Transracial adoption justice: introduction

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In my Lab Notes #10 post I mentioned I had written a chapter for an academic anthology,  “The Complexities of Race: Identity, Power, and Justice in an Evolving America.” My chapter is titled “Race and Power in Transracial and Transnational Adoption” and I first wrote about this chapter in a blog post about anti-blackness in adoption back in 2020.

In the book, I present what I term a “transracial adoption justice framework.” My intent in using this framework is to attempt to shift the discourse in transracial adoption parenting away from color-evasive*, drive-by culture practices toward intentional anti-racist practices. When I say that I want to see intentional anti-racist practices in adoption I mean that if our agencies, prospective adoptive parents, and society actually implemented this framework I would expect there would be fewer transracial adoptions because only those parents who implement anti-racist parenting will actually be adopting transracially. Today, pretty much anyone who wants to adopt transracially can and has – including those who uphold and support racist ideologies, policies, and practices.

The five facets of transracial adoption justice I want to highlight include:

  1. Acknowledging transracial adoptees’ lives are impacted by both race and adoption
  2. Understanding how race, power, privilege, and oppression are connected to transracial adoption
  3. Believing transracial adoptees experience discrimination and oppression
  4. Caring about transracial adoptees’ communities of origin
  5. Recognizing transracial adoption affects adoptees throughout their whole lives

In this post, I want to introduce some of the background for this framework. I have been talking about what it is like to be a transracial adoptee for the past 38 years, but it wasn’t until I began learning about racism when I was in my social work undergraduate program that I began connecting the dots between race, racism, whiteness, and adoption. I was 33 years old when I began my social work studies as an older student after having dropped out of college in my early 20s. Maybe it was because when I returned to college I was a parent of two children so from both a personal and a parental perspective I had a greater understanding of the importance of supporting a child’s racial and ethnic identity development. In my college courses, I began to learn about the systemic and institutionalized implementation of whiteness as the standard and preference in social and behavioral interventions including child welfare and adoption. I took one course early on about mixed-race identity which cemented my interest in the ways transracial adoptees in white families are positioned as simultaneously invisible (our racial and ethnic identities erased by our families and known communities) and hypervisible (we always stand out in our families by outsiders). This is what Dr. Rich Lee calls the “transracial adoption paradox.”

As I tell my students now, everyone engages in identity politics, it’s just that when you are in the dominant group you don’t have to assert it because the default is that your identity is affirmed. When white people push back and criticize identity politics what they’re pushing back on is anyone asserting an identity that de-centers whiteness; in other words, only white identity politics matter. What we’ve seen over the past few years is a resurgence of white people asserting and participating in identity politics.  

The vast majority of transracial adoptions in the U.S. are of children of color with white parents – that’s 78% of all transracial adoptions overall (it is a little less when it comes to transnational transracial adoptions at just under 74% of those are of white parents and children of color based on 2010 Census data, Kreider and Lofquist 2014). If transracial adoption was just about “creating a family” and not based on privileging white adoptive parents we would see more people of color adopting white children or children of racial/ethnic backgrounds that differ from them.

Race and ethnicity have historically been important factors in child welfare and adoption. For Indigenous and Black children “child welfare” historically meant institutionalization if it was considered at all. The idea that a nuclear family was the most important environment for a child’s development and well-being only applied to white children in the U.S. Black children during slavery were routinely separated from their parents, and if orphaned and abandoned Black children were not informally absorbed into their extended family and community they were more likely to be placed in juvenile detention settings instead of foster care or adoption (see Dorothy Roberts and Billingsley & Giovannoni). Indigenous children were sent to military-style boarding schools meant to erase their indigenous identities (Jacobs, 2014).

The orphan trains, which often are perceived as being about white children, were an explicit attempt to erase what was seen as problematic ethnic “traits” that kept certain immigrant groups from being seen as “white” (and therefore, successful citizens). Charles Loring Brace (the creator of the orphan trains) wanted to get rid of “the dangerous classes” of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Jewish, Greek – he wanted these mostly Catholic and Jewish children to be raised in rural Anglo-Saxon Protestant farming communities. In his book, he wrote:

“Thousands are the children of poor foreigners, who have permitted them to grow up without school, education, or religion. All the neglect and bad education and evil example of a poor class tend to form others, who, as they mature, swell the ranks of ruffians and criminals. So, at length, a great multitude of ignorant, untrained, passionate, irreligious boys and young men are formed, who become the “dangerous class” of our city.”

The current policies governing domestic foster care adoption explicitly prohibit adoption workers from considering a child’s racial and ethnic identity needs when considering adoption and I argue this is because the legislation (MEPA/IEPA) was created as a “civil right for white parents.” Using the language of civil rights, white foster parents began suing states for not granting them the privilege of adopting their Black foster children. Many times the reasons for the adoption denial is because the agencies were trying to find Black adoptive parents for these children (and in some cases this was because they were working with extended family members). White foster parents began speaking out in the media, saying the current policies of finding Black parents for Black foster children amounted to “racism” because they were white. For example, one Texas legislator stated, “There is no question in my mind that this is a vestige of the Jim Crow era as far as using race as a criterion for social policy…” (Holmes 1995).

Transracial adoption is the result of a long ideological framework that racial and ethnic identity is not important when it comes to a person’s development and well-being. Color-evasuve practices and policies (Annamma, Jackson, & Morrison, 2017) limit our ability to fully humanize, love, and honor children of color and is an anathema to truly prioritizing the “best interests of children.”

In the next five posts of this series, I will be diving deeper into each of these five aspects of transracial adoption justice I’ve articulated. I hope you’ll stick around for the conversation.

*When I refer to color evasiveness, I am intentionally moving away from the use of “colorblind” for a couple of reasons. When it comes to race, “color-blindness” is used to suggest people don’t act on racial differences in negative or discriminatory ways. The term “colorblind” does not mean neutral or benevolent. I would argue it actually is the opposite – it is an active dismissal of race and how race impacts people. It is also misleading and false to say people don’t visually see racial differences. I choose to use the term “color evasive” which I first learned from Dr. Subini Annamma, which describes the avoidance of acknowledging race.

References: (creator of the awesome graphic featured in this post) – Instagram – please follow!

Annamma, Subini Ancy, Darrell D. Jackson, and Deb Morrison. “Conceptualizing color-evasiveness: Using dis/ability critical race theory to expand a color-blind racial ideology in education and society.” Race ethnicity and education 20.2, 2017: 147-162.

Brace, Charles Loring. The dangerous classes of New York, and twenty years’ work among them. Wynkoop & Hallenbeck, 1880.

Billingsley, Andrew, and Jeanne M. Giovannoni. “Children of the storm: Black children and American child welfare.” 1972.

Holmes, Steven A. 2005. “Bitter racial dispute rages over adoption.” New York Times, April 13.

Jacobs, Margaret D. A generation removed: The fostering and adoption of Indigenous children in the postwar world. U of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Lee, Richard M. “The transracial adoption paradox: History, research, and counseling implications of cultural socialization.” The counseling psychologist 31.6, 2003: 711-744.

Roberts, Dorothy. Shattered bonds: The color of child welfare. Hachette UK, 2009.

Roberts, Dorothy. Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families–and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World. Basic Books, 2022.

Wijeyesinghe, Charmaine L., ed. The Complexities of Race: Identity, Power, and Justice in an Evolving America. NYU Press, 2021.

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