Rage against the machine


It’s a precarious position for anyone who tries to be an agent of change within any institution. It can be difficult to balance the needs between individual people and systems that were created to help and instead have become so bureaucratic that it is a wonder anyone is helped at all.

When I was in graduate school for social work, we were often told that social reform and social justice were as important to the profession as the ability to empathize and help. Truthfully, however, the field of social work is quite polarized.

I would say the majority of the people in the field (and most of them are women) came into the program because they wanted to "help people"  (I could go into a whole separate post about how women are valued in our society and why that created an over-representation of women in the "helping professions" because that deserves an investigation as well. But I’ll leave that for another day).

Many of my colleagues spoke passionately about how their personal spiritual beliefs "called them" to the field.Well, I have no argument with that because in a way I also feel "called" to my work, though not by a sense of spiritual duty. My "calling" if you can call it that, was based on many goals;  first, I did not want to participate in a profession that was based on the production, marketing or selling of consumable goods. Secondly, I wanted to try to be an agent of change within the field and represent as a voice not included in the existing framework (as both a person of color and as an adoptee). Third, I strongly felt I could contribute to critiquing and challenging the current paradigms of practice and research.

I think "helping people" is a nice goal too. And I believe that it is very important. But in my view, having only a tight focus on "helping people" is limiting. We can "empower" people to change their lives on a singlular basis and I believe that is all well and good. But without looking at the rest of what is happening in the forest, we might be encouraging people to try and work within an overall system that is set up to fail them and send ’em right back to your doorstep.

We give a lot of lip service to the abstractions of  "social
reform," "social justice," and "empowerment." But it would be more
accurate to say that a great deal of social work involves social
control more than our obligation to empower the people we serve.

And, in fact, I have difficulty with the concept of "empowerment"
because as one of my insightful fellow grad students once stated,
"empowerment is a gift we bestow on our [clients]." We’re speaking
about privilege here, because as social workers we have the power and
control (backed up by our government and agencies) to make people do
certain things in order to receive services. Right, we don’t just
believe in the welfare state – people need to prove or earn their way
to services.

What we are really about is telling people how to fix their lives the way we think it should be fixed, as arbiters of whatever framework of morality we believe.

The result is a push-pull between "worker" and "client" (on a
tangent, let me just say that I really despise the way social work has
chosen to appropriate business/market economy language – as if the
people who use services are free to choose among a buffet of options).

The push-pull in adoption services is balancing the needs of prospective adoptive parents and the children who become adopted. I’m not selling goods, but I’m definitely selling ideologies. In order to make prospective families and children in foster care appealing to each other’s social workers, we use marketing strategies. Wednesday’s Child or Thursday’s Child as many "markets" call them are features of foster care children in newspapers. Just like the puppies and kitties they feature for adoption on other days. We use brochures and flyers and videos of the kids to show prospective adoptive parents. And prospective adoptive parents are asked to make brochures and flyers about themselves so the children’s social workers can determine if they look like "a good match." Many adoption agencies have web sites where prospective parents can look at featured children and read a little blurb about the child. If that doesn’t seem eerily like shopping on the internet, then you are not being honest with yourself.

It’s one part marketing and one part matching services like an on-line dating service would provide. Which begs the question: who is the real "customer" in this transaction? The prospective parent, or the child?

We know the child has no "voice" of their own (unless they are older kids and then most people aren’t interested anyway). And I believe that prospective parents have an infinitely difficult time with all the decisions that have to be made as they go through the adoption process. What kind of temperments do they have? What kind of children would they be able to best parent? Where do they live, and is diversity going to be an issue for them? Do they have enough supports in place? Are they aware of the losses and traumas that children in need have? What are their expectations? And it goes on and on.

So while I believe that prospective adoptive parents must be honest about what they can or can not deal with in adopting a child, it also breaks my heart to see so much "choice" being thrown around on behalf of adoptive parents and meanwhile the child has to hope and pray that their social workers are making good choices on their behalf.

Agencies become damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Yesterday, I participated in a panel on transracial and transnational adoption for a local adoption support conference. Many of the participants there had great questions and we had, what I thought, was a difficult and educational discussion.

