Broken Links Enduring Ties

by Linda J. Seligmann and Seligmann Linda

Author Linda J Seligmann and Seligmann Linda Isbn 978 0804786058 File size 16MB Year 2013 Pages 344 Language Englisch File format PDF Category Family and Friendship Family making in America is in a state of fluxthe ways people compose their families is changing including those who choose to adopt Broken Links Enduring Ties is a groundbreaking comparative investigation of transnational and interracial adoptions in America Linda Seligmann uncovers the impact of these adoptions over the la

Publisher :

Author : Linda J. Seligmann and Seligmann Linda

ISBN : 978 0804786058

Year : 2013

Language: Englisch

File Size : 16MB

Category : Family and Friendship

Broken Links, Enduring Ties

Broken Links, Enduring Ties
American Adoption across Race, Class, and Nation
Linda J. Seligmann

Stanford University Press
Stanford, California

Stanford University Press
Stanford, California
©2013 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic
or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval
system without the prior written permission of Stanford University Press.
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archival-quality paper
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Seligmann, Linda J., 1954- author.
Broken links, enduring ties : American adoption across race, class, and nation / Linda J.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-8047-8605-8 (cloth : alk. paper) -- ISBN 978-0-8047-8606-5 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Adoption--Social aspects--United States. 2. Intercountry adoption--United States.
3. Interracial adoption--United States. 4. Families--United States. I. Title.
HV875.55.S44 2013
ISBN 978-0-8047 8725-3 (electronic)
Typeset by Bruce Lundquist in 10 /14 Minion




1 Power and Institutions


2 Fate and Faith: Adoption and Popular Religiosity


3 China: Culture and Place in Imaginaries of Exoticism


4 White Russians


5 Black and White Crossings


6 Broken Links and Adoption Narratives:
The Power of Storytelling


7 Doing School: Family Trees and Playground Banter


8 The Anchors of Virtual Communities


9 The Children’s Search and the Formation of Diasporic
Communities 246

Conclusion: Ties that Bind


Characteristics of Adoptive Families Interviewed








Photographs appear following page 136


I owe my deepest gratitude to the adoptive parents, children, and teens who
took the risk and time to share with me their experiences, and their struggles
and dreams. Many people took an avid interest in this project, providing encouragement and quiet counsel. I thank, especially, my friends and colleagues
Amy Best, Andrew Bickford, John Dale, Makalé Faber, Kathleen Fine-Dare,
Christine Harris, Sally Herman, Cortney Hughes Rinker, Marlene Samuels,
Joseph Scimecca, and Jane Zhang. Samira Alikadiyeva, an undergraduate student at George Mason’s New Century College, and Brian Estes and Emilia
Guevara, my anthropology graduate research assistants, proved indefatigable.
They collaborated with me in conducting interviews, and helped me to process and code them. Their enthusiasm was contagious. Sociology graduate
students Whitney Nicole Jorns and Marisa Allison also assisted me in organizing my data.
George Mason University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology,
College of Humanities and Social Sciences, and the Provost’s Office generously
supported my research. Susan Trencher has that rare peripheral vision that
­allows her to see what others have overlooked, ignored, or never seen before. I
thank her for sharing that vision with me, as well as for her storytelling and hilarious jokes. Rutledge Dennis has been in the forefront of research on biculturalism. Our philosophical discussions pushed me to reconsider my perspective
or stick to my guns. Either way, they were always enriching. I benefited greatly
from the work and conversations of others who had already spent far more time
than I thinking about and doing research on family-making across the globe,
among them Alma Gottlieb, Jessaca Leinaweaver, Christine Ward Gailey, Ellen
Herman, Elena Kim, Barbara Yngvesson, and the two anonymous reviewers of

