race, transnational adoption, challenges


The other day, I watched Twinsters, a documentary that can very much be described as a product of the digital age we live in, filmed on digital cameras and mobile devices, on locations in the USA, UK and South Korea. It is the moving story of two people, one in California and the other in London, both of Korean descent, getting to know, via the internet and social media, that they are in fact twin sisters who, under circumstances unknown, were separated at birth. The documentary contains a ‘real life’ feel throughout, enabling almost everyone to easily ‘connect’ with the lives of the protagonists and their friends, and the way in which the documentary was filmed. The storyline focuses very much on the concept of family, and how family is defined in a context of transnational adoption, with the lived experiences of adoptees differing and contrasting from one case to another. The film also shows how the notion of a ’family’ is socially constructed. Sam, one of the twins, affirms at the end: “family is what you make of it, there’s no definition”. (1:24:19-20).

The core theme that runs throughout the film, and the one that receives less critical discussion (which is not necessarily a flaw in itself as this is only a documentary that focuses on a unique transnational discovery of kinship) is that of international adoption, from the global south to the global north. The political economy of this practice is one that glaringly points at the gross sociopolitical, economic, cultural and most importantly, racial politics, hierarchies and inequalities that characterise the world we live in. In the near-totality of cases, ‘foster parents’ from the global north who adopt babies and young children from South Asian, Southeast Asian and other developing countries happen to be ’white’. The racial lines of adoption are simply unmissable and almost non-negligible. There has been a growing interest, especially among people who have been through the experience of adoption, to develop critical discussions on the racial politics of adoption (see, for example, this event organised by Concordia University a year ago).

Are there no people of colour living permanently in the global North who are in a position to stand for adoption? Or does whiteness involve a special type of ‘humanity’ and ‘goodwill’ towards the wider world? Is it that adoption agencies perceive ‘whiteness’ as a key criterion when selecting future foster parents? Or is it that those unfortunate biological parents who give up their babies have a preference for white adoptive parents?

These questions are doubtless difficult and may sound discomforting, but they need to be raised. The realities of international adoption are such that all these interrogations may have, to a certain extent, responses pointing in the direction of the affirmative. Over a long period, researchers and analysts have raised the fact that adoption is very much an issue of reproductive politics, but this aspect of the issue is, unfortunately, not sufficiently discussed in the public domain. The politics of adoption point squarely at major injustices in terms of access to support, and which options are available to which women, and how such options to someone giving birth are stratified according to where they are, who they are, what passport they have and their economic circumstances. The reproductive behaviour of low-income women, particularly those of colour, has historically been targeted for regulation by the state, in the guise of controlling poverty. Powerlessness, patriarchal systems of control, racial hierarchies are the suppressive forces that create circumstances favourable for transnational adoption.

Adoption is very much racially stratified, and is suggestive of white primacy and privilege in making crucial life choices. In the USA, the evolution of trends in adoption are closely intertwined with race, racial prejudices and racial biases. In an article published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review in 1991, Harvard Law School Professor Elizabeth Bartholet makes the following observation based on her own experience of adoptive parenthood – showing the extent to which race happened to be a decisive determinant for adoption agencies – and is worth quoting at some length:

Racial thinking dominates the world of international adoption…When I began to explore the possibility of adopting from South America I was intrigued by my agency’s Brazilian adoption program. Brazil allowed singles to adopt and allowed people my age to adopt infants. Babies were available for placement immediately upon birth. I would only have to spend a week to ten days there to complete the legal procedures and could then return to the United States with my baby. And there was no waiting list. I could expect to have my baby within a few months of the completion of my home study. Given the difficulties that a forty-five year old single person faces adopting from other countries, this all seemed unbelievable. The explanation was of course race. Brazil had a significant slave trade in earlier years and as a consequence much of its population is of African descent. The children available for adoption from this Brazilian program were part black. This put the program low on the desirability list for many prospective parents despite all its attractive features. Chile, by contrast, is considered a highly desirable country because it has such a white population. There are sufficiently few dark-skinned minorities that even the children of the poor-the children likely to be available for adoption tend to be white. The Latin American countries with significant indian or mestizo but limited black populations generally fall between Chile and Brazil on the desirability list because the adoption “market” rates indian as lower than white but higher than black.

The popular argument in favour of transnational adoption has it that the adopted children get a higher quality of life their biological parents cannot afford – a relative truism that certainly does not tell the whole story. Inability (and in some cases, unwillingness) to have biological children is what primarily prompts wealthy [and mainly white] people to resort to adopt babies in developing countries. It is a need, a personal need and desire to have children that brings people to look in the direction of the developing world to adopt children. This does not, however, imply that there are people out there who are genuinely keen to make the life of  a child from a developing country better. The argument here is that the primary rationale for adoption stems from a personal need/desire/decision, and that the ability to make such decisions and ‘go for it’ is considerably limited to a given racial, socio-cultural, economic and class demographic.

In her 2012 book, Professor Laura Briggs makes an invaluable contribution by challenging the positive and celebratory accounts of international adoption, exploring the intensely and painfully racial biases involved in shaping white American attitudes towards adoption. Briggs takes a critical view on the expansion of transnational and transracial adoptions since the 1950s, showing how this trend was linked to the large-scale removal of Native children from their families, negative attitudes towards African American single mothers and the state-led disappearances of children in several Latin American countries prior to the establishment of neoliberal regimes with assistance from the USA. From a queer/migrant perspective, one of the most intriguing parts of Briggs’s book is that on queer parents and the struggles of migrant parents to prevent their biological children from being forced into foster care. This is not a phenomenon common to North America, but is also of strong relevance to many other places, including northern Europe.

In my own interactions with people from migrant backgrounds based in the Nordic countries, I have come across stories of authorities finding reasons to remove children from migrant families, and also of trying to contemptuously ‘impose’ Nordic lifestyles onto people from other sociocultural backgrounds. The latter, more often than not, results in dismantling family structures, and challenging this type of practice in Northern Europe is rendered difficult by the influence wielded by concepts such as Nordic norm entrepreneurship, and the (related) notion that the Nordic people know best when it comes to society, family, child-rearing and integration. This, despite its blind acceptance by many people, is all but a myth, that feeds into inter-cultural collision, conflict and a demise of cross-cultural interaction.

Returning to the topic of transnational adoption, more work is required in critically engaging with the racial politics of adoption. Why should adoption constantly, if not in the largest majority of cases, work in one direction? Is it ever possible for the racial hierarchies and patterns of international adoption to be altered/inverted? A mixed-race mother with her roots in an Indian Ocean island, who happened to have an adolescent daughter with a strong Caucasian complexion, once shared with me her experiences of people’s reactions to seeing mother and daughter in public. Whenever she would go to collect her daughter after school, for example, the skin colour of this white child’s mother caused much surprise and disbelief among her classmates: ‘c’est ta maman?’ ‘c’est vrai?’, ‘c’est incroyable ça!’ etc.etc. This example, although unrelated to the topic of adoption, is suggestive of the ways in which society perceives adoption. Counter-intuitive narratives on transnational adoption deserve more attention and could only benefit adoption-related debates. Why should the adoptive parent always be white and the adoptee always non-white, with their roots in the global South? More work certainly needs to be done on the intersectionalities of adoption, exploring links between discourses on decolonising, challenging white privilege and patriarchy, and the politics of transnational/transracial adoption.

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