Some of you are aware that I’m creating a public syllabus for transracial adoption, using Asian adoptee studies and resources as the foundation for a broader discussion of transracial adoption and its impact on American… More
Here’s another post where I’m hashing out a concept I just read about, so if I got it wrong or you have something to add, please share!
Love is a tricky term in transracial adoption. Many adoptees feel that love, in its most commonly understood form, is used as a way to silence our own interpretations of our experiences, with love being the trump card pulled when we express viewpoints opposite of the dominant one: “But your parents loved you like their own and loved you enough to take you in!” or, “Your biological mother loved you so much she gave you up.” Because of the nearly impenetrable love-dominant messaging inherent in adoption, adoptees feel compelled to stay silent or risk serious conflict and emotional upheaval if they try to push conversations past and through love.
Most parents, adoptive or not, love their children. But love in adoption carries more weight and risks than traditional parent-child relationships. Adoption’s love, in its rawest form, is transactional. It is based on a parent’s obtaining of a child and learning to love someone based on a promise to care and protect. In exchange, a child receives a home, an education, and other material and immaterial things that presumably offer a more productive life than the imagined alternative. This is not to say that this kind of love can’t be learned or genuine or is “bad,” but instead I’m showing that adoption almost always carries with it the premise of love, both received and given.
The growing scholarship and public conversation on transracial adoption, however, is showing that love is simply not enough. Love in adoption seems, to me, predicated on creating a family structure similar to one not made by adoption and one based on same-race (or even interracial) biological kinship. Love, at times, is weaponized against adoptees. It often forces adoptees into identities and narratives that might not reflect their own self-conceptualizations, and that’s when love becomes a powerful, dangerous tool, and where it conveys ownership of a body and a narrative.
What is Radical Love?
An alternative form of love that may better serve transracial adoption as a system and as a family structure might be radical love. What makes it radical? Well, like all things stemming from academia, it’s a term that takes two already loosely-defined words and combines them to make them confusing and higher-browed than they need be (sorry, academia). There’s nothing “radical” about it (like, you don’t need to go running through the streets with a sign or drastically change your worldviews; it’s also not “radical” in the 80s sense of the word, either–sorry again) and the “love” it promotes goes beyond thinking about how we care about someone. It’s also not explicitly about romantic love, either. Instead, radical love offers us a new way of being with and being for not just ourselves, but the community (and family) surrounding us.
Because radical love has no official definition, I will borrow from Claudia Cervantes-Soon’s interpretation:
[Radical love] is “manifested through mutual humanization, the transgression of borders of power relations and gendered expectations, and a commitment to the collective struggle for justice.”
In other words, it’s about framing the way we love one another in a way that respects and overcomes each other’s position in society, where you recognize that that person’s perspective and identity is deeply shaped and entwined with the internal and external relationships and systems they encounter. We radically love someone when we recognize that our power can impact another negatively, and we radically love someone when we learn to listen to their stories as part of a social whole that validates and empowers, rather than subordinates and controls.
For me, the appeal of radical love is its emphasis on community and its de-emphasis on the individual. Love is not a one-way avenue, nor is it a two-way street, and it is especially not a dead-end! But to me, radical love embodies respect and listening, where your needs and perspectives aren’t set aside to account for another’s, but instead interacts with the other person’s, and ultimately, the entire community and society.
Radical Love and Transracial Adoption
So, how can we apply radical love to transracial adoption?
First, we promote transracial adoption as a person in power (the adult; the white adult) entering into a legal form of kinship where transaction is implied. Rather than seeing that fact as a cold, unloving part of family-building, we accept it. We accept the challenges that form of kinship can create, and we can recognize the power imbalances that might happen throughout the family’s life due to this inherent structure.
Second, we recognize that our family isn’t formed in a vacuum. Each member–children included, non-White children especially–occupy a lower social space in the family (parents above children, older siblings above younger, etc.) as well as in the community as a whole. We embrace and show our love by engaging in conversations and activities that show we are actively addressing their oppression, in ways that go beyond treating children as “passive objects” (thanks again, Claudia Cervantes-Soon!) who simply absorb social messages and instead as active participants who have the agency to create their own identities both inside and outside of the family.
Third, and most importantly, we promote the development of unique identities in the child, while respecting that these identities are fluid and will shift in reaction to family events as well as their perceived social status. These identities must go beyond the child being “adopted” or not. The child may reject their adopted status for a time, or forever. The child may wish to identify closer with their racial and biological roots. Or, they might not. Regardless of the child’s comfort or discomfort with what adoptive parents have provided out of love, a more “authentic” form of caring would be one that proactively engages with a child’s rejection of an imposed identity (that is, an “adopted child”) and instead of pleading with or scolding them into changing it, a parent demonstrates “unconditional acceptance”–the same form of respect that they would wish for themselves.
The idea of radical love isn’t to simply sit back and let a child run amok. It also isn’t blindly saying “yes” to a child without any dialogue or feedback. Instead, it’s a conversational way of allowing for a child to claim ownership of their identity, despite the traditional adoption narrative that implies they are “perpetual children” who exist because of an adult’s love.
