1 Research into adoption falls into two main areas: the future of adopted children (the prevalence of psychopathological disorders among adopted children versus non-adopted children, the consequences of the child’s life circumstances prior to adoption) and the identity construction of adopted children. Studies looking at the construction of cultural identity among adopted children are part of this second area.
2 Cultural identity is defined in the anglophone literature as the set of beliefs, social behaviors, rituals, customs, traditions, values, languages, and institutions of a given culture (Baden and Steward 2000; Thomas and Tessler 2007; Vonk 2001; Lee et al. 2006). Why discuss cultural identity among adopted children? Because children adopted internationally, who represent the large majority of current adoptions, come from elsewhere. The first part of their lives unfolded in a different country, immersed in a different cultural milieu. Moreover, more often than not, the child’s physical appearance is different from that of her parents, bringing the notion of alterity to the fore: an alterity that the child reads in the way people look at her, labeling her as different and foreign. The adopted child has several different affiliations, and her identity is woven out of these multiple senses of belonging.
3 There are various approaches to the multiplicity of affiliations of adopted children, with notable differences between the two sides of the Atlantic: in the anglophone literature, the crucial aspect is not so much the fact of coming from elsewhere but of being perceived as belonging to an ethnic minority. The term that most exemplifies this difference in approach is the concept of the adopted child’s “birth culture.” This is seen as a self-evident concept in the United States, where it is defined as the culture of the child’s birth country. For many French authors, however, the term is nonsensical, especially in cases where the child was adopted at a very young age: it ascribes to culture a biological and genetic substratum, as if culture could be carried by a particular morphotype or skin color (Harf et al. 2006; Levy-Soussan 2005; 2010). In that sense, it amounts to an excessive simplification and extension of the concept of culture. The idea of birth culture is seen as an obstacle to the mythical grafting of the child into her new family (Neuburger 2002), in other words her irrevocable inscription in the imaginary filiation connecting her to her adoptive parents (Soulé and Levy-Soussan 2002).
4 What culture do adopted children belong to, or rather what culture(s) do they identify with? In migrant families, parents transmit their cultural heritage to their children. Parents and children share the same foreign physical appearance, and children are able to identify with their parents and their culture. But what about children adopted from another country, who are raised in the cultural milieu of their adoptive parents and have little exposure to the culture of their birth country? International adoptees migrate alone and are, in the majority of cases, confronted by what Richard M. Lee calls the “transracial adoption paradox”: belonging to a minority group based on their physical appearance while also belonging to the majority group because of their family environment (Lee 2003).
5 The families we meet through the adoption consultation service at the Hôpital Cochin’s Maison des Adolescents (Prof. Moro’s department) raise the question of culture during consultations. They sometimes address it explicitly, revealing their ideas regarding their child’s birth country and its culture.
I try to valorize not just his color, but also his origin, his country, so that he feels proud of where he comes from.
7 Other parents ask us about the importance or appropriateness of helping their child maintain ties to this “other culture,” revealing a wide range of parental attitudes.
But we shouldn’t focus on China either—I’m not in favor of that. I know there are families who listen to Chinese music or buy their child CDs with stories in Chinese. That’s not for me.
I think we should preserve his origins, his personality, his culture for him.
It’s her country of origin, so personally I think she should keep in contact. It’s not taboo—she’s originally Brazilian.
She says, “I’m Haitian.” I pick her up on it and say: no, you’re not Haitian—you’re French, but you were born in Haiti.
12 The question of cultural affiliation is also sometimes brought up by children and adolescents themselves. Some say they feel a sense of belonging to their birth country and actively relate to aspects of that country’s culture.
My nationality is French, but I will always have the heart of a Brazilian.
Sometimes I feel French, other times French-Vietnamese.
Sometimes he tells me he’s going to be president of Ethiopia, but hey!.
When I hear people say that Romanians steal, it’s as if they were insulting me at the same time. If they knew I was Romanian, I’m sure they wouldn’t make those kinds of comments in front of me.
17 Others describe experiences of discrimination that force them to take a stance regarding the affiliations imposed on them by others, whether by rejecting them or appropriating them, for example by making friends with children of migrants.
It annoys me a bit. People thought I was Tunisian just because I had light brown skin.
