I had the opportunity to talk with a sociology professor at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Dr. Roderick Graham has a video series of conversations about racial inequality and I was invited to talk about Korean adoption.
I recently finished Liz Raleigh’s book, Selling Transracial Adoption: Families, Markets and the Color Line.
The research that is the basis of this book is incredibly important and ground breaking. As a self-described systems person, I was thrilled to read a book that really explores practice, and Dr. Raleigh’s research does this well. I appreciate the thoughtfulness of the research approach itself and the care in which the stories of the adoption professionals are told.
Throughout this book, I found myself nodding my head in agreement often; I’ve heard similar things from adoption professionals I’ve worked with over the years, and in an interesting turn, many of the things I’ve heard from adoptive parents over the years are echoed in this book as well. There were multiple times when I wanted to say out loud to someone, “Yes! What this worker said is almost word-for-word what [adoptive parent] said!”
…which then led me to a question – in what ways is the “script” so entrenched in our culture that the discourse of adoption is not just predictable, but frighteningly verbatim? It’s almost as if certain discourses of adoption are so culturally embedded that when we think we are describing processes, feelings, behaviors and/or thoughts about adoption in our own unique way that in reality we are only parroting what we have heard a million times before? I almost wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of Selling Transracial Adoption to my dissertation study because the discourses are so parallel.
But to get back to my original review: another part of what I appreciate so much about this book is that it shows the systems processes that are often larger and broader than what individuals tend to recognize. Adopting a child is very much experienced as an individual/family action with individual and/or a couple’s motivations and desires. Whether a person is adopting or parenting children born to them, most of us don’t think about how our own parenting motivations and processes contribute to larger social, cultural, capitalist, bureaucratic and institutional systems. Within intimate family spheres, we also can dismiss the injustices that are present in the larger systems and when it comes to adoption, this is particularly true when thinking about race and disability.
Some readers might be challenged with the main arguments of this book, particularly if you come from an individualistic perspective. Some parents might also feel that their choices to adopt are pathologized; I encourage you to read through and think less of your own particular story and really pay attention to Dr. Raleigh’s sociological analyses. This isn’t about any one family or any one adoption agency. I thought it was very clear that this book is not about blaming individual adoptive parents, adoption workers or adoption agencies. This book does, however, ask us to thinking about how the racism, ableism, and adult-focus (even within a supposed “best interest of the child framework) of our culture and society (in the U.S. at least) plays out the way we practice adoption. This book really asks us to step back from our own personal stories and ask a couple of important questions:
- In what ways does our social and cultural environments mask our individual choices? That is, are we being misled to believe we are making independent and ethical choices regarding adoption or is the structure of the adoption industry actually leading us through well-established channels in ways we don’t even know?
- Why has adoption become one of the social services that has become financially stratified in ways that mirror consumer/business services – where the child becomes commodified?
- How can adoptive families reconcile the reality of this racially commodified “service?”
I highly recommend this book – if you are a social worker and you work in, or are considering, child welfare/adoption work, this is a MUST READ. I would include this as a required text for anyone who thinks they want to do adoption-related work.
Reflections on the KAAN 2013 conference and launch of Gazillion Voices Magazine
Last weekend I attended the KAAN 2013 Conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was a somewhat spontaneous decision, meaning that I did not submit a proposal months ago when the call came out, and that spending the money to attend in a year when I have many other conferences to attend seemed out of the question. Another reason why I had no intention of attending is that many years ago I did attend some KAAN Conferences and I left both (2002 and 2004) with the impression that it definitely did not meet my own personal needs as an adult Korean adoptee.