Adoption agencies should consider radical love as a progressive acknowledgment that the children they serve (because it’s supposed to be “for the children,” right??) do occupy subordinate societal positions, and the children of color are absolutely denied the same privileges as White children. Radical love is more than performative educational programs designed to inform White parents about their child’s racialized experience; instead, radical love would center the child’s identity–and arguably, their entire sense of self–as a growing, evolving, fluid construction of their own design, that they themselves own. Radical love frees the child from its beginnings as a “needy” object in need of a home. Radical love, by contrast, incorporates their experience as a person taken in by adults and allows them the power to move in and out of that status as the child desires.
Radical love, in essence, could transform transracial adoption by opening up the boundaries of family and situating it within the greater society–just like any other family. Even though arguments historically position families as a private space, the truth is that families–especially transracial adoptive families, because of their obvious visibility–are indeed a public entity that is influenced by the state and community in which it resides. Radical love could also destigmatize adoption and adopted children, by giving adoptees the space to question and push back on the oppressive design of adoption (most notably, legal documentation issues come to mind), while allowing them to interact with their families and friends in a way that no longer others them as someone taken in, but instead repositions them as someone taking control.
Apologies for the rambling here; chemo-brain is a real thing.
I waited for 18 years, an arbitrary length of time set by people who–from the outset–spoke for me, to find out my birth mother died several years after I was sent away.
I spent those years emotionally and verbally abused by both family and community, my racialized existence provoking shame into anger. I lost many family members and friends to death, either by natural circumstances or violent ends.
At 25, I lost my adoptive mother, though imperfect she was, to a three-year battle with ovarian cancer.
At age 34, I enrolled myself in an intensive outpatient program to deal with complex PTSD as a result of lifelong abuse.
At 35, I myself was diagnosed with cancer, but not without finally getting that key to sentient industrialized humanity, my medical history. In it, I found that not one of my maternal relatives lived (so far) past age 77. My birth mother died of a cerebral hemorrhage, her younger brother died of a bone marrow cancer, a surviving brother survived his own brain bleed, and another uncle survived thyroid cancer.
But I don’t feel sorry for myself. Instead, I laugh.
I laugh at life’s ruthless targeting of one person, of some people, of groups of people, to be the ones who absorbing every single blow. Yet there exist individuals like my husband, a white male stamped with middle America’s indelible trackmarks and unhindered by any tragedy greater than a few standard life discomforts.
It’s an angsty existential riddle, quite a cliche in its frustration: Why me? Why not others? What lesson haven’t I yet learned? but even GOING THERE strikes me humorous, bizarre. Because logical and reasoned women like me, women dedicated to answering WHY and WHAT with quantifiable, explainable THINGS, simply should know better than to ponder the universe’s absurd definition of reason.
But I can’t help it. As long as people like my husband and I exist, opposites in backgrounds but similar in all the ways that count, the preposterous workings of LUCK will nag me behind my theories and statistics.
I definitely don’t have room for self-pity. I fear only a few things in life now, a happy byproduct of such unfortunate luck: chemotherapy permanently altering my cognitive function and stamina; not finishing my PhD program; and not making it to Disney World come hell or another cancer diagnosis. Redundant tragedies inure you to anxiety, I promise.
Instead, I laugh.
I laugh hard, harder than I should because there’s something so poetically tragic about suffering and then more suffering. Forgive me if I sound self-absorbed, and I humbly nod at those who continue to suffer greater than I–you do exist.
And that’s the key right there. No matter what, it could still be worse. If cancer still isn’t the worst thing that could happen to me or my family, then yes, there’s still room for confidently facing more feckless mistakes or uncontrollable health issues. Above all else, therefore, I want to have the space to handle whatever’s worse, because no matter what, there’s always room for hope.
Another chemo-brain blog post. Apologize for the style here.
Getting cancer made me angry, not because it’s an annoying interruption to my life but because it adds another layer to the “Was there a way to prevent this?” adoption complexity.
How many of you are attending annual check-ups or such, armed with a list of your great-uncle’s colon cancer and your second-cousin-twice removed bout with kidney stones? You probably think nothing of it, as it’s become such a routine expectation in our medical visits. Let me tell you: Health histories are a privilege. To an adoptee, not knowing the full story of our parentage or family trees is just one loss we experience. But the one that tells the fullest picture of our lives, the one that tells us just what our very own bodies encompass, will almost never be available to us. To me, that’s adoption’s most profound and inhumane loss.
Without a health history, we are simply flesh and bone and fluids from….where? We ask ourselves where we came from, and perhaps obtaining a family tree can help, but adoptees lose the most tangible explanations of what makes us humans. I’d personally would have been happier knowing my medical history rather than knowing why I was given away. Extreme? Maybe. But knowing my genetic health history would have given me control over a life owned by the adoption system.
Am I saying that adoption causes diseases illnesses and problems that are inherited genetically?
— Courtney (@WordyRamblings) November 14, 2019
What can be done to prevent or treat these medical variables? Where can blame be placed–and should we be looking for scapegoats at all? How many parents experience the secondary shame of telling a doctor, “No, I’m sorry–my son’s adopted so we don’t know,” and then didn’t think–or know–to press for additional testing? It’s not necessarily the adoptive parents’ fault; genetic testing is costly and often not covered by insurance unless medically necessary. So who then considers a lack of medical history an acceptable patient status? Well then, are adoption agencies culpable, what with their desire to protect the privacy of the birth parents (if possible) over the child’s future health? Are they clinging to the hope that their outdated yet selectively applied “blank slate” theories will help adoptees get by on a shrug and some hope?
Knowing my genetic health history would have given me control over a life owned by the adoption system.