viii Acknowledgments

the book manuscript. Any missteps in the pages that follow are mine, the result
of being foolhardy enough to embark on an entirely new field of research.
Family-making through adoption has involved my own family directly.
Through thick and thin, through the cycles of life and death, they have sustained
me. My thanks to Sue Seligmann Moreno, Ann Lyons, Wendy Seligmann, and
my parents, Albert and Bobbie Seligmann; to John Cooper, who never ceased
to encourage me time and again; and to Mina Mei Li Cooper, who will read
this and, I am sure, tell me what she thinks! Last, but not least, I am grateful to
the staff at Stanford University Press—to Joa Suorez, who saw the potential of
this project; Kate Wahl, who picked up graciously where Joa left off; Michelle
Lipinski and Frances Malcolm, who shepherded the book to the production
stage; Judith Hibbard, who oversaw the production itself; and Janet Mowery,
who sharpened its prose.


Adoption is an ancient practice that has received renewed attention as the ability to create ties between parents and children has become more detached from
biological descent. In the United States, surrogate, gay, and single parenthood,
facilitated by new reproductive technologies, is no longer rare. Family-­making
has burst out of a rickety frame that assumed the need for blood ties and hetero­
sexuality. In the case of adoption, these reproductive practices have provoked
searching questions and experiments that are most visibly striking when the
adoptions are transracial, transnational, or both.
In the following pages, I inquire into the kinds of families and communities
that are emerging as a result of these adoptions. My interest in writing about
transracial and transnational adoption in the United States was sparked by my
own experiences with adoption. In 2000, I became the Euroamerican mother
of a daughter, whom my husband and I adopted from China. As was true of
so many other transracial and transnational adoptive families, we became the
focus of a range of sentiments—affection, celebration, naked curiosity, ignorance, and a dose now and then of discrimination. My training and perspective
as an anthropologist fueled my desire to better understand my experiences. I
began to pursue more deeply and systematically questions about family-making through transnational and transracial adoption in the United States. It rapidly became clear to me that all adoptions were not alike; that issues of class,
race, place, and gender led adopting and adoptive parents along different paths
of family-making; and that the practices and narratives that emerged among
them were inflected by how power circulated in society.
Anthropologists are well aware that people build their lives using cultural
models. These models are conceptual, but they take material form as they are

2  Introduction

put into practice. They carry meanings that people take for granted. Yet what
people take for granted is far from straightforward, common-sensical, or natural. How people make a family, who they deem are its “members,” and what is
expected of them are good examples of this. The broad purpose of this book,
thus, is to explore the tensions surrounding the making of American families—
how they are constituted, the forms they take—and the activities of those who
are considered “members” of families, through the lens of transnational and
transracial adoption over, roughly, the twenty years between 1990 and 2010. In
it, I focus on the experiences of Euroamerican parents who have adopted children from China, parents who have adopted children from Russia, and white
parents who have adopted African American children in the United States,
within a comparative perspective.1
My own subject positioning as an anthropologist and a mother who has
participated in and experienced much of what I write about informs the narrative I develop. Each step of the way, over the long making of this book, I
have reflected on how what I have learned could be personally incorporated
into or brought to bear on my own family-building practices. A second defining thread of the narrative is the power of what I call broken links—what
is missing or unknown—in the lives of birth parents, adoptive parents, and
their children. These broken links attest to power at work that permits severing some people from one another and uniting others; they speak to assumptions people hold about “blood ties,” and they are indicators of how secrets,
intimate or very public, are heavy burdens indeed. I argue that adoptive parents and their children are affected by these broken links and that they have
catalyzed a burgeoning movement among many adoptees to call into question what is taken for granted in American family-building, to give it a name,
and to act on it.

