Anti-Blackness and adoption

Image: Quote by Professor Dorothy Roberts. The quote says: If you came with no preconceptions about the purpose of the child welfare system, you would have to conclude that it is an institution designed to monitor, regulate, and punish poor families of color.

When I was in my undergraduate social work program, I learned how my very existence as a Korean TRA/TNA is literally dependent on the experiences of the Black and Indigenous communities because the child welfare system based its transracial and transnational adoption conceptualization and practices on its history of removing Black and Indigenous children from their families. The most seminal readings for me were the books Children of the Storm: Black Children and American Child Welfare by Andrew Billingsley and Jeanne Giovannoni and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare by Dorothy Roberts. Both these books provide important background on how deeply anti-Blackness permeates child welfare and adoption.

But anti-Blackness is, of course, not a thing of the past. I want to point out just a few of the ways that the adoption world (including adoption agencies, adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and adoptees) continues to uphold anti-Blackness:

  • Not critiquing, acknowledging, or discussing the reasons why there are disparate numbers of Black children in the foster care system to begin with
  • Discriminating against Black prospective adoptive parents in the home study process
  • Not putting in substantial resources and efforts into the recruitment and retention of Black foster and adoptive parents
  • Upholding white middle-class standards for what families are supposed to look like, where they should live, where and how they should work, and what personal characteristics make up “good” parents
  • The best interests of the child do not truly include the child’s racial identity needs
  • Supporting anti-Black child welfare legislation such as the MultiEthnic Placement Act and InterEthnic Provisions Act
  • Structuring fees so that darker skinned children have lower adoption fees and white children have the highest adoption fees
  • Asking Asian, Latinx and white adoptees to speak on panels but not Black adoptees
  • Not having Board or advisory board members who are Black, or only include one token Black member
  • Or, only inviting Black people to serve on advisory boards, but not governing boards for that agency
  • Justifying the lack of representation of Black people in your organization on lack of “qualified applicants,” or not being able to “find them”
  • Lacking a dedicated staff person whose work is related to equity and inclusion; or, if they do have a position, the work is related to celebrating diversity not toward anti-racism
  • Lacking Black staff, or Black staff are employed in lower, entry-level positions or in token positions but not in management or in supervisory positions
  • Organizations routinely asking their sole or few staff of color to participate in all of the diversity and inclusion efforts
  • Diversity trainings at the organization are few or nonexistent, and if they occur involve staff but not leadership or board of directors
  • White adoptive parents are supported in being “open” to biracial Black children (as well as Asian or Latinx) over Black children
  • Intercountry adoption training for prospective parents do not equate children from Africa or Haiti as “Black;” and/or they emphasize Black transracial adoptees’ cultural identity over racial identity
  • Black birth parents are referred to disparagingly compared to “brave” or “courageous” white and non-Black POC birth parents

These are just some that I’ve observed in my work in the adoption community; I know there are many more.

I would like those involved in adoption to consider deeply the ways anti-Blackness and white supremacy works in adoption. This feels urgent to me right now because of the national discussions we are having right now. But I don’t want adoption agencies and organizations to just post a bland call for diversity and inclusion. Child welfare and adoption organizations should be acknowledging the ways their organization is grounded in anti-Blackness, and what they’re going to do about it beyond “listen and learn.”

I was listening to a podcast interview with Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, and Brene Brown and was really struck by the part of their conversation about proximity and relationships because in transracial adoption this is something that comes up a lot both in terms of advice adoption agencies give (i.e. “develop relationships with people of color”) and defensiveness on the part of white adoptive parents (i.e. “I can’t be racist because I have a Black/Asian/Latinx child”).

Austin Channing Brown says, “here’s what people hear when we talk about proximity. Do you have a black friend? That’s what white people hear. Is there a person of color in your life that you are literally proximate to? …[T]hat understanding of proximity is dangerous, it’s dangerous to black people. It’s dangerous to people of color. It puts the burden of teaching on black people. It can become manipulative; it makes the person of color responsible for changing your heart and mind.”