As you can see, there are some clear ethical and human rights questions at play, which I hope to cover in another post on ICAV’s website soon. For now, I’ll hazard to guess that adoption agencies–and overzealous adoptive parents–go in two directions with regards to their wards’ health: They can either blame “drug-addicted, impoverished mothers and fathers” for their children’s issues and end it there, or passively say “this is all we have, so let’s hope for the best.” Neither mindset considers a child’s right to grow into a healthy adult (because adoptees DO grow up). Both mindsets also set a child up for medical alienation by both parents and community; say, for instance, a child develops a mental disorder or disability, despite being placed with a “loving” adoptive family. All the love in the world won’t prevent genetic expressions or rewrite faulty DNA. Does the child become an ungrateful pariah or just another problem and disappointment? Do the parents speak negatively of the biological parents, while blithely blaming their own grandmothers for their propensity toward diabetes? Some adoptive parents are more proactive:
She’s had some genetic testing for possible identified conditions, but I mean I worry so much I freak anytime she has to take an antibiotic since I have hereditary antibiotic allergies. We just don’t know for her, so I assume the worst. It’s a crappy way for her to have to live.
— Amy (@moogacat) November 14, 2019
Assuming the worst is probably the best case of a life of unknowns, regardless of how uncomfortable or negative that may seem. However, in my case, I’d never assume I’d get breast cancer but I did assume I’m a ticking time bomb waiting to see what new ailments my body chucks at me.
Unfortunately, insurance companies and paychecks don’t feel comfortable investing in worst-case scenarios, given how expensive genetic testing is and how uneducated physicians are on proactively managing adoptees’ cases. While preventative medicine is expensive, it seems less costly than having a giant tumor pop up in the middle of your life. With all the funds and fees associated with adoption (that’s all I say about that), swinging a few extra thou toward comprehensive medical testing doesn’t seem like such a stretch after all.
This won’t be the last I discuss this topic, as it simply fuels my work on adoption and children’s rights. I hope to have my ICAV post ready soon, where I’ll look more closely at children’s rights and ethics with regards to intercountry adoption and lack of medical histories.
In the meantime…get yourself tested. Speak to your doctors if you need to, explain your situation, show them this post. Whatever. Message me on Twitter and I’ll be your ally. You deserve to know something and never knowing was not your fault. I’m here with you because no medical records is inhumane, archaic CRAP and we should never accept it.
In which I respond to Mr. Stephen Thatcher’s commentary from the Me&Korea May 2019 inaugural adoption conference. Mr. Thatcher is a Korean adoptee. Find his statement on page 93.
It’s with great professional restraint that I don’t open my letter with a descriptive passage detailing my initial reaction to your Conference on Adoption essay. Instead, I’ve stepped back, breathed a few times, and hopefully composed myself enough to make myself cogent and clear.
Far from being representative and inclusive of Korean adoptees’ perspectives, your antagonistic and sweeping generalizations dismiss a swath of experiences in five judgemental pages.
Many Korean adoptees indeed encountered racism within their adoptive families and communities. This racism isn’t an “obsession,” as you described; it’s a societal fact that impacts how people of color identify themselves and develop self-worth. Evidence is not on your side, Mr. Thatcher, as color and racial issues–even within biracial and monoracial biological families–has well-documented negative effects. Please, feel free to ask for resources for this statement.
You also state:
Wow indeed, sir, that you overlook a child’s rights when determining “worthy” placements. I’d reword this and call it “healthy” instead. If you truly care about these “orphans,” as you describe us, wouldn’t you agree that a racially competent home–one that can adequately support a child of color and their unique cultural heritage–would be best? I mean, you say it yourself:
Obviously, no one with a heart wants children living on the streets. But we also don’t want them growing up blinded by their gratitude at the expense of their race.
You also claim adoptees “sensationalize” their experiences:
Here’s where I’ll drop my professional courtesy and respond as myself:
FUCK THAT DISMISSIVE BULLSHIT.
In one word, you’ve handwaved a lifetime of struggle many Korean adoptees face. You dismiss it as unimportant, and downplay it as being propaganda to push an anti-adoption agenda; which is funny, because your agenda to disparage and smear other adoptees seems more community-breaking than people telling their truths.
Adoption needs these stories you find so unpalatable because if you truly want to improve it and make it better, we have to learn from our mistakes. And yes, in some cases adoptions were made to parents who had no business adopting transracially. Rather than spitting on the adoptee stories you believe are repugnant lies, you should embrace them. Humans run adoption agencies; humans are imperfect. We get blinded by love and charity but forget that bad things happen to good people and good people get rejected while sneaky ones get pushed through.
You’ve also seemed to confuse classist issues with what some adoptees are really saying:
I can’t mindread, but this seems suspiciously like you’re referring to some adoptees as whiny brats unhappy they didn’t get the toys they wanted, instead of seeing their lives as cautionary tales. Again, I’m not a mindreader but it seems you are:
No one can fully understand or appreciate why an adoptee might objectively look at their adoption and those of others with less-than-ideal outcomes and become against it. You, like me, can’t possibly know what “reality” any of us would face had we not been adopted. I found out my family regretted sending me away. I love my birth family. My adoptive family abused me. But I can still critically look at transracial adoption and understand that these things happen, but it’s on people like me–not myopic generalists–to fix it.
