively with one race, but multiracial individuals are confronted with a more complicated process in terms of understanding their racial identity. Rather than exploring the meaning of this complexity and the fluidity inherent in the identity of multiracial individuals, some people have deemed multiracial identity as a precursor to feelings of confusion, uncertainty, and marginalization. In response to these assumptions, scholars have sought to better understand the experience of multiracial individuals by developing racial identity models specifically for this population. They purport that multiracial identity development is a qualitatively different experience from monoracial identity development and that several important issues need to be considered in the context of multiracial identity development. These issues include, but are not limited to, a lack of multiracial role models representing various multiple racial group backgrounds, conflicting racial identifications imposed by others, and feelings of rejection from members of the racial groups that comprise the background of biracial or multiracial individuals.
Identity development models pertaining to transracially adoptive families are even sparser than those developed for other multiracial families. One model, the cultural-racial identity model, describes 16 possible cultural-racial identities for transracially adopted youth. These identities are determined by four axes: the adoptee’s birth culture, the adoptive parents’ culture, the adoptee’s race, and the adoptive parents’ race. The model is intended to illustrate the complexity of racial identity for transracially adopted individuals, as well as to depict how various contextual situations and familial beliefs can affect transracially adopted individuals’ understanding of themselves.
Findings on psychological adjustment outcomes for individuals of multiracial families are inconsistent across studies and indicate that, although there are differences inherent in multiracial families as compared with monoracial families, these differences are not necessarily risk factors for poor developmental outcomes. Such discrepancies in the research point to important methodological aspects (e.g., use of mono-racial measures on multiracial populations) that can make results inconclusive or misleading.
Implications for Counseling
American society continues to place a negative connotation on the processes that result in multiracial families (i.e., interracial unions and transracial adoptions). Individuals in multiracial families often are expected to justify who they are and how they see themselves. Racial/ethnic background inquiries faced by many multiracial individuals convey a message from society that there is something wrong with identifying with more than one race; this message can contribute to feelings of isolation and low self-esteem among many multiracial individuals. These feelings of isolation often manifest within multiracial family dynamics when parents fail to understand or support the complexities associated with having a mixed racial heritage (e.g., biracial or multiracial children) or a race different from that of both parents (e.g., transracial adoptees).
If parents of multiracial or biracial children have not resolved some of their own racial identity issues, they might expect their children to choose one race over the other(s). Adoptive parents of transracial adoptees may purport a monoracial family identity, expecting their child to identify primarily with the family’s race rather than embracing a multiracial family identity. Given the influence of others’ (particularly parents’) perceptions on the salience of race for multiracial individuals and transracial adoptees, exploration into the impact of parents’ racial identities may further inform counselors’ understanding of multiracial families. As such, family therapy may be a particularly useful and appropriate mode of counseling for individuals of multiracial families. Counselors working with these families should not assume that their presenting problems are specifically racially or culturally based. However, it is imperative they consider how the family’s presenting problems are intertwined with the social and psychological implications of being multiracial.
- Cooney, T. M., & Radina, M. E. (2000). Adjustment problems in adolescence: Are multiracial children at risk? American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 433-144.
- DeBerry, K. M., Scarr, S., & Weinberg, R. (1996). Family racial socialization and ecological competence: Longitudinal assessments of African-American transracial adoptees. Child Development, 67, 2375-2399.
- Javier, R. A., Baden, A. L., Biafora, F. A., & Camacho-Gingerich, A. (Eds.). (2007). Handbook of adoption: Implications for researchers, practitioners, and families. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Milan, S., & Keiley, M. K. (2000). Biracial youth and families in therapy: Issues and interventions. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 26, 305-315.
- Miville, M. L., Constantine, M. G., Baysden, M. F., & So-Loyd, G. (2005). Chameleon changes: An exploration of racial identity themes of multiracial people. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 52, 507-516.
- Radina, M. E., & Cooney, T. M. (2000). Relationship quality between multiracial adolescents and their biological parents. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 445-454.
- Vonk, E. M., & Angaran, R. (2001). A pilot study of training adoptive parents for cultural competence. Adoption Quarterly, 4, 5-18.