history of transnational adoption in the US

As of 2012, there were 1.7 million adoptive households across the country and 2% of all US children live with at least one adoptive parent, with an increase in international adoption leading to more multicultural US families. Furthermore, the majority of current adoptions are international and transracial. From 1990 to 2005, there was an increase from 7,093 international adoptees to 22,728. Additionally, in the 2009 report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services indicated that 40% of all US adoptions were transracial (Lee, 2006; McDermott, 2021; Park, 2012).

While transracial adoption is common in the United States, it was not always widely accepted and encouraged. One example of this for further research include the Indian Adoption Project. While domestic transracial adoption was controversial, international transracial adoption was becoming more popular with the changing social and political environment. Examples of this include the surge of Korean adoptees during the Korean war as well as the influx of preference for Chinese children during China’s One Child Policy in the late 1970s (McDermott, 2021). In the year 2000, 95% of all international adoptive parents from the US were white with China being one of the three primary countries, along with Russia and South Korea, that parents adopted from. This led to the largest makeup of adoptive families being white parents with Asian children. The U.S. Department of State reported that between 1999 and 2010, nearly 64,000 Chinese children were adopted by American families (Park, 2012). This study examines Chinese adoptees who grew up in white families where at least one parent was white and are now adults.

adoptee identity crisis

As mentioned previously, the largest makeup of adoptive families in the United States is white parents with Asian children (Park, 2012). Unfortunately, parents who have adopted transracially sometimes reject or downplay their child’s racial or ethnic differences, leading them to assimilate into white culture, both consciously and subconsciously (McDermott, 2021; Lee, 2003). Thus, Asian American transracial adoptees sometimes receive the status of an “honorary white” in their families and communities where the child is seen as white because their families are white and they have assimilated into white culture (Baden, 2016; McDermott, 2021). Furthermore, research has shown how it can be difficult for transracial adoptive parents to engage their children in cultural exploration activities due to location as well as their own beliefs and views on race. There are times when adoptive families may have a color-blind approach to race or have existing implicit stereotypes about Asian American children (Park, 2012). All of these factors can affect an adoptee’s identity and how they view themselves both as an adoptee and as an Asian American/Chinese American.

When transracial adoptees experience situations where their Asian American identity is rejected or denied, they may develop a negative self-concept and low self-esteem. Having a lack of awareness and understanding about where they come from might lead to self-hatred and internalization of negative stereotypes about Asians and Asian Americans, including the model minority myth, which leads them to feel even more like an outsider (Chen, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2020; Reny & Barreto, 2020). Sometimes this identity conflict becomes more apparent as adoptees grow into adulthood and start moving away from home (McDermott, 2021). This identity conflict leads to a paradox of feeling in-between and is something that transracial adoptees struggle with. It is the idea that adoptees are caught “in-between” two identities and two worlds – the white world and white culture that they were raised in and the Asian culture that they were born into and may not know much about (McDermott, 2021). This paradox adds to adoptees’ ongoing identity crisis they face in their home life.

In Asian Americans, race-related stress can drain cognitive resources that help to manage mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depression. Over time, this can harm adoptees’ overall mental well-being (McDermott, 2021).  Mental well-being has been shown to be a predictor of and predicted by mental health (Brugha, 2015). Negative emotions such as low self-esteem and self-concept due to identity-related issues, can lead adoptees to develop negative mental well-being.

ethnic identity, perceived discrimination, and well-being in adoptees

Ethnic identity is something that becomes salient during emerging adulthood and is central to the normative development of adoptees and development of a positive ethnic identity has been associated with psychological adjustment in regard to self-esteem (Ferrari et al., 2017). Ethnic identity formation can be difficult for adoptees as they do not always share a common heritage with their adoptive families (Ferrari et al., 2017; McDermott, 2021; Lee, 2003). Perceived ethnic discrimination is the perception of unjustified negative behavior by members of a dominant group aimed at rejecting members from another, less dominant ethnic group (Ferrari et al., 2017).