Having gotten this off my heaving chest, I wonder: Do you consider me anti-adoption? Based on my responses to you and work, would you judge me as having been so shortsighted I’d be unable to determine how “bad” my life would be in Korea and how great I had it in the United States?
You likely would, but unsurprisingly, you’d be incorrect. For all my adoptive mother’s flaws, she taught me what assuming means. I am not, in fact, “anti-adoption,” but do believe a firm overhaul of transracial and intercountry adoption systems need work. This work needs to be in the child’s best interest and based on sound, unbiased scholarly research and not rants against people with whom you disagree.
For my part, I am happy for you and your adoption outcome. I agree orphanages and institutions are not equipped for long-term childhood care. And, obviously, I agree that
but what you miss is adoption is a result of a child’s loss. Adoption promises a better life. If adoptive parents are unqualified despite their best interests, are we really doing this orphan army justice?
I’d also like to close this letter by answering one of your (presumably) rhetorical questions:
Yes, I have. Yes, I do. And maybe you should do the same for those who see things differently than yourself.
Feel free to reach me any time. My lines of communication are always open.
Being adopted is hard; being transracially adopted is even harder (and I’m not backing down from that one).
Unfortunately, I’ve been seeing a misappropriation of adoption and mental health and trauma; some form of conflation that gets confused as “if you are adopted, you’re automatically sentenced to post-traumatic stress disorder and many other things that won’t come out until it’s conveniently necessary to blame.”
Or, the argument goes: Adoptive parents don’t listen to adoptees since our pain is too much to bear. Or, our pain overshadows an adoptive parent’s desire for a child, so they immediately tune adoptees out because we’re harsh reminders of their wrongdoings.
All of this is true and none of it is true.
Maternal-infant separation is traumatic. No one’s arguing something so obvious and provable. But what’s missed in the “adoption is trauma” conversations is how this early attachment disruption can be repaired. Does it cause PTSD or the newly-recognized-yet-still-debated complex PTSD (of which is my own diagnosis; more on that later). Possibly, but a basic understanding of attachment disruption AND healing must also exist; otherwise, it sounds like **gasp** there is no healing or hope in adoption.
We can’t discuss adoption trauma without a hard nod to attachment theory. I feel this is a missing piece in online adoption trauma discussions, particularly by American adoptees (again, more on this later). Very briefly, attachment disruption indeed happens with separation from a primary caregiver at any stage, but a loving, supportive home–adoptive or not–can provide a center for earned secure attachment; that is, a child finds a new attachment figure and navigates life henceforth.
Without a secure attachment figure, children and adults may end up troubled, unable to maintain healthy relationships and thus, depression/anxiety is born.
If you’ve noticed, I say a lot of “can” and “may” because adoption is a very individualized experience. It’s why we can’t argue that every.single.adopted.child is going to experience all of these things; it is important, though, to ensure adoptive parents have these potential issues on their radar, so they can more mindfully parent their adoptee. That’s a good thing, right?
Back to attachment and my earlier PTSD discussion:
ADOPTION DOESN’T AUTOMATICALLY CAUSE LIFELONG POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER!
Anecdotally, the adoptees of all races discussing PTSD are doing so as a result of being adopted by abusive parents. Or, in my case, adopted into an abusive family as well as “integrated” into a racist, unaccepting community. I have no desire to detail what my PTSD-infected life entails now, but I can tell you with 100% certainty my PTSD isn’t from adoption (although yes, that haunting grief absolutely does suck). It’s from years and years of scapegoating, shaming, emotional and verbal abuse (with some physical abuse on the side), and absolutely no community or familial support. All of this could happen in a biological family; the transracial adoption aspect simply augments this bitter recipe.
We do current and future adoptees–and their parents–an enormous disservice by arguing all of these things will happen as a direct result of adoption. While a healthy dose of awareness can help a parent seeking to improve their skills, pushing such a dystopian message surrounds adoption with despair and hopelessness. I fail to see how it benefits the child.
Instead, why not argue that an adoptee’s mental health issues aren’t solely adoption-related, but exacerbated by a family unable to cope with their individual needs? Instead of claiming every adoptee will grow to resent their adoptive parents, how about we say this grief is mitigated by trauma-informed care and supportive parenting, like that being pushed by the United Kingdom?
These aren’t bulletproof solutions. Unscrupulous adoptive parents exist, just as less-than-stellar biological parents orbit around us. There are indeed adoptive parents who’ll co-opt their child’s trauma and use it as a way to excuse their own shoddy behaviors. But instead of blaming adoption for every mental health issue experienced, I would say we treat adoption as yet another complication in an already complex life.
Adoptees are individuals, built from the hopes of one family and the loss of another; our genetics dictate who we are and whatever health problems we’ll experience–respect that.
But if we really want to help adoptive parents ensure adoptees get the best care–as it is, the adoptee should ALWAYS be the focus–guilting them into believing their child is damaged won’t help. Adoptive parents absolutely should listen to adoptees and their tapestry of mental health concerns; these are important stories and can guide a parent’s overall parenting approach. Good parents welcome advice; excellent parents incorporate it into their lives. But our horror stories shouldn’t be used as punishments for adoptive families. Instead, they should be guideposts for what not to do, and how to do adoption better.
An adoptee’s horror story shouldn’t be used as a punishment for existing adoptive parents.
Just remember that our mental health issues aren’t everyone’s pain. It’s ours and we should own it and feel welcome to express it. It’s not a tool, though, or an instrument to frighten others into listening to us. No one else has a responsibility to fix our disorders, but they do have the responsibility to listen.
