Intro: transracial adoption & social justice

If this is your first encounter with my personal perspective on the transracial adoption experiment, I’m afraid that you are in for a bit of a shock. As a biracial adult adoptee and the adoptive parent of children of color, my perspective is grounded in certain assumptions that I have come to accept about our imperfect society. I use the tools from my professional field, multicultural education, to analyze and understand the dynamics at play in our society. I should point out that, while my perspective might at first come across as angry, cynical, or despairing, I remain fundamentally optimistic about our capacity to change ourselves as individuals and to transform society at the macro level.

To soften the blow, I thought I’d outline some basic assumptions I make that inform the work I do in the transracial adoption community. If you can agree that my assumptions have merit, you will find it much easier to follow the development of my thinking on transracial adoption and, more importantly, you will understand why I take the strong positions I do on the responsibilities facing families that choose to become involved with transracial adoption.

I am professionally a multicultural educator. My work is best understood as the use of education in a continuing quest to nurture, encourage, and support the development of conscientious allies in the ongoing struggle for social justice. I understand that my freedom is inextricably tied to your freedom, whatever your social identities and background happen to be. I truly believe that we are in this racial fix together, and that we need to support each other in figuring out a viable way through the irrational system of racialism that we have inherited. I also believe in peace and nonviolence, and that there can be no peace until there is justice. As a result, I understand the work I do as one person’s humble efforts towards peacemaking, that is, promoting harmony through understanding, intentional action, and solidarity with the oppressed.

Assumption #1: Racism is alive and well. If this very basic assumption comes as a surprise, you have a lot of catching up to do! I think our society has come a long way in terms of improving race relations, but we still have a long way to go. As a child of the 1960s, it worries me that our collective sense of idealism that championed the dignity and rights of the poor and the marginalized and that stood for racial harmony, peace, and social justice have largely been abandoned, perhaps written off as positions that sound utopian or overly “liberal.” But just because we are no longer as publicly idealistic as we once were does not mean that we have overcome racism.

Assumption #2: Through no fault of our own, but simply by participating in this society, each of us becomes culpable for racism. Some of us receive benefits from institutional racism, while others of us are denied access to society’s privileges and rewards based on the color of our skin. As Malcolm X used to say, we can either become part of the solution or remain as part of the problem. There is no neutrality in the struggle to transform racism. The tasks before us that have to do with fighting racism require a moral and political commitment of our time, attention, and energy. Wishing that things would get better doesn’t make them so. Hard work and dedicated, intentional action and reflection will help usher in the kind of harmonious anti-racist society we desire for ourselves and for our children.
Assumption #3: From the perspective of the majority of adult adoptees I have talked to, transracial adoption and transnational (or international) adoption are fundamentally the same experience. This is particularly true when parents and children do not physically and racially “match.” Issues such as race, culture, identity, and belonging are pertinent throughout various types of adoption when parents adopt children from vastly different backgrounds. I have encountered enough international adoptees to understand the numerous commonalities between our experiences, whether we were adopted domestically from foster care or joined our adoptive families through international adoption. Parents who think they can sidestep thorny racial issues by adopting from overseas are fooling only themselves.


Assumption #4: While adoption does materially improve the lives of many individual children, at the same time, adoption burdens adoptees for life with enormous psychological challenges and emotional hurdles that must be continually re-negotiated at different stages of the lifespan. As a paradox, then, adoption itself is both a blessing and a curse. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am grateful that I was adopted, yet I regret that I had to be in the first place. Not a day goes by when I am not keenly aware of my second-class status as an adoptee.

Assumption #5: The systems that create adoption are fundamentally flawed and thus, continue to cause harm to families and individuals. This doesn’t mean that I think all adoptions should stop. On the contrary, I have devoted my adult life to helping social workers, parents, adoptees, and others figure out how to reform the practice of adoption so that more children can find security and happiness in strong, knowledgeable, and better supported and supportive families. Reforming adoption implies strengthening ties between families, including birth families, adoptive families, foster families, and chosen families.

Assumption #6: Transracial adoption remains controversial because it rests on contested ideas about race and family. Transracial adoption calls into question the following: Who belongs together? How are groups recognized? Should various groups remain separate? On what terms might they come together, or rather, on WHOSE terms? What constitutes a family? Should “race-mixing” be encouraged or discouraged? If adoption is a service to children (and not to parents), why do we still allow money to change hands (between adults) when it comes to finding homes for children? When these kinds of questions go unaddressed and remain unexamined, the needs of one small elite group of wealthy individuals are allowed to override the needs of other larger groups with far less power and privilege. In my opinion, this dynamic fuels contention and ill will, and thus transracial adoption remains controversial. Even though they are hard to talk about, it is imperative that we figure out how to have open, honest conversations about race and about adoption.

If you’ve read this far and are still with me, I think you will find the rest of my work useful and my perspective informative. Remember, the ultimate goal for me is achieving lasting peace, which, in my view, can best be achieved through the quest for social justice and right relations.

Transracial adoption is an incredible privilege and an awesome responsibility. In the words of Tatanka Yotanka (also known as Chief Sitting Bull), “Let us put our minds together and see what life we shall make for our children.”

Places to go next:

My interview with BBC Radio on transracial adoption and what’s wrong with MEPA.

The conclusion to my dissertation about white adults who grew up with adopted Korean, biracial, or African American brothers and sisters.