Photo by Steven Depolo, Flickr CC

Racial diversity within American families has steadily increased since the mid-20th century. But norms are not changing as quickly as demographics. Individuals still question when children do not look like their caretakers (see Babysitting While Black), and suspicious gazes present a chronic annoyance to transracially adopted children. New research by Devon Goss investigates the ways that transracial adoptees and their siblings are incorrectly perceived by others and the strategies they use to respond to mischaracterization.

Goss interviewed 30 adults from across the country — 16 non-white people adopted by white families, and 14 white people with non-white adopted siblings. The interviewees reported being frequently mischaracterized when in public with their different-race siblings. Most commonly people categorized them as a romantic couple, regardless of the gender pairing of the siblings. Goss hypothesizes that a transracial pair exhibiting familial intimacy is unrecognizable to most as a sibling group, so people instead interpret them as sexual partners. She links these misperceptions to racialized stereotypes of sexuality — specifically, that non-whites are more sexually active and deviant than whites. 

The participants in the research used three strategies to challenge these false assumptions. Some openly confronted people about their stereotypical beliefs. Others used subtle conversation cues to indicate their true relationship, such as addressing their sibling as “sis.” Others humorously played along with the mischaracterization to make light of the situation. Each of these strategies represents a form of what sociologists call impression management — an attempt by transracial siblings to redefine public perceptions of them with overt or covert signals. Transracial families in America will continue this awkward exercise until societal norms acknowledge and accept their existence.