Adoption’s Article of Bad Faith

Manifold disclosures about the unethical and immoral practices of those trafficking in human children now make clear the systemic, not merely idiosyncratically aberrant, character of those ethical and moral violations. [1]

My adoptive parents paid for a white baby, but they didn’t get one—as 10.4% of my genetic heritage makes clear in its tracing back to sub-Saharan heritage. Had I been born back in West Virginia among my historical people, I’d’ve been labelled “colored”.

However, my adoptive parents’ reasons (or worse, their feelings) for seeking adoption matters less in this analysis than the structural existence of the means that manufactured their desire to adopt. And just as the history of international adoption from Korea makes abundantly clear, the “back-end” of that process discloses a veritable shit-storm of contradictions to the “front-end” discourse of family building, love (feeling in general), &c. Whether my Hispanic (i.e., Spanish and Apache) adopted father, who had married a Caucasian woman (herself adopted), explicitly wanted a “white” baby or not, that was what the system claimed to parcel out in general.

The resort to international adoption must have numerous influencing factors,[2] but if we stay with an eye on the domestic market, then clearly “babies who can pass as white” will be a desirable, though maybe not plentiful, part of that market. From a student’s thesis about the Chestnut Ridge people (“my people”) that I read recently, the author carefully allowed the social construct of race (rather than any genetic basis) to direct her analysis. In other words, people who outside of their local, historical context would not have been called “colored” were labelled as such. The author examines the tax rolls and shows how tax roll personnel would actually change the racial designation of people over the years; people previously “white” would become some category of “colored” (and then might, in the future, return to “white” again). These changes were, in part, due to increasing paranoia by Caucasians about race; so much so that such “colored” people by the 1930s had a whole repertoire of denials (specifically about African origins), even though their own ancestors had unabashedly and openly practiced interracial life-making.

Poverty—all the more so when imposed systematically—manufactures orphans, and the area my people come from continues to be poor; in West Virginia, one county away from one of the loci of the Chestnut Ridge people, is the poorest county in that second poorest state in the national (second only to Mississippi). Thus, it comprises structurally a fertile ground out of which would be generated adoptable babies, i.e., apparently white ones. This will become even truer for those who left the area. As the thesis author notes, people unmistakably white in appearance were labelled “colored” (by tax assessors) simply by association, by the historically known cohabitations and associations that had begotten various “white” individuals.

Since the most famous genealogist of this group from that group set out to rigorously expunge from his lineage’s history all trace of African origin, his relocation to Spokane, Washington—I mean, his birth amongst descendants who had previously moved away from an area where their heritage was well-known—suggests that relocation for the sake of being “mistaken” for white might well have been a motive.[3] Structural features or forces like this help, then, to create (one of the many pools) of “acceptably white” babies that might supply the adoption industry domestically.

This shows how my adoptive father got defrauded and thus the fraudulence of the system generally all over again (if such proof is necessary). I do not propose this “revolutionizes” any understanding of systemic adoption, but rather fills in yet another niche (that I or we might have guessed existed, even evidence for it had not surfaced yet). Structurally, I think this discloses something that genetic testing is “good” for for orphans. Personally, it means that my awkwardness (as a “white guy participating here”) was misplaced; I might have suspected all along.[4]


[1] Once one assumes a demand exists, then no means to supply that demand gets taken off the table—only whether or not certain means remain publicly acknowledged or not. But even here, the distinction between heinously outright theft, dispossession, coercion, lying, or mere purchase of infants (i.e., the deliberately literal creation of orphans) by “individuals” contrasts with the “accidental creation” of orphans by structural features (like war, economically predatory international trade agreements, globalization, &c) only in degree. It echoes the observation: kill two people, you’re a murderer; kill 200,000, that’s foreign policy. And while it can be difficult to detect the “structural” element at work in the “individual” behaviour of the serial murderer or child-trafficker, this therefore requires simply more attention to those structural features, not any easier or lazier resort to “individual” explanations. So long as we talk about what individuals do, we implicitly argue that the fault lies with the practitioners of the structure, not the structure itself.

