Transracial Adoption Public Syllabus Update #1!

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 society as a whole. Because it’s SpRiNg BrEaK, I’ve decided to update you all on its progress, as well as solicit feedback from all of you on content, scope, and whatever else you want to add/change.

This was the most “exciting” picture for “syllabus” I could find. Woo hoo!

First off, I’ve decided to weave queer theory throughout the syllabus, in an effort to resituate how we think about children and families in general. Secondly, I somehow forgot that I am first and foremost a childhood studies scholar, seeking to impart critical adoption studies and Asian childhood studies into childhood studies, not the other way around. To do so, I’ve since recentered the syllabus to focus on how children’s bodies are invoked to uphold a heteronormative, White family, while transracial adoption remains a space where non-White bodies are used as specters of racial harmony. Both the family and the non-White child’s body, though, are queered through transracial adoption: the family, because an intact biological family wasn’t always the American way, and the child, because, to invoke Kathryn Bond-Stockton, was always queer.

I’ve also updated my audience. Initially, I wanted my audience to be adoptees, adoptive parents, and social workers. It dawned on me that most of us may be familiar with these resources and concepts, so I’ve chosen to view adoptees and adoptive parents as collaborators, although I’m sure many of you might enjoy the syllabus anyway. However, social workers, mental health professionals, childhood studies scholars, and Asian American studies scholars are now my intended audience. Although social workers and mental health professionals may be seeking knowledge that will inform their practice, I am not qualified to speak on integrating these topics to therapy. Instead, I hope this syllabus provides background information that helps them recontextualize their approaches to this group.

For childhood studies and Asian American scholars, my goals are more self-serving: I really, truly want this subject to become a key part of both their curriculums. In a world where the justice-minded of us are seeking to decolonize curriculums, it is, no lie, quite painful to see the absence of this subject from childhood studies. I can’t speak to Asian American studies, so if someone can fill me in, that would be great. But I provide two critical reviews of Asian American history and youth studies that omit Asian adoptees, and I hope the rest of the broader scholarship does not follow that pattern.

Ultimately, my goal is to de-niche the topic of Asian American children and transracial adoption. This is a HUGE task, though, one that I believe will take at least my lifetime, if not more, to accomplish. I have tried to be as inclusive as possible for sources here, especially of those by adoptees themselves, and I hope that I have included as many as possible. However, I see this syllabus as an ongoing, public collaboration, with a life far extending past its due date for my class (Hi, Dr. Silver!). So, if something isn’t covered now, I absolutely will hope to include it later.

Here’s the breakdown of what it looks like so far:

Section one: Historicizing (Queering?) the American Family

I haven’t quite worked out the title for this section yet, but this section introduces my use of queer theory, provides some historical context behind American family construction in general, and invokes Julayne Lee’s poetry and Tobias Hubinette’s work throughout. I also critique a recent piece by journalist David Brooks, in which he argues that the nuclear family is a long-gone ideal but can be supplanted by other forms of kinship. Strangely, he omits adoption as a kinship form here, which I expand upon in the syllabus.

Something I’m toying with here is integrating a book on the ethics of transracial adoption with the concept of the “ideal” American biological family, and how adoptees are the one subset of the population that requires such stringency to obtain. What I’d be interested in exploring here is how claims that adoption redefines the nuclear family aren’t new, but rather made new by adoption agencies, popular media, and marketing. By applying queer theory here, we can see how the non-White child-figure (or the imagined orphan-child-non-White-figure) is used to complete a family that never existed, a “ghostly” specter of liberal subjectivities, but I haven’t quite figured this part out yet. Any thoughts would be appreciated!

Section two: Constructing the Asian American Child

While all the sections are fun, this one is shaping up to be the one I’m enjoying the most. We start by understanding the definition of a child in general, using historians like Philippe Aries and Robin Bernstein to demonstrate that childhood and children are relatively recent social constructions that change in definition from time to time. This fits nicely with this syllabus, as the figure of the adopted child is invoked in different ways, depending on the current social American climate. I trace the very White roots of “childhood” and situate this against transracial adoption as a way of using imaginary and real children to solve adult issues like racism and political strife. Here I also introduce Kathryn Bond-Stockton’s concept of the “child-intruder” birthing his or her parents, when that child-intruder is not of its parents’ race. Queer theorist and my favorite, Hannah Dyer, makes an appearance here, but I haven’t fully fleshed out which chapters we’ll read of hers.