Because adoptees look different from their non-adopted peers, they are more likely to experience ethnic discrimination in their everyday lives. However, because of this, adoptees tend to assimilate more into the culture they were adopted into, thus leading them to perceive themselves to be less targeted by discrimination (Ferrari et al., 2017). When adoptees do face ethnic discrimination, it can lead to an increase in the internalization and externalization of problems, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, psychological distress, and sleep issues (Ferrari et al., 2017). Additionally, it has been shown that ethnic identity can serve as a significant moderator for depression. For those who had a more positive view of their ethnic identity, COVID-related discrimination has a less positive effect on depression. In other words, higher levels of ethnic identity weakened the relationship between COVID-related racial discrimination and depression (Litam & Oh, 2020).

history of anti-asian racism in the US

The first large group of Chinese immigrants to the United States occurred in the 1850s as part of the California Gold Rush, which brought cheap labor in the mining, agricultural and railroad industries (Chen, 2020; Gover et al., 2020). Many Chinese immigrants, mostly men, came to the United States to work in order to support themselves and send the rest of their earnings to their families back in China. Because these Chinese immigrants were unaware of American labor laws, they were willing to work longer hours, get paid lower wages and work in harsher conditions than American citizens, which made them more resourceful to employers. This led to employers hiring more Chinese immigrants over American citizens. Unfortunately, Americans saw this as the Chinese trying to steal their jobs (Chen, 2020; Dunigan, 2017).

Furthermore, when the Chinese immigrated to the United States, they also brought opium with them, leading to a national drug panic as Americans became addicted to the drug (Gover et al., 2020). The opium addiction problem combined with American’s fears of “Chinese invasions” in the workplace lead to the enactment of the novel Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This was the first American policy restricting immigration for an entire ethnic group and eligibility for U.S. citizenship (Chen, 2020; Dunigan, 2017; Gover et al., 2020; Huang & Liu 2020; other). The only people allowed to immigrate to the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act were scholars, diplomats or merchants, and required them to carry a certificate that identified this. However, Chinese immigrants started “paper sons and daughters” by passing as the son or daughter of a current United States resident in order to come to the US. This law led to the Chinese being subject of much ridicule and discrimination across the country, in particular the West Coast (Dunigan, 2017).

In addition to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the late-1800s consisted of the United States government tried to enforce other immigration laws on Chinese immigrants. The Page Act of 1875 was put into law which prohibited the recruitment of laborers from “China, Japan or any Oriental Country.” It also blocked Chinese women from entering the country due to the ban against importing women for the purpose of prostitution (Peffer, 1986). Additionally, ten years after the onset of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Geary Act was formed. This extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for ten more years and required that immigrants obtain certifications of residence. In 1902, the Chinese Exclusion Act was extended indefinitely until the start of World War II in 1943 when China became an ally of the United States (Dunigan, 2017). Even with the repeal of these exclusion and immigration acts in present day, racial discrimination that the Chinese faced continued post-repeal of the Exclusion Act, especially seen during the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic (Dunigan, 2017).

COVID-specific hate incidents

In March of 2020, President Trump declared a national emergency in the United States over the coronavirus, an outbreak that would soon become a global pandemic (Reny & Barreto, 2020). While the threat of this virus to the public health and economy of the United States was serious, another threat was being made. Those of Asian ethnicity were suffering from various forms of discrimination across the United States (Gover et al., 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2020). Part of the reason for this is how the COVID-19 pandemic was being presented in the media. President Trump, other Republicans, and even social media influencers, began to demonize the Chinese and other Asian Americans through the use of words such as “Wuhan Virus”, “Chinese Virus”, “Kung Flu”, and more when referring to COVID-19 (Gover et al., 2020; Huang & Liu, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2020; Reny & Barreto, 2020).

