'As Swedish as anybody else' or 'Swedish, but also something else'? Discourses on transnational adoptee identities in Sweden.

Author:Lind, Judith


In the education material for adoption applicants published in 2007 by the Swedish Intercountry Adoption Authority (MIA), (1) and the Swedish Board of Health and Welfare, adoptive parents are urged to:

... affirm the child's origin as well as the attachment to Sweden so that the child feels s/he is allowed to be proud of her/

his foreign origin and her/his belonging in Sweden. (2) (Socialstyrelsen/MIA, 2007, p 94)

The exact meaning of 'origin' is not made explicit. It may refer to biogenetic origin--the birth parents and the reasons why the adoptee was separated from them--the social, cultural and political context of this separation, or the details of a pre-adoption past, including personal experiences and perhaps memories of an orphanage or foster family. This information constitutes personal or individual origin and there are myriad reasons why it may be of importance to the adopted person. However, the quoted advice to prospective adoptive parents also emphasises that the origin of transnational adoptees is foreign. In so doing, and by simultaneously stressing their belonging in Sweden, the quotation refers to a collective origin constituted by a cultural, ethnic, national or racial belonging. Since most adoptions in Sweden are not only transracial but transnational, and concern the adoption of non-Swedish children by Swedish couples, questions regarding adoptee identities are addressed not only, or even primarily, in terms of race or ethnicity, but also in terms of nationality. But why precisely is pride in one's foreign origin important? Why is pride in one's origin not enough?

The emphasis on the Swedishness as well as the foreignness of transnational adoptees can only be understood in relation to recommendations and claims made in previous decades. In keeping with ideologies in many countries, the pioneers of transnational adoption in Sweden in the late 1960s took a 'colour-blind' approach, the message being that transnationally adopted children were as Swedish as anybody else. This claim was partly fuelled by the desire to convince sending countries that the children they sent for adoption would enjoy the same status as children born in Sweden (Lindgren, 2010). In the early 1980s, however, when the first cohorts of transnational adoptees had grown and were teenagers, it became obvious that not everyone perceived them to be as Swedish as anybody else. When they were not with their white adoptive parents, non-white adoptees were assumed to be immigrants and, like other immigrants to Sweden, were subjected to xenophobia and racial discrimination (Lind, 2012). Accordingly, the message to adoptive parents was changed so that they were now urged to acknowledge their child's status as an immigrant and to show respect for his or her foreign background. Adoptive parents who aimed to 'Swedishise' their child as quickly as possible--or to 'paint their kid yellow and blue' (the colours of the Swedish flag), as adoption researcher Marianne Cederblad sarcastically put it --were now frowned upon (Lind, 2012).

When interviewed for the monthly NIA newsletter, the commissioner of the government-appointed 1982 enquiry on discrimination stated:

There is always something in the ethnic identity of the adopted child--sometimes a great deal--that is not 'Swedish' and you cannot make that disappear. (Swedish Council for Intercountry Adoptions, 1983, p 3)

In line with this statement, the new message given to adoptive parents and their children from that point onwards was that 'being Swedish, but also something else is enriching' (Swedish Council for Intercountry Adoptions, 1992, p 2). Hence, when the 'non-whiteness' of transnational adoptees was finally acknowledged in Swedish adoption discourse, it was framed as non-Swedishness. Other scholars have commented on the prevailing unwillingness in Sweden to ascribe significance to race. As a result, the word 'race' (ras) is often replaced with other words, such as 'origin' or 'ethnicity' (Skovdahl, 1996; Wigerfelt, 2004). Consequently, the discursive logic of the importance ascribed to transnational adoptees' pride in their foreign origins is that being denied inclusion in Swedishness as one's only national identity is not problematic because it is not worth aspiring to anyway and having additional national origins is more desirable. On one hand, it can be said to celebrate difference and hence constitute a tribute to multiculturalism. On the other hand, it also ascribes cultural otherness to transnational adoptees. The success of such a strategy for adoptees presupposes that the value of non-Swedish backgrounds, and multiculturalism in general, is widely recognised in Swedish society, and that adoptees have acquired the culture and language competencies that enable them successfully to employ this strategy.

Swedish adoption researchers Tobias Hubinette and Carina Tigervall (2008) claim legitimately that adoption research hitherto has paid too little attention to the racial discrimination directed at transnational adoptees. In their study, the consequences for transnational adoptees of being identifiably 'non-white' and 'non-Swedish' in appearance are a recurrent theme. Accounts range from encounters with racism, defined as abusive or aggressive behaviour, to questions or actions from others that challenge adoptees' Swedishness. Adoptees described both experiences as equally uncomfortable (see also von Greiff, 2000; Martinell Barfoed, 2008). It is not unusual for those subjected to questions that construct them as outside the nation to feel excluded (see, for example, Davis and Nencel, 2009) and exclusions from western nations are frequently linked to skin colour, with whiteness allowing inclusion (Gilroy, 1987; Parekh, 2000). Therefore, in order to understand why questions that appear to be innocent or even culturally sensitive, but imply that adoptees have non-Swedish origins, may be perceived as uncomfortable and even hurtful, the relationship between Swedishness and whiteness, as well as the negative associations of non-Swedishness, must be addressed.

This article examines the ways in which recommendations emphasising the foreign origin of transnational adoptees serve to restrict their rights fully to identify as Swedish. It does so by relating the accounts of young adult transnational adoptees in focus group discussions (FGDs) to the results of my previous study analysing the recommendations of the Swedish Council for Intercountry Adoptions (NIA) between 1972 and 2004 (Lind, 2012), and to a wider social discourse on adoption and Swedishness. Both studies are part of a wider research project funded by the Swedish Research Council. (3) The overall aim of the project is to analyse the meanings and varying levels of importance that have been ascribed to adop tees' culture of origin by the NIA and by the adoptees themselves. This article is divided into three main parts: the introduction presents the NIA guidance; the next section considers the Swedish adoption experience in relation to the adoption contexts of other countries and to discourses of Swedishness; and the third section discusses young trans national adoptees' accounts and relates these to the impact of the NIA guidance.

Data, method and analysis

Nine focus group discussions were conducted between June 2007 and April 2008.4 A total of 25 adopted young men and women participated in one of the groups. Twenty-two of the participants were transnationally adopted from the following countries: the Republic of Korea (9), Sri Lanka (3), Chile (3), Colombia (2), India (2), Thailand (1), Indonesia (1) and Ethiopia (1). In addition, one woman whose birth parents were German and Pakistani and who was adopted within Sweden took part in one of the groups. These 23 participants were between 18 and 38 years of age. Fourteen of them are women and nine are men and it is their accounts that constitute the data for this study. In addition, one nationally adopted woman and one man took part in two of the discussion groups. Their participation contributed substantially to the discussions that unfolded, but since their adoption experiences were that of a Swedish child with white Swedish birth and adoptive parents, their accounts are not discussed here.

The participants in six of the focus groups were recruited via advertisements on digital student noticeboards at a university in a mid-sized city in Sweden. Members of the remaining three groups were recruited through a combination of contacts with organisations for adoptees and snowballing. The advertisement contained a brief description of the research project, in which the aim of the sub-study based on focus group discussions was worded as follows:

... to investigate how young adult transnational adoptees think about the significance of culture for their own identity and self-esteem in relation to their health and quality of life. It will take into account the culture of origin as well as Swedish culture. (5)

The focus groups varied in size between two and six participants. The discussions were unstructured and the role of the moderator was to facilitate them around broad topics rather than trying to get...

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