“Blood Ties”
To better understand the cultural context of transnational and transracial adoption, it is important to situate it within larger debates about family-­making
in the United States. The ways Americans make their families provide insight
into basic building blocks of American culture, offering glimpses of what the
ingredients of biology and culture or nature and nurture have to do with how
Americans think about family and the recipes they rely on to make them.
Prominent anthropologists, most notably David Schneider (1980), argued
that biology was the template on which American kinship relationships and
the family were built, underlying American social norms about who was re-

Introduction 3

lated to whom. Yet transnational and transracial adoption practices in America
have raised questions about whether “biologism” is the sole ground in which
kinship ties are rooted. Schneider’s assertion catalyzed scholars to take a fresh
look at taken-for-granted constructs such as household, family, child, sibling,
and parent, realizing that they might, indeed, constitute American folk models.
They began to pay greater attention to the meanings of biogenetics and culture
across societies. The growing interest in what, then, exactly constituted “kinship ties”—where did kinship relationships end and other kinds of social ties
begin?—were questions Schneider did not address (Yanagisako and Delaney
1995), but they led scholars to wonder why and how assumptions about familymaking became naturalized (Carsten 2000: 13–14).
Judith Modell, in her work on American adoption, argued that if Schneider was right about the predominant model of “family” and of “kinship” in
America, then “adoption makes absolutely no sense without the biological
relationship.” Further, she claimed, “adoption makes sense of the biological
relationship. The ‘made’ relationship delineates the terms of the natural relationship: a child born of two parents, the product of their sexual relationship.
Fictive kinship tells participants that real kinship means ‘blood ties.’ These
determine the structure of a family and also the emotions of its members:
the feelings of being a parent and a child” (Modell 1994: 225–26). At the
same time, Modell found her informants were struggling with the assumed
relationship between biological family-making and “as if ” family-making
through adoption. She noted that “natives” themselves were articulating and
revising theories of kinship and that they “constructed a critique that very
much resembles those made by anthropologists, confronting (as these do) the
‘biologism’ that dominates the construction of American kinship” (see, e.g.,
Schneider 1984). Modell found that her informants were “fish out of water—
people well aware of, and interested in probing, the contradictions in their
lives” (Modell 1994: 13–14).
The discourse that adoptive and birth parents, children, and social workers
used about families created intense paradoxes for participants in Modell’s study.
They desired to replicate the sentiments, characteristics, and functions associated with biologically constituted families, yet also wanted society to recognize their distinctiveness as adoptive families. As Modell put it, all participants
were initially engaged in creating “as if ” families, grounded in security and
love. However, the ideal “as if ” family remained just that, as families themselves
struggled with the construction of roots through routes and pathways, rather
than essences, especially across borders erected by race, class, and nation.

4  Introduction

Cross-Cultural Studies of Family-Making through Adoption
Anthropologists realized that one way to investigate the roles that nature and
nurture—biology and culture—played in family-making was to explore the
premises underlying family-making and the valorization of adoption and fostering in other cultures. They found many examples that stood in sharp contradistinction from those structuring American family-making. In some societies,
adoption and social parenthood were as highly valued as biologically constituted families, sometimes more so. In others, adoption was a requisite practice
for strengthening lineage ties, ensuring an heir, and creating pathways to valued
In northern Benin, the norm is social parenthood. Almost all children live
with non-biological parents and the identity of their biological parents is kept
secret, similar to sealed adoption records in the United States. Nevertheless,
biological parents take an avid interest in their child. The degree and kinds of
social parenthood in Benin often correlate with labor needs and status, creating patterned kinds of inequalities (Alber 2004: 33–47). In yet other cultures,
children move among households of adoptive and biological parents throughout the course of their lives. In Micronesia, adoption is common as a practice
integral to the sexual division of labor, as well as a system of land exchange and
joint use; adopted children are highly regarded, and if obligations to them are
not fulfilled, the adoption can be reversed (Treide 2004: 127–42). In Ifaluk, also
located in Micronesia, parents seek to adopt because of loneliness or sorrow,
and if a childless couple asks to adopt a child from his or her birth parents, their
wish is usually granted. If the birth parents have other children and refuse the
request to give up one of them, they are considered stingy and become a target
of the wrath of the gods (Le 2000: 208).
Among the Wogeo of Papua New Guinea, according to Astrid Anderson
(2004: 111–26), adoptions do not imitate other social relationships but rather
are essential to the constitution of the social landscape. Children who are adopted continue to belong to their natal matrilineage but also to the locus, the
place, where they are raised by their adoptive parents. Not unlike some adoption
practices in the United States, childless parents in Wogeo pressure others to give
up their children for adoption. And among the Beng of the Ivory Coast, Alma
Gottlieb (2009: 115–38) found that mothers quickly turn over their babies to
multiple caretakers, including older children and strangers. Because the Beng
believe that all babies return to this world as reincarnated ancestors from the afterlife, they are already familiar with existing social ties and relationships. Beng
mothers encourage infants to be open and accepting of strangers, forging “satis-