These racial slurs – in addition to linking outgroups such as the Chinese with fear of disease – have a political consequence of potentially serving as a link to xenophobia, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian American attitudes to worry about the coronavirus (Reny & Barreto, 2020). It was found that more than 50% of Americans said they somewhat or strongly agreed with Trump’s use of the term “Chinese Virus” (Li & Nicholson, 2020). Furthermore, many Chinese families believed that the fear and/or dislike of China, Chinese people, or Chinese culture was due to the media’s presentation and promotion of Sinophobia (Cheah et al., 2020). The increase in xenophobia in the media has led to a 60% increase in the United States’ negative views of China (Huang & Liu, 2020). Some researchers hypothesize that the rhetoric used in the early stages of the pandemic, blaming China and the Chinese for spreading the virus, combined with the newfound worry over a new virus, mixed in a toxic way that manifested in racially charged, xenophobic policy sentiment and behavior among the public (Gover et al., 2020; Reny and Barreto, 2020).

Following this new rhetoric on the media, stories began to surface on the news of Asian Americans being verbally or physically attacked in the United States (Reny & Barreto, 2020). According to the Stop AAPI Hate organization’s national report, there was a surge of harassment, bullying and other acts of hate experienced by Asian American and Pacific Islander communities in February and March of 2020. Unfortunately, over two years later, AAPI members continue to experience hate at increasing levels with over 11,400 incidents reported (Stop AAPI Hate). This is of course not including those incidents that were chosen to go unreported by individuals due to fear, embarrassment, or other reasons.

This heightened sense of xenophobia during the pandemic has reflected the continued perceptions of Chinese Americans as “perpetual foreigners” who are threatening US society (Cheah et al., 2020). Out of these 11,400 incidents, two-thirds involved harassment such as “verbal or written hate speech or inappropriate gestures” and forty percent took place in a public place (Stop AAPI Hate). These incidents have included shoving, being screamed racial slurs, and more. Survey research indicates 50.9% and 50.2% of parents and youth, respectively, reported experiencing direct racial discrimination in-person (Cheah et al., 2020). In the year 2021, a nationwide survey found that only half of AAPI individuals felt safe going out and that two in three worried about the safety of family members and elders. Furthermore, almost half of the members reported having depression or anxiety, while seventy-two percent named discrimination as their “greatest source of stress” (Stop AAPI Hate).

In addition to Stop AAPI Hate’s incident reports, the Pew Research Center states that Asian and Black Americans were more likely to report negative experiences because of their race or ethnicity since the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020. Thirty-nine percent of Asian Americans and thirty-eight percent of Black Americans reported that people acted as if they were uncomfortable around them, compared to thirteen percent of White Americans. Furthermore, twenty-six percent of Asian Americans feared someone would threaten or physically attack them, while only nine percent of White Americans felt this way (Ruiz et al., 2020). Andrew Yang, an Asian American and former Democratic presidential candidate, confessed in 2020 that he felt ashamed to be Asian because he was stared at and frowned upon at a grocery store (Li & Nicholson, 2020). Chinese parents, and especially Chinese youth, perceived that “many Americans consider Chinese people and culture to be a threat to public health in the United States” (Cheah et al., p. 5) and thirty-one percent of Asian Americans had been the subject to slurs or jokes, as opposed to eight percent of White Americans (Cheah et al., 2020; Ruiz et al., 2020).

It is important to take into account how the history of Asian American racism plays a role in shaping the beliefs of so many people. When looking into the history of American’s perceptions towards Asians and Asians Americans, we can see how these previous perceptions carry over to current ones during COVID. As shown above, while Asian Americans are depicted as the “model minority”, they are also seen as perpetual foreigners who are not worthy of “full American” status and are seen as outsiders and threats (Chen, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2020; Reny & Barreto, 2020). The Chinese being stereotyped for disease is nothing new. In the late -1800s, the Chinese were thought of to be “culturally exotic and as dirty acute vectors of disease” (Reny & Barreto, 2020). This is because people believed that disease spread was caused by poor sanitary conditions tainting the local air. Thus, public health officials frequently blamed Chinese immigrant enclaves due to their “foul and disgusting vapors” as being primary carriers of “filth and disease” in the United States (Huang & Liu, 2020; Reny & Barreto, 2020). These immigrant enclaves were commonly known as “Chinatowns” and were the areas of town where Chinese immigrants settled in and became to be the moral slums of America (Dunigan, 2017).

