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Culture Keeping

White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference

Heather Jacobson

Publication Year: 2008

Since the early 1990s, close to 250,000 children born abroad have been adopted into the United States. Nearly half of these children have come from China or Russia. Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption, and the Negotiation of Family Difference offers the first comparative analysis of these two popular adoption programs. Heather Jacobson examines these adoptions by focusing on a relatively new social phenomenon, the practice by international adoptive parents, mothers in particular, of incorporating aspects of their children's cultures of origin into their families' lives. “Culture keeping” is now standard in the adoption world, though few adoptive parents, the majority of whom are white and native-born, have experience with the ethnic practices of their children's homelands prior to adopting. Jacobson follows white adoptive mothers as they navigate culture keeping: from their motivations, to the pressures and constraints they face, to the content of their actual practices concerning names, food, toys, travel, cultural events, and communities of belonging. Through her interviews, she explores how women think about their children, their families, and themselves as mothers as they labor to construct or resist ethnic identities for their children, who may be perceived as birth children (because they are white) or who may be perceived as adopted (because of racial difference). The choices these women make about culture, Jacobson argues, offer a window into dominant ideas of race and the “American Family,” and into how social differences are conceived and negotiated in the United States.

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press

Title Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v

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pp. vii-viii

A network of people has supported, guided, and encouraged me as I worked on this book. Early conversations with Nazli Kibria, Sarah Lamb, Valerie Leiter, John Lie, Debra Osnowitz, Jennifer Ginsburg Richard, Leslie Stebbins, Stefan Timmermans, Katarina Wegar, and Kath Weston informed the direction of this project. Later conversations with Kimberly...

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Chapter 1. The Call to Keep Culture

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pp. 1-12

One of the first scenes of China’s Lost Girls, a 2005 National Geographic documentary hosted by Lisa Ling, opens in Atlanta, Georgia, with five-year-old Marissa Hall, an international adoptee originally from China. Outfitted in traditional Chinese silk and red lipstick, Marissa is having the final touches put on her tinseled pom-pomed pigtails by her white...

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Chapter 2. Constructing Families: Race, Adoption, and the Choice of Country

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pp. 13-52

The contemporary American family is a site of kinship relations, ideological negotiations, and political confrontations. Who lives together as a legally defined and socially recognized family and their experiences doing so in the early twenty-first century in the United States is not only a question of interpersonal relations and physical proximity but also of popular...

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Chapter 3. The Culture Keeping Agenda

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pp. 53-83

Engagement with a foreign culture is promoted by the adoption industry as one of the attractive features of international adoption. Adoption agencies use representations of culture as a medium through which adoption programs are marketed to prospective adopters. Programs are introduced in adoption materials through visual representations of historic landmarks...

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Chapter 4. Negotiating and Normalizing Difference

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pp. 85-143

In the late 1990s, international-adoptive parents began pressuring the U.S. government to change the citizenship requirements for their foreign-born children. At the time, these children had to undergo the standard process of naturalization for immigrants. They were admitted to the United States on immigrant visas, and their new parents had to apply to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) for permanent...

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Chapter 5. Adoptive Families in the Public Eye

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pp. 145-163

The plea above was shared by “Anne,” a reader commenting on the New York Times adoption blog series, Relative Choices (relativechoices.blogs.nytimes.com). In this series, eleven adoptive parents, birth mothers, and adoptees shared thought-provoking essays on adoption. The comment above was in response to Jeff Gammage’s contribution, “A Normal Family” (December 2, 2007). Gammage, a white China-adoptive father...

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Chapter 6. Conclusion: Keeping Culture, Keeping Kin

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pp. 165-175

Formal adoption in the United States presents an interesting mechanism that makes visible contentious issues regarding family formation and social stratification. The process of moving children from one familial context to another taps into ideologies and assessments of “parenting fitness,” the “rights” of children, and which kinds of children should be included or excluded from belonging with which kinds of parents. These...


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pp. 177-182


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pp. 183-199


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pp. 201-212

E-ISBN-13: 9780826592538
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826516176
Print-ISBN-10: 0826516173

Page Count: 216
Publication Year: 2008