Introduction 5

fying emotional attachments to many people,” and they discourage infants from
forming “singular emotional attachments” to their mother (Gottlieb 2009: 131).
At the other end of the spectrum, anthropologists have also found cultures
that stress “blood ties” and biological descent even more than Americans do
(Sorosky et al. 1978: 26). In Morocco, Bargach (2002) writes that adoption is
a marginalized activity experienced by marginalized people who experience
great anguish. The Moroccan state has made it a crime for adopted children to
assume their new family’s name. There, being adopted is conflated with being
illegitimate; mothers who give up their children for adoption are shamed; and
adopted children experience a permanent sense of liminality.
Many examples of family-making principles and practices could be cited in
which surrogate and alloparenting are the norm, not the exception; the concept
of “family” as a unit with clearly defined boundaries responsible for nurturing
may not exist; “love” and “good deeds” are not necessarily taken into account
as important reasons for adopting a child; neither is adoption stigmatized or
excessively focused on, even though it is an important strategy among families
in adjusting to the economic and political implications of differing family composition and events (Borneman 2001: 43). At the same time, as Astrid Anderson (2004: 119) has observed, adoption, and what Americans likely would label
“fostering,” is not uncomplicated, even if all children are loved the same. As we
can see from just the few examples above, forces from afar have considerable
impact on adoption and fosterage practices, and all societies filter the pragmatics of adoption through their moral values, customary laws or legal tenets, and
economic and political practices.2

Being Related
Given the evidence for such a wide range of family-making practices, not surprisingly, anthropologists began to question Schneider’s assumptions about
American family-making, especially as different kinds of families began to
make their appearance in higher numbers. Whereas Modell found that the ideal
and quintessential cultural model of family-making in America, which her informants were alternately embracing and struggling against, was biological in
nature, Janet Carsten (2004) wondered whether biology was ever the sole or
principal guiding assumption about American kinship models. Regardless of
whether it was, she argued that the more important task for anthropologists
was to bring to light indigenous models of relatedness and what the construction and activation of relatedness meant to personhood in the context of people’s practices and interactions. In her words, “[T]he important point here is

6  Introduction

that shared meals and living in one house go together, and these two processes
progressively create kinship even when those who live together are not linked
by ties of sexual procreation. Not surprisingly, there is also a strong moral value
ascribed to these processes” (Carsten 2004: 40).
“Relatedness” and how it is constituted among families formed through
adoption is central to this book (Carsten 2000).3 Like Modell, I find that biology and “blood ties” continue to lurk as important ingredients in American
family-making, including among adoptive parents and their children. However, many practices of creating relatedness as kin have emerged, leading to
shifts in the social construction of “family” in American culture. It is not that
American ideas about biologism are being supplanted or superseded, but, as
Judith Modell documents, they are undergoing revision. As they undergo revision, they become catalysts for changes in how Americans think about familymaking and, occasionally, for outright challenges to existing norms.

