Why donor ethnicity matters

We want all our intended parents to have resources to make informed decisions as they select the right donor for their family. If you haven’t thought about donor ethnicity, we encourage you to think about the implications of choosing a donor who does, or doesn’t, share ethnicity or ancestry with you and/or members of your family. Our goal is to help contribute to your future child’s and family’s long-term well-being. In response to recipient questions, we provide the following review of TSBC experiences and more general research findings related to ethnicity and donor selection.

The following is based on more than 40 years of TSBC helping people choose their donors and create their families. We have added insights gained from our research program, and sources beyond TSBC, including adoption research and the experiences of transracial families. We find that the concerns of prospective parents sometimes differ from what we hear from current parents. A family and child-based perspective, based on experiences from those who have gone before, may raise a different set of issues for you to consider about the ethnicity of your child’s donor.

The donors who fit my search criteria … were healthy and fit, but they had ethnicities and races that did not match [me or my partner]. Our favorite donor was a man who was part Palestinian. A few other favorites had Latino heritage, and another was Native American. These men’s sperm would indeed help us to create a child …but it would also require us to acknowledge the heritage and cultural background that would belong to our child, but not to us.​

~Ilana Sherer, Our Family Coalition, Known and Unknown

Children want to belong

Children try to avoid feeling different from their peers. In adolescence, they go through identity development, and often seek out family members and others who share their looks, interests, and skills. If your donor and child look very different from the people raising your child, then your child may not know where to go to learn more about their ethnic heritage and the experience of people who look more like them. If the donor shares physical characteristics and ethnic ancestry with you, your partner and/or your extended family, your child will look like the people who share their life. This can contribute to a child’s sense of who they are and a feeling of belonging.

Interviewer: How often were you ever treated differently when you were growing up? Never, rarely, occasionally, frequently or very frequently?

Adult with donor origins: Very frequently. …Well, the reason why I say very frequently is because since I grew up in [State], it’s very white and my parents are both white…so the rest of my family is white and my donor was [of color]. I look very different from my family and I look different from most people in my community growing up. So more than being ostracized or feeling judged, I feel like I was just treated differently, because people always asked, and they always knew. They were always curious and very accepting, but… there were a lot of questions asked, a lot of people were confused. I felt comfortable and felt like I fit in, but I was constantly reminded that I looked really different than the rest of them. 

~ Interviews with adults who have donors in The Sperm Bank of California’s Identity-Release® Program (Scheib, 2016)

What mattered more – the way we felt about a certain donor, or the way our child would feel growing up so different from the two people they are supposed to trust the most? Again, we put our child first and changed our minds, choosing a donor of similar European heritage. This is one of the most important decisions you will make as a parent, and even though you don’t have a baby yet, you have to think like a parent and the well-being of your child. We are so grateful for the help, advice, and caring counsel that we received from TSBC. 

~ John and Meghan, a TSBC family (February 2016)


Choosing a donor with similar physical features helps increase family resemblance and communicates that you are a family to others (Becker et al. 2005). Resemblance is a sign of kinship. Outsiders are less likely to question whether you are a family when you look similar. This applies as much to the family as to the child. For a child, physical resemblance has the capacity to create a feeling of connectedness and belonging (e.g., Nordqvist 2012; Hudson 2015). Without resemblance, there can be an experience of unfamiliarity, unpredictability, of being the “other” (Indekeu 2015). Selecting a donor with shared features to your own family may help support your child as they grow up.

Being a person of colour raised by white parents…I now see how I could have benefited from some people of colour role models in my life. It seems ironic that my parents put so much thought into male role models I never wanted, while race was a topic we almost never discussed. Donor-conceived person and author, Tobi Hill-Meyer (2009)

Being part of a transracial … family [through adoption] means that [my daughter’s difference] is obvious, and increases the likelihood and frequency of intrusive questions. It is wearing for kids to stand out in this way – especially at an age when just belonging to the group is important.  

~Julie Randolf of PACT: an Adoption Alliance

The first generation of children from TSBC are now adults; some have shared their experiences with us. In interviews with adults who obtained their donor’s identity, a small number felt like they grew up looking different from their family—sharing part of their ethnicity only with their donor (Scheib 2016). All described strong attachment to their family, but also uncomfortable instances of difference. Some felt outed as being donor-conceived when they wanted privacy; all were questioned repeatedly about their family.

Knowing that they could obtain their donor’s identity and potentially learn more about their shared ethnic origins helped donor-conceived adults manage these experiences. In one instance, an adult described the joy of meeting her donor. She finally discovered someone who shared her big feet and sense of humor, and who looked just like her. However, the desire to learn about one’s ethnic origins can place greater emphasis on wanting to contact the donor, making it difficult in situations where that contact does not work out as hoped.


People of color often face discrimination based on how they look. Donor-conceived children of color are not excluded from this phenomenon. Having parents or a parent who has faced similar discrimination can help children understand the world around them and what it means to be a person of color. Parents who do not have a similar background may need assistance preparing and/or supporting their child when they are faced with discrimination. We encourage our recipients to consider how they will handle having a child who may face discrimination based on their race or ethnicity, and whether their extended family and community will be able to positively support their child.

Thoughts from Kalisto Zenda Nanen, an adult transracial adoptee:

“… my white parents approached race with me with caution. It’s like the ally rule, [we] can only go so far in our understanding of a life [we] don’t live. It wasn’t until I became an adult [and] got seriously involved in social justice that I got to a point of understanding my race”.

For some parents, choosing a donor who shares their ethnicity helps avoid an additional layer of discrimination against the family and child who may already face homophobia and/or questions about who their parents are and why they don’t have “a dad.” Other families may face discrimination in the form of ignorance around male infertility or single parenting and forming family with the assistance of a donor. Sharing ethnicity helps in day-to-day interactions with the world, including the child being questioned less about who their ‘real’ parents are.

”My one tip to give to a queer couple who wants to start a family is to be very aware of how race and gender play into things, at the playground, at the store, on the bus. Our family is a transracial family [through adoption]. I’m Asian, my son is black, and my partner is white. People make assumptions based on race and gender, even in our own LGBT community. Race shouldn’t matter, but it does. And it cuts both ways. A lot of African-Americans, oftentimes just strangers on the street, show us a lot of love and concern for my son’s well-being and safety. But others have asked where is my son’s mother and who are his ‘real’ parents. My son says, ‘My two dads are my real parents.’ At Brooklyn’s Gay Pride Festival, I was talking to some friends, and my son, who was 4 at the time, got away from me and climbed into one of those gold carts for emergencies. One volunteer, an African-American lesbian, told my son, ‘Oh, no, baby, you can’t be there. Where’s your mommy?’ I dashed over with my diaper bag in one hand and baby toys in the other… As I approached, she looked around me, asking, ‘Where’s your mommy? Where’s your mommy?’ When I got there, I looked her straight in the eye and said ‘I’m his mommy [and with a flick of a snap said] Happy Gay Pride.’ We both laughed, but again, race and gender assumptions are very real even in our own LGBT community.”

~ Glenn D. Magpantay, executive director, National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, taken from 10 Tips for Starting Families From Families Who’ve Been There

Support & further reading

It is possible that this article raises issues that you might not have considered, as well as the generally more difficult issue of race and ethnicity in the U.S. today. Ultimately, we want what is best for your family, and only you can make the right decisions for your family. Please feel free to call our office, if you would like additional assistance with finding the right donor for your family.

  • Becker, G., Butler, A. & Nachtigall, R.D. (2005). Resemblance talk: A challenge for parents whose children were conceived with donor gametes in the US. Social Science & Medicine, 61, 1300-9. (2005).