Between colourblindness and ethnicisation: transnational adoptees and race in a Swedish context.

Author:Hubinette, Tobias


This article presents a study of contemporary Swedish adoption policy and practice with a particular focus on issues of race and ethnicity. It is based on adoption-related documents and interviews with adoptees, which have been collected, conducted and analysed by the authors and published in Swedish as monographs (Hubinette and Tigervall, 2008; Andersson, 2010). The article aims to explore the discursive conditions regarding when and how the categories of race and ethnicity are articulated and negotiated in the everyday lives of adoptees. These enactments and negotiations take place in a country imbued with official antiracism, with colourblindness as the societal and cultural norm. This provides a specific context for the experiences of those who have been adopted from abroad. When and how are issues of race and ethnicity articulated and how are they made relevant for adoptees? Which discursive and practical ambivalences and conflicts do they provoke? What happens with issues of race in a country where antiracist colourblindness is the norm and where, unlike in the US and the UK, there has been no debate on whether white people should adopt children of colour?

The article starts by providing a contextual background to Sweden as the country with the highest rate of transnational adoptions in the world, and to the hegemonic ideology of Swedish colourblindness. It continues with an analysis of extracts from interviews with transnational adoptees. The authors conclude with a brief discussion of Swedish adoption policy and practice caught between colourblindness and ethnicisation.

The history of transnational adoption and its relationship with race and ethnicity in Sweden

Sweden has a long history of transnational adoption, which is partly shared with the neighbouring Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Norway, and which can be traced back to the period between the two world wars. At the end of World War I, unaccompanied refugee children from continental Europe were received into Sweden as foster children. They were followed by Jewish, Finnish and German foster and adopted children before, during and after World War II. Since that time, Sweden has become one of the most important receiving nations for transnational adoptions (Ressler et al, 1988; Briggs and Marre, 2009). Through this long, continuous and uninterrupted history of taking in foreign-born children, whether for temporary care in foster homes or for permanent placement in adoptive families, Sweden (together with the US) can be said to have taken part in inventing and institutionalising transnational adoption.

Official Swedish adoption statistics indicate a more or less unbroken arrival of foreign-born children throughout World War II and the 1950s, with a dramatic increase in transnational adoptions taking place from the end of the 1960s and peaking in the 1970s and 1980s (Hubinette, 2007). The end of the 1960s was also the time when Swedish adoption of Swedish-born children was replaced by children from less developed countries such as Korea, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Colombia, Brazil and Ethiopia, as well as from Finland, Germany, Poland and the former Yugoslavia (Lindgren, 2010). From 1969, the annual number of transnational adoptions exceeded 1,000, rising to as many as 2,000 during certain years in the 1970s and 1980s. This has resulted in a total population of foreign-born adoptees in Sweden of well over 50,000 individuals as of 2012. Of these, around 30,000 are from Asia (including 10,000 from Korea, 7,000 from India and 4,000 from China), 10,000 from Latin America (including 5,500 from Colombia and 2,000 from Chile), 7,000 from Europe (including 4,000 from Finland) and 3,000 from Africa (including 1,500 from Ethiopia). It is worth noting that adoptees of colour constitute approximately five to six per cent of the total 'non-white' population of Sweden, and for certain age groups and minorities the figures are even higher (Landerholm, 2004).

Although the annual numbers decreased to between 800 and 900 from 2006 onwards, in relation to the Swedish-born population, no other country has proportionally adopted so extensively from abroad as Sweden, where one to two per cent of each annual birth cohort has been transnationally adopted since the end of the 1960s (Landerholm 2004). When it comes to domestic adoption of Swedish-born children, non-biological or non-familial so-called stranger adoptions make up no more than 20 to 30 cases every year, meaning that the vast majority of the 1,000 or so domestic adoptions that take place annually are step-parent and foster children adoptions (Westin and Lindblad 2001).

The first Swedish adoption law was passed in 1917 and has since gone through several revisions. In 1997, the Hague Adoption Convention on the Protection of Children and Co-operation in Respect of Inter-Country Adoption (HCCH, 1993) was incorporated into Swedish law. Single adults have always been allowed to adopt and same-sex adoption was legalised in 2002. In practice, this has meant domestic step-parent...

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