The problem is, according to ACB, that white people hear about proximate relationships and say, “great, let me go find a relationship that benefits ME” to “prove that I’m nice and that at least one black person likes me.” However, the power dynamics in that proximity or relationship are rarely acknowledged.

ACB asks for the white people in proximate relationships to ask themselves, what are you giving? She says, “white people should be pursuing racial justice in their own life, whether I’m there or not. Literal proximity or not… If I disappeared from the world tomorrow…the white folks in my life would still be doing the work. Because it isn’t about doing it for me.”

And as Brene follows up, she repeats, “being friends with you is not the work…their relationship with you is not a proxy for that work.”

I was talking with a few Korean adoptee friends the other night. We acknowledged how our earlier attempts to intervene with adoption agencies and white adoptive parents were built on our own developmental efforts to figure out our identity in our 20s and 30s and now, looking back, we recognize that in our concerns over the lack of access to our cultural and ethnic histories and heritage we didn’t understand the larger piece related to racism.

In particular, Asian adoptees are used as pawns in anti-Blackness in multiple way – often times not by our choice but sometimes we have been complicit. It’s the classic economic middleman or split labor theory – Asian and Latinx adoptees are treated as model minorities by whites, positioned as less angry and less confrontative as Blacks. This exactly mimics larger societal framing of Asians as honorary whites because it allows white to discriminate against Blacks using the “why can’t they be like Asians” argument. Of course, we know that honorary whiteness is only used when it is convenient to those in power and as the COVID-19 pandemic reveals, any supposed privilege of honorary whiteness can be quickly taken away.

I recently submitted a book chapter about race and adoption for an upcoming anthology, The Complexities of Race: Emerging Issues Related to Culture, Policy, Identity, and Social Justice Practice, to be published by New York University Press (Edited by Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe).

In my chapter, I delve more deeply into the history of racist policies that informed modern adoption practice in the U.S. and urge that we – adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and society – incorporate a transracial adoption justice framework to adoption. I’ve been working on this framework for a couple of years, in my attempt to shift the discussion away from how to recognize and/or celebrate diversity to one that centers on how transracial adoption as it has been practiced is a direct result of systemic, institutional, and societal racism. It began with a keynote presentation at the North American Council on Adoptable Children conference in 2018, and I wrote about it for NACAC’s newsletter.

Over time I’ve been refining this framework further and it will likely continue to evolve as my own thoughts about what transracial adoption justice looks like and means changes, but I want to provide a brief description of what it looks like for me right now.

At its core, a transracial adoption justice framework requires adoption professionals, adoptive parents, and society to eliminate those practices that would cause harm to Black, Indigenous, and communities of color via adoption, minimize any current harm experienced by transracial adoptees and their communities of origin, and to incorporate restorative justice practices that work to repair these harms.

So – adoption agency professionals, white adoptive parents, and non-Black adoptees – are you willing to move beyond platitudes for “diversity” and commit to anti-racism work? Before you run to your trusted BIPOC friend, your “proximate relationship” (per Austin Channing Brown), I would recommend you purchase and read these resources:

And finally, if you are not already following the work of these Black transracial adoptees, do so now and spend some time reading, listening, and reflecting before jumping in with your thoughts and comments. Before you ask them how to learn, read their work – because embedded in their work are their recommendations for where you can deepen your knowledge and work to join them in their anti-racism work. In other words, don’t learn about their work and then ask them what else they can do to help you learn more. There are so many great resources out there – and Google is free.

As an Asian adoptee, a Korean adoptee, I am not automatically anti-racist. In fact, growing up in predominantly white communities with a white adoptive family, attending predominantly white schools and white churches, I had to actively work to unlearn my own racism and I continue to work on dismantling my own attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors that, as I’ve learned from Ibram X. Kendi’s work, perpetuate racist ideologies and policies. There are a lot of non-Black transracial/transnational adoptees who hold on to their proximity to whiteness and the values and beliefs we were raised in. I urge you to invest in this work. As Martin Luther King said, “No one is free until we are all free.”

I urge non-Black transracial and transnational adoptees to listen to the words of Lilla Watson in thinking about how we support our Black transracial/transnational adoptee community:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

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