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time that Chinese immigrants have received negative treatment due to the onset of a public health crisis. When the Bubonic Plague reached California in the early 1900s, public health officials implemented a race-based response by quarantining Chinese immigrants in Chinatown, which was the epicenter of the outbreak. Meanwhile, white merchants were allowed to roam freely (Gover et al., 2020). This negative view on the Chinese as carriers of disease led to Chinese immigrants landing in Angel Island in San Francisco being subjected to humiliating medical inspections that the Europeans in Ellis Island in New York never went through (Huang & Liu, 2020). This is where the term “yellow-peril” originated from. It is a term that refers to the negative and racist idea that Asians are “dishonest, diseased invaders, [and] viewed culturally and politically inferior to Whites” (Li & Nicholson, 2020, p. 4) and are a threat to European culture (Chen, 2020; Li & Nicholson, 2020). Along with the idea of yellow peril is the fact that Chinese individuals are subject to the recurring trope that they will eat any type of animal and that those animals carry diseases (Huang & Liu, 2020). These stereotypes and racist tropes carried through to today with the COVID-19 pandemic and with them, have left psychological consequences on Chinese and Asian Americans in the United States.

These aforementioned racial tropes and other racial experiences are stressors that can lead to homeostasis disruption and wear and tear of body systems (Cheah et al., 2020). For some parents, psychological well-being was negatively associated with direct discrimination. Additionally, for youth, psychological well-being was also negatively associated with direct discrimination. Further, the experiences of parents were significantly associated with their children’s self-reported mental health. As stated by the researchers, “parental in-person direct racial discrimination was negatively associated with youth-reported psychological well-being and positively associated with youth-reported anxiety symptoms” (Cheah et al., 2020, p. 4). Additionally, perceptions of Sinophobia were associated with poorer well-being in adults and Chinese Americans who encountered more frequent COVID-related racial discrimination experienced increased levels of depression and decreased levels of life satisfaction (Litam, & Oh, 2020; Cheah et al., 2020).

psychological well-being

Psychological well-being (PWB) is a multidimension construct that includes “the ability to maintain a sense of autonomy, self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life and self-esteem” (Brugha, 2015, p. 187) and is the positive version of psychological distress. Together, psychological distress and psychological well-being make up the two dimensions of mental or psychological health (Dagenais-Desmarais & Savoie, 2012; Joshanloo, 2018). Understanding this concept is still heterogeneous as there are a wide array of conceptualizations of PWB. It is difficult to fully conceptualize what goes into a person’s overall happiness and life satisfaction (Dagenais-Desmarais & Savoie, 2012). Some examples of theories that are associated with PWB are embedded within developmental and clinical psychology. These include Erikson’s model of psychosocial development, Maslow’s conception of self-actualization, and the absence of mental illness (Brugha, 2015; Ryff, 1995). However, all of these theories surround the same common themes that go into the dimensions of well-being. These themes are self-acceptance, personal growth, autonomy, positive relationships, environmental mastery, and purpose in life (Ryff, 1995).

life events and psychological well-being

There are several life events (LEs) that can disrupt someone’s PWB and turn it into psychological distress. LEs are “incidents that can significantly interfere with ongoing life, necessitating adjustment to habitual life either temporarily or on a permanent basis” (Cleland et al., 2016, p. 2). Some examples of LEs are the death of a close relative or a friend, moving, changes to your work environment, or experiencing racial discrimination. Past literature has shown how LEs play a role in changes to physiological and biological processes of individuals. This heightens their susceptibility to develop acute and/or chronic life-threatening conditions as a consequence of stress. Additionally, LEs can lead to detrimental changes in health and well-being by leading to the development of unhealth lifestyles such as increased alcohol intake or smoking (Cleland et al., 2016). Furthermore, the stressful nature of certain events can act as a precipitating factor in the onset of physical and mental health symptoms (Williams et al., 1981).

