Tracing Our Histories: Making Connections Between Adoption and Ethnic Studies

Originally published in Gazillions Voices in December 2014. The original post may be found here.


Amadou Diallo.
James Byrd Jr.

Two names that some of you may be unfamiliar with. Two men murdered in 1998 and 1999, respectively – one by police in New York City, the other at the hands of three men, two of whom are known white supremacists in Jasper, TX.

My Lai massacre.
No Gun Ri massacre.

Two low points in American military history during the Vietnam and Korean Wars, respectively. Both incidents rarely discussed or highlighted. Blood of civilians resting on American soldiers’ hands.

Two Wongs can make it white.
Big Buddha bash.

Two phrases on shirts produced by Abercrombie & Fitch in 2002.

If you ask many scholars and activists what transformed their involvement in social justice issues, they will most likely be able to reference a moment in their lives when they became politicized. As I transitioned into my new role as an assistant professor this autumn, I reflected on what shaped my interest in history, social justice, Asian American Studies, and Adoption Studies. The above-mentioned historical and contemporary instances of racial injustice and, sometimes, outright murder deepened my passion to link the present to the past.

Without an understanding of the past, we cannot grapple fully and deeply with current events and issues. And yet, more importantly, for adoptees of color, not learning about the histories of people of color in the United States and abroad erases their histories. In other words, if we only operate under the gaze of the unmarked nature of whiteness within adoptive families, adoptees grow up with a lack – a lack of history, memory, and understanding of the experiences of people of color in the United States. Adoptees require access to productive spaces to grapple with these multiple histories of violence and racism, as well as the activism within communities of color to combat these forms of hate.

American Imperialism and Militarism Abroad

To understand the complexities of international adoption, we must explore the impact of American imperialism and militarism abroad. Investigating these connections reveals how geopolitical events remain inextricably tied to systemic and institutional racism. Beginning with the earliest Korean transnational adoptions to 21st century efforts to find homes for orphans across the globe, US foreign policy is inextricably linked to the origins of adoptable children. For example, Soojin Pate traces the genealogy of the earliest Korean transnational adoptions to the post-World War II era when the United States and Soviet Union began occupying the peninsula. By locating adoption in its earliest iterations as taking root in the pre-Korean War era, Pate creates a broader history that links the adoptions of refugee children following World War II to the commonly held narrative that modern international adoption started with the out-placements of mixed race children to the West.[1] Reflecting on the work of Pearl S. Buck, the founder of Welcome House, an adoption agency established initially to aid the plight of Asian orphans in 1949, Christina Klein finds: “[Buck] proposed Welcome House as part of a solution to America’s foreign policy problems: in her view, the mixed-race children for adoption were ‘key children’ who could facilitate relations between the U.S. and Asia and perhaps prevent further losses of Asian nations to communism.”[2] Adoption established American parents’ investment to Asia and by extension, to American foreign policy’s promotion of containment.

When we recognize the origins of Korean adoption as stemming from an American Communist containment policy, it should come as no surprise that transnational adoption offered individual Americans a chance to participate in democracy abroad. Tobias Hübinette writes: “[International adoption gave] ordinary Americans a sense of personal participation in the Cold War.”[3] Similarly, discussing Operation Peter Pan, the airlift of over 14,000 Cuban children to Miami from January 1961 to October 1962, Karen Dubinsky notes how “fears of the Communist baby snatcher” fuelled transnational adoption programs during the Cold War.[4] The promise of American democracy was juxtaposed with the perceived “communist threat” in “sending” countries. This meant that adoption was considered a better alternative to life in Korea or other birth countries of origin.

