A Review of Race and the Violence of Love: Family and Nation in U.S. Adoptions from Asia, by Kit Myers
Recent scholarship documents how adoption can no longer be considered an act of humanitarianism or child saving. In his dissertation, Race and the Violence of Love: Family and Nation in U.S. Adoptions from Asia, Kit Myers explores the complexities of adoption as a modern form of family formation. Drawing from critical ethnic and adoption studies scholarship, Myers exposes how adoption is a process of family formation fraught with tension. His focus on the adoption of children from Asia by white adoptive parents provides a foundation to consider how three types of violence—structural-historical, representational (symbolic), and traumatic—impact the actors involved in adoption. Race, love, and violence are mutually constituted and imbricated in the lived experiences of adoptees and adoptive parents as well as throughout the act of adoption. His analysis exposes the inherent violence that generates the conditions of adoption, exists during the adoption process, and manifests itself following adoption completion. Violence is no longer the singular act of birth parents’ relinquishment of a child; rather, violence is part and parcel with the internal and external reasons fueling relinquishment, the adoption process, and post-adoption experience.
Chapter One, “The New Normal: Positively Defining (Adoptive) Motherhood and Family,” considers Korean and Vietnamese transnational/racial adoptions from the 1970s through the ’90s. This time period marks the normalization of adoptions from Asia as part of the new transracial adoption status quo occurring in the United States in the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century. Coinciding with this rise of international adoptions from Asia, Myers notes the deployment of positive adoption language (PAL) and respectful adoption language (RAL) by adoption professionals as well as social welfare outcome studies documenting the success of adoptees. PAL and RAL aim to normalize the relationship between adoptive parent and adoptee. In his analysis of both forms of language, Myers argues that this type of language overlooks and privileges the adoptive family over the birth family. By focusing on the primacy of the adoptive parents’ relationship with the adoptee, mothers of color are pathologized as less worthy. PAL and RAL overlook the conditions that generate adoptable children in an effort to legitimate the adoptive family. Working in conjunction with one another, PAL/RAL and outcome studies establish a particular narrative that recognizes adoption as an act of unconditional love—a process that also removes adoptees from potential violence.
Building upon his discussion of adoption normalization, Chapter Two, “Opposite Futures for the Orphan in (Neoliberal) Adoption Discourse and Law,” considers how legislation impacts adoption practices with a close analysis of the 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Intercountry Adoption. The Hague Convention aims to regulate international adoption and provide safeguards to protect the individual child’s best interests. Focusing on the 1990s and 2000s, Myers grounds this particular line of inquiry in an exploration of how neoliberalism shapes post-racial and color-blind adoption discourse. He utilizes the 2011 episode from NBC drama Harry’s Law, “American Girl,” as a site to understand the impact of the Hague Convention on adoption practices and biological family preservation. The episode focuses on a custody hearing between Mr. and Mrs. Chen, the infant’s biological parents from China and Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, an African American couple in the United States. The judge presiding over the case is a transracial, African American adoptee with white parents. By presenting the judge as a successful, well-adjusted adoptee, the episode also highlights the potentials for adoption as an act that offers a better alternative than one’s life prior to adoption. The episode appeals to viewers’ beliefs in a loving, multicultural adoptive family. His examination exposes how mainstream society considers adoptions from China and Asia, more broadly, through a reductive lens of the one-child policy. Consequently, Myers concludes the Hague Convention is a tool to ensure adoptive parents’ satisfaction with the adoption process and not the best interests of the child.
Interested in disrupting the linear adoption narrative, Chapter Three, “Reifying ‘Real’ Families in Popular Adoption Discourse,” investigates the popular narratives of transnational/racial adoption through an exploration of The New York Times “Relative Choices: Adoption and the American Family” multi-author blog series. Examining the comments generated by the blog content, Myers argues that the commentators generate a new source of knowledge outside of dominant discourse constructed by adoption professionals/practitioners, government officials, and legal scholars. Myers unearths the unmarked violence of language utilized by adoptive parents in their desires for legibility as a valid family formation. This traumatic violence is exposed when the linear adoption narrative is dismantled. No longer are adoptees’ biological families erased nor is the trauma that positive adoption language or respectful adoption language negates and displaces with its focus on adoption as the best option.
Chapter Four, “‘Birth Culture’ and ‘Critical Adoption Perspective’: Desires and Pedagogies to Address the Violence of Adoption,” discusses the positive impact of critical adoptee pedagogy in reshaping mainstream narratives of adoption. Myers conducted an ethnographic analysis and interviews of an Adoptee Camp over three summers in 2006, 2008, and 2010 and an examination of online videos and website of heritage camps in the United States. He examines how birth culture camps and the Adoptee Camp foster dialogue concerning racial, ethnic, and cultural identities to varying degrees of openness. According to Myers, birth culture camps present adoptees a “safe” and sanitized perspective of their birth culture. In contrast, the Adoptee Camp deploys, what he terms, critical adoptee pedagogy, which is transformative and offers new possibilities to discuss the complexities of the adoptee experience and recognizes the violence inherent to adoption.
Race and the Violence of Love demonstrates the complications concerning love and violence that are obscured in linear adoption narratives of humanitarianism and child-saving. Myers presents counter-narratives and foregrounds alternative understandings to adoption—perspectives of birth parents and critical adoptee pedagogy. In doing so, he locates how the adoption process is a political act, embedded in global-historical, violent histories. This study joins existing scholarship in the field of Adoption Studies that disrupts linear narratives of adoption from Asia, including Catherine Ceniza Choy (Global Families: A History of Asian International Adoption in America, New York: New York University Press, 2013), Sara Dorow (Transnational Adoption: A Cultural Economy of Race, Gender, and Kinship, New York: New York University Press, 2006), Heather Jacobson (Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference, Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 2008), Kim Park Nelson (Invisible Asians: Korean American Adoptees, Asian American Experiences and Racial Exceptionalism, Camden: Rutgers University Press, Forthcoming), and Soojin Pate (From Orphan to Adoptee: U.S. Empire and Genealogies of Korean Adoption, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).
Assistant Professor, Department of Liberal Studies
Grand Valley State University
“American Girl,” Season 2 Episode 7. Harry’s Law. NBC Drama. Nov. 9, 2011.
International Relations. Implementation of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. 106th Cong. 1st Sess., October 20, 1999.
Online videos and websites of adoptee heritage camps.
Participant observation and interviews with staff at Adoptee Camp in 2006, 2008, 2010.
Relative Choices: Adoption and the American Family. The New York Times. 2007, http://relativechoices.blogs.nytimes.com/.
University of California, San Diego. 2013. 324 pp. Primary Advisors: Yen Le Espiritu and Denise Ferreira da Silva.
Image: word cloud created by dissertation author