Different LEs can have different effects on overall health. For example, a serious health event or death in the family lead to poorer outcomes in physical health, mental health, and mental well-being compared to other LEs like parenthood or marriage. Moreover, research has shown that when provided the proper social support, LEs do not have as serious of an effect. For example, previous research finds that men who had no social support and were unemployed showed higher levels of cholesterol, illness symptoms and self-blame than supported, unemployed men (Williams et al., 1981). While some LEs can have positive effects on health, there are still many LEs that have a significant effect on mental health and mental well-being (Cleland et al., 2016).

subjective well-being and collective self-esteem

Subjective well-being (SWB), also known as people’s evaluation of their lives, is an essential component of positive psychological health and allows people to define well-being for themselves (Diener et al., 1998). SWB can be divided into three dimensions: life satisfaction, positive affect (experiencing pleasant moods and emotions) and low negative affect (Diener & Ryan, 2009; Joshanloo, 2018). There has been much research about how both SWB and PWB are distinct constructs that influence each other over time. For example, there is the broad and build theory posits that positive emotions build personal resources and aid in psychological resilience and well-being over time. However, self-determination theory predicts that there are certain lifestyles associated with happiness and positive affect. Both of these theories show how PWB and SWB can influence each other in different ways (Joshanloo, 2018). Previous research found that initial levels of PWB predicted positive changes in the levels of SWB over time. Thus, we can see how psychological well-being as a whole can contribute to fluctuations in subjective well-being (Joshanloo, 2018). This means that someone’s current mental state can lead to certain changes in how they perceive their own life’s happiness. 

Subjective well-being is linked to both health and longevity. For example, studies have shown that those who reported higher SWB also reported better health and fewer negative physical symptoms. Furthermore, other studies have shown that patients who were purposely infected with a cold were more resistant to the virus when they had higher levels of SWB (Diener & Ryan, 2009). Not only has SWB been shown to link to health benefits, but it has also shown to benefit society. Those with higher levels of SWB have been found to have more trusting, cooperative and pro-peace attitudes as well as engage in pro-social activities such as volunteering (Diener & Ryan, 2009). While SWB can lead to a more stable and functioning society, it is important to note how SWB can be affected by cultural differences. Research has shown that people who live in industrial societies do not report higher well-being because their basic needs are met. Additionally, in more individualistic cultures, self-esteem has been found to be a strong predictor of SWB compared to collectivist cultures (Crocker et al., 1994; Diener & Ryan, 2009).

Not only has self-esteem shown to be a strong predictor of SWB, it has also been linked to lower risk for depression and hopelessness as well as increased experience of positive affect (Crocker et al., 1994). While personal aspects are important to self-esteem, feelings of self-worth may also derive from collective well-being. The collective self is connected to the idea that an individual’s self-concept is derived from a person’s membership in a social group, commonly known as social identity theory (SIT). Research has demonstrated that for those who belong to minority or stigmatized groups, group membership is an important aspect of the self (Crocker et al., 1994). Additionally, collective self-esteem has been shown to be mediate the relationship between perceived social status and psychological well-being (Verkuyten & Lay, 1998). Thus, both collective self-esteem, and personal self-esteem, contribute to psychological well-being.

social identity theory

Social Identity Theory (SIT) is a social psychological theory developed by Tajfel and Turner (2004) that explains intergroup conflict through group-based self-definitions. SIT posits that individuals define their own identities in regard to social groups and such definitions protect and bolster self-identity (Islam, 2014). Because social identity is based on the protection and enhancement of self-concepts, a threat, known as a social identity threat, to someone’s self-concept is related to identity. For example, negative out-group characterizations can result from perceptions of out-groups as competing for resources, such as the perception of an out-group stealing available jobs from in-group members. Furthermore, SIT posits that much discrimination, prejudice and intergroup conflict result from group-based categorization and self-enhancement motives. This means that individuals will strive to have a positive view of themselves and high self-esteem. This type of categorization can lead to negative evaluations of out-groups, stereotyping, out-group degradation, and eventually intergroup conflict (Adams, 2008; Gagnon & Bourhis, 1996; Islam, 2014; Tajfel & Turner, 2004). The more intense intergroup conflict between groups is, the more likely out-group individuals will behave towards each other as a function of their respective group membership (Tajfel & Turner, 2004).