But several things have happened over the almost decade span of time since I last attended KAAN. One important change involved the addition of some Korean adoptees I really respect and care about in leadership positions within the organization. Another was the general progressive shift in the purpose and “feel” of the conference mission. What seemed to me an over-reliance on the “feel-good/let’s not talk about anything difficult” goal of connecting Korean adoptive parents with other Korean adoptive parents, and Korean adopted children with other Korean adopted children and a “celebrate Korean heritage!” mentality in the organization has changed over time to an acknowledgement of race and white privilege in transracial adoption, and the importance of the full, lived experience of adopted individuals. Whereas before it seemed the goal was to show non-adopted Korean role models, a recognition of adopted Korean adult role models seemed to be evident. Also an earlier sense of only showing “positive” adult adoptee perspectives (i.e. those who were uncritical of Korean adoption) has been replaced by an acknowlegement that adoption is not always sunshine and rainbows, and that positioning adoptees as pro or anti adoption is unproductive and polarizing. I was told by several people that the current leadership was amazing to work with and really believed in the importance of adult adoptee leadership (and they were right!).
And then the most compelling reason of all – the chance to see some dear transracial adoptee friends who live scattered around the U.S. See, for many of us, it is these interactions with those whom we’ve cultivated deep friendships over time at adoption-related conferences that help us endure the long droughts of transracial adoption isolation and segregation we experience in our daily lives. In particular, it was the opportunity to attend panels led by adoptees and to have discussions at dinner or over drinks and stay up until the wee hours of the night critically deconstructing, sharing experiences, strategizing ways of coping and supporting and validating each other that compelled me to cold-call the organizers at KAAN and ask if I could still get involved.
This year KAAN did something I wouldn’t have seen a decade ago – they invited transracial adoptee speakers who are not Korean adoptees. And they (parents, adoptees) talked about commonalities among transracial and international adoptees, and about racism and white privilege. This is a welcomed change for me. In my own personal and professional work I have been spending less time with Korean adoptees and more time developing relationships among other adoptees. This is a reflection of my own growth, because I see my own adoption story and narrative as interconnected to other adoptees.
One of the greatest benefits of being privileged to attend graduate school has been the opportunity to really deepen my understanding and knowledge of the historical roots of child placement and adoption and look at the arc over time for how children have been conceptualized and how adoptions have changed and morphed in terms of practice and law (but ultimately with the same underlying theoretical basis, at least in the U.S.). When I learned about the orphan trains, about the Native American boarding schools, the Indian Adoption Project, when I read Regina Kunzel and Dorothy Roberts and Rickie Solinger – I realized how interconnected Korean adoption is with Native American Indian adoption and transracial adoption of African American children, and the immigrant Catholic children who were adopted to Scandinavian protestant farm families in the midwest through the orphan train movement, and the children adopted from Ethiopia and Haiti. Displacement, isolation, racism, cultural erasure, unaddressed grief and loss, these are all commonalities we adoptees have. We transracial adoptees also have many commonalities among “baby scoop” era white domestic adoptees from the maternity home generation.
In his keynote at KAAN, Dr. John Raible emphasized this point, our commonalities across race and situation, with a lot of passion and intensity. I’m sure there were some, adoptees and adoptive parents alike, who were taken aback at his bold challenges but I was heartened that John challenged the old paradigms about transracial adoption. John is not just about helping how we conceptualize transracial adoption evolve over time, his ideas are revolutionary.
Sometimes it seems that when it comes to adoption and child welfare, the pendulum swings back and forth from an emphasis on removal and placement to family presevation. At least in the U.S. that is what many child welfare professionals have said. But as I was recently reminded, it is perhaps not so much of a pendulum swing but a spiral – what seems to be a circular movement away from, then back to, a certain paradigm. But even when it seems like things are coming back to where we started, maybe in truth it has changed in fundamental ways so that even what looks like a circle from looking at it top-down is actually many degrees separated when looked at from the side view.
Yesterday, a project I am involved with, Gazillion Voices, launched its monthly online magazine. This is also revolutionary in that Gazillion Voices is the first ever adoptee-led publication. Unlike every other publications on adoption, this one does not relegate adoptees to the sidelines, in an “Ask the Adoptee” advice column or limited to one or two stories by an adoptee author. Gazillion Voices is challenging, provocative, and most importantly – led by adult adoptees and includes majority adult adoptee voices.
