Sunday, May 27, 2012

On Being Generic Ethnic

by Lynn Grubb

Last week when I was at work, a Hispanic gentlemen came into my place of business.  He asked me (in Spanish) if I spoke Spanish and I responded “un poco” (meaning “a little”)  He then asked me if I was Hispanic. My reply was, “That is an unsolved mystery.” 

This scenario repeats frequently.  People want to know my background.  For some reason, they ask me all the time.  A friend once said I looked “Generic Ethnic” . . . .meaning i could pass for many different backgrounds . . . i could be Greek, Italian, Spanish. . .the list goes on.  Maybe I bring it on myself for this reason. Whatever the cause,  I find it to be one of many cruel twists of fate in closed adoption. 

I feel bad for those innocent inquiring people.  They didn’t know what they were getting into when they asked me-- the person who won’t lie-- just to make general conversation easy. 

Part of the lottery of closed adoption is you may-- if you are lucky-- get factual information about your ethnicity from an adoption agency (assuming you even had an agency to begin with) or if you are unlucky (like moi) - you may not. And even in this wonderful internet age, adopted people can’t just log on to to access this.  You need a name to begin with. 

I received my non-identifying adoption information in my 20s.  Make no mistake, the word “information” is being used loosely as it was very brief and left much to the imagination.  For some reason, I identified with being Italian for most of my life.  I needed to know what my ethnicity was from a young age so in order to satisfy that need, I chose to believe what other people said about how I looked and later, what my adoption paperwork said.  My parents had no information to offer me and I just didn’t identify with their family background.  Inside I knew mine was different because I looked different than them.

Looking back, it’s very sad to me that instead of knowing and being told like most children know or are told, I listened to what others told me I was. They seemed to know who I was more than I knew myself. I believe this scenario can play out in many ways in the lives of adoptees, from ethnicity to career choice. It’s a way of giving away power . . .

” I don’t know who I am or where I come from, so I have to listen to others.”

In no way was this my adoptive parents’ fault. They were set up to fail their child’s curiosity and valid need to know.  I had a vehement argument with my second grade teacher that I did not come from a woman’s tummy – I came from a Cradle (the name of my adoption agency).  My mother went in to defend me as it was clear my teacher didn’t understand my situation (my mother had given her background info but she failed to read it).  Misunderstandings in adoptees like this one are common.

As an adult, as my need to know and understand who I was became more pronounced, I truly had no options for getting answers as my original mother had made no contact with the agency since my relinquishment. This means I had no way of contacting her to ask questions because I was unaware of her identify due to Illinois’ closed records and sealed birth certificates. 

My only other option was to sign up for a “matching” registry in my state of birth which was useless considering nobody had ever heard of it, least of all my non-computer savvy original mother.  I signed up anyway and waited.

Fast forward to 2006.  I am 40 years old.  And my original mother, during one of our first phone calls, informs me that she never gave any of the “information” about my father to the agency.
I have often wondered what was going through the minds of the social worker’s heads in 1966 when they were deciding what to write down in my records.  Maybe the conversation went like this:

“This one’s mother won’t say who her father is.  We can’t just say there is no information about her father.  That won’t look good to a prospective adoptive couple.  Ok, let’s make him a few years older than her.  We’ll go with Italian since she has black hair and light skin. We’ll make him educated. We don’t want anything to discourage someone from adopting.”

While I acknowledge the intent may have been for my benefit (which is a real stretch for me), the end result to my psychological well being was damaging.  Not to mention lying on legal documents is unethical. I would have had more respect for the agency if they had just written, “unknown”.  The hard truth is better than lies – even when you believe you are protecting somebody.

My husband recently compared this thinking to what happened in the 1950s when I Love Lucy was a hit. Lucy became pregnant by her husband and co-star, Desi Arnaz. The producers and censors of the show were very worried that the American public would have a problem with the pregnancy. Lucy and Desi were never shown sleeping in the same bed. CBS wouldn’t allow the word “pregnant” to be used so they settled on “expecting.” It reminded my husband of closed adoption.  Closed adoption was, in part, a result of this same prudish-care-what-everyone-else-thinks mindset.

I am adopted for one reason.  

Because “unmarried women didn’t raise their children back then” (as quoted by my original mother).

Unmarried women were treated with such contempt for doing what nature intended (see “The Women Who Went Away” by Ann Fessler).  If you were unmarried and pregnant, you were not valued. 

So baby daddy was valued even less.
I highly doubt my parents cared one way or another about my ethnicity.  They were just thrilled to have me.  They were never told my ethnicity.  They were told nothing about me. The adoption agency social workers made decisions that put me into not only ethnic purgatory but medical purgatory for most of my life.  

My original mother was born with a rare condition (a hole in her heart) that required emergency surgery. Somehow this information never made it to my file.  In fact, the agency’s idea of health history was “everybody was in good health”.  No follow ups.  Did someone get diabetes later? Or cancer?  Apparently it didn’t matter to my adoption agency as I was long gone and forgotten.

This agency is more progressive than some. They offer post-adoption services.  I hired them to find my original mother.  However, they only help you if you ask (and pay . .. .a lot!).  There is no pro-active contact to update you on medical conditions or to let you know a parent is looking for you.  If you don’t ask, you don’t receive. And even if you ask, you will get only what the state deems you worthy of receiving due to all adoption files being sealed by the Court – even from the adoptees themselves.

Illinois has recently opened birth certificates to those adoptees’ whose original mothers did not sign a contact veto.  What they don’t tell you is, most of our fathers aren’t on those birth certificates anyway. 

How does one undue an identity built on lies? How does one emotionally disconnect from an identity that was constructed over a long period of time especially when there is no accurate information to replace it with? 

How does one become un-Italian?

As my son has matured into a young man, his most recent years in high school brought many questions from friends about whether he is Hispanic or Asian.  His black hair runs on both sides of the family (mostly Indian/English/German/Irish) but unfortunately for him, he inherited my Generic Ethic look.  He really wants to know about the missing side of his DNA. I wish I had an answer for him. My son’s latest coping mechanism (which he finds funny)  is to tell everyone he is Cuban because he says “being Cuban is cool.”

People generally don't expect to hear, or want to hear for that matter, that you have no freakin clue who your father is.  This experience of not knowing your father is both painful and unusual in our society.  It is usually associated with negative stereotypes such as bastards and mistakes.  You hear about “those people” but you don’t expect to be talking to one in the flesh.  The reality is that most people know who their fathers are.   And if they weren't adopted and had a question about their father, they can look on their birth certificate or ask relatives for that information.  My husband’s father and stepfather both physically left the family during his childhood; however, he knew where they were.

And most importantly he knew who they were.

Not true for adoptees in closed adoption.  We have no such stories of our original parents.  Our history is like a black hole.