One of my thoughts, as I was driving home from that event yesterday, was how I felt adoption agencies do not prepare adoptive parents enough. I’ve heard over and over again from adoptive parents that they just did not receive this information before hand, and now that they’re delving into the issues they feel all kinds of guilt, sadness, helplessness and even sometimes hopelessness.

It would be easy to blame agencies for lack of preparation. Yet, when I meet adoptive parents who are in that stage of the process – the pre-adoptive stage – they are angry when we attempt to educate about issues of race and loss and culture and all the other things that go hand-in-hand with transracial and transnational adoption. For instance, at the agency where I work, we require all pre-adoptive parents to attend a day long session on transracial and transcultural adoption as part of their required training. The presenter is very skilled in these issues – and is a transracial (domestic) adoptee as well as a professional social worker. And this very week, one of these families threw a temper tantrum because of this training, challenged the trainer on every point, and raised a fuss with the home-study worker because they felt the trainer was being too negative and telling this family they couldn’t successfuly adopt transracially. Now, I have seen this trainer many times and I think I would have been even more pointed and challenging then he.

Agencies are bound by MEPA (MultiEthnic Placement Act) legislation which places strict limits on what agencies can do to prepare prospective adoptive parents for transracial and transnational adoption. But we can’t just find fault in MEPA, or ipso facto the federal legislature, because our government is reacting to what our society in whole – especially those who are white and wealthy – dictate.

If I could rule the process myself, I would have a few additional requirements for adoptive parents who wish to adopt transracially or transculturally – including proof that they had actively worked on investigating their own whiteness and that they have the ability to educate themselves and act as allies in the issues and concerns of communities of color. Because just loving and being "open" to a child of another race or culture is NOT ENOUGH. And just hoping that as a parent, one would be able to help them with racial "self-esteem" is NOT ENOUGH. Adoptive parents must be part of a larger movement of anti-racist work. If as a white adoptive parent, you can not picture yourself working within the political movement of your child’s race or culture, then I believe you must take a hard look at why that is.

This goes way, way beyond issues of whether you can love your child, or parent them if they have "special needs" or even whether you live in a diverse neighborhood or read books to them about their culture or take them to culture camps. This is about realizing that your little one is a member of a group of people with a long history of struggle at the hands of whiteness and you, as a member of that oppressive group, must be willing and able to step up and actively work towards dismantling those very structures. This means you will be risking your own membership in the elite group of whiteness; others who are part of the dominant structure will begin to challenge you, call you a traitor and try to bring you down. It won’t be easy. You may even risk losing friends and family who won’t agree or understand.

In the White Racial Identity work by Helms* and Carter**, they point out that many white people who become actively involved in dismantling racism face a stage where they have to learn to give up their membership in the dominant white reference group and yet accept they will not be accepted as members of a community of color – having to exist being "betwixt and between." If adoptive parents can understand this, they might begin to understand the "betwixt and between" that their transracially adopted children will deal with in their lives.

This is tough work. My advice for pre-adoptive parents who think I am being unreasonable in suggesting they engage themselves in active anti-racist work? They should reconsider whether they are really about the child or their own needs. Nobody ever said that this work was going to be comfortable or easy.

In my own little corner of the world, I am attempting to be the small rudder of a huge ship in the ocean – hoping that by making small little changes in degree, I can help the ship change directions. But even as I’m trying to change things by small degrees, my mind is always on the ocean that surrounds me. Until we are able look out into the sea instead of focusing only on the ends of our noses, like the Titanic, what seems to be just a small little jut of ice in the ocean will instead be the deep and massive iceberg below the surface that will destroy us all.


I strongly urge you to read and investigate the work of white, anti-racist activists Tim Wise and Paul Gorski at EdChange as places to begin.


* Helms, J.E. & Cook, D.A. (1999). Using race and culture in counseling and psycotherapy: Theory and process. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

** Carter, R.T. (1995). The influence of race and racial identity n psycotherapy: Towards a racially inclusive model. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

14 thoughts

  1. Can I just say that I love this post…..esp the last few paragraphs. I think your ideas are right on.
    I see one problem though. You can never read anyone’s heart. With the adoption I am pursuing now, we were required to do somewhat extensive hw on adoption, race, etc. (although not nearly to the extent you mention). You have to submit your answers before you can pass the homestudy.
    Here’s the thing…it’s easy to figure out what people want to hear.
    Now maybe you were also implying in your post that you’d like to see some activism as well on the part of paparents. I think this is a good idea because something may actually sink in during interepersonal interactions. Of course, it may not, but there’d at least be the chance.
    For the family that blew up during that seminar….can’t this count against them on the hs, at least?