Adoptive parents don’t have a responsibility to fix our problems, but they do have the responsibility to listen.
If you are struggling and have discussed it with your therapist, I’d highly recommend Princeton House (associated with Penn Medicine) as an intensive outpatient treatment center for trauma, mood disorders, and more. They’re located throughout New Jersey and offer services for adolescents, women-only, and men. But IOP is no joke! Discuss with your doctor and see if it’s right for you. Oh, and I’m not affiliated with them at all!
Also, I’m very much against self-diagnosed PTSD and other such things. Please find support because self-diagnosis is dangerous.
Take a look at that photo. Yeah, the Asian baby with the slightly disproportionate ears and smushed-up nose. This baby mugshot was my–for lack of a better description–personal ad photo my parents received when choosing a baby to bring home.
My adoptive mother enjoyed saying how much she fell in love with that photo the moment she viewed it; another adoptee shared how her mother loving her when she knew she was conceived (huh?).
But let’s think about this. Realistically, can you truly love another person (because babies are simply people, after all) based on a photo? When adults do this, they’re usually side-eyed as being reckless and irrational. Get a grip, well-meaning friends will say. You’re in love with the idea of that person, not the human being itself.
In adoption, particularly transracial adoption, these drive-through baby-picking-ads aren’t so far off from someone browsing personal ads or trying to find the perfect hairdryer. What’s dangerous is that, with a child, this idea of what this kid is and how it’ll fit in your home can create an unrealistic bubble into which the adoptee is placed, floating around their parents’ minds as expectations, promises, and unrealistic hopes. Imagine what’ll happen when that bubble bursts. The kid ends up conforming not to their parents’ imaginary silhouette but becomes an unfamiliar (unwanted?) mix of genetics and environment.
My husband explained it like this: Pretend a family of dogs (conformists, willing to please, pack-oriented) decide to adopt a kitten (independent, aloof, intelligent). As this kitten ages into a cat, it begins displaying typical feline characteristics which run counter to dog behaviors. Dogs are social; cats less so. Cats swish their tails when angry; dogs wag their tails for myriad reasons but the well-known one is happiness. Cats drop their ears in fury; dogs drop their ears in submission.
The dog family gets angry at this cat for simply being a cat. Stop purring! the dogs say. You’re ridiculous and bad–you need to wag your tail more.
But I can’t, the cat counters, it’s something that just happens.
What’s wrong with you? the dogs chide. Why can’t you just join in instead of hiding in your room?
And over and over again, until the cat hates itself. He takes no pride in being a cat, but only berates himself for not being a dog.
In a strange twist of the turtle and scorpion fable, the cat ends up stung by the dogs who committed to loving this former kitten, only to be hurt by their inability to recognize the cat for who it was. This is the danger of loving a child based on a picture.
Racial differences add to the tension. If not properly examined, parents’ cultural competency and racial attitudes may unfairly color (pun!) how a child develops. Is this fair? No, but it is a reality. A harsh one, but in the difficult truths we can learn how better to improve.
I believe every adoptive parent loves their child, but I think this relationship needs better grounding when publically presented. To claim “love at first sight” places expectations and ideas on a human that may be impossible to fulfill. I’d rather promote the idea that parents must get to know their adopted child, perhaps in a more intense way and with guided therapy, falling in love with that entire person after a journey of mutual respect and acceptance.
As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. Feel free to get me on Twitter or comment below!
When I first came to the public transracial adoption space, I was only tangentially aware of the “us versus them” mentality. It’s “adoptees versus adoptive parents,” “transracial adoptees versus same-race adoptees,” “everyone versus the system,” etc. I initially set out to discuss only transracial adoption, saw how interwoven transracial and same-race adoption traumas inevitably are, and thus started speaking on both transracial and same-race adoption, scared to rock the boat too much on race.
I’m not scared anymore.
I’ve received vicious online assaults ranging from the relatively tame:
“You’re a heartless shrew!”
to the typically condescending:
“Please get help.”
to the hilariously bizarre:
“You useless amoeba!” and “You’re the Jim Crow of adoption.”
When I wrote the infamous Think Adopting Children of Color Makes You Woke? It Doesn’t piece, I was quite clear that I’m not against adoption of any kind; in fact, I recognized there indeed are white parents getting it right with their children of color and understand that yes, many are doing their best. My experience with adoptive parents is the same as with any other group. There are excellent ones, terrible ones, and many in-between. I appreciate all of them and hope to reach most of them.
This struck a nerve that continues to sting today. When I say, “Let’s ensure cultural competency and racial awareness informs transracial adoption, so children’s racial identities are harmed less,” others hear: “You’re terrible, white people just want to help kids, or else they’ll starve in Ethiopia!” (yes, really).
“Helping” kids of color isn’t “rescuing them.” Many adoptees have said this before, but it bears repeating that rescue is a supremacist-rooted term implying the “greatest country in the world” is the best place for transracial/intercountry adoptees (yes, really, someone said that to me). Is that true? Is the West really best? I’ll let you decide, but consider this: The opposite of helping children of color is ignoring their color.
Far from being racist or Jim Crow of adoptionesque, questioning a system that places kids in colorblind yet loving homes has little basis in segregation. In fact, people of color were systematically excluded from adopting in-race because of exclusionary criteria, usually masquerading as economic, financial, and religious “qualifications.”