Kevin Vollmers, one of the editors of Gazillion Voices magazine, and I were debriefing the KAAN conference as we waited for our flight to take off back to Minnesota. We both agreed that it feels we are on the precipice of some incredibly big paradigm shift when it comes to adoption. I’ve been feeling it for about a year now, ever since the CCAI and the State Department (including Ambassador Jacobs) met with a grassroots group of us adult adoptees to hear our collective concerns for the first time last July.
I am so proud to be part of a community of revolutionary adoptees. With social media platforms, it appears like this adoption revolution is new and those of us with blogs and websites can appear to be doing new and groundbreaking work. But we recognize we are not the first. We are incredibly grateful and humbled by the incredible work of so many adoptees who have been doing this work for decades, without much acknowlegement and very little fanfare. In fact, many adoptees have taken the hits for years on our behalf. Adoptees have been working in policy, advocacy, community organizing, research, academia, and very importantly through art for decades. We in this current generation of adoptee rebels are not taking their hard work for granted; no, we are trying to continue the work and will pay it forward – so that the next generation of transracial adoptee leaders can take it to the finish line.
Another repost from my other blog that was written during my hiatus.
Originally written March 25, 2011.
When you are part of a small and specific population, you tend to be hyper-aware of representations of "your group." So when I heard about Mia Tuan and Jiannbin Lee Shiao's book, Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America, I immediately put out a query to my Korean American friends to see if anyone had heard of the authors or this book.
Since 2006, I have been keeping track of the "call for participants" for research on Korean adoptees that I've come across through different venues (most often list-serves and organization newsletters). Since I've started counting, there have been 23 calls specifically involving Korean adoptees and another five for transracial adoptees (ETA: that have put out widespread calls for participants- there have been several others I have been aware of that did not advertise or use the internet to find their sample).
Of those, 11 studies specifically involved looking at racial identity; 9 studies sought to understand the Korean adoptee "experience" and 4 were what I call "well-being" or "adjustment" studies. While I get that racial identity is a huge part of understanding the transracial/international/Korean-adoptee experience, I'm waiting for research that stops pathologizing us and am hopeful that more research like Eleana Kim's work will come out that centers the adoptee as the agent of change and action, not merely a passive subject of study.
There are many aspects of the Korean adoptee experience that are not being studied or researched. I swing between feeling that "my community" is saturated with research while at the same time acknowledging that there is so much more to be learned and understood.
Tuan and Shiao seek to understand how and in what ways Korean Americans identify themselves and how their identity/identities "are chosen, discarded, or revised over time (p.12). So here are my thoughts about this book and how I, as the "subject" (not literally, I was not a participant in this study, but I am part of the population being studied) view the discussion.
I'm always pleased when I read articles/studies that focus on the adult adopted person's experience (although once again, our voices are mediated through outsiders so some aspects of their analysis will be limited). Because so much of adoption as a practice is focused on the adoption of a child, people tend to think of adoption as an event. But as others have stated, adoption isn't a single-time event (that would be the finalization of an adoption) – adoption is something that affects adopted persons, birth parents and adoptive parents throughout all of their lives. Traditional studies look at outcomes for children, often fairly soon after placement although there have been some notable exceptions, and rarely has there been the opportunity for longitudinal studies which could follow a cohort of adoptees for a long period of time – especially adulthood.
I bring this up because we're so focused on making sure the immediate benefits of adoption are studied that we haven't thoughtfully delved as much into how an adopted person makes sense of their adoption experiences in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s and beyond. Other than Brodzinsky and his colleagues, not much research has been conducted on the whole life experiences of adopted persons. An experienced adoptive mom (I call adoptive parents whose children are now adults "experienced") I know shared with me that she often tells newbie adoptive parents that the majority of their lifelong relationship with their child will be as adults and that pre- or new adoptive parents are often taken aback at this statement.