Part of this intergroup conflict/behavior stems from in-group bias. This is the tendency to favor the in-group over the out-group in terms of evaluations and behaviors. Studies have shown that the “mere perception of belonging to two distinct groups…is sufficient to trigger intergroup discrimination favoring the in-group” (Tajfel & Turner, 2004, p. 281). This means that even a slight awareness of the presence of an out-group is sufficient to trigger intergroup competitive or discriminatory responses on behalf of the in-group due to in-group favoritism (Tajfel & Turner, 2004).

social identity theory and racism - minimal group paradigm

When thinking about racism, it is hard to define an abstract concept. However, some researchers have conceptualized the term into thinking about different parts that go into why racism exists. One of those parts is ignorance. This comes from the idea that people who embrace prejudices or endorse stereotypes do so because of a lack of accurate information about stigmatized groups. Part of this lack of awareness is due to a lack of intergroup contact. Research has shown that increased intergroup contact between out-groups can lead to beneficial outcomes, especially when it is done under conditions of equal status, inclusive superordinate goals, and cooperation (Adams et al., 2008). Without intergroup contact, prejudices and stereotypes do not change and discrimination continues.

As previously stated, much of intergroup relations stems from an in-group bias and a motivation to maintain a positive self-esteem (Tajfel & Turner, 2004). This can lead to hostility and negative bias towards out-groups, that some people might not even be aware that they have. “…People [can] frequently engagement in prejudiced evaluations, stereotype-laden judgements, and biased actions that can occur without their intention or even conscious awareness” (Adams et al., 2008, p. 219). Some of these prejudices and stereotypes are linked to cultural racism. This is the idea that social representations in mainstream American media tend to impose White American practices and values as the standard, thus making everyone different “negatively deviant” (Adams et al., p. 223). This leads to cultural stereotypes that are representations based on links between attributes and identity categories that are built into the environment, including past oppression that continues into present-day (Adams et al., 2008). These stereotypes can then present themselves in different ways such as verbal harassment, physical harassment, or even cyberbullying.

It can be difficult to understand how these stereotypes and prejudices lead to discrimination. Previous research has shown that discrimination stems from the categorization of people into two groups: an in-group and an-outgroup. This theory is known as the minimal group paradigm (MGP) and has shown that this categorization is sufficient enough to foster intergroup discrimination. This paradigm states that “the mere categorization into one group and not another is sufficient to trigger behavioral discrimination…however trivial or meaningless the basis for categorization” (Brown, 2020, p. 371; Gagnon & Bourhis, 1996).

In the original MGP study, a group of schoolchildren, who all knew each other, were placed into two categories: dot over-estimators and dot under-estimators. Participants were first randomly assigned to these two groups, then individually informed while not knowing to which group their classmates were assigned. After they were given their assignment, the students were tasked to make a series of reward assignments to anonymous others using allocation matrices. They were to allocate rewards to either two participants of an in-group, two participants of an out-group, or one person from each group. Researchers observed that in-group favoritism was frequent and lead to intergroup discrimination between the two groups. Even with the smallest categorization, that can have absolutely no meaning to people, when people are placed into distinct categories that separate them from others, discrimination can take place (Brown, 2020).

The MGP is still relevant today, as we have seen how in-group favoritism and categorization play a role in racism and discrimination. More specifically, we have seen how intergroup discrimination has played a role in the most recent years towards specific minority groups. One target group that has seen recent trends in racism since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic are the Asian and Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) populations (Stop AAPI Hate).