This is not to say that a historical understanding of American Cold War politics can solely account for international adoptions. For example, when examining Latin American adoptions, we must contextualize the conditions that generated adoptable children against histories of neoliberal military intervention in the region. This coupled with a rise of “massive human rights violations against civilian populations” created a surplus of children, who would become “orphans” available for adoption.[5] Erin Siegal’s provocative account of fraud in Guatemalan adoptions clearly demonstrates how the profits of adoption both in the United States and in Guatemala fuels a corrupt industry and overlooks the rights of birth parents.[6] Jacob Wheeler’s Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girl’s Journey Through Adoption (2011) echoes the themes discussed by Siegel in his discussion of reproductive coercion and forged documents to render a child adoptable.[7] In addition, when we examine the increased interest in adopting children from countries such as Ethiopia, Haiti, and Liberia, for example, neocolonialism’s role in adoption becomes increasingly evident.[8]

By linking adoption to the role of US foreign policy in shaping “sending” countries internal infrastructure and politics, it becomes clear that we cannot look at these countries’ adoption practices as discrete events. To understand why children are continually rendered adoptable, we must couple our analyses with an examination of American investment in the region and the geopolitical climate. In my broader research, I unearth the connections between the institutions, governments, and individuals to understand how international adoption arose from an effort to aid Korean War orphans to become a global phenomenon. I expose the growth of what I term the transnational adoption industrial complex (TAIC) – a neo-colonial, multi-million dollar global industry that commodifies children’s bodies. To fully understand the realities of adoption, we must consider how adoptees become commodities sold in the economic marketplace. Recognizing the hierarchies of reproduction that exist within adoption accounts for the broader socioeconomic and social welfare failures that produce the conditions of the adoption economy.

This is not to say that neoliberal and neocolonial understandings of race, family, and social welfare do not impact domestic transracial adoption. In the context of the United States, the coerced adoption of children from ethnically- or racially-marginalized communities is not a new concept. Critiques concerning domestic transracial adoption capture the racially-charged nature of black-white transracial domestic adoption. In 1972, for example, the National Association of Black Social Workers deemed the practice “racial and cultural genocide.” Nations have historically externally and internally regulated their minority populaces through a variety of techniques, including adoption as a tool to mold “good” future citizens.[9] For example, the transracial placement of Native American children into white homes and forced removal from their families to boarding schools up until the 1970s is inextricably linked to racialized understandings of native sovereignty and legal status.[10] Native American tribes gained increased control over the adoption of Native American children as part of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act. Yet the Supreme Court case, Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl (2013) and the lower court rulings raised new questions concerning Native American family preservation. Recently, John Raible also discussed the complexities and tensions produced by Native American adoption in his discussion of A Generation Removed: The Fostering and Adoption of Indigenous Children in the Postwar World by Margaret D. Jacobs.

Historical Trajectories of Racism

A deeper understanding the historical trajectories of racism in the United States and the nation’s policies is required to consider the ways in which transracial adoptees negotiate their racial, ethnic, and cultural identities within the adoptive family. For instance, the adoption of mixed race children from Asia so heralded in the 1950s and 1960s was done so against a backdrop of Jim Crow segregation. We also saw adoption agencies focusing on the white-Asian children as opposed to the adoption of black-Asian orphans. Michael Cullen Green writes: “[T]he Cold War imperatives that encouraged the cultural celebrations of the adoption of Asian orphans and abandoned white-Asian children…did not extend to Afro-Asians.”[11]

We simultaneously need to wrestle with how we continue to discuss racial difference. While the assimilationist model of adoption that dominated parent approaches throughout the 20th century has been widely discredited and critiqued, the colorblind and multicultural era of adoption has become the new method to avoid honest discussions of race and racism in the adoptive family. By examining the histories of racism in the United States, we can better understand how racial microaggressions function and impact adoptees in childhood and adulthood. A woefully ignorant parent who lacks knowledge of the Asian fetish may not understand why their daughter is troubled by the attention she’s receiving by men and innuendos concerning the film Full Metal Jacket. At the same time, the parent who lacks understanding of the forever foreigner myth and other racialized stereotypes may not understand why the question, “Where are you really from,” elicits pain, anguish, frustration, and anger in their son. Yet, what is more disturbing is the parent who does not understand how the murders of unarmed black teens Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, in addition to scores of other killings, impact their adopted sons of color.

When we problematize the histories of people of color in the United States and the legacies of American military and political intervention abroad, it becomes evident that overlap exists. The racist images of black men from slavery to Jim Crow to today and the rise of the prison industrial complex is inextricably linked to the experiences of adopted sons of color. These depictions and stereotypes circulate across the globe and impact how birth parents of children from Ethiopia, Haiti, Liberia, and elsewhere are pathologized and treated less than. When we demonstrate to adoptees that the lives of men and women of color who look like them are less than, the question adoptive parents should be asking themselves is: “What is the lasting impact of this racism on my child?”