Because I’m different, my skin color, there are always little discriminations, people who make a lot of generalizations based on the fact that I’m an immigrant, that my skin color is different. They talk to me about immigration and crime—I don’t see the connection.
I have a friend from the Maghreb, and he says he feels the same way.
Marine Le Pen, we talked about it—I mean… I asked myself, if I wasn’t French, if I didn’t have citizenship… would I leave?.
22 The families thus make sure we do not obscure the complex question of the cultural affiliations of international adoptees. It was in this initially clinical context that we carried out a literature review of this topic, which is very little studied and feels almost transgressive in France, whereas it is the focus of a vast anglophone literature. How is this question of cultural affiliation approached in the literature, and why is there such a discrepancy between countries?
23 This study aims to better understand how the anglophone literature approaches the multiplicity of adoptees’ cultural affiliations. To do so, we carried out a review of the anglophone literature on the cultural identity of adoptees.
24 The review of the anglophone literature was carried out by consulting the computerized databases Medline and PsycINFO, which are used in the fields of psychiatry, psychology, sociology, and social work. The keywords we used were: international adoption, intercountry adoption, ethnic identity, cultural identity, cultural socialization, cultural competence, and adopted children. We looked at studies published between 1970 and 2012. The criteria for inclusion in the literature review were as follows: The study population comprised children, adolescents, or young adults who were adopted internationally, i.e., their birth country and adoption country are different. The child’s birth country and age at adoption were not criteria for inclusion. The study topics concerned the construction of cultural identity among adoptees. The studies were conducted in the general population. An initial selection phase based on titles and abstracts was designed to eliminate irrelevant articles. This electronic search was supplemented by a manual search of the references cited in the articles selected.
25 Twenty-eight studies were ultimately selected. The literature review produced three main results: the historical dimension of the concepts of cultural and ethnic identity; the concept of the bicultural competence of adoptees; and the existence or not of a correlation between the cultural identity and psychological development of adopted children.
The history and social context of the concepts of cultural and ethnic identity
26 It quickly became clear from the literature review that the question of ethnic and cultural identity in cases of adoption needed to be understood and studied in relation to the historical context in which it arose. The way we conceptualize identity can itself be considered a cultural object embedded in a specific scientific, cultural, and historical context. Ethnic identity, which should be distinguished from cultural identity, is defined as the sense of being a member of an ethnic group (Phinney 1992). Ethnic identity has largely been conceptualized in the United States by Jean S. Phinney, who breaks it down into three aspects: a person’s ethnic identification (which ethnic group do they identify with?), a person’s sense of belonging to a particular ethnic group, and the intensity of their ethnic identity (Phinney 2003).
27 The question of ethnic and cultural identity is posed differently in the United States, with its history of migration, slavery and segregation, abolition, and the civil rights movement, as well as its policy regarding ethnic minorities (promoting a strong sense of community and the preservation of the cultural traits of different groups), and in France, with its history of colonization and decolonization, with minorities generally the result of colonial and postcolonial migration (Skandrani et al. 2012).
28 In the United States, the adoption of Black children by White parents was called into question in the 1970s by the National Association of Black Social Workers, who compared it to a “cultural genocide.” In a historical context dominated by the civil rights movement, these adoptions became the symbol of more general injustices of a political and historical nature (Rushton and Minnis 1997). Two arguments were made against such adoptions. The first was psychological. It stated that growing up in a White family posed a risk to the development of a “positive Black identity.” White parents were not in a position to teach their children the “survival strategies” they would need to overcome the experiences of racism they were likely to be subjected to in society. The second argument was political: it denounced the reproduction, within the small world of adoption, of the oppressions experienced by Black people in society as a whole. It was in this historical and social context that the question of the development of cultural and ethnic identity among adopted children first emerged in the social sciences. Nevertheless, the research undertaken was unable to confirm the hypothesis that transracial adoption would have more negative impacts on children’s development than intraracial adoption (Silverman and Feigelman 1990; Simon and Altstein 1987; Vroegh 1997). Legislation was enacted in the 1990s to ensure the resumption of transracial adoption (for example, the Multiethnic Placement Act of 1994). This historical context reveals the transposition onto the adopted population of concerns and issues relating to another population, that of migrants and their children in the United States, for whom the notions of ethnic and cultural identity have been widely studied.