[2] I think it would be very interesting to study how Korean (or perhaps Asian) babies came to be a valid market product. I recently read a dissertation that traced the origin and rise of “fertility reduction programs” (aka “family planning), which found their first large-scale experimentation and implementation in Taiwan in 1963. While reading it, resonances between the “problem of fertility” and adoption (from Korea) tantalized me.

[3] I’m not blaming anyone for that motive, but the genealogist’s efforts to falsify his family history suggests perhaps he’d’ve done better to abandon the project.

[4] And happily something only ever in my head. No one ever made me feel unwelcome.

9 thoughts on “Adoption’s Article of Bad Faith

  1. I really like where this is going. So to paraphrase, you are asking : How has adoption become a manufactured desire and how does the system meet specific desires that exceed demand? How culpable are individuals who have been duped by such a system of manufactured desire?

    The Korean model (which was basically the template for future ICA), despite being set up as a post war humanitarian effort, still thrives today primarily because it was systemic and so efficient as to become a social institution. Some take issue with the characterization in this article (posted here:, but the accounts came from Mrs. Holt herself. Mr. Holt was a marketing genius, with a Mr. Smith goes to Washington-like persona, presenting himself as a simple country farmer with an every man heroic story. He lobbied to have the immigration laws changed so orphans could be brought over from other countries by a third party, and he convinced Korea’s Social Welfare Services it would be in their best interest to allow a foreign third party to streamline and expedite the export of children who did not meet the standards of Korean culture. The desire he manufactured was retrieving children of half American descent. And when that resource ran short, he expanded the desire to include children who were abandoned. When that resource ran short, he sought out poor women and encouraged/harassed them to relinquish their children for a “better” life. (see the linked article). And when abandonment dried up, he encouraged pregnant women to erase all evidence of their shame through relinquishment. While it may have started out with good intention, the ends increasingly justified any means, and that included switching the label on the snake oil.

    The labels continue to be changed today. The laws change, public attitudes are slowly changing, but the institution and its system remains. One example is healthy infants must stay in the country x number of months, and by that time they lose their infant appeal. But special needs children are eligible for foreign adoption after only a brief time. So the label of what constitutes “special needs” has changed. One thinks of special needs as highly needy, labor intensive, and costly children to care for. Yet many of the “special needs” infants are just low birth weight. Or an unnoticable deformity, etc. It wasn’t always that way. It changed. It changed as the laws regarding exporting orphans got tougher.

    I will liken this (simplistic, I know) to what is now conventional agriculture. Prior to WWII people didn’t have access to chemical fertilizer derived from fossil fuels. What it did for farmers whose fields were depleted from poor practices was nothing short of revolutionary. It was touted as the green revolution, and it was supposed to feed the world and end hunger and make farmers rich. But now the real price of this unnatural process has had over a half century to prove more problematic than beneficial. But most of the farmers are stuck, as they mortgaged their farms to be part of the system and they don’t know where to begin to switch back to something holistic and sustainable without hurting themselves, even though they worry about the effects their chemical use has on themselves and the planet.

    Adoption is like that system. It’s an institution; a system that has mechanisms for reinventing itself in perpetuity. and it has become almost too big to fail, being present in most struggling countries and . I don’t believe it will go away, either, because we’ve not come up with anything to replace it. Such work – holistic work – is slow. There is no magic revolutionary bullet to promote compassion, community and equality, etc. Until then we can at least point out, like you have, articles of bad faith.

    • I recently read (edited) a dissertation on the world’s first large-scale fertility reduction program (euphemistically referred to as family planning) in Taiwan. I won’t summarise the work, because it is very detailed and I’d err on the side of oversimplification, but while reading it I was at least struck some by the fact that the world’s first mass fertility program experiment occurred in Taipei, and the world’s premier international adoption program arose in Korea, both through U.S. intervention.