Private and Public Knowledge and Choices
American family-making is also situated and shaped by cultural notions of
public and private, open and closed, and by whether, and how, lines are drawn
between these constructs. Janet Carsten points out that these are similar questions to those that feminist scholarship began to ask once it became clear that
classificatory models of sexual procreation, domains of private and public,
domestic and political, and male-female bodies could no longer be taken as
natural (Carsten 2004: 59; Lugo and Maurer 2000). Jane Collier and Sylvia
Yanagisako (1989: 30, 36) led the way in arguing against creating a “conceptual
impasse” between the “practical” and “symbolic” in approaches to feminist anthropology. This conceptual impasse, they observed, prevented anthropologists
from grasping the myriad ways that consensus was achieved about dominant
symbolic systems. It also mistakenly led anthropologists to assume that power
was exercised in some spheres and not in others, and to create hierarchies of
systems of meaning rather than recognizing that “all human practices are created by people living and acting within historically situated systems of meaning.” Kath Weston (1991) developed this idea further, specifically with respect
to family-making among gays and lesbians. She argued that to understand kinship we need to examine both those relationships that are intimate and very
public, and those that are thought to occupy distinct domains.
Using a more historically based approach, Joan Scott (1988) and Bruno
­Latour (1993) also show that mixtures of nature-culture are socially constructed, and that we need to specify the networks and gatekeepers of networks

Introduction 7

that create hegemonic concepts and categories. The use of DNA testing is a
good example that illustrates the intervention of nature-culture in contemporary family-making. It has become ever easier to rely on scientific technologies,
especially DNA testing, to confirm blood ties, but at the same time, people are
giving shape to “family” and arriving at practices that signify “family” bonds
to them and others through ever more varied and creative cultural means and
ideas (Ginsburg and Rapp 1995; Franklin and McKinnon 2001). The subtext
of substantiating biological connections informs how these relationships are
imagined, effected, and called into question, often as an uneasy counterpoint.
Such connections include, for example, using DNA analysis to expose child
trafficking or, increasingly, to confirm relationships between adoptees and
birth parents, or birth siblings. Thus, even as bio-relatedness recedes as the
taken-for-granted criterion for constituting a family, technologies based on
biological connections, and such connections themselves, continue to play central roles in how parents and children imagine their positions and activities in
families in America.
I also try to tease out what adoptive parents and adoptees think of as private and public in their family-making practices, the meanings they attribute
to these domains, and how they are situated in contexts of power despite many
adoptive parents’ fervent claim that the decisions they make are based on individual choice. How do they feel about open or sealed birth records and active inter­action with birth relatives? With whom do they share their adoption
narratives and journeys, if they do? Is adoption something they want to keep
hidden from public view or, in the case of adoptive parents, perhaps even from
their children? What does the online explosion of adoption social movements
and exchanges mean? Finally, in what ways are children who have been adopted
transnationally and transracially attempting to shift the boundaries b
­ etween
these constructs and overturn the constructs themselves, as they grow up? These
boundaries are culturally in flux but not easily overturned or moved.

Subjects and Statistics
The research I conducted took the form of interviews and interactions with thirty
families with children adopted from China (CA), fifteen families with children
adopted from Russia (RA), and twenty transracial families consisting of African
American children adopted by white parents (AA). I selected these categories because at the time I conducted this research, China and Russia were among the top
three “sending countries” of children for adoption in the United States.4 According to the U.S. State Department (2011), between 1999 and 2010, of the 224,615