The bicultural competence of adoptees
29 Bicultural competence is defined as the adopted child or adult’s knowledge of the history, values, beliefs, and customs of the two cultures—that of their birth country and that of their adopted country—and their ability to communicate verbally and non-verbally and to maintain a social network in both cultures (Thomas and Tessler 2007). Cultural competence depends both on the child’s exposure to the culture of her birth country and the way in which she absorbs those messages (Lee 2003).
30 The competence of adopted children in the culture of their birth country is seen as being associated with and enabled by their participation in cultural activities. Bicultural socialization therefore relies on language learning, participation in cultural festivals, and meals involving the birth country’s cuisine; it also means being aware of traditions, feeling pride in one’s cultural heritage, listening to music or watching films from one’s birth country, being conscious of physically resembling people from the same ethnic and cultural group (Lee et al. 2006). These ideas are inspired directly by research carried out among non-adopted migrants.
31 This cultural showcase also helps to prepare the child to live as a member of an ethnic minority and to teach her strategies for dealing with experiences of racism (Lee 2003).
32 Numerous studies have addressed the question of how parental attitudes influence the development of adopted children’s sense of identity. How does the question of identity play out in these “multicultural” families? Several studies have shown that children’s level of bicultural competence depends on their parents’ beliefs regarding the importance of bicultural socialization: How much do they want their child to participate in cultural events and learn about the history and language of her birth country? Does the parents’ social network contain people from the same country or ethnic group as the child who could act as role models? The conclusions reached by researchers are clear: it is desirable, even essential, for parents to take an active approach toward enabling their child to maintain connections to the community of her birth country, encouraging her to identify with her ethnic group and feel connected to her cultural heritage (Hollingsworth 1998; Rushton and Minnis 1997; Lee and Quintana 2005; Thomas and Tessler 2007; Vonk 2001; Lee et al. 2006; Andujo 1988; Carstens and Juliá 2000; DeBerry et al. 1996; Basow et al. 2008; Yoon 2004). These authors argue that adopted children should be offered the chance to grow up in a multicultural environment.
33 Parental cultural competence (Vonk 2001) is defined, first, as an active approach to helping children develop a positive cultural and ethnic identity, and second, as awareness of the importance and role of ethnicity and culture in people’s lives (Greene et al. 1998). The result of this second aspect is active parental efforts to help their adopted child develop the skills to defend herself against racism and discrimination, despite not having lived through those experiences themselves. Parents are even offered training sessions in this area (Vonk 2001), and a scale to measure parental cultural competence has been constructed and approved (Transracial Adoption Parenting Scale; Massatti et al. 2004). Parents who deny or minimize the issue of discrimination—Richard M. Lee talks of “color-blind racial attitudes” (Lee et al. 2006), while Myrna L. Friedlander uses the term “universalist strategy” (Friedlander et al. 2000)—are thus seen to be harming their child (Huh and Reid 2000).
34 The vast majority of anglophone authors, therefore, argue that it is very important for adopted children to develop bicultural competence, in other words competence in the culture of their birth country and that of their family environment. These initial results of the review of the anglophone literature, which actively and energetically promotes the maintenance of links with the child’s birth country and culture through “cultural activities,” come as a baffling surprise to us as clinicians and researchers in France. What does the superficial prescription to maintain contact with the child’s birth country mean to children and their adoptive parents? What is the birth country’s culture? The term seems to suggest that it is a singular entity. But there is no such thing as the culture of a country, and this reductive expression obscures the extent to which the idea of culture is different and unique to each individual, the product of the complex alchemy of a specific life story. But before getting into that debate, we will continue our presentation of results. The idea underlying this anglophone literature is that bicultural competence aids the development of adopted children. But have the studies actually proved that a high level of bicultural competence and a strong and positive cultural identity are good prognostic factors for the psychological development of adopted children?
Is there any correlation between bicultural competence and psychological development in adoptees?
35 Studies of children of migrants show that self-esteem and, more generally, well-being are correlated to bicultural competence and to pride in one’s ethnic identity (Phinney et al. 1990). But what about adopted children? The literature review reveals conflicting results.
Studies showing a correlation between cultural identity and psychological development
36 Some studies find that the level of bicultural competence and/or ethnic identity does correlate with psychological state.