      I could reread the relevant portions of the thesis to answer “why in Taipei” for fertility reduction–some of the factors included a very well medically stocked city, with a relatively more educated populace than other “developing nations”–so why Korea for international adoption?

      The dissertation author goes to great lengths to show the “group” approach to the “problem”; whatever “individual” work was involved (and personalities, like John D. Rockefeller III, stick out as personalities), its very much about foundations, councils, and the like. With the Korea narrative, we hear primarily of singular heroic efforts.

      One factor your description suggests: a surplus of mixed babies. Is that correct? Simply that Korea had a lot of “children who did not meet the standards of Korean culture”? I can imagine different ways it is “Korea yes” and “Japan no” (and “Vietnam no”), but I’m sure there’s more at work. it could very well be that he looked around the world for a suitable market. But why not Taipei. (From the dissertation, I could hazard some reasons why: the Kuomintang generally opposed fertility control, because a burgeoning population was a sign of national vigour, and also a source of soldiers; so they were not inclined, during the Civil War phase, to limit production, and would not be inclined to “send children away” then either. Nonetheless, abortion was legal the entire period.)

      But maybe there’s a whole dissertation hiding in this as well that needs to be written to tease out all of the players, the bases of discourse, and the like. How totalitarian was the regime at the time; how much did it rule by fiat? That seems to have been a factor in Taipei.

      It took until approximately 1963 for a public major pilot study to demonstrate (more or less) proof of concept for mass fertility reduction in Taipei. This took changing political attitudes as well, in part because the threat of the “population bomb” had taken some root even in Taiwanese politicians who might otherwise oppose fertility reduction.

      An important link of this to what you’ve said elsewhere: the primary benchmarks for success were fertility reduction; women’s reproductive health and choices were generally overlooked in the implementation of the pilot and national program, even when both U.S. “population experts” and female Taiwanese gynaecologists raised questions about the real outcomes of the studies and the (patriarchal) criteria used to design and implement them.

      • It has always been the misfortune of Korea to be physically located at the crossroads of all East Asia, and also why it is an amalgam of influences and why they chose to barricade themselves from the rest of the world throughout history.

        Prior to WWII they were occupied by Japan. Upon liberation, something in the neighborhood of 300 citizens groups formed in the hopes of collectively supplanting the new government, which was lead by largely by former nobelmen who colluded with the occupying Japanese. The U.S., fearful that communism could take hold and always attempting to keep China in check, saw Korea (as it still does today) as strategic to promoting its interests in the region. And so, as civil war brewed, the U.S. threw their support behind the pro-democracy government and helped put down uprisings, while at the same time Russia and China sought to support the communist sympathizers, all of which blew up into what we know of today as the Korean Conflict. And the situation hasn’t changed much, as the conservative government in place today has direct lineage (or so I am told) of those same noble class turn-coats in power during and following the Japanese occupation.

        Of course, during and after the war many half breed babies were created and also of course, post war scenarios are good opportunities for Christian conversion ministry in the guise of charity, and which furthers cementing U.S. influence in a region. And then there is the Neo-Confucian factor as well. Neo-Confucianism was extreme and not unlike the Taliban in their rigidly codified social conventions, so outliers like mixed babies became a perfect tool and poster child for the benevolence of Western intervention.

        It was all these factors, coalescing at one time. And the underlying cultural legacy persists, making it easier to rationalize the disposal of imperfect children born of imperfect women in imperfect circumstances.

        I’m not familiar with Taiwanese history, but I’m guessing that the geo-political impact of intervention there is not as large as Korea’s was and still is.

  2. There’s a class issue here as well; with it we start to see perhaps the reasons that poor whites were targeted in Appalachia and in the deep South by the dominant culture (does anyone remember Hee Haw? L’il Abner?)…the unstated truth was that these “whites” were not “pure”.