One of the aspects of the study I was disappointed in was the sample. The authors describe that due to their proximity to the Holt adoption agency, they chose to solicit their sample from families that had adopted through Holt (the authors do acknowledge the limitations of their sample and recruitment, which I appreciated).
In addition to the ease of securing participants for the interviews, having access to Holt enabled the researchers to have case files. I was bothered by this for a few reasons. First, it was never clear to me why the researchers needed the case files and how information they gleaned from the files added to their research.
Second, without understanding why and in what ways information from the case file was considered important for the study adds another layer of concern from the point of view from an adopted person who is unable legally to have access to my adoption files. It is disconcerting to know that someone else, through permission of my adoption agency, can have access to that information without my consent.
[ETA 4/19/11: I received an email from Dr. Shaio, informing me that he and Dr. Tuan did not look at case files. In the book (p. 15) they wrote that Holt "provided access to its placement records" and I incorrectly interpreted that to mean case files. I am happy to stand corrected and to know that case files were not accessed for their study.]
As a researcher myself, this is something that I have struggled with. I have participated in research in which I have access to case files that the subject of the files are not allowed to see for themselves. I hope other researchers understand just how privileged they are to have access to such personal information that as the client, I/we can never have. I'm not saying this is necessarily wrong in principle – but I am saying it is an ethical issue that researchers MUST think about. It's not the same thing as having one's medical records or case files used for research because when I go to the doctor I sign a form that gives consent for my records to be used in research. As an adopted person (or as a fostered alum would be) I am not given permission to withdraw my consent. I don't even get asked. Researchers go through the agency or the adoptive parent, not the adopted person.
The other thing I was sensitive to was that the researchers chose to contact the adult adoptees through their families. They sent out letters to adoptive parents, asking them to forward them on to the adoptee. This could only work if the adoptive parent and their adopted child were in contact and/or on speaking terms; and because not all adoptees ARE in contact with their adoptive parents (including some I know of personally who were adopted from Holt) this has the potential to skew the sample because it is dependent on the adoptive parent. Perhaps sending a call for participants through other means in addition to the adoptive parents that still have ties with Holt would have generated a sample that provided a more diverse voice. And once again, it is looking at the adoptee through the lens of the family (adoptive parents), even though the authors were quite clear it was the adult adoptees' voices they were seeking to understand. From my view, it appeared as though the authors chose not to engage with, or were unaware of, adult adoptee organizations who might have been able to help in soliciting participants.
Despite these concerns, overall I was pleased with much of the book. I especially appreciated that the authors problematized the adoptive parents' "colorblind" mentality about adopting a child of color – if that color were "yellow" and not "black." I really liked that the authors expanded David Kirk's theory of "shared fate" to analyze how adoptiveparents accept/reject racial difference in addition to adoption.
While the stories and words of the adopted Koreans that participated in this study rang familiar in terms of their descriptions of childhood experiences, their more recent discussions pertaining to race, culture, and constructing identity did not fully match the spectrum of adoptees. There was very little discussion of the networking (social and otherwise) of Korean adoptees around the world, which was interesting to me in light of the fact that Holt was the first to do adoptee camps and also have been big in organizing yearly "Motherland" tours. There was one mention of the Gatherings (1999, but not the 2004, 2007 ones), no mention of adoptee list-serves and blogs which have been around since the 1990s, and very little mention of books written by Korean adoptees (including memoirs, anthologies and scholarly work).
In the end I gave this book 3 1/2 stars out of 5. I think that the audience for this book is actually adoptive parents. There would be much for adoptive parents to learn, especially if they are not familiar with the concept of "shared fate" and I think the adoptee voices do, to a large part, mirror much of what I have heard from adult adoptees over the past 12 years I have been involved with the Korean adoptee community.