37 Marianne Cederblad found increased psychological distress, behavioral problems, and low self-esteem among adopted adolescents who felt they had lost their birth culture and had an uncertain ethnic identity. Her study looked at 211 international adoptees, aged 13 to 18 years, living in Sweden (Cederblad et al. 1999).
38 A study by Susan A. Basow et al. of 83 adults in the United States, aged between 18 and 37, who had been adopted from Korea showed that strong ethnic identity was correlated with better psychological well-being (personal growth, self-acceptance, positive relationships with others) (Basow et al. 2008).
39 For Dong Pil Yoon, experiences of cultural socialization help to increase children’s well-being, and this correlation is mediated by the strength of their cultural and ethnic identity (study of 241 adolescents adopted from Korea). This result was independent of overall family functioning as assessed by parent-child communication and the warmth of family relationships (Yoon 2000).
40 In a longitudinal study of 143 mothers who had adopted a child from China or Korea (pre-adolescent at the time of the study), Kristen E. Johnston et al. found that the more contact mothers had with the Asian community, the more they promoted their child’s ethnic pride and cultural heritage, in other words cultural socialization. The study showed that the level of cultural socialization was associated with a decrease in the prevalence of behavioral problems (aggressive and delinquent behaviors) among adopted children (Johnston et al. 2007).
41 In a web-based study of 82 adult international adoptees (60% from Korea), Jayashree Mohanty et al. showed that self-esteem is correlated positively with experiences of cultural socialization (Mohanty et al. 2006).
42 Kimberly M. DeBerry et al., studying 88 adopted African Americans, found that adopted children whose parents supported biculturalism displayed better psychological development. They carried out two evaluations ten years apart; the average age of the children was 7 at the first evaluation and 17 at the second (DeBerry et al. 1996).
43 Finally, William Feigelman and Arnold R. Silverman showed that children who were proud of their cultural background were better adapted and displayed better psychological development than those who were less enthusiastic about their cultural background (Feigelman and Silverman 1983).
44 Other studies, by contrast, did not demonstrate any correlation between bicultural competence and/or ethnic identity and psychological well-being.
Studies that did not show a correlation between cultural identity and psychological development
45 Amanda L. Baden did not find any significant difference between the psychological development of adoptees who identified with the culture of their adoptive parents and the White community and that of adoptees who identified with the culture of their birth country and people from the same ethnic group as them. Her study included 51 adults, aged 19 to 36 years (Baden 2002).
46 Nam Soon Huh and William Reid did not find any connection between the development of a strong ethnic identity and better adjustment among children. Their study looked at 30 families with a total of 40 children adopted from Korea, aged 9 to 14 years (Huh and Reid 2000).
47 David C. Lee and Stephen M. Quintana also found no correlation between self-esteem and exposure to cultural knowledge among 50 children adopted from Korea and living with White families in the United States. The average age of the children was 12.5 years (Lee and Quintana 2005).
48 In Kevin L. Wickes and John R. Slate’s study of 174 young adults (aged 17 to 39) adopted from Korea, the level of acculturation (the degree to which the dominant culture had been internalized) was generally high and was not correlated with self-esteem. The majority of the adoptees said they had a mixed cultural identity and described themselves as Korean Americans rather than simply Korean or American (Wickes and Slate 1996).
49 In methodological terms, it is worth nothing that the methodological tools used to measure the psychological development of adoptees were self-esteem or self-concept scales, which only provide a very partial view of the individual’s overall psychopathological state.
50 Finally, it should be borne in mind that positive correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Many of the studies described above, however, equate correlation between bicultural competence and better development with a causal link: high bicultural competence is interpreted as the explanation and cause for the child’s better development. The conclusions of these studies, which have been picked up by many adoption professionals who strongly urge adoptive parents to maintain connections and expose their child to her birth culture, are, therefore, debatable and lack methodological rigor.
