Adoption & Slavery
by JS LEE
I understand adoption trauma on both the personal and systemic levels. I’ve shared intimate details of my own experience and have written extensively on how society overlooks the harms of adoption—from identity fractures and high suicide rates to child trafficking, abuse, and murder. The industry is also racist, classist, sexist, and ableist. While I believe there are good adoptive parents and healthy adoptions, I’d like to see the current system abolished and replaced with a non-profit system that provides family preservation resources, kinship care, and legal guardianship as a last resort. Removing profit from the equation would result in less procured children “in need”. Choosing guardianship over adoption would maintain the child’s identity and legal rights post-placement.
It’s painful to have our truth ignored. People have witnessed me speaking about adoption for over a decade, yet they still discuss adoption as a beautiful, simplistic solution. Many believe parenting is a human right and aren’t interested in the rights of others involved—including the children they say need saving. Facts are denied. We’re gaslit and pathologized. It’s tiring and infuriating.
At the same time, I’ve been noticing a growing trend of White and Asian adoptees comparing adoption to American slavery. I subtweeted about it last week and want to elaborate further.
Let’s start with what they might have in common:
In intercountry adoption, as minors, we’re taken from our countries without our consent. Our roots are severed; our identity, fractured. We’re forced to assimilate for survival as we’re disconnected from our families, history, language, and culture. White folks have taken Black and Indigenous children from their families and homes from the onset of this country’s colonization. And many adult adoptees—domestic and same race, included—have shared numerous accounts of emotional, sexual, and other egregious abuse. Too many have not survived.
But here’s why I don’t think adoption should be compared to American slavery:
The adoption industry was not designed to provide our adopters with free labor, nor was it developed to strip our people of generational power through a deficit of human rights—despite how in some ways, it may. Our bodies and the bodies of our offspring and their offspring are not the legal property of our adopters. While, horrifically, some don’t survive their adoption, most do and are free to live their own lives when they come of age. I’m not saying it’s easy or without lifelong effects. I’m still struggling with the aftermath of mine. But there’s no “adoptee patrol” or system in place to round up adults who cut ties with our adopters. Moreover, abusing a child can result in severe repercussions. In contrast, abusing Black American slaves was legal. Chattel slavery was devised specifically to oppress generations of one race of people. I believe we can do better without, but if we need an analogy, adoptees being placed in abusive households is closer to indentured servitude. The difference matters.
The Irish were indentured servants and many White folks still claim it was slavery, too—despite it having been debunked numerous times. While terrible things have happened that shouldn’t have, it’s incomparable to the slavery of Black Americans. The majority of Irish Americans are White and as a people, they haven’t been systemically and violently oppressed in America for hundreds of years. They’re not locked up en masse today, or killed by cops at anywhere near the same rate of Black Americans. And neither are non-Black adoptees.
Adoption is full of grave injustices. I am angry at how it has hurt—and continues to hurt—so many. However, comparing it to chattel slavery is offensive and the inaccuracy distracts from our cause. Our experiences needn’t be crudely analogized to be valid and real. While it’s frustrating to keep speaking into the void, there are better ways for adoptee trauma to be heard. Co-opting the suffering of Black Americans is not the answer.