Broken Links, Enduring Ties: American Adoption Across Race, Class, and Nation

Linda J. Seligman joins a number of sociologists, historians and anthropologists tracking in some detail the “kinds of families and communities” emerging from the practice of transracial and transnational adoption (p. 1). Studies of adoption tend to follow the same divisions as the practice itself; scholars study domestic OR transational adoption, or they study adoptions from one sending nation. Seligman casts her net more widely. She interviewed thirty families with children adopted from China, fifteen with children adopted from Russia, and twenty interracial families created by domestic transracial adoption; African American children adopted by white adoptive parents.  This willingness to cross national lines in imagining her research framework makes this a distinctive and valuable contribution to an increasing volume of contemporary adoption studies.

How do American adoptive parents make decisions about where they want to adopt children?  What kind of associations do prospective parents have with particular places?  These are especially important questions in the adoption world, because, as Seligman notes, in adoption “places acquire heightened importance because they substitute for another kind of rootedness”  (p. 85).

It is possible, actually even tempting, to argue that adoptive parents, who form the bulk of Seligman’s research sample, have had more than their share of airtime on the topic of adoption.  It is certainly a truism that of all the points on adoption’s triad, the voices and perspectives of adoptive parents voices far eclipse the perspective of birth parents and adoptees.  This holds in the scholarly world, in journalism, in popular culture; in short, everywhere.  Of course this is changing, thanks to the work of organized and active adoptees and birth parents (predominately mothers of course).  But in general it could hardly be said that adoptive parents have been marginalized or silenced in public commentary on adoption, and this is of course why the public commentary still leans towards a simplistic binary of kidnap versus rescue.  And rescue predominates.

But what remains useful in Seligman’s account is the way in which the actual experience of adoption can help to move adoptive parents away from these cardboard, one dimensional stereotypes, towards more sophisticated understandings.  The experience of incorporating a child from China into their families, she argues, sometimes helps to “challenge preconceptions” adoptive parents, as well as other Americans, held about China (p. 103).  More sophisticated still were the white families with Black children, adopted domestically.  To quote one of her informants:  “raise a black child and you lose whiteness: you are not and never will again be white, not white in that raceless, taken-for-granted way you used to be” (p. 157).

Seligman has a sense of the big picture, and individual stories like these are always contextualized within a larger story of race and class hierarchies.  While Seligman pays less attention than she might to the profound ironies of contemporary U.S. multiculturalism – the cultural embrace of the adoptive baby at the same time as the rejection of the adult immigrant – her awareness of the contemporary racial landscape in the United States makes the stories of adoptive parents that much more interesting, and occasionally, heartening.

Two chapters of this book stand out.  One concerns the narratives adoptive parents create for their children.  The other chapters concerns adopted children themselves, in their teenaged or young adult selves.  Whatever narratives adoptive parents wish to create: simplistic, or complex, defensive or open, these are temporary worlds.  Adoptive children grow up to create their own origin stories.  These are the stories that are coming to the fore in diverse scholarly, cultural, and popular forms.  They are the stories that will eventually make anthropological interest in adoptive parents take a back seat, while the recipients of these new experiences of family of this generation assume center stage.

Karen Dubinsky, Queen’s University

Seligman, Linda J. Broken Links, Enduring Ties:  American Adoption Across Race, Class, and Nation. Stanford University Press, 2013. Read more at Stanford University Press. 


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