    In Lebanon, where racism is much more overt—the Arabic word for “slave” is used as a synonym for “black”, for just one sad example—it was very disturbing to be told by the nuns at my orphanage that “you darker babies went to America” while “white(r)” babies went to Europe, which was more particular about its racial preference.

    I was always hard-pressed to explain why a covertly racist country like the United States would prefer “darker babies”. But now you have me thinking about it in terms of “breed” and “race”: The pure-bred is the desired product; the pure-bred wins out. America was known for producing “mutts”, and perhaps people wanted a product that was guaranteed “pure”? If I can’t get my choice, I’ll go with a pure-bred from the second tier….

    • One of the most fascinating parts of Finley’s (undergraduate) thesis centres on how people literally change from “white” to “colored” (or mulatto) and sometimes back again. In one case, she even identifies (if with all due caveats) that in one place the change was expressly due to a change in the tax assessor. People who were “white” prior to his tenure turned to “colored” during his tenure, and then went back to “white” after he left. So this shows that it is not just a matter of “self-reporting”.

      The author also makes clear that what I will call guilt by association was in play. Wilmore Male unambiguously cohabitated with a slave he purchased, and the cousins of his children would sometimes transmute from “white” to “colored”. However, the author suggests that Wilmore’s own brothers might have (at one time or another) had Black wives or live-ins as well. So, it might not be just “association” but folks “figuring it out”. However, for those approximately around Wilmore Male’s generation, they tended to live quite openly in their interracial circumstance, because racism hadn’t become such a pervasive feature yet of the region. Thus, it was later generations (the grandchildren of mixed-race parents) who especially started trying to re-write the narratives, but they had to do that because the stories were known.

      Some moved to Ohio, but the story followed. Descendants got told they had to join “colored” regiments that formed (once the Civil War kicked off). In West Virginia, “colored” descendants could still sometimes join “white” regiments, and not necessarily only because they could pass.

      Another detail which I know you will appreciate. The author traces what appears to be at times a distinct class element. According to another historian, there are three “sub-groups” of the CRP, and it is not too terribly wrong for me to label these: rich, middle class, and poor. To summarise both that historian and the thesis writer for you in my own words: the rich ones most completely acculturate to their dominant social milieu and even physically get somewhat separated from the others. The middle-class were a dicey bunch, but they tended to associate with the more well-to-do, until the era of moonshine: apparently they took to making moonshine (admittedly of a generally much higher quality than most “full whites” who did the same, and with, in fact, a great deal of care for their craft) but, as the other historian notes, this definitely lowered their good reputation in the eyes of other folks. Meanwhile, the poor were simply the poor and had dick coming.

      The thesis writer tracks several instances of preferential treatment for “colored” who had money and instances of not as much justice for “colored” who didn’t. It’s very hard to tell, from either historian’s work, how “hard” the glass ceiling was of acculturation. It is certainly the case that if you were rich enough (at times) you didn’t show up on the tax rolls as “colored”; although if an ideologue took over the job, that exemption might cease. One descendant, interviewed in the 1930s, reported that he paid “an extra one-dollar nigger-tax”, so this shows there could be a financial motive for designating someone “colored”. Doubtless, being well-to-do enough made you exempt from that, whether labelled “colored” or not.

      But I say all of this to build on your point that what mattered for international adopters in Lebanon: purity. Apparently from the pleasantly eugenic ring of that, the way I would fold it together with the CRP experience: it needn’t even be “purity”; it just needs to be unambiguous, i.e., known.

      The history of the one-drop rule makes it easy to forget that the anxiety involved there involves “not knowing”. In one of Faulkner’s greatest books, Light in August, even attentive commentators will sometimes constantly elide that Joe Christmas is mixed, not Black. The foaming, raging, often mind-boggling opposition of white supremacists in the South frequently and over and over again returns to the objection that Black males can’t sexually mingle with White females; I say the anxiety results not because the child is “black” but because he is (uncountably) “mixed”.

