Examining the Faces of Transnational and Transracial Adoption

Posted: February 16, 2009 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Man carrying child on shoulders
Mason anthropologist Linda J. Seligmann is interested in the way adopted families fit into and change American culture.

By Tara Laskowski

People face any number of decisions and complications when adopting a child. Beyond the most basic of decisions — whether or not to become a parent and raise another human being — they make more subtle choices, such as where to adopt a child and how to create the conditions for their child to feel part of their family.

Linda Seligmann
Linda Seligmann
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Linda J. Seligmann, a Mason professor of anthropology and the parent of an adopted daughter herself, is interested in the way adopted families fit into and change American culture.

Specifically, she has been doing research on transnational and transracial adoption, looking at families that adopt children from other countries such as China and Russia and nonblack families that adopt black children within the United States.

Seligmann and her husband adopted their daughter from China nine years ago. It was after this very personal life decision that Seligmann, a long-time researcher of Latin American cultures, decided to slightly change her career’s focus as well.

“I became aware of the kinds of assumptions that people in the U.S. carry around with them about family formation and adoption processes,” she says. “I wanted to explore these attitudes and also look at the different ways people form connections and cross-cultural boundaries.”

A Cultural Choice

You may have seen a movie or a TV show in which the birth mother of an adopted child comes back to “haunt” the adopted family and wants to take the child back.

Seligmann says that it is these stories, conveyed in a sensational and anxiety-provoking way by the media over and over again, that can often be at the heart of why some families choose to adopt children overseas.

“There’s a sense that it’s far enough away that there will be no ties or complications,” she says. “People are attracted to the fact that these countries are so distant geographically.”

There are also nuances in a couple’s choice of a specific country from where to adopt. In her extensive research interviewing families who have adopted children from both China and Russia, Seligmann has noted some fascinating differences.

Woman holding baby
Families who adopt from China usually try to preserve the child’s heritage.

Families who adopt from China usually adopt a girl. They often try to preserve their daughter’s heritage and encourage her to learn about her country of origin.

They bring trinkets and keepsakes back from China and convey a somewhat romantic and exotic image of China to her through their stories. They may encourage her to learn Chinese or participate in traditional Chinese dance. These cultural objects and activities substitute for the lack of information they have about their child’s early family history.

In contrast, those who adopt from Russia are more interested in blending their families and cultures.

Though the parents might have some tie to Russia — they may have ancestors who lived there or have once taken a Russian language class — they are more likely to place an emphasis on multiculturalism.

“Parents see the country as just part of their hyphenated identity,” Seligmann says. “They want a more normative family model and want their child to blend in and not be asked questions all the time.

Adopting Across Racial Boundaries

Despite the increase in transnational adoption in America, Seligmann points out that the rates of transracial adoption from within the United States, specifically of nonblack families adopting black children, have increased only slightly.

Her research has illuminated an interesting cultural history of both obstacles and milestones.

In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers issued a statement arguing that the placement of black children with nonblack families was a kind of cultural genocide.

“They believed that the children would grow up without the weapons for racial navigation in a society that had deep roots of institutionalized racism,” says Seligmann.

In African-American culture, there is a strong sense of informal “kin-care” that traces back many decades.

If the parents of a child are unable to care for that child for any reason, a family member often steps up and takes responsibility — a kind of informal adoption. Nevertheless, within the foster care system, “the adoption rates of black children have remained consistently lower than those of other racial/ethnic groups,” states Seligmann.

Many parents who adopt transracially have recognized that their children need to be capable of defending themselves.

Because of this, Seligmann has found that these parents have increasingly pursued “open” adoption that takes many different forms. Practices similar to informal kin-care extend to the new family, and the family of origin will often play a role of some kind in raising the child.

In her research, for example, she has seen white families adopt an African-American child and have frequent contact with the child’s family of origin, even to the point of breaking out of one’s comfort zone to attend black churches, black beauty parlors and extended family functions.

“For the first time in their life, many of them are trying to form new kinds of communities and crossing racial borders,” says Seligmann. “This is not a revolutionary change, but it is emergent, and you can see it.”

New Kinds of Families

With the rise of the Internet, the availability of information and social networking related to the adoption process is greater than ever.

Hundreds of organizations help families of origin and adoptive families gather information and find support. Listservs allow parents to ask fellow parents questions or sympathize with problems, and e-mail allows for quick access to folks around the world.

Seligmann has done fieldwork with one group of families that adopted children from China at the same time.

Those families stayed in touch through e-mail, got together for play dates when they could and formed their own bonded group. So much so, says Seligmann, that when one of the single mothers in the group got sick with cancer, she turned over guardianship of her child to one of the other families in the group.

While this is a dramatic example, Seligmann says that these families now operate in a global community.

Through their behavior, they are redefining the traditional boundaries that structure membership to a family in the United States.

The “rules” of social contact are changing. Children from the same orphanage often see themselves as siblings. Parents who adopt at the same time form their own long-distance friendships and come to see themselves as extended family members. Families are beginning to break down barriers of segregation between neighborhoods and activity spaces in small ways.

Seligmann finds this exciting. However, she cautions that some of these novel arrangements are constrained by laws, the activities of adoption brokers and by class.

Most who adopt transnationally are upper middle-class; those who adopt transracially in the United States tend to be middle- or lower-class, or have been prevented from adopting internationally because of their sexual orientation.

Nevertheless, she says that there are noteworthy changes in how people think about families in the United States today.

“It’s an amazing series of connections, very different from what we would imagine as notions of family,” says Seligmann.

“Children growing up today are more apt to be comfortable with different kinds of family formation, including those formed through transnational and transracial adoption.”

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