Belonging in an Adopted World: Race, Identity, and Transnational Adoption

August 19, 2010

We became the proud owners of a new dog a few weeks ago - a gorgeous golden retriever puppy with huge paws and a voracious appetite for shoes. Although he's our dog, I certainly didn't give birth to him, so I suppose technically he's adopted, but no one ever refers to him as our "adopted dog". Any child adopted by a celebrity, however, is almost always described in the media as their "adopted child".

The terrible truth is that children who are adopted seem to have a different value in society. I know of a case where a little girl with occasional mild behavioural difficulties - that is, she was little different from any other child - had the following explanatory note appended to her school record: "She is adopted!"

A colleague of mine adopted three siblings and thought it only wise to inform their school of their circumstances. The eldest had a little difficulty settling in and was labelled as having special needs, as was the youngest only a couple of years later. When the children were moved to a new school in a different area, their parents withheld the fact of their adoptive status. All three are now described by their school as high achievers.

Children are adopted for a variety of reasons, but the one thing they have in common is that they are really wanted and truly loved by their new parents. Other than that, they are no different from any other child. In many instances it is not immediately obvious that a child is adopted, especially if the parent and child share the same ethnicity. This is not the case when children are adopted from different ethnic backgrounds.

A friend of mine adopted two Latino children from the US. One child has fair skin, but the other has curly hair and dark skin. At a supermarket checkout one day, a woman called out to her, "Oi! Is your husband black?" To which my friend calmly replied, "No, but my lover is."

Barbara Yngvesson looks at the identity of the child in transnational adoption, and her focus is on children adopted from Africa, Asia and South America to Sweden. In a country where blonde hair and blue eyes are the norm, such children stand out as being different.

"Your child is so lucky," is a phrase adoptive parents frequently hear. But the truth is it's the adoptive parents who are lucky. People adopt because they want a child. It's as simple as that. But as Yngvesson argues, these children have another identity in addition to the one they have through their adopted family, which they have a right to know about.

She talks about a young woman adopted from Ethiopia to Sweden, who grew up in Sweden with Swedish parents and felt herself to be Swedish. Yet her "Ethiopian-ness" was always present, making her feel she had to prove herself.

This book is based on ethnographic research, and Yngvesson offers many fascinating snippets told by children adopted into different cultures. What they have in common is how they felt apart from their adoptive parents because of their ethnicity.

Yet nowadays many children who live with only one birth parent have a different ethnicity from that parent. She makes a poignant point towards the end of the book about how society values the "potency of blood", believing that children who live with their birth parents are alike in ways that children with adoptive parents can never be. Anyone who has siblings will know that this isn't true. But it does tell us the sad truth about the way adopted children are viewed.

Yngvesson provides an extensive ethnographic account of transracial adoption in Sweden in the language of anthropology. As a psychologist, I am bound to query the extent to which her conclusions can be generalised to other situations, and whether a more succinct approach would have allowed for more diverse content.

Belonging in an Adopted World: Race, Identity, and Transnational Adoption

By Barbara Yngvesson University of Chicago Press. 264pp, £39.00 and £13.00. ISBN 9780226964461 and 64478. Published 25 May 2010

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