Transracial Adoption Crosses the Color Line

Eight-year-old Penelope, Nikkei actress Amy Hill’s multiracial adopted daughter, has an interesting take on her identity. She sometimes says, “‘I’m a little Japanese, you’re more Japanese than I,’” shared Hill. “I told her that her birth mother is African American and Caucasian and her father is Latino, and she just goes ‘Oh, okay, pass the rice, give me more seaweed.’”

Turns out that Penelope currently identifies with the Japanese American community, though Hill makes sure that she is exposed to her multicultural friendship circles and involves her in cultural celebrations reflective of Penelope’s ethnic heritage like Day of the Dead.

Hill, 56, who is known for her roles on the Margaret Cho TV show “All American Girl” and movies such as “Cat in the Hat,” weighed her options before she decided to go local. “I always considered adoption since I was a kid because I just felt bad for kids who didn’t have parents, so even as a child I knew that one day I would adopt.”

At first Hill, who is herself multiracial (half Japanese and half Finnish) wanted to adopt a biracial Japanese child who replicated her ethnicity. She remembered that when she had lived in Japan 30 years ago there was still a stigma toward being biracial and many children were put up for adoption with very few people in line to adopt them. Times have changed and the country’s more open attitudes toward mixed race that she presently encounters made it difficult to adopt, unless, she was told, she planned to live in Japan. The real reason behind the difficulty, she believes, is that she is a single parent.

So, she decided to go through with a domestic adoption since there are plenty of children in America in need of good homes. The National Council for Adoption estimates that there are approximately 25,000 United States-born children placed for adoption each year. Hill also specifically wanted a multiracial child.

“I thought that I would be a good mother to someone multiracial, to support them in identifying any way they wanted to,” she said.

Growing Up: Adoptee Experience

Identity development for individuals of mixed heritage and people of color can be an issue in an dichotomous world, but how much more of a challenge might it be if you are also transracially adopted?

“You can turn on the TV as a white person and you can see 100 possible identities growing up… ‘I want to be a Fireman’ or whatnot on TV. I think for an Asian person growing up or any other ethnicities you don’t have that,” mused Lee Corbett, 39, a social worker for Los Angeles County’s Children Services. Corbett, who speaks with a trace of a Southern drawl, was born in Korea and transracially adopted into a white Southern family and grew up for a portion of his youth in Montgomery, Ala. where the world was ethnically divided between black and white.

“Most people I ran into had never seen an Asian person before,” he said.

Corbett described looking into the mirror as a child and wishing he was white. For any adoption, “abandonment issues are always going to be there, but for the transracial adoption issues — from the moment you have any kind of consciousness you know you are different.”

Regional differences might play a role in identity development, but even in multicultural areas like the San Francisco Bay Area, if the family is not educated to the adopted child’s culture there might be an identity dissonance.

“I thought a lot about my identity at a very early time because I was made so aware of it by the families I was living in and by people observing me in that context,” shared grade school teacher Joemy Ito-Gates, who was born in 1980 in Washington State to a Japanese mother and Irish American father. Tragically, the disease of AIDS left her parentless at the age of 10. Anglo American friends of her family took her in and raised her in Berkeley, Calif.

Corbett and Ito-Gates have both worked with children in adoption issues. Corbett previously worked in adoptions for Los Angeles County and focused his master’s thesis on transracial adoption and ethnic identity. Ito-Gates, a teacher, has helped prepare curriculums for Fusion, a summer camp specifically geared toward mixed heritage youth and transracial adoptees (TRAs) based in San Francisco. Both feel strongly that the best situation for a TRA is to be placed in a family that pays positive attention to the child’s background, especially if it is racially different from the adoptee parents.

“I think that if you are going to adopt a child from a culture that is different from yours, that you have an obligation to have people in place who share that the children’s culture and ways to access that culture and language so that connection remains strong,” said Ito-Gates.

Identity Turning Points

Both felt that college was a real turning point in their identity development through participation in multiracial groups, activism and classes dealing with ethnic issues and identity. At Smith college, Ito-Gates felt that though people of color only made 10 percent of the population that there was a “strong sense of coming together and being vocal about our ethnic identity.” At UC Santa Barbara, Corbett attended one of the first multiracial courses to be offered, titled “The World of Amerasians,” where conversations about ethnic identity, academic theories and practice as well as journaling was the norm.

In this way, they created their own communities, as well as plugged into existing communities of color. “I think that naturally throughout my life I respond to people who have that experience of being ‘othered,’” said Ito-Gates.

Despite their mixed feelings about transracial adoption, as Corbett said, “it’s preferable to have a child raised in their same ethnicity but also preferable for a child to be adopted rather than be in an orphanage or foster care.”

It is interesting to note that Ito-Gates and Corbett both entered fields that dealt with children. Corbett’s adopted mother bought him a ticket to Korea when he was 19 years old to visit Korean orphanages and he was able to volunteer and see his own records as a baby. It had a deep effect and he realized that “I wasn’t really alone in my journey.”

That journey has led him to new family connections as he is now married with two of his own little girls who are multiracial Korean and Mexican.

“For me it brings me a lot of joy to see that there are young kids who are building community and having a lot of pride in who they are,” Ito-Gates said in reference to starting Fusion, “because it’s something that I came to much later in life when I was in college.”

They also emphasize that each situation is unique and that there can be beautiful stories. For TRA individuals, Ito-Gates shared, “I would say really listen to your inner wisdom because you know who you are and what you need. Don’t be scared to seek out your community, people and places that can really
support your identity because it’s not a betrayal of anyone. You are really honoring yourself.”

photo courtesy of Amy Hill

Local Resources:
Fusion, a Program for Mixed Heritage Youth, visit
Pact, an adoption alliance, visit
Adoption San Francisco,
Association of Korean Adoptees, San Francisco, visit
Our Family Coalition, the Bay Area’s LGBTQ Family Organization,

International Adoption Agency
Holt International,


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