A Social Justice Framework for Adoption

ADOPTERISM [uh-dop-ter-iz-hum] (n.): The invisible box surrounding the adoption triad that positions adoptees, adoptive parents, and first families in opposition to one another.


~Laura Klunder, “Adopteephobia,” Gazillion Voices (March 5, 2014)


Reframing Adoption within Adopterism and Adopteephobia


Adopterism is the structural power dynamic in which adopters have access to power and privilege, and families of origin and adoptees are positioned as targets of intimate, institutional, and systemic violence. Adopterism is a symptom of multiple and intersecting oppressions including racism, classism, genderism, and ableism. Within the system of adopterism, adoptees are denied access to birth records, under the guise of protecting the privacy of first families, thus positioning adoptees and families of origin in competition with one another. Moreover, adopterism isolates adoptees from one another through internalized and structural adopteephobia, the irrational fear and hatred of adoptees. Adopterist policies and practices allow for the irreversible loss of language, culture, and families of origin for transracial, transnational adoptees. Adopterist beliefs suggest that adoptees and families of origin may be institutionalized, or subjected to, or become perpetrators of violent crimes, such as rape and murder, if not for adoption. Adopteephobia–the pervasive, restrictive, and deadly set of assumptions that uphold a system of discrimination targeting adoptees–is a weapon of adopterism that targets adoptees. While adoptees and families of origin are the targets of violence within adopterism, all members of the adoption triad, including adopters, are dehumanized by adopterism.


Adoptee Identities and Experiences within Adopterism


We had an objective that was seen as radical at the time—to stop Korean adoption and replace it with alternatives that prioritized family preservation and empower the women and families who were being forced to relinquish their children because they lacked the kinds of options that would have enabled them to do otherwise. We debated about that objective, because we found early on that it was hard for people to hear anything we said after the word “stop”.


~Jenny Na, “A place to ASK,” Celebrating ASK: 10 Years of Adoptee Solidarity (June 21, 2014)


Adopterism denies adoptees and families of origin the right to define themselves outside of adopterist representations of the adoption experience. Adopterism reduces complex understandings of adoptees to the limited terms of adopteephobic language. For example, adoptees are often divided into false binaries such as good or bad, happy or angry, successful or criminal. Critical discourse about adoption has been entrenched in adopterist dichotomies of pro- or anti- adoption that has divided adoptee communities and interfered with solidarity efforts to finding solutions to the root causes of adoption. Adoptees and families of origin who critique adoption may be assumed to be anti-adoption, and dismissed as angry, sick, and wrong within a culture of adopterism. As such, people who were adopted may disidentify with adoptee identities and experiences due to internalized, restrictive adopterist and adopteephobic attitudes and beliefs towards adoptees. Within a system of adopterism, which positions adoptive families and cultures as superior to families and cultures of origin, adoptees may reject relationships with other adoptees and adoptee communities. Because adopterism is invisible to adopters, adopters may interpret adoptees’ behavior as an individual issue, rather than a reflection of adopterist socialization that reward adoptees’ participation in adopterism with temporary access to housing, healthcare, education, employment, and interpersonal relationships contingent upon adoptees’ collusion with adopterism. In such cases, adopterism not only inhibits individual adoptee identity development, adopterism is also a barrier to healthy adoptive family development. Adopters may insist that the adoptee has an attachment disorder, rather than understanding the challenges with bonding as a symptom of adopterism.


Adoptee Solidarity as an Interruption to Adopterism


ASK will continue to ask difficult questions and seek not just answers, but understanding. I used to say that one day I hoped that there would no longer be a need for ASK because our work would be over. I don’t think that anymore. As long as adoptees return to Korea, live here, and make ourselves known among Koreans, there will be a need for our solidarity.


~Kim Stoker, “What does it mean to ASK?,” Celebrating ASK: 10 Years of Adoptee Solidarity (June 21, 2014)


In Spring 2004, Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK) was founded by a group of Korean American adoptees, and became the first politicized overseas Korean adoptee organization in Korea. Over the past ten years, Adoptee Solidarity Korea has interrupted adopterism by reframing the conversation to include adoptees and first families, and provided leadership to adoption communities worldwide on issues of family preservation for single parent and poor families, access to birth records for adoptees, and inclusive and accessible mental health services for adoptees. ASK is the only adoptee organization in Korea that operates as a steering committee, a horizontal leadership model that is consistent with feminist principles of access and inclusion, in direct contrast to practices of exclusion that target adoptees and first families. Within the context of adopterism, the organization and individual steering committee members’ voices have been marginalized, in addition to being targeted by threats of violence, queer-phobic slurs, and actively excluded from decision-making for policies and practices that impact adoptees. As such, adoptee friendships, adoptee community building, and adoptee cultural productions, which facilitate adoptee empowerment, are crucial to resisting the violence of adopterism, targeting adoptees and first families, and liberating all members of the adoption triad. Adoptee solidarity is not only an outcome goal that is defined by the struggle against adopterism. Rather, adoptee solidarity is a continuous, conscious act of love for all people and communities fighting to maintain their humanity within the violent context of racism, classism, genderism, and ableism.


Note: Adopterism and adopteephobia are new terms for understanding the structural power dynamics of adoption. In my service to Adoptee Solidarity Korea (ASK), I have learned that articulating adopterism and adopteephobia is essential to engaging all members of the adoption triad to increase awareness about the violent power dynamics of racism, classism, genderism, and ableism that manifest through adopterist and adopteephobic policies and practices. I first defined adopterism and adopteephobia in Gazillion Voices, Issue 8, March 5, 2014.


~ Laura Klunder