This book (along with the one by Korean birth mothers) arrived in my mail box this weekend. I read a draft of the other book but my friend, Sarah Park, a Professor of Library Science, gave me the heads up on this one! I'm very excited since there are so few books written by Native adoptees about their experiences. And, in a happy coincidence, I've been doing research lately in the Social Welfare History Archives, looking through the Child Welfare League of America collection, and had just read through the Indian Adoption Project documents. The Indian Adoption Project was a joint program by the CWLA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs that specifically promoted the adoption of Indian children to white families from 1958-1967.
Something I've been thinking about since I wrote the post last night – I wrote:
Read how the Korean American adult adoptees responded in the Evan B. survey:
- 78% experienced racial discrimination as a child
- 48% experienced racial discrimination by childhood friends
- 38% experienced racial discrimination by their childhood friends' parents
- 75% experienced racial discrimination by their classmates
- 39% experienced racial discrimination by their teachers
But what has been nagging at my mind all day is this…these are self-reported accounts of discrimination.
You know, it took me until I was in my 20s to recognize racism and racial acts. Like the time my middle school geography teacher ching-chonged at me in class? I remember that so clearly, including how uncomfortable it made me when the whole class looked at me in response - but wouldn't have called it racist or racialized discrimination at the time. I only knew the physical taunts, the "slanty-eyed" pull at the eyes. I didn't know the "c" word and the "g" word were comparable to the "n" word back then.
If I hadn't learned as an adult about all the nuanced forms of racism and racialized discrimination, how would I have answered the question? Would I have forgotten about those incidents?
I'm always surprised when I meet a transracial adoptee who grew up in an all-White community and school who says they were never the subject of racialized discrimination or racism. A part of me says, "wow, that's pretty cool you never experienced that." And another part of me wonders if they just didn't recognize it for what it was.
You can't name something if you were never taught the language to describe it. In my own case, as a kid I wasn't taught that racism existed unless you were an African American and it involved slavery, lynchings or the KKK. I didn't have the language to describe what happened to me in my geography class.
Food for thought.
One of the study's limitations is that those adoptees born/adopted in
the late 1970s to 1989 would have had much greater access or
opportunity to specialized Korean culture camps. Korean culture camps
did exist back then, and in fact Holt first started their camps in
1983. I, as a "2nd wave" adoptee would have been 15 years old that
year. A local family camp for Korean adoptees in Minnesota, Kamp
Kimchee, began in 1978. For me, I would have liked to have know what
the age breakdown was for those who attended camps and those who did
not, and if there were any correlations between ages/year adopted and
some of the other variables such as how one identifies
racially/ethnically. My hypothesis would be that it would make a
"Transracial adoption helps individual children by placing them in permanent adoptive homes, but it does nothing to repair the web of racial injustice that makes so many black children available for adoption in the first place."
— Hawley Fogg-Davis, The Ethics of Transracial Adoption.
ETA: Although this quote is about domestic transracial adoption of black children in the U.S., it could easily be changed to:
"Transracial/transnational adoption helps individual children by placing them in
permanent adoptive homes, but it does nothing to repair the web of
racial/social/political/government injustice that makes so many children available for
adoption in the first place."
One of the writers [whose piece] didn’t make it into One Big Happy Family wrote about how the process of adopting a child from another country made her more aware of human trafficking. Ultimately, she had to question whether her child had been put up for adoption or was stolen. If we look at plunging fertility in developed nations and raging underdevelopment and poverty in others, we can see how children can become the ultimate product.
Many people don’t realize that there are more human beings in slavery today than ever before. The discussion of transracial adoptees should be part of a growing awareness about the modern slave trade, but I think the glamourization of them in popular culture often does not lend itself to a deeper dialogue.
The comments there are interesting because other than a few familiar names there (atlasien always represents!), most of the commenters do not have a personal connection to adoption. There is, however, a large diverse readership and those comments are interesting because they add to the typical kind of comments I would see in other forums where the white narrative dominates.