8  Introduction

children adopted internationally in the United States, 64,043 children, most of
whom were girls 2 years of age or under, were adopted from China, far more than
from any other country. During the same period, 44,150 children were adopted
from Russia, a roughly equally number of boys and girls, and a far higher number
of children who were older. I included the adoptive families of African American
children in my study because there are marked differences historically in how
Americans think about “race” as an ingredient in family-making, in the context
of domestic adoption and in reproductive policies in general (Solinger 1992,
2001). This history is pertinent because it bears directly on adoption practices:
the availability of infants within the United States for adoption; how prospective
parents view transracial adoption; and why they turn to transnational adoption.
Ricki Solinger (1992), Nancy Riley and Krista van Vleet (2012), and Ellen
Herman (2002, 2008) have traced historically the sustained differences in how
white and black women who became pregnant have been treated in the United
States. These differences rest on the social construction of race and on class.
Single, white, middle-class young women were whisked away to have their
­babies, who would subsequently be adopted by childless married couples. They
were then encouraged to “get back on track” psychologically in order to conform to an ideal of womanhood that meant having children within a marriage.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the onset of the civil rights movement, the
women’s movement, and the sexual revolution, along with the availability of
birth control and abortion, led to more white women remaining single and
keeping their babies. This change was a principal reason that fewer white infants became available domestically for adoption. In contrast, it was thought
that black women “naturally” enjoyed their sexuality and that their friends
and relatives would take care of their children. Yet they were also criticized for
their behavior. The large number of “illegitimate” black births was used as support for the biological bases of black inferiority and public anti-black policies.
Whereas white unwed mothers were viewed as a threat to the moral integrity
of the family, black unwed mothers were viewed as an economic threat to white
families (Solinger 1992: 41–42). The assumption also was that black people
would “always take care of their own” (Solinger 1992: 190) and that therefore
there was no need to provide them with adoption or foster services. When welfare policies were enacted and black women took advantage of them, the assumption became that they were having babies in order to use welfare services
rather than because they were poor and lacked alternative economic opportunities. Solinger concludes that the “racially specific focus on illegitimate pregnancy and childbearing in the postwar decades and at the end of the twentieth

Introduction 9

century has made it very difficult for women of all races and classes to see what
they have in common” ( 1992: 245).
I wanted to ascertain how adoptive parents themselves understood and
thought about these racialized and class differences in the context of comparing and contrasting domestic transracial adoptions, represented by AA adoptive families, and transnational, transracial adoptions, represented by CA
adoptive families. This seemed especially important given that Americans, in
general, were adopting transracially and internationally in far greater numbers
than they were adopting black children domestically. I also wanted to trace the
reasons for their thinking and what effects it had on children themselves.
The differences in the paths that adopting parents were taking are also writ
large in statistics on the different kinds of adoption. Although the interest of
the general public in adoption has increased since the early 1990s, in 2011, U.S.
adoption numbers were far from their highest. In 2010, approximately 125,000
children had been adopted annually in the United States since the late 1980s. In
2008, there were 463,000 children in foster care, 123,000 of them waiting to be
adopted.5 Ellen Herman (2008: 303), using data gathered from the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the National Center for Social Statistics, notes that this is a
sharp drop from the high point in adoptions—175,000 in 1970. Trans­national
adoptions, many of which are also transracial, more than tripled annually between 1990 and 2004, from 7,000 to almost 23,000 in 2004, accounting for
about 12 percent of all adoptions by U.S. citizens (Kreider 2011a: 84).6
Domestic transracial adoptions have increased, but there are no reliable
statistics, which is telling in itself. Ruth Kreider, who works with the U.S. Census Bureau (2011b: 97), notes that “there are few nationally representative data
sources that can provide information about interracial adoptive families and
how they might compare in basic demographic and socioeconomic characteristics with interracial families that were formed in other ways. Even estimates of the percentage of adopted children that are interracially adopted are
very few.”7 Approximately 18,957 African American children were formally
adopted in the United States through public agencies in 2002, but only approximately 1,000–2,000 African American children are adopted transracially
each year by parents who do not consider themselves African Americans (Ly
2005).8 Domestic adoption statistics are unreliable, and there are no accurate
statistics on private adoptions. As Herman (2008: 303) observes, the symbolic
significance of adoption is far greater than its statistical significance in the
United States. In part, this is because of the high visibility of transracially constituted families.9