  2. Really good post JR. I read it, then got distracted and thought about it all afternoon before getting a chance to comment.
    I think the distinction between being a social helper and a a social changer is a really good one to analyze ad nauseum in all helping professions, because it is SO hard to sort out and we have to keep our eyes on the distinction lest we think we are changing things by helping when so often we are bolstering the status quo.
    My moments of feeling betrayed by social workers have not been about the fact that there are limits to their scope of power but that they will not just sit with me for a minute and give me some validation on the unjustness of it all Instead as helpers, and as women, it’s been more like a mommy reaction “I’ve done so much for you and you still are not satisfied??”
    I know people of color get it a lot harder and more often than I ever have, so when it does happen to me, it gives me glimmers.
    As a two time AP, I am here to say: Pre and post adoption counseling are done by legal bullet points, in order to fill out paperwork, and to send out bills, not to make sure the kids are going to be OK.
    I know that alla this is not the fault of the social workers. It’s a much larger structural issue and also made more difficult by the sheer numbers of families SW’s have to supervise.
    But it’s hard not to get mad at them because they are close and visible, like the ducks in the shooting gallery. Especially if they are not into validating that sometimes we really cannot fix things, and that reality is just plain wrong and news flash! it is not always the fault of the suffering individual!.
    Another beef of mine: There is no programming in the public schools nor subsidization for special needs kids who are internationally adopted. (There is a technical opening but when we tried to get in, we were denied because we did not have original relinquishment documents, which you do not get in int’l adoption.)
    We cannot even get our kids into ESL programming because we don’t fit the profile of having a home where English is the second language!
    The system is SO lame and so hard on the kids. That’s apparent. What to do about it? Laws are flagrantly ignored because we and the industry can justify our adoptions solely based on an economic upgrade (with a large helping of colonialism thrown in).
    Unfortunately my cynicism tends to be an excuse for not doing enough.

  3. Critical, inspiring, and beautifully articulated, JR.
    I always keep June Jordan’s quote in mind: “Freedom is indivisible.”
    If you want the freedom to have children, build your own family, and then have said children do okay in the world, then you are going to have to work to secure every other kind of freedom on every other kind of access — from gender to race to politics to economics to sexuality…And this will be hard-ass work, and you will mostly get no rewards for it (in fact, you will mostly be penalized for it from the larger mainstream superstructure).
    I think that’s what’s really starting to become clear to me as a key blockade to many APs becoming TRUE, LASTING, and COMMITTED allies for their TRA children: an understanding that they are working not for the freedom/well-being of *their individual child*, but rather, for the freedom/well-being of the *entire community* from which the child was taken, and which the child will forever be a part of, and will one day probably re-enter, in one way or another.
    This relentless focus on the individual, the nuclear family, one child, has got to change if we are ever going to truly empower all our children.

  4. Excellent post, Jae Ran. You’ve made so many good points once again…I don’t even know where to begin with my measly thoughts. Yes…some pa-parents definitely go through stages of understanding – happy-go-lucky > anger/defensiveness/denial > light-bulb moment (dull as it may be, or very profound for some) > guilt, sadness, helplessness/hopelessness, as you said. I’m conflicted about where to lay blame (and responsibility) as far as lack of preparation. I go over and over my own experience, mentally flogging myself for not understanding, for not being smarter and wiser and on and on, and yet I truly feel that things such as these are impossible to fathom until one has been through the experience. Rarely, one strays from the agency-provided path and looks elsewhere for information.
    I know all preparation programs are different and some much better than others, but my goodness, the end result of most of them is that they make parenting in a transracial/transcultural adoption seem way too do-able! No matter what your potential handicaps, they can be overcome! BALONEY.
    The application process should be much more rigorous. And…if people can’t work through the defensive/denial/anger feelings, well, ultimately they should be turned away.