      So if I get a “darker” baby from Lebanon, I don’t have to be anxious about her being “mixed”. This makes international adoption from Korea even more fascinating, if the initial population was (unpassably?) mixed.

      I agree that perceived purity counts for a lot, as you note. I’m simply suggesting that what makes “purity” attractive is its knowability; and the people of West Virginia, for all that they were mixed, were in general certainly knowable by their local community members. This resulted in a lot of endogamy (or, less politely, inbreeding). One of my genetic relatives described her degrees of relatedness to one woman entirely in terms of fourth and more distant cousins, but she “reads” to the 23andMe software as a second cousins (i.e., more closely related). On one detail, she is actually a fifth cousins AND a sixth cousin from the same common ancestral pair. But part of that endogamy isn’t just “CRP folks keeping to themselves”; it also points to a reduction of breeding pool, because the surrounding “whites” know: “nope, not them” (even though many, if not most, look passably white. I say this but, meanwhile, there were plenty of other words (if mostly endogamous) who had absolutely no problem cohabitating with the knowably “impure”. Even in the 1930s, when Federal investigators first had cause to go amongst this community, passably white folk readily identified themselves as “colored” both as self-identifications (at times) or as identifications placed on them by others.

      Unfortunately, I’m likely related to one of the descendants who moved all the way to Washington, which I take as a sign of “we got to get away from where folks know us”–a descendant whose own descendant then authored the premier text denying African heritage in the CRP line (and his ancestors specifically). But it was that kind of move that made me “knowable” as “Irish, German, Welsh” without the African heritage. Given the Zeitgeist, to say nothing of things to come (in the 1930s), it’s no wonder CRP folk tried to drop their straightforward lack of an “issue” with “impurity”.

    • Daniel:

      An alternate to desiring a child of “second tier purity” may be a subconscious desire to posses and tame the feral, “exotic other” (this notion is packed with psycho-sexual themes).

  3. Snow Leopard:

    >Manifold disclosures about the unethical and immoral practices of those trafficking in human children now make clear the systemic, not merely idiosyncratically aberrant, character of those ethical and moral violations.<

    Once an organization or institution comes into being, ethics and morality tend to be supplanted by amoral policies, procedures and standards, and in such an environment/context, true "evil" arises and flourishes.

    "Racial purity" has been a longstanding theme in the US of A. In his day, Benjamin Franklin thought Germans to be an undesirable "swarthy" race.

    • Brent: I do not dispute the strands one may locate in US history (Occidental history) regarding a mania for races; Bernal in Black Athena traces the rise of committed ethnocentrism from 1750 onward.

      So if I mention a counter-discourse, it is not to annul that dominating history. But amongst the Chestnut Ridge people of West Virginia, one may clearly see an earlier (late-18th century) broad-based cultural acknowledgment and legitimacy to interracial mixing. This was so forthright that it became a problem for subsequent generations (around and beyond the US Civil War), precisely and only because the ancestors had been so forthright about it. Even as late as 1930 in the West Virginia area in question, visibly Caucasian people would readily identify as “colored”–primarily because the whole community knew them as or labelled them as colored. The forthrightness, in this case, may have been far more strained (or constrained) than in the case of the ancestors.

      Still, it seems that the question less involves “purity” (as I said to Daniel) and more to do with “knowability”. Whether you were white, colored, or mixed mattered less than people (on all sides) being able to know whether you were (labelled) white, colored, or mixed.

      Again, this doesn’t negate the strand of hard-core purist-desirers, but simply more widely contextualizes the muddled confrontation with race that US history exhibits.

      • Snow Leopard,

        Perhaps the CRP were somewhat isolated, like my ancestors out of Newman’s Ridge and Blackwater TN, with isolation both enabling and requiring admixing. It took “outsiders” to disrupt my ancestors’ lives, with color/race being significant and determining factors as to who did and could wield power, thus making “knowing” (not one’s own knowing, but the knowing of others) a key factor regarding one’s social, economic and political standing.

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