A significant portion of this section involves critiquing two works that set out to study and center “Asian American youth,” but curiously, both (rather large) volumes leave out Asian adoptees. I use this omission to highlight the liminal space that Asian adoptees occupy, while using queer theory–or the queerness of being “of color” in the United States–as the bridge that should unite that population. Significantly, I point out that the difference in parenting (such as being raised Asian or raised White) does create lines between “Asian children” and “Asian adoptees,” but ultimately, both groups experience racial dysphoria (a term I expand upon in the syllabus) and tensions from their assumed proximity to whiteness. Therefore, Asian children–adopted or not–share an Eastern origin said to “embody distance” (Sara Ahmed 2006, 121) that stems from ongoing Orientalism. From here, I take “embody distance” to argue that this is the reason both sets of children experience the “perpetual foreigner” myth and why this forces “sideways growth” (Bond-Stockton) and “queers” their experiences.

It is within this section that I draw upon JS Lee’s Keurium, which she defines and translates as “a longing for anything that has left a deep impression in the heart–such as a memory, person, or place.” I argue that the Asian child’s body, portrayed by adoption agencies as assimilatable (uhhh? I’m using that word. LOL) when “orphaned” but “alien” when situated within its biological immigrant family, is invoked as both an “object of desire and exchange” (Kim 2010, 12). This ties neatly to Robin Bernstein’s work, who argues that childhood has always belonged to White children, while children of color’s identities are subject to political and social needs throughout time and space.

Section three: Training White Adoptive Parents

In this section, which has received the least attention so far and will hopefully be expanded upon for my next update, will not be an instructive guide for White parents. Instead, I will provide a critique of resources provided to White parents of non-White children, and I will also provide commentary on existing critiques of post-adoption and pre-adoption services for this population. My hope is to situate these materials against popular discourse surrounding transracial adoption, and place these works and “guides” against what transracial adoptees themselves have said they wish their parents knew. But honestly, I haven’t even gotten to this point so it could absolutely change. However, I’ll be calling up transracial adoptee Kit Myers’ work on adoption pedagogy here, as well as much of the adoptee stories, works of art, and more.

Well, I’m actually glad I shared this with you, as it completely became evident to me where I’m investing all my time LOL. But that’s the point, as I wanted to keep you all updated AND hold myself accountable here. Also, please don’t panic if you don’t see certain adoptee scholars represented in this update, as I’m still working through much of the material. It’s also quite realistic that at this point I’m mis-reading or plain out missing some pieces of the puzzle, but as I work through my draft and revisions, I’ll again post updates when they’re ready!

One more note: The majority of the material I “assign” are pieces that I’ve provided analytical commentary on, but I have selected archived video, additional scholarly articles, etc. that are part of the curriculum but I don’t directly discuss. Perhaps over the summer I’ll work through those, but the end goal is that this will be something I can teach, and then teach others how to teach, as well.

Anyway, thanks for letting me share this! PLEASE, any feedback you have or suggestions, I am very open to and want to hear. This is for us, about us, and mostly for the children who come after us. But mostly, the goal is to achieve visibility not just for Asian children, but to create a conversation that asks why “Asian children” and “Asian adoptees” are viewed separately, how we can unite them through a queer theoretical lens, and what it would take to insert transracial adoption into the broader discussions about race and the American family.

the queerness of transracial adoption

Thinking about how to “solve” the problems inherent in transracial adoption, that is, those of white supremacy, systemic racism, and overall, the rush to place children of color (CoC) in “good” homes, might be missing a more theoretical framework. Bear with me, as I’m working through my research ideas here but tell me if I’m onto something. But if we’re to consider transracial adoption and all of its current flaws without discussing not why, in its current form, it harms CoC, but instead how its existing and historical theoretical structure functions to oppress rather than serve, we might actually more successfully challenge the present practice and finally rebuild it.

