Transracial adoption (also known as inter-racial adoption) refers to adoptions that occur across racial boundaries. At the level of biology, no adoption is transracial because race is a meaningless category; however, because race is socially significant, transracial adoption remains a controversial method of family formation.
In the United States, much of this controversy centers on the two streams that feed transracial adoption. Adoption itself is one such stream: Why are children placed for adoption? Adoption solves the problem of infertility for so many people, yet it is not just a solution but also an indicator of a larger social problem, for its need results from forces and policies that push women into giving birth to babies that they cannot rear. Consequently, countries with good social services, readily available and culturally accepted contraception means, safe and legal abortion, and support for single mothers have the lowest adoption rates. For example, in 2005, only 48 domestic nonstepchild adoptions took place in Norway.
Racism is the other stream: More women of color than white women are forced to relinquish their children. This is best illustrated by the over-representation of children of color in the U.S. foster care system: In 2005, almost 60 percent of U.S. children served in foster care were minorities. One driving force for this is poverty, specifically a lack of access to contraception, abortion, and the resources to rear children. However, it is not just that people of color are more likely to be poor. Many still face the remnants of institutionalized discrimination and lack the resources to overcome the resultant disadvantages, and thus a much greater percentage are found living in poverty than is the case among whites. In fact, U.S. Census data indicate that, whereas approximately 8 percent of whites are poor, more than 20 percent of both the black and Hispanic communities are similarly impoverished. Consequently, race and poverty work together to push and pull children of color out of their families of origin and to limit the number of racially similar families able to absorb them. As such, children of color are disproportionately available for adoption, and white middle-class families disproportionately have the wherewithal to adopt.
This phenomenon also operates at the global level, with the children of greatest poverty disproportionately found among the darker children of the world. Among families formed by adoption that crosses any color line, it is almost always children of darker skin going to lighter-skinned parents. For example, in 2006, children of color represented approximately 80 percent of the “orphans” relinquished by the top five sending nations (China, Guatemala, Russia, South Korea, and
Ethiopia, respectively) and adopted by (mostly white) U.S. families. Yet, unlike the domestic adoption of black children by white families, in most cases of international adoption, the children are perhaps less valued but not racially disvalued. In other words, while international adoptees are not white, they usually are not black either. Oftentimes, it is this almost-whiteness that makes international adoption, particularly the adoption of children from Asian nations, so appealing for American would-be adopters.
When navigating the streams and controversies of domestic transracial adoption, most Americans take one of three positions on these placements. The first position advocates for color blindness in adoption, meaning the random assignment of children available for adoption to potential adoptive parents. Given the current demographics of adoption, this position would result in some black families ending up with white children, more white families with black children, and some families accidentally “matched.” The second position encourages moderate race matching in adoption, as long as a same-race match can be arranged in a timely manner. The third position promotes only race matching in adoption. Most often this position develops in response to the cultural and structural intricacies of racism, not out of ideologies of racial purity or separatism.
The most famous articulation of this third position can be found in the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) 1972 statement against transracial adoption, which decreed that the history and existence of white racism require race matching for black children. According to the NABSW, these children need the support and socialization of black families just as much as the black community needs to maintain and sustain its children and families. Yet, in contrast to the whitening processes of international adoption, the transracial adoption of black children appears predicated on the children returning in adulthood to the black community. In fact, one of the definitions of success in these placements is the formation of an appropriate (i.e., black) racial identity. Significantly, data indicate that transracially adopted black children and adults tend to meet this measure; most do well psychologically and socially, and most develop strong identities as black Americans.
Research also indicates that white people raising black children in America, whether they have given birth to them or adopted them, need assistance from the black community. However, participating in, or even just being supportive of, transracial adoption inevitably puts one in an impossible situation. Placing a child or helping the family formed by transracial adoption implicitly supports the formation of such families. One issue is whether such actions encourage the removal of black children from the black community. The adoptive family and particularly the child do need support, but the circumstances creating such a situation also require attention and correction. In this way, transracial adoption is a Band-Aid resolution that calls out for a more satisfactory solution.
- Fogg-Davis, Hawley. 2002. The Ethics of Transracial Adoption. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Kennedy, Randall. 2003. Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption. New York: Pantheon.
- Rothman, Barbara Katz. 2005. Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption. Boston: Beacon Press.
- Simon, Rita J. and Howard Altstein. 2000. Adoption across Borders: Serving the Children in Transracial and Intercountry Adoptions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Smith, Janet Farrell. 1996. “Analyzing Ethical Conflict in the Transracial Adoption Debate: Three Conflicts Involving Community.” Hypatia 11(2):1-21.
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