A toddler walks towards a woman on the beach.

Why Race and Politics Play Major Roles in Transracial Adoptions

In a new profile, actor and director Lena Dunham mentions plans to adopt a child. The remarks by Dunham, who once said she was anti-racist because of “how badly [she] wanted to f**k Drake,” are an opportunity to reconsider transracial and international adoption politics (The Hollywood Reporter). 

To be clear, I’m not judging the intentions or parenting abilities of Lena Dunham, who didn’t specify wanting to adopt a child of a specific nationality or ethnicity. But adoptive parents, who are mostly white, adopt a non-white child four times out of ten. Many children arrive from other countries, as domestic “demand” for babies outpaces “supply” (WAIMH).

200,000 Korean children like me were mostly adopted by U.S. families (NBC News). Thousands came from countries including Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Thailand (Considering Adoption). We’re told our birth families and countries lacked the desire or means to take care of us, with the U.S. government and its families cast as charitable humanitarians and allies. But in adoption, politics, power, race, and war play central roles. 


Donate to reproductive justice and feminist organizations in the Global South like Fondo MARIA* (donate), the Institute for Women Migrants (donate), and the Global Pediatric Alliance.

Support the Adoptee Citizenship Act to ensure all international adoptees get citizenship.

Follow Nodutdol, Raha Feminist Collective, and Dissenters to learn how to oppose US military intervention and exploitative practices that create orphans for the adoption system.

In some countries, parents place children in orphanages temporarily during hard times. Some returned only to find their child was sent to a different country in their absence (CNN, Firstpost). Other children are adopted after being kidnapped by child smugglers (ABC News). Once international adoptees arrive in the U.S, some have been incorrectly registered for US citizenship (The Intercept). Years later, they find they’re subject to deportation to countries they don’t remember (NBC News). The demand for adoptees is so strong that the welfare of actual adoptees can be an afterthought. 

Adoptees come from poor countries to rich ones and, more often than not, from mothers of color to white families. Americans don’t get adoptees from England or France. The U.S. has often caused the poverty of the countries that send children. During the Korean War, American forces intentionally targeted civilian infrastructure, deforested nearly the entire peninsula with napalm, and killed 20% of the north’s population (Truthout, Washington Post). Afterward, South Korea was one of the poorest countries in the world (Brookings). Some women survived by having sex with American occupying forces. Their mixed-race children were the first international adoptees (USA Today). 

Adoption of full-blooded Koreans like me followed as outperforming the communist North was prioritized over supporting single mothers (The Korea Herald). Adoption, wrote adoptee Maija E. Brown, created “a paternal attitude between Korea and the U.S., where white Americans rescued Asian orphans while concealing the U.S. responsibility in the Korean War” (University of Minnesota). In the words of Ju-Jyun Park, it’s one of the ways “the war lives on as a material fact” (The New Inquiry).

The Democratic Republic of the Congo was destabilized when the United States helped overthrow Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the 1960s (Guardian). Today, the extraction of metals like coltan for the world market drives domestic conflict (Dissent). Just as in Korea, the U.S. swept in to “save” children whose society couldn’t support them only because of U.S. actions. 

There are also problematic racial aspects to international adoption. Black children cost less to adopt than white children (NPR). Of the few American babies adopted to other countries, a numerical majority are Black (CNN). And while only 10% of marriages are between people of different races, 44% of adoptions are transracial, with 77% of adoptive parents being white (Census, Christian Science Monitor). This means that many white people won’t marry a person of color but want to adopt a non-white child (Plan A Magazine). Many non-white adoptees grow up in “racial isolation” in almost exclusively white environments (Yes! Magazine).

Dr. Ibram X. Kendi wrote about “a belief that too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can’t be racist” (Twitter). Systemic racism doesn’t disappear because an adoptive parent “doesn’t see race.” Adoptees need a multiracial community to provide the resources and resiliency to survive in a white supremacist society, skills that even well-intentioned white parents can’t provide. A non-white kid in an all-white environment might find themselves echoing Taylour Paige’s thoughts when being cast — as a transracial adoptee! — in Lena Dunham’s latest film: “Don’t you think this character was written as a white person?” (The Hollywood Reporter).

We should interrogate adoption politics and the transfer of resources and children from poor countries to rich ones. We should question the use of children as markers of diversity. We should undo neocolonial structures (YouTube) that deny poor women of color the social support and reproductive care that would stop orphanages from filling up with potential adoptees in the first place. 


There’s a problematic history to transracial and international adoption politics. 

The countries that send children to the United States are often poor as a result of US military and government actions. 

A color-blind savior attitude towards adoption is not allyship.

*The MARIA (Women, Abortion, Reproduction, Information, and Accompaniment) Abortion Fund for Social Justice gives financial, emotional, and logistical support to women who don’t have enough resources to access legal abortion services available in Mexico City.

2400 1600 Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee

Andrew Lee is a writer and organizer plotting a better world in Philadelphia. His work has previously appeared in Notes From Below, Perspectives on Anarchist Theory, Plan A Magazine, ROAR Magazine, and Teen Vogue.

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