Drawing on Kathryn Bond-Stockton’s* queer child theory and Hannah Dyer’s exploration of childhood innocence through the lens of the “queer contours of childhood…those that exceed the confines of normalcy and resist normative assessments of emotional and social growth” (6). Remember, Dyer and Bond-Stockton aren’t necessarily queering every child or saying every child is “gay” as we know it, but rather applying queer theory (as I understand it) to speak to “nonnormative gender and sexuality but also [emphasis my own, because that’s key] all that is deemed strange and unruly” (5).

What can be more “strange and unruly” than transracial adoption? Setting aside for the moment that the heteronormative, same-race family structure still persists as “normal” for most of American society, transracial adoption is not only “queer” in the sense that it challenges, both openly (obviously a CoC and their white adoptive parents will stand out as queer) and through its channels of family-building (legal, home evaluations, etc.: all very counter to the interior and private family life), but in that it uses as its capital a child. Not just any child, but a child already marginalized–or queered, as Bond-Stockton says–by color. In this sense, how does transracial adoption queer, twice, transracial adoptees?

Queering transracial adoption, then, is already done. It is “done” in the sense that it queers traditional American family norms and it is “done” because the child involved is queered by color and queered by transracial adoption’s racial disunity. Transracially adopted children have no option, within this framework, but to grow sideways (thanks again, Kathryn Bond-Stockton). Growing up transracially adopted means being forever marked by difference–queerness–between yourself and the individuals designed to help you grow upwards. It is this inherent queerness that encourages sideways growth, forcing the child to thresh out new paths of belonging, both to their adoptive family, the members of their race, and their multitudes of social networks (not ACTUAL social media, but sure, that works, too).

Sideways growth isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. Actually, for the transracial adoptee, the child’s horizontal growth means establishing a multitude of new coping mechanisms designed explicitly to react against normative structures. This doesn’t mean that transracially adopted children possess some mystical inner strength, and most certainly there are those who find themselves pressured into upwards growth no matter how much they resist, but instead the CoC is implored to create an identity unlike any one offered by the various social groups with whom s/he would “normally” identify.

Such sideways growth, and the transracially adopted child’s external pressure to resist it, might account for the transracial adoptee’s struggle with racial identity and familial security. Underlying the stability offered by an adoptive home is a normative violence. Though dramatic, that violence is the adoption industry’s historical tendency toward ignoring or erasing grief and loss and racial needs. Dyer asks: “What could happen for the adult’s politics [because transracial adoption is undeniably political and colonial] and sense of well-being if we took seriously the ways that aesthetic experience can cause interruptions to the symbolic contexts in which one grows up?” (3). Despite Dyer’s reference to her own great study regarding the material aesthetics of childhood, this question fits transracial adoption theory, because “in the visual and aesthetic cultures of childhood we can glimpse and indeterminate future that doesn’t calibrate injustice but locates hope in the wreckage of violence” (3-4). In other words, all those haters of critical adoption scholarship would finally understand that making “transracial adoption” for the child and “making it better” means not eradicating it (**sigh** I’ve never said that or supported it) but improving it through theory and extensive critique.

Hopefully, I’m able to pursue this line of thought. I think that Foucault’s philosophies work well here in establishing theory. And yes, I’m an over-eager doctoral student just reading this and ready to apply it, but man if anything can help me get ready for publication, I’m going to use it! LOL.

Let me know your thoughts!!!

* I initially did not like her work. And then I found myself returning to it more and more, organically. I think that means I love her. Ha.

announcement: holy heck my first nextshark article dropped!

So, I have some amazing friends and collaborators and one of them put me in touch with an even more amazing person and ran my article on Nextshark. Forever grateful and lots of joy here! It’s my first no-holds-barred piece and I’m nervous and scared but it had to be said. Read an excerpt below then take a look at the full piece!

Think Adopting Children of Color Makes You Woke? It Doesn’t

“Transracial adoption is about knowing a good home and a loving family aren’t enough. Kids of color need connections with people who resemble them and not just a few token times a year at culture camp. They need adults who’ve been called a chink and told to go back to their own country and asked to stop barbecuing in public places because those are the people who’ve experienced their reality….

…The white adoptive parents doing it right by their children of color acknowledge their privilege, admit they won’t be able to fully relate to their child, and constantly engage. They engage — deeply — with their child’s ethnic community. They talk to other adult adoptees who don’t just spin happy endings for rainbow families, and most of all, they know transracial adoption means love can’t transcend the loss of racial identity.”

Read more here…