My critiques are founded in historical policies, the social history of family, and race. And yes, my personal experience. Circling back to the accusation that I “make adoption all about race,” there’s truth in that statement. Adoption, like so many other government institutions, is about race. Race, power, and control. No matter how hard some push back on the issue, race matters. Denying its existence and influence on power structures denies the experience of people of color, adopted or not. As a person of color, I feel obligated to speak of color in this space and I won’t stop.
Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications.
Regardless of transracial adoption’s obvious minefields, there has never been a call–from myself, anyway–that all white people should stop adopting kids and instead let children of color simply rot away in the system. Or, even more puzzling, is the interpretation of my work as calling for “same-race only” adoptions, which again doesn’t exist in quantity due to reasons already stated. I’d love for more POC to adopt children of color. As always, nothing is that simple.
Astute readers know I’ve made the same statement over and over: Adopt kids of color, but be aware of the possible implications. It’s that sentence’s second clause that offends and touches nerves of would-be or current adopters; the awareness of love’s inability to protect against societal racial bias, and the idea that perhaps you can’t save a child of color by simply giving them a loving home.
Adoption, it would seem, is far more complicated. It should be, because a child’s life is at stake. Is it naive to believe transracial adoption can be done in the child’s best interest, aside from simply taking extreme “banish it” stances? I don’t think so. Parents, adoptive or not, exist on a continuum of shared flaws and toxic values. It doesn’t mean there isn’t room for the existence of open minds and open hearts, both of which all good parents embrace.
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It’s a privilege reading and reviewing adoptee work. I do this not just for myself, but for all of you who struggle to find relatable resources and portraits of adopted life. No one can possibly know everything, so books and art help enrich our knowledge-base. I review adoptee writing not on the literary quality, but on its earnest storytelling and its balanced perspective.
I chose this post’s work since I know embarrassingly little about black adoptees, beyond what’s been explored in the academic literature and on social media. Like other adoptees, they struggle with separation trauma and attachment issues, but their race adds a deep complexity that isn’t discussed as often as I’d like (hint: keep producing content, black adoptees!).
Living My Shadows: Dreams Do Come True (Kevin I. J. A. Barnett, Sr.) reads like a conversation with a friend over email. Barnett employs a casually engaging writing style, sharing his journey through a clear and linear lens. Such a style keeps his memories fresh and raw.
It a fairly quick read. Where it lacks in deeper introspective analysis, it makes up for in sometimes-painful vignettes that will keep readers nodding their heads in either agreement or disgust. As a memoir divided into three parts, Barnett traces his life from foster care, adoption, and finally, reunification with his biological family. Such a timeline fits most adoptee’s adoptee typical life paths. Typical, though, doesn’t mean unoriginal.
What surprised me wasn’t the physical abuse and emotional abuse Barnett experienced, but the colorism Barnett suffered from within his first same-race foster family. Though I speak heavily on the impact racism has on transracial adoption, Barnett’s account brought to life the colorism spoken about in Lori T. Tharps’ Same Family, Different Colors. Of his foster family, Barnett writes:
They called me “Negro.” They called me “Black Nigger.” They called me “Ugly,” and “No-Good.”
Colorism within foster and adoptive families needs a closer look overall, but Barnett doesn’t reflect on this abuse. Instead, Barnett shares the impact of this poor treatment with further anecdotes. For example, the day his foster father died—his main abuser—the last meal eaten by the now-dead man was black-eyed peas. To this day, Barnett avoids the beans, because when he “sees ’em that’s the only time I think about [my foster father].” A poignant statement as many adoptees and abuse victims can understand these triggering associations. Hopefully, Barnett’s account will inspire in-race adoptees to reflect upon their own similar experiences.
After being adopted by a black family, Barnett slowly discovers personal security (or at least security as an adoptee can manage). It’s after his adoption and foray into adulthood that Barnett begins his search for his biological mother. After many discouraging false leads, Barnett soldiers on and eventually finds the woman who birthed him almost sixty years prior.
It’s at this point I felt both inspired and envious: Inspired, because Barnett shares a letter he wrote to his birth mother, which I read at a point of my own birth family considerations. Pulling back from Barnett’s memoir, I was struggling with disappointment that my own biological mother had died only a few years after my adoption; seeing Barnett’s process admittedly made me step away for a bit. Still, this is the life of an adoptee–a few steps back and then forward into a conflicted present.
But back to Barnett. After tentatively making contact with this biological siblings, he composed a sweetly vulnerable letter to his birth mother:
I understand the circumstances that surrounded the reason why I was put up for adoption and have no hard feelings…I sincerely hope I didn’t cause any problems with the [earlier] phone call and I wish in my heart we can meet. My contact number is listed below if you decide to want to chat.
Take care and God Bless.
My heart broke. As an adoptee, such hesitancy and forgiveness is part of a daily push-pull cycle as we attempt identity reclamation. At this point, I started really rooting for Barnett, despite knowing his story’s outcome (spoiler alert: it’s good). I suspect many adoptees and former foster youth reading this will feel a bittersweet sense of camaraderie.
For some reason, I emotionally struggled through this section. Perhaps it was his straight-shooting writing style; or maybe, it was here that Barnett truly let the reader in so I could be in his story with him. It’s here the story truly shines.
The last section reveals current information about his reunion with his birth family, an overall enviable experience for many adoptees. From Barnett’s telling, he was welcomed with open arms into his biological family, serving almost as a center from which life radiated around him.