To illustrate the importance of bridging multiple histories to understand the lives of adoptees, I utilize the experiences of adoptees from Asia as an example. Adult adoptees routinely recall multiple examples of how their adoptive nuclear and extended families perpetuated Orientalist stereotypes and contributed to the racial microaggressions they encountered in their daily lives. Joining these voices is scholarship that documents adoptive parents’ racialized assumptions concerning Asian countries and their adopted offspring. Whether it’s through fetishizing Asian culture vis-à-vis an alleged celebration of multiculturalism or by deploying terms like “China doll” to describe their newly adopted daughters, adopted parents are complicit in the commodification of adoptees as consumptive Orientalist products to purchase and flaunt as examples of “their commitment to diversity.” Adoptive parents should consider the following questions to better comprehend how female adoptees are constructed as hypersexual Asian women in the American imaginary in adulthood:

  • When you adopted your daughter were you prepared to discuss issues of racialized sexuality with her?
  • As part of your pre-adoption checklist, did you learn more about Orientalism and the lotus blossom and dragon lady stereotypes? I ask because female adult adoptees recount instances of racial microaggressions concerning the Asian fetish. The experiences in videos that circulate online of Asian American women being harassed apply to us too.
  • When we discuss slut-shaming, have you considered the legacy of Miss Saigon? In other words, what is the impact of decades old stereotypes that render women of Asian descent as hypersexual bodies?
  • What happens when stereotypes of submissive and demure Asian women (a legacy of Orientalism and military intervention in Asia) impacts assumptions people have concerning your adult adopted daughter with her father or her brother? In other words, are you prepared to negotiate conversations where she may be mistaken as your mistress or mail order bride?

While these examples and questions may seem as if they are incongruent with adoption, take a step back and consider how white privilege has blinded adoptive parents and practitioners to the lived realities of adoptees of color. In her memoir The Language of Blood, Jane Jeong Trenka captures how Asian women are located in the imaginary: “exotic, petite, lotus blossoms, pale, fragile, docile, geishas.”[12] Trenka also recounts how a friend clearly internalized the belief that if adoptees like Trenka and others did not leave their countries of origin that they too would have “turned into what Asian girls tend to turn into if left to their own devices: a prostitute.”[13]

Imagining Culturally Competent and Ethical Adoption

The failure to make connections and recognize our role in reshaping the histories of adoptees of color does a disservice to all parties involved in international adoption. As international adoption persists as one form of family creation, we must also recognize the corruption and coercion involved. No longer can the adoption community remain blind to the intricacies of the transnational adoption industrial complex. In doing so, we become complicit in the circulation of children for sale. We must ask ourselves what a more culturally competent and ethical adoption looks like. This is the question I posed to my students this semester in our unit on adoption. The course focused on intercultural communication and competency and covered a wide variety of topics and themes.

During our discussion, my students questioned why there are different country fees/pricing schemes, why families consider international adoption over domestic adoption, and considered how African American children find themselves being adopted to Canada and European countries. They also noted that prior to reading the two articles discussing The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption by Kathryn Joyce and religion’s role in 21st century adoption, they believed adoption was good. The articles opened their eyes to how adoption is more complex than just finding good homes for children. We also discussed the documentary Girl, Adopted (2013). As part of their reflection on the class lecture, I asked them to respond to the question: “What do culturally competent and/or ethical adoption practices look like?” Below is a sampling of student comments:

  • Make sure you would have access to organizations that help adoptees
  • At the most basic level, the prospective parent[s] should ensure they are not kidnapping a child from an impoverished single parent, rather they are taking in a child with no parents and a true need
  • Once adopted, the parents should invest time and energy into learning about their child’s culture (and perhaps language) and pass on to their kid
  • When adopting remember three terms – the child’s past, the child’s present, and the child’s future – in relation to your environment, family, friends, and daily activities.
  • Understand it isn’t going to be simple, and complications and confusions will occur. Just because you are adopting a child, does not necessarily mean they will be immediately grateful
  • A full understanding and appreciation to preserve the original culture of the adoptive child
  • An adoption where the child’s [birth culture] is preserved and a family conforms more to the child than the child conforms to them
  • Understand that things aren’t black and white – adoption can be just as complex as any other relationship, if not more so
  • I would warn people that it will get harder as the child grows up because even though they are raised in a white American family, the child will still go through the process of being treated as another race –something they might not have prepared for
  • [C]onsider what type of life/school/friends your adopted child would have and if this would be something that this child would be happy with
  • I think if they adopted a child from a different ethnicity they should either move somewhere more diverse or get involved with groups/organizations that the adoptee can relate to
  • Don’t adopt because you think it’s cool

I highlight my students’ voices to encourage us to create a dialogue concerning the injustices associated with the adoption process. It was when I spoke to my students about the politics and histories of adoption in the United States that I recognized the transformative nature of a holistic understanding of adoption. By complicating the narrative of adoption as rescue and situating it within the historical trajectories of racism and colonization, we begin to see how adoption is more complex than we originally thought. For this, I need to thank my students for providing permission for me to utilize their reflections in this column.

By considering what it means to be culturally competent and ethical, we take into account the long histories of violence that have cultivated and shaped contemporary adoption practices. My students’ comments echo the myriad of themes that adult adoptees and their allies touch upon in their activism within academia, the community, and adoption industry. By bridging the various facets of adoption that make it a racialized endeavor, a richer conversation concerning the future of adoption can occur amongst stakeholders. Erasing the legacies of racism and the events that preceded adoptees’ existence only serves one purpose – the perpetuation of systemic and institutional racism with little critique. Only through examining the limits of white privilege in the lives of adoptees of color can we truly enter meaningful dialogue concerning the importance of historical memory. As we contend with the contradictions that adoption creates in our lives, let’s not forget that we are part of a wider social justice movement linked to the injustices experienced by people of color across the globe.


[1] SooJin Pate, From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption, Difference Incorporated (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

[2] Christina Klein, Cold War Orientalism: Asia in the Middlebrow Imagination, 1945-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 144.

[3] Tobias Hübinette, “The Orphaned Nation: Korea Imagined as an Overseas Adopted Child in Clon’s Abandoned Child and Park Kwang’s Berlin Report,” InterAsia Cultural Studies 6 (2005): 227–44, doi:10.1080/14649370500065946.

[4] Karen Dubinsky, Babies without Borders: Adoption and Migration across the Americas (New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010), 7.

[5] Laura Briggs, Somebody’s Children: The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 161.

[6] Erin Siegal, Finding Fernanda: Two Mothers, One Child, and a Cross-Border Search for Truth (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).

[7] Jacob Wheeler, Between Light and Shadow: A Guatemalan Girl’s Journey through Adoption (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2011).

[8] Kathryn Joyce, The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, 1st ed (New York: PublicAffairs, 2013).

[9] For example, Linda Gordon examines the class and racial inequities that fueled the orphan train movement in the United States; Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2001). Recent apologies from the Canadian and Australian governments also document the ways in which nations utilized adoption as a practice to limit the population growth of aboriginals and first nation peoples; Stephen Harper, “Prime Minister Harper Offers Full Apology on Behalf of Canadians for the Indian Residential Schools System,” (Speech, June 11, 2008),; Forced Adoptions Implementation Working Group, “Forced Adoption Practices,” Australian Government Department of Social Services, June 26, 2014,

[10] See Pauline Turner Strong, “To Forget Their Tongue, Their Name, and Their Whole Relation: Captivity, Extra-Tribal Adoption, and the Indian Child Welfare Act,” in Relative Values: Reconfiguring Kinship Studies, ed. Sarah B Franklin and Susan McKinnon (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 468–94; Briggs, Somebody’s Children.

[11] Michael Cullen Green, Black Yanks in the Pacific: Race in the Making of American Military Empire after World War II, The United States in the World (Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2010), 89.

[12] Jane Jeong Trenka, The Language of Blood (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 65.

[13] Ibid., 226.

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