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Weaving a Family: Untangling Race and Adoption.


By Barbara Katz Rothman

Beacon Press, 2005

There is no way to have a conversation about race without skin color. However objective we may claim to be, an inevitable subjectivity claims us. Well-regarded sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman makes this amply clear in her highly readable book, which considers the historical, sociological and personal dimensions of transracial adoption. But first, consider the cover: a pair of white hands braiding a Black girl's hair. I had a visceral reaction to this provocative image, and then wondered why. As a Black woman, I think it has something to do with racial privacies and permissible intimacies in a race-segregated society; something to do with the sordid history of white hands on Black bodies. As Katz Rothman was warned that her quasi-autoethnography was perilously close to "'me-search' rather than research," I came to this book hopelessly located--and so will you.


Katz Rothman suggests that adoption in general, not just transracial adoption, indicates a failure of public policy. In an ideal world, there would be no under-duress adoptions; but also in an ideal world, according to the author, race would cease to exist as a devastatingly meaningful social category.

A proponent of moderate race matching, a policy of preferring same-race prospective adopters if available, Katz Rothman and her husband nonetheless end up becoming the parents of a Black baby. Katz Rothman makes clear that being able to adopt Victoria when "the Black community stands with open arms, absorbing as many babies and children as it can" is a privilege in a world where "racism, combined with, multiplied by, poverty creates a stream of children needing homes." But in the "global economy of adoption," she asserts, Black babies are not hot commodities. According to research, some white mothers adopt Black babies because it is the least expensive option.

In turn, Asian children are "e-raced" in this marketplace, according to Katz Rothman, because they are likelier candidates for honorary whiteness: "Maybe [Chinese adoptees] will change our ideas about whiteness a bit more, letting white people look Asian the way white people can now look Irish, or look Jewish, and still be white." Although she acknowledges anti-Asian racism, her argument could have been better served by bringing in examples of Asian adoptees who haven't found assimilation to be such a seamless experience. Katz Rothman praises parents who celebrate Chinese culture, for example, citing the popularity of Chinese schools. But she also posits that without an analysis of structural inequalities and the obliterating power of whiteness, "ethnic celebration collapses quickly into triviality." Heritage chic cannot replace the need for "shifting ... real power around."

Katz Rothman has obviously thought a lot and deeply about motherhood as the author of four previous books on the subject. But adopting Victoria gave her occasion to add another layer to her ruminations. With considerable agility, she balances on the tightrope between asserting the power of race in society and acknowledging that forces other than race may be at work--although those forces are often obscured in the long shadow of race. As the mother of two other children, both white: "I can call the white toddler who is climbing up my leg 'you little monkey, you!'--but what am I conjuring up when the toddler is Black?"

Katz Rothman is very comfortable articulating from the gaps, as evidenced by the most powerful portion of the book, in which she muses that transracial adoption is and is not a form of genocide.

Katz Rothman reveals race to be a house of mirrors with its dizzying interruptions and distortions, reflections and reflexes. The strength of this book lies in its unflagging attention to nuance and its reliance on lived experience. Katz Rothman respects what she does not know, but speaks from the authority of her own body--as a white Jewish woman mama sociologist. While Katz Rothman can't untangle race and adoption, the book serves as a cogent reminder that "wherever you go, you schlep your body with you."
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Author:Rice, LaVon
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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