51 The first thing to discuss is the methodological tools used to measure the ethnic and cultural identity of adoptees. There is a certain bias in that the majority of the studies used methodological tools developed for use with migrants or children of migrants, raising the question of their validity for use with adoptees: tools measuring ethnic identity (Baden and Steward 2000; Baden 2002; Basow et al. 2008) or scales measuring degree of acculturation (Lee and Quintana 2005; Wickes and Slate 1996). International adoptees are indeed migrants, but the specific nature of their migration and their family environment needs to be taken into account. Standard measures of acculturation and enculturation cannot simply be applied unaltered to adoptive families. This methodological discussion confirms that the basic premise and starting point of this anglophone literature on the cultural identity of adopted children is to take questions raised in studies of migrants and children of migrants and apply them to the population of adopted children, without taking into account the fundamental differences between these two groups.
52 We must also remember that the very concept of cultural and ethnic identity as it is used in the anglophone literature on migrants and their children has been criticized by transnational and postcolonial approaches (Bhatia and Ram 2001; 2004; Glick-Schiller 1999; Hermans and Kempen 1998). These more recent approaches reject the reductive understanding of identity according to which all individuals identified or stigmatized as belonging to a visible ethnic or cultural community have the same ethnic and cultural identity (Skandrani et al. 2012).
53 Ethnic identity is primarily an identity imposed by others. It corresponds to what the French historian Pap Ndiaye has called “thin identity,” defined as the identity projected by others: “Thin identity delimits a group that has nothing in common other than the experience of the prescribed identity” (Ndiaye 2008).  Thin identity is historically associated with experiences of domination. Its opposite is thick identity, which is based on a specific history and is maintained essentially within the private sphere. Thick identity is subjective, complex, plural (Skandrani et al. 2012).
54 For us, therefore, cultural identity is far from a static, categorical concept. On the contrary, we highlight the importance of complex and dynamic negotiations of identity. Cultural identity is a dynamic, constantly changing process that is perpetually refreshed through relationships with other people. Identity is an act of becoming; it is never finished, defined, or definitive (Skandrani et al. 2012).
55 This literature review, as surprising or shocking as it may be for French researchers unfamiliar with the concepts of cultural or ethnic identity, allows us to tackle the theoretical or even ideological approaches to adoption that exist on either side of the Atlantic. It also has the merit of pointing the spotlight at a subject that has been little explored in France: the fact that being seen by others as a migrant, or as a member of a minority group, has consequences for children’s identity construction, regardless of how well they have integrated into their adoptive families. The question of the child’s alterity arises in all adoptive families, an alterity that is not just due to a different genetic heritage and the way in which the child joined the filiation, but also because of the differences in physical appearance that embody the child’s birth country and culture. The adopted child comes from elsewhere. Having been born in a different cultural environment will always be part of the child’s story. The traces of her first experiences as a baby bear witness to it, as do the way other people see her and the way the child and her family imagine that other place. It is important to explore the subject of parental cultural countertransference, the fear or prejudice that exists within each of us when faced with cultural difference (Devereux 1980), because it can influence parents’ ideas about the child’s birth country and its culture. And these are the ideas that are transmitted to the child.
We love Asian culture, Buddhism. We love the people. We love their faces.
57 What position should be taken regarding the complex question of the cultural affiliations of adopted children, and above all, what position should clinicians adopt in order to allow access to the singularity and subjectivity of each individual? First, we must disentangle the jumble of meanings concealed beneath the vast term “birth culture.”
Culture and filiation
58 Talking about the culture of the child’s birth country makes it possible to talk about her origins. Where does she come from? From what desire, what history? Ideas about the birth country’s culture and about the birth parents are interlinked. Cultural affiliations and genetic heritage sometimes get confused when families discuss this subject.
59 Françoise-Romaine Ouellette, a Canadian researcher, explores the concept of culture in adoption. She highlights the birth parents, the phantasmatic place they occupy in the minds of adoptive parents, and suggests that it is less psychologically costly for the child to form memories by referring to her birth country and its culture than to her biological family:
She’s being brought up by a mother whose culture is French; she goes to a French school; her cultural environment is French. There you have it. And at the same time, it’s true that I think that Haitian culture probably has a special meaning for her—that’s where she comes from after all.
We’ve always told them the same thing, but they always come back to it. But we can’t tell them much about their parents. We tell them more about the country; we talk about going to Ethiopia one day when they’re older.
