Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship

By Cohen, Frayda | Anthropological Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship


Cohen, Frayda, Anthropological Quarterly


From 1945 through 2004, the number of intercountry adoptions in the United States increased steadily as families increasingly considered ways to expand outside of biological relations. Initially, this phenomenon was linked to a more sentimentalized vision of childhood and the social chaos amid the aftermath of World War II. Although some postwar adoptees were of Japanese descent, most were of European descent and could be accepted as a "natural" part of the family. Two US organizations, the League for Orphan Victims in Europe (LOVE) and the American Joint Committee for Assisting Japanese-American Orphans, helped to create an infrastructure to address the needs of orphaned children, many of whom were fathered by US soldiers.

Beginning in 1955, transracial adoptions began to take offas Korea, also recovering from the social chaos of war, placed more children for intercountry adoption than any other country. Despite these overwhelming trends, the last several years have seen the numbers of adoptions decline from a high of 22,991 in 2004 to only 11,058 in 2010.1 Also changed are the rationale for adoption, the countries sending children out for adoption, United Nations' and state legislation, and popular and scholarly understandings of adoption. Kristi Brian's compelling new book, Reframing Transracial Adoption: Adopted Koreans, White Parents, and the Politics of Kinship, focuses on "one form of transracial/transnational adoption-the adoption of Korean children by white American parents" (6). Known as Korean-American Adoption (KAA), this form of adoption has declined in numbers since the 1990s but has still resulted in 160,000 Korean children being placed in US families, most of whom are white. In interviews, Brian asks participants involved in the adoption process about how they navigate US understandings of race and kinship, and offers her reflections on the "formerly overshadowed and silenced participants" in this "quiet migration" (18).

Over the last decade, scholars of intercountry adoption have analyzed adoption through post-colonial relationships, cultural identity, and understandings of race and power (e.g., Eng 2003, Volkman 2005, Dorow 2006, Kim 2010). Noting that "adoptive kin making in the United States must always contend with racialized social policies and legislation" (17), Brian utilizes a critical race feminist methodology that promises to probe the "micro level to better understand their dialectical relationship with social structures and hierarchies at the macro level" (16) and the ways in which "certain knowledge has been subjugated within adoption practices and discourse" (17). Brian lays bare the structural inequalities inherent in the transnational practice of KAA, including the "new racism of today...that preserves white supremacy in a mostly 'kinder and gentler' way" (175). Reframing Transracial Adoption ultimately argues that the "history of overseas adoption from Korea, which began with the lure of 1950s American prosperity, will hopefully come to a close through collaborative efforts to move beyond histories of denial, racialized rescue missions, and the privatization of the family" (176).

Brian effectively analyzes the inherently political act of family building. In Chapter 1, she describes why adoption matters and also addresses the "matters" of adoption. Keeping the focus on KAA, she provides an important and comprehensive overview of the history of this form of transracial and transnational adoption. Beginning in the 1950s, Henry Holt institutionalized his child rescue mission rooted in notions of Christian salvation and the perceived "best interests" of children devastated by war and related catastrophe. These salvation narratives, combined with Holt's charisma, patriotism, and "New World optimism," led him to found an adoption agency and establish the formal networks that would enable the transfer of children from Korea to the US (13). KAA was made popular at a time in which the stigma of unwed motherhood, and the lack of reproductive services constituted an "adoption mandate. …

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