10  Introduction

Inequality and Family-Making
Family-making through adoption is embedded in complex, contradictory,
multilayered political and economic processes. These processes contribute to
inequalities in how adoption unfolds across class, race, and national borders
(Marre and Briggs 2009; Ortiz and Briggs 2003: 39–57). In making sense of
how inequalities structure transnational and transracial adoption, I draw on
a ­political-economy framework and on critical race theory. The policies and
practices of states, international agencies, and many other kinds of institutions
actively give rise to inequalities. It is well documented, for example, that children being adopted tend to move from poorer persons or “sending” regions to
wealthier “receiving” ones (Coutin, Bibler, Maurer, and Yngvesson 2002).10
Adoption across national boundaries may also be used as a blunt weapon in
confronting geopolitical tensions between countries. In 2013, the U.S. government, for example, passed a law (the Magnitsky Act) targeting Russians who
had violated human rights. In retaliation, President Vladimir Putin, with strong
support from the Russian congress, approved a law in January banning all U.S.
adoptions of Russian children. Although it is indeed true and a serious concern
that nineteen Russian children adopted by Americans have died (out of 60,000
adopted over twenty years), the ban was a convenient and powerful weapon
that had very little to do with adoption itself or the rights of children.11
Informal and diffuse mechanisms also serve as means by which power is
exerted and represented. These inequalities affect the choices adoptive parents
make, the risks they take, and the categories and ideologies that are embedded
in the stories they share about their adoption experiences.
The original underpinnings of critical race theory were oriented toward
critiquing and transforming unjust legal policies and systems that purported
to be founded on and operate with principles of neutrality. My goal here is less
ambitious. It is to bring to light how race and racism work with and through
gender, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and nation as systems of power, and to specify
some of their more significant impacts on transnational and transracial adoption (Crenshaw 1991; hooks 1992). The exercise and circulation of power often
stratifies or masks commonalities and interconnections among different social
classes or sectors, resulting in identity politics. Just as problematically, the narratives and experiences of marginalized subjects may prevent those subjects
from recognizing what unites them or how they might organize to contest the
very forces and ideologies that fragment them (Nash 2008). By placing transnational adoptions, some of which are transracial, within the same frame as
domestic transracial adoptions, the social construction of race at work leaps

Introduction 11

into view. For example, although adoptive parents use “heritage” with respect
to transnational transracial adoptions, they tend to use “race” in the context
of domestic transracial adoptions. The reasons for this make for very different
choices and activities among families formed through adoption.12 Crenshaw
puts this well:
To say that a category such as race or gender is socially constructed is not
to say that the category has no significance in our world. On the contrary,
one of the projects . . . is thinking about the way power has clustered around
certain categories and is exercised against others . . . to unveil the processes of
subordination and the various ways those processes are experienced by people
who are subordinated and people who are privileged by them. . . . Categories
have meanings and consequences. . . . This is not to deny that the process of
categorization is itself an exercise of power, but the story is much more complicated and nuanced than that. . . . Clearly, there is unequal power, but there is
nonetheless some degree of agency that people can and do exert in the politics
of naming. (Crenshaw 1991: 1296–97)

The vectors of power through which adoptions unfold in the United States
and how inequalities are confronted over time constitute complex dynamics and
ethical conundrums. One frequently cited example addressed in the following
pages concerns white adopting parents who have the luxury to choose between
transnational and domestic adoption. Often they choose the former, adopting
black children from abroad while there remains a need for permanent homes
for black children in the United States. Yet even white parents who do choose to
adopt black children from within the United States face criticism from blacks
who are concerned that white families will not adequately equip black children to navigate America’s racialized terrain.13 Controversy also abounds over
whether the inherent geopolitical inequalities between sending and receiving
countries of transnational adoptees trump the ethical value of providing every
child with a loving family (Bartholet 1993, 1996; Fogg-Davis 2002; Freundlich
2000; Hollingsworth 2003; and Marre and Briggs 2009).
Adoptive parents may embrace children’s rights, regardless of race or nation,
as an impulse for adoption, yet that same embrace may be compelled by sentimental ideas about rescuing “poor and primitive” others and avoiding risks. In
short, the ability to pursue adoptions across borders—racially, economically, or
nationally—is the consequence of geopolitical inequalities that are themselves
the result of particular histories and policies that the United States has helped
create. Adult adoptees have articulated their own positions in these debates

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