Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America

Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America

Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America

Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America


Can White parents teach their Black children African American culture and history? Can they impart to them the survival skills necessary to survive in the racially stratified United States? Concerns over racial identity have been at the center of controversies over transracial adoption since the 1970s, as questions continually arise about whether White parents are capable of instilling a positive sense of African American identity in their Black children.

"[An] empathetic study of meanings of cross-racial adoption to adoptees"
Law and Politics Book Review, Vol. 11, No. 11, Nov. 2001

Through in-depth interviews with adult transracial adoptees, as well as with social workers in adoption agencies, Sandra Patton, herself an adoptee, explores the social construction of race, identity, gender, and family and the ways in which these interact with public policy about adoption. Patton offers a compelling overview of the issues at stake in transracial adoption. She discusses recent changes in adoption and social welfare policy which prohibit consideration of race in the placement of children, as well as public policy definitions of "bad mothers" which can foster coerced aspects of adoption, to show how the lives of transracial adoptees have been shaped by the policies of the U. S. child welfare system.

Neither an argument for nor against the practice of transracial adoption, BirthMarks seeks to counter the dominant public view of this practice as a panacea to the so-called "epidemic" of illegitimacy and the misfortune of infertility among the middle class with a more nuanced view that gives voice to those directly involved, shedding light on the ways in which Black and multiracial adoptees articulate their own identity experiences.


It's hard being adopted, in many ways…. I mean, when I was
in fourth grade—this is something that stays with me today
because my father is getting into it again—we had to do fam
ily trees. And I refused. And the teacher said, “Well, go home
and do the assignment at home.” And I remember being—I
mean there are very few moments I remember being upset
about school because I loved school, but I was upset about
this homework assignment. And my mom said to me, “Well,
we're your family now.” And I said, “But that's not my real
family.” [with anger] I mean I had this definite idea to have a
family tree you had to know—I mean, I had an idea of roots,
that you had to be able to trace it biologically. I mean, I knew
even at whatever age you are in fourth grade, at age nine.

—Lynn Praeger, twenty-nine-year-old transracial adoptee

Lynn's story about roots and family trees raises the question: What makes us who we are? How do we, lacking knowledge of our birth families, claim a history, a heritage, an ancestry in a social context that largely defines “real” kinship through “bloodlines”? The metaphor of roots resonates beyond the lives of adoptees. It assumes that identity—who we are—is shaped at least in part by who our ancestors were, whether we define that identity through blood, genes, culture, nature, biology, or nurture. The idea of roots is a powerful metaphor for connections between genealogy, history, family, race, and identity. Cultural studies scholar Julia Watson explains: “Genealogy specifies origin. Its fundamental assumption is categorical: Humans are defined by who and where we are . . .

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