Still (and I won’t give away too much), Barnett’s story shouldn’t be considered “just more adoption reunion porn.” Like many adoptees, not everyone shows up for his re-arrival, but there is a gut-wrenching scene where someone did come looking for him–and never came back again.
Living My Shadows draws strength from its humanity. After a long military career, Barnett is now a motivational speaker, a profession I initially feared would color his adoption story as yet another hope-spun tale of adoption’s great wonders, despite a few pesky hardships. But no, Barnett left me inspired, not patronized—a feeling many adoptees encounter. Many readers will find this refreshing.
Barnett simply asks readers to “push harder,” and if “you’ve got a passion, or something or somebody that’s missing in your life, don’t give up the hunt.” Barnett faced doubt, a foster family who told him no one could ever love him and he’d never amount to anything. But he realized as I hope so many others who read his book do, to recognize those doubts but move forward anyway.
You are the author of your own life. You can change the plot, and rewrite your story any way you choose. -Kevin Barnett, Sr.
And you know what?
Thank you, Kevin, for the honor of reading your book and reviewing it.
This post is a little off-the-cuff today and started as a Twitter thread, so apologies for lack of editing!
I’m often asked if getting transracial adoption “right” is possible. My response is always, “This isn’t a science, but by reaching out and talking to transracial adoptees with diverse and uncomfortable experiences, you’re on the right path.”
I know speaking critically of a practice sometimes leaves little room for hope. With transracial adoption, hope means a parent’s ability to confront unfamiliar racial conversations and barriers remains at the forefront of their parenting journey. I relate my experience as extreme circumstances, although having an openly racist family isn’t as unusual as you’d think. Even still, much can be learned from extreme positive or negative experiences, since examining both will help land on a more favorable outcome.
I still don’t proclaim myself an expert on anything but my own life. Biases and emotional attachments trap me, too. But in order to help transracial adoptees and their open-minded parents–and ultimately, myself–I frequently question and confront my own potential prejudices and must remind myself to stay open-minded.
Doing transracial adoption “right” doesn’t require uncovering a super-secret checklist of things that definitely won’t f*ck up your child. I wish there was one I could offer, but like my mom said, “You figure it out as you go.”
Figuring it out in transracial adoption, though, does require more digging than what typical parenting might. First, there’s the obvious cultural and heritage loss. Second, your relationship ultimately began with traumatic separations chosen not by your child but strangers. Third, your child’s race will play a significant role in his identity and it can’t be hand-waved with camps, holiday celebrations, food, or even language classes.
I’m aware this leaves little room for a parent to succeed. Perhaps it’s not about success, since I view parenting as an ongoing duty, one in which I’m constantly forced to challenge my emotions and preexisting values. So, what’s a transracial parent to do, once they realize love is not enough?
One, acknowledging our racialized society before transracially adopting is crucial. This means understanding you are considered privileged and by adopting transracially, you’re in a privileged position to “take” or “obtain” a non-white child. This will be uncomfortable for some, while others will view this as an act of bravery. It’s more helpful to review white saviorism and, while you may not subscribe to that believe, transracial adoption stems from that mentality and should be understood.
If you’re feeling defensive right now, that’s fine. Sit with it and be mad, but think not of yourself as the accused but consider the society that grew these issues.
Next, start exposing yourself to POC’s books, music, movies, news outlets, etc. Get a Twitter and see what #BlackTwitter and #AsianTwitter, etc., are saying. Read their struggles and observe how you are feeling when you encounter them. Stay out of the adoptive parents’ groups for now and start following the transracial adoptees’ feeds, because they are POC, too. Don’t filter out the stuff that speaks against white people or white parents; if it hurts, keep going.
Hopefully this makes you realize no matter how hard you try, the color gap between you and your transracially adopted child will never close. Families of color struggle with colorism within their own environments, so transracial adoptive families will undoubtedly experience conflicts.
Then, when you’re ready, ask questions. Not to other transracial adoptive parents right now; ask the adoptees. Many of you who are already doing that–and taking time to listen and consider our experiences/advice–are light years ahead of everyone else which is why I love you all. By getting uncomfortable, by questioning your parenting ability, by thinking about your situation–those are signs you ARE putting your child first.
Look, there won’t be any easy answers for getting transracial adoption right. There will always be holes, there will always be loss, there will always be inner and external barriers and anger. Instead of focusing on doing it perfectly (or thinking you already are…), focus on reaching out to the transracial adoptee community.
Set aside your judgments and fears so you can give your child the best possible future, even if adoption mucks things up a bit. That’s the nature of adoption; it’s a complex thing, and it’s why so many adoptees dislike the “adoption is beautiful” myth because it overlooks the many ways it isn’t. You are experiencing parenting hardship by stepping outside your comfort zone, but the adoptee will forever live with some level of confusion. As a community, we can help mitigate that loss and work together to build from it instead of make it worse.
PS–Adoptees get offended by the cutesy adoption videos and photos because when we see those, we can’t comprehend how one person’s excitement is based on another person’s loss. As a mother, I understand the excitement over a new family member, but please remember how adoptees began their lives.
PS again–No, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you’re bad for adopting transracially, but yes there are pockets out there who might but not everyone does so please don’t let that discourage you.