63 When children, particularly during adolescence, assert a sense of belonging to their birth country, make friends with children of migrants, or ask to go back to their birth country, they are questioning their visible alterity. But they are also exploring the question of their origins and birth parents. This can take the form of a claim to blood ties, emblematic of the entanglement between “biological” filiation and feelings of cultural belonging.
I’ll always have a Colombian part in me.
I’m proud of being Vietnamese. I’m proud of having Vietnamese blood in my veins.
What ties me to Haiti is the fact that I have Haitian blood running through my veins.
67 Going through the phase of traveling back to their birth country or becoming interested in their birth country’s culture thus becomes a stage in the long, painful, and chaotic process of searching for their origins, for access to the first lines of their story.
I would like to learn the language, spend some time there, maybe live there.
69 Conversely, the connection between cultural affiliations and inscription in a filiation can be seen in the work of the Norwegian anthropologist Signe Lise Howell (2009). Howell describes how adopted children undergo a process of “cultural renaturalization” by their parents, enabling them to be assimilated and fully integrated both into the family and the new country. This process, involving Norwegian education, language, clothes, food, traditions, and festivals, leads to a genuine transformation of the child thanks to the impregnation of her entire being by the cultural and social references of her adoptive parents. In contrast to the view held on the other side of the Atlantic regarding the importance, for adopted children, of a sense of belonging to the culture of their birth country, the adoptive parents in Howell’s study expressed a desire to immerse their child in elements of their own culture from the moment they joined the family. This Norwegian example shows that families need to anchor these adopted children in their culture, even if that means overemphasizing these cultural affiliations in the beginning, in order to integrate them into their filiation.
Culture and visible adoption
70 A final point to discuss emerges from the work of anthropologists like Corinne Fortier in France or Diana Marre in Spain, who observe that adoptive parents are more interested in the culture of their child’s birth country if the child was adopted from Africa, Asia, or Latin America compared to Eastern Europe, even though these are all international adoptions. These authors claim, therefore, that the question of the child’s birth country and its culture is more acute when the adoption is “visible.” Fortier speaks of the culturalization of physical difference, where having different phenotypic traits than the dominant population necessarily seems to imply the fact of having a different culture of origin. She points out that this same confusion exists currently in France regarding French people from what are known as “visible minorities,” who are often assumed to have a culture of origin distinct from French culture even though they were born and raised in France: their physical difference is interpreted as the sign of a fundamental alterity at the cultural level (Fortier 2011). Talking about cultural difference is, then, a way of talking about differences in skin color. Adoptive parents are interested in their child’s birth culture when there is a non-erasable physical difference between them and the child (Marre 2007; 2009).
71 In consultations, parents may allude to this displacement of the question of alterity onto the cultural question, sometimes when talking about their choice of country.
It’s not that different from our food, eh. That’s why we were interested in Europe in the first place, because there are some things that are just like us. It’s not that different to here. It’s not that different—that’s what was interesting. Anyway, because he’s White and blond, there are no concerns.
No, it’s not a problem. There isn’t really any racism with Asians. Racism is basically targeted at an African population, because there’s a culture shock—there’s a really big difference.
74 Adoptive families talk about culture. But when we talk about culture, we are talking about something else as well. Whether through families’ ideas about their adopted child’s birth country, the multiplicity of affiliations, the assertion or denial of the child’s alterity, or even a focus on the birth country’s culture as a projection of the question of origin, it seems essential that the cultural question can be complicated, kneaded, stretched, so that the multiple meanings hidden beneath the question of culture can be constructed, or rather co-constructed. The goal of the transcultural approach is to be able to talk about alterity, migration, and métissage without jeopardizing the new filiation or implying a lack of loyalty toward the child’s adoptive parents. The cultural question can be used to talk about the question of the adopted child’s alterity. The psychological appropriation of a child from elsewhere is a challenge upon the arrival of any child, but it requires infinite creativity in the case of adoption. The adopted child is métis because she has multiple affiliations and identities. As in any situation of métissage, this complication of the question of identity and this multiplicity of affiliations can be a source of suffering, but also of great richness (Moro 2002; Moro et al. 2004) when the different affiliations are able to coexist and enable the unfolding of the full range of identity. Not quite like my adoptive parents, not quite like what my body would imply, a paradox that generates suffering and richness, between two worlds.
75 Summer 2013
Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign-language material in this article are our own.