The New York Times recently launched a blog about adoption which so far focuses quite a bit about international adoption issues. As any adoptive parent could have predicted, it's been a rough ride already.
I think that people who are not themselves adoptees or adoptive parents expect the international adoption community to be fairly monolithic in thought. After all, we are united by the rather unusual and often searing experience of international adoption. Many of us got there by way of painful experiences with infertility, and some after painful experiences with attempts at domestic adoption. Most of us are concerned, at the very least, about protecting our children from racism — or, for adoptees, of living with it.
In fact the international adoption community is quite ideologically diverse, and the NYT blog is already illuminating some of the differences for the world to see.
The tumult started with a column by author Tama Janowitz, who wrote a blog post discussing her daughter, adopted from China and now 12 years old. The piece, which seems calculated to be lighthearted, included this bit:
A girlfriend who is now on the waiting list for a child from Ethiopia says that the talk of her adoption group is a recently published book in which many Midwestern Asian adoptees now entering their 30s and 40s complain bitterly about being treated as if they did not come from a different cultural background. They feel that this treatment was an attempt to blot out their differences, and because of this, they resent their adoptive parents.
So in a way it is kind of nice to know as a parent of a child, biological or otherwise – whatever you do is going to be wrong. Like I say to Willow: “Well, you know, if you were still in China you would be working in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited bathroom breaks!”
And she says — as has been said by children since time immemorial — “So what, I don’t care. I would rather do that than be here anyway.”
Now, I don't know Janowitz, nor have I read her writing, but I'm suspect from the context that was meant to be satirical, and that she does not actually say that to her daughter. She may not even intend to be truly dismissive of adult adoptees who feel that way. But it's set off a firestorm among people who take racial issues in international adoption very seriously, and among people who think the other people take it too seriously.
Racialicious, a blog about race and pop culture, picked up on it and linked to many adoption blogs and blogs of adoptive parents. Racialicious' critique is that the NYT blog excludes some viewpoints they view as "extreme," that it prints stuff that Racialicious characterizes as "all magical thinking . . . with a healthy dose of orientalism and white savior," and that Janowitz' post is obnoxious, based as far as I can see on a literal interpretation of the post. Racialicious, like a number of the other blogs it links, also claims that the NYT is selectively approving comments to the blog and excluding negative viewpoints from adult adoptees and parents. That wouldn't shock me but, given how blogs and papers are sometime administered, I'm not sure I'm convinced — I'm never ready to attribute to malice what can be explained by indolence or incompetence. Time will tell, I guess.
By reading the comments on the NYT blog, and the blogs linked by Racialicious, you'll see the schisms in the community. The American Family blog has a good insight into all of this — international adoption necessarily involves loss on some level — loss by birth parents, loss of birth parents, loss of birth culture. Moreover — and just as important to the fervor of the discussion, I think — most adoptive parents come to international adoption from a place of loss. How we process all that loss dictates how we approach this debate.
What are the hot spots of the international adoption discussion? There are several:
- Some adult adoptees are not happy about their experiences — because their parents made no effort to teach them about their birth culture, or even if they did. Some are upset about the very concept of international adoption. How to think about these critiques is controversial. For adoptive parents, these critiques hurt. The suggestion that international adoption can be harmful — or even that it is inherently harmful — strikes at the heart of what parents are doing, and often reopens wounds inflicted by infertility. Some adoptive parents (as well as outsiders) can deal with this hurt by being very dismissive or judgmental about such adult adoptees. Some accept them, but condescendingly. Some embrace them. And the groups bicker.
- Many adoptive parents are very vocal about the obligation to teach adoptive kids about their birth cultures. Many adoptive parents — despite fairly consistent instruction by adoption agencies — feel the kids should be raised "just like any American kid" — whatever that means. Once again, bitterness and tumult. Once again, an opportunity for guilt — there's quite a bit of one-upsmanship on teaching your kids about birth culture.
- There are disputes about dealing with what it means to be non-white in America. Some parents view American society as inherently racist and teach kids accordingly. Some take a Horatio Alger view and regard claims of racism with political suspicion. Once again, adoptees and adoptive parents have a seemingly limitless capacity to bicker about it.
Where do I come down on it all? Well, obviously I don't think international adoption is inherently harmful, or I wouldn't have done it. I think that teaching my kids about their culture is important, but also think it is only one factor in raising them to be healthy and happy adults. So, for instance, we have not chosen to put the older kids in all-day weekend language schools, thinking that team sports and friends and family activities are on balance more important right now. (Plus, now that we have Elaina, we'd eventually have to deal with helping teach two Asian languages). I acknowledge racism and am prepared to help my kids deal with it, but play it by ear. I think it's more important to be open to discussions of issues of race, its significance, and its effects than to adopt a specific ideology about it.
The thought that my kids will someday be angry at me because they were raised in a predominantly white community (though our local neighborhood is roughly 40% Asian), or that they will resent that I have not done enough to teach them about their heritage, hurts like hell. But ultimately I can't let it get me down. I have to hold on to the fact that it's not all about me. My kids aren't obligated to live their lives to make me comfortable. The adult adoptees with controversial views aren't obligated to adjust their attitude or keep quiet to make their own parents or the adoption community as a whole comfortable. They are responsible for their lives, I am responsible for my own. I approach that responsibility by loving my kids without qualification and doing my honest best by them in good faith to teach them about their birth culture, guided as they get older by their interests. If that's not enough to them when they get older, it's still not about me. If I focus on protecting my self-image and trying to ward off the specter of future rejection, I will be lost.
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