PS YET AGAIN–always remember this:
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There’s an incendiary topic burning with both racial pride and community outrage and it’s one my fellow transracial Asian adoptees and their families should acknowledge. I’ve refrained from speaking on it because the Asian internet’s reactions range from ambivalent to enraged, but I no longer want adoptees–already suffering racial identity crises–unaware of what possibly awaits them.
Many transracial adoptees and their white parents seek Asian communities to mitigate cultural and heritage loss. They do this throughout the adoptee’s lifetime, or later when the adoptee becomes an independent adult. Most adoptees hesitantly approach Asian online communities and in-person gatherings, fearing “not being Asian enough” or confronting–sometimes for the first time–groups of people who “look like them.”
What an adoptee might find is not a welcoming brother or sisterhood, but one who offers acceptance based on two nuanced things:
If the Asian adoptee is dating or married, their partner’s race, and,
If the Asian adoptee–due to a proximity to whiteness they didn’t choose–is Asian enough to speak as a member of that race.
The dominant Asian community isn’t issuing such superficial judgments, but if someone’s Google search takes them far enough, it might dishearten them when uncovering such hatred lurking among a tiny vocal percentage. Deemed Asian Female/White Male (or AFWM/WMAF), it’s a divisive topic claiming any Asian woman dating or married to a white person is self-hating, suffering from internalized racism, anti-Asian male, anti-Asian, or, in extreme cases, fair targets for hate mail and death threats.
I tried addressing this from an academic and fairly neutral perspective, framing it within the narrow confines of transracial adoption. I tried exploring partner selection from a cultural perspective, citing studies examining how a white family’s influence over a person of color’s identity more related to unconscious absorption of family values and general attitudes toward race, not self-hate. I also say:
When examined through a…lens where Asianness isn’t so much denied as casually accepted and maybe feared, a child will be less likely to attach to their outward racial presentation.
For this perplexing AFWM debate, I suspect that even Asians who were “raised Asian” in diverse communities take away the media’s portrayal of the white standard and shape definitions of attractiveness. While this isn’t excusable and more ethnically diverse media representation is necessary, this theory doesn’t imply self-hate as a catalyst for partner choice.
My informal and brief analysis was predictably met with scorn, because how could I, an Asian adoptee raised by whites, be anything but brainwashed into internalized racism and a strong desire to emasculate Asian males? Also, I am married to a white man but not because I worship my white parents (actually, for anyone following my work, it’s the complete opposite)–I married him because I am an independent-minded, grown adult who lived with racists, so why would I allow that into my life once again?
The AFWM argument insults an Asian woman’s ability to perceive racism. It implies there couldn’t be any other reason, aside from Asian hate, a woman could ever marry outside her race. The notion itself implies ethnocentrism, something minorities have spent decades overcoming. Yes, it’s true some Asian women excuse white male racist behavior but as humans, we’re all saddled with the same insecurities, racial confusion, guilt, low self-esteem, and other personal issues as any other race. To paint an entire community of couples, including their half-Asian children, as hateful forces ourselves back into oppression instead of forward into truth-seeking.
For adoptees, this hurts when we discovering this mostly online battle, as some of us were conditioned into internalized racism from the very people expected to love us. For others, it’s simply a matter of partner availability. Relocating to a more Asian region isn’t always realistic or feasible. Doing so while confronting their own conflicted racial identities and ensuring they choose a racially appropriate partner is even harder. Adoptees are especially sensitive to such isolation as it wasn’t self-imposed (though many anti-WMAF members imply it is) since our parents–like many parents of minors–controlled the majority of our life choices.
Any person of any race can racially “marry up” and not tarnish the reputations of every other person who dates interracially; those outliers exist everywhere and aren’t reflective of an entire group. People will worship whiteness while others campaign against such toxic behaviors, but adoptees must understand their proximity to whiteness isn’t automatic white worship or negative. We have enough identity issues; who we pick as partners should be our least concern. It also doesn’t mean we’re intending to emasculate Asian males or supporting any negative portrayal of them.
The second issue, that Asian adoptees aren’t “Asian enough” to campaign for our rights or activism, implies our losses exclude us because we haven’t enough lived Asian experience. But we still experience racism, we experience prejudice, we experience identity issues–and we do it completely without, for the most part, any support from the Asian community. We lost a heritage, the heritage non-adoptees have that we desperately seek, while living alongside the dominant racial group. Absorbing those white values wasn’t a choice, but we have the ability to make room for and care about our group’s causes. Perhaps because of our parallel lives we’re more powerful than we think because we have lived in two worlds and are ready to share our experiences.
One interesting related note is female Asian adoptees reporting accusations of “not being Asian enough” to date Asian men. One Chinese adoptee pursued an Asian partner, but because of her background and his strong cultural connection, he rejected her. This scenario is worth considering, as it involves being turned away once again, potentially driving some Asians to white (or other races). Again, it’s not assumed to be the situation in every case, but it questions why a person may date interracially (and why is this even a bad thing nowadays?).
Transracial adoptees, please know that many of us are working hard to raise our voices and your partner choice doesn’t diminish your value as an Asian or a person. But know this dispute exists, and know our warm receptions into the community may be absent from a small sector of people. Still, we will keep talking about this and adding our perspectives, so we can transcend hate, whether self-directed or external. We must unite against racism and fear. As blogger Eliza Romero says:
“While people in interracial relationships obviously shouldn’t be the only voice for a community, their voices and opinions should be heard because there is plenty of valuable insight to be offered.”