  5. Best post of yours I have read.
    As someone who has always been “betwixt” anyway because of circumstances beyond being an adoptive parent, I have to say you are dead right about that feeling.
    I think you are getting somewhere in this post that I know I want to go.
    One thing I am fearing, though, is that “truths” become corners sometimes. Giving up my postion in the majority isn’t difficult, but narrowing my perspective is. I would much rather widen it.
    I once overheard a conversation in a department store where an older white woman said to an Asian salesperson “now if you were an American…” I don’t think she directly meant it as an insult.
    He helped us afterwards, and I looked him in the eye and said “American does not mean white.”
    Why do I still believe that is possible?

  6. Ed,
    I think you believe it is possible because you have HOPE. And as Cornell West says, hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is “based on the notion that there’s enough evidence that allows us to think that things are going to be better.” But hope – hope is saying, “it doesn’t look good at all – so we’re going to make a leap of faith and create new possibilities based on new visions and allow us to engage in heroic actions against the odds.”
    I think we all need to have hope.

  7. Another thing that came to mind for me while reading this great post was something I kept asking myself while going through the adoption process:
    Is anyone ever turned down?
    Nobody ever asked; either directly or by challenging how I saw the process; is this really what I should be doing?
    Taking on the responsibility for another life is the most important thing I have ever done, but I have to accept that it was under tragic circumstances, and that the absoluteness of unconditional support and love must be there despite my being incapable of understanding the situation I put that life in.
    I recently got my older son and my youngest sister together. And one thing that hit me was that they have something in common I can never have: they are both adoptees. She is my bio sibling. Met her when she was 19.
    Even though my childhood was “eventful,” I still cannot understand that state of being. But somehow I have to be capable of supporting it well.

  8. Jae Ran, this is really powerful stuff. Thanks so much for sharing.
    I think I’m one of the good kinds of APs, or at least I strive to be, and I also get really frustrated by some comments I hear from other APs and PAPs (especially those who think their all-white communities are great places to raise an Ethiopian child!).
    But I also know that the education component is best when it’s long lasting. The homestudy process is so stressful and overwhelming. The educational stuff feels like just another checkbox to complete, along with immigration paperwork (for international adoption), getting a certified birth certificat, etc. And, I think it’s take more thinking and reflection that you can do in one day or one week or even during the homestudy process.
    We started our process in November 2005, and adopted our first son in May, 2006 (from Ethiopia), and we’re now in process for adoption number two. Our agency did require quite a bit of education the first time around, and they waived this stuff this second time. The first time we had to complete a “transracial/cultural parenting plan worksheet” or somesuch.
    The irony for me is that, just a year into all this, I am now SO much more knowledgeable about these issues. The first time I offered, basically, the musings of a well-intentioned white feminist progressive. Now, after a year of being immersed in memoirs and blogs of TRAs and reading more and more about children displaced from their birth cultures… well, I’m really glad I didn’t end my education when our homestudy was completed. Really, that was just the beginning.
    So if I had my druthers, I’d ask PAPs to *start* the education process. Maybe even make them commit to doing/reading certain things (ie you must attend one cultural event where you are the minority; you must read one book by a person in such-and-such situation; you must watch one movie about whatever). And then, in the follow-up, actually ask them about that stuff. And ask them to do more. It’s hard to do that stuff once your kids are living with you, but it’s so much more important then, too.

  9. What a great post! I found myself nodding “yes, yes, yes” the entire time I read!
    This rings very true for me: “Adoptive parents must be part of a larger movement of anti-racist work.” Yes, absolutely.
    Getting involved in the Korean American community was pretty intimidating to me. But having experienced that feeling of being “betwixt and between” has made me far more aware of my children’s reality than I would have been had I never rolled up my sleeves.

  10. funny i started off in social work in college and now have turned to political studies in university. you can still help ppl, but i felt lobbying and advocating for change would be more rewarding then trying to maneuver in a rigid social agency. the social institutional changes seem to be very hard work..

  11. Have they “actively investigated their own whiteness”?
    Where do you live?
    I am an adoption social worker and lots of my families are not white at all.
    Or they are mixed race. Or one parent is white and the other is not.
    What a racist statement.
    What do you want them to do–say that being white is bad and they get extra privileges from it?
    I’ve known abused and battered white kids. Do you want them to say that too–white kids who have been raped and tortured by their bio parents? You want them to talk about their white privileges?
    Or is it just other white people–the ones you assume have had perfect, entitled upbringings?
    Got news for you. Making assumptions about white people and their experiences is pretty racist, too. Maybe you are the one with some investigating to do.

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