Monday, January 20, 2014

Round Table: Adoptee Voices in Transracial Adoption Discussions

Image: "Silencio" by Araguim, Creative Commons

Last week, Angela Tucker was invited and then un-invited to speak on an NPR show about transracial adoption. As evidenced by this experience (and many others), conversations about transracial adoption are becoming more visible, but adoptees are not always included in the discussion. Based on your opinion and/or experience, why do you think that is? What is the most important thing you want people to know about transracial adoption?

Angela: Omitting the voices of adoptees of color and only asking white adoptive parents to recount their experiences of transracial adoption is a subtlety of structural racism. People of color are subconsciously still thought by the white majority not to have as much worth, value or credibility. Obviously there are historical truths to this end. It's ironic because so many transracial adoptive parents are working so diligently to teach their children about racism, to teach their children about their heritage and culture, they are hopeful that their children grow up to be "successful," confident individuals yet they are reinforcing the racism and undermining their own parenting by not allowing them to speak. One aspect of empowerment in parenting comes from allowing children to speak their minds.

Rosita: Indeed, Angela. Adoption loyalty is playing out here. It exists alongside racism and paralyzes the children. Adoptive parents may feel everything is fine when the fact is their child is struggling with race and also trying to "protect" their parents. If they only knew.

I feel the reason we are not included in the discussion is basic fear. Fear of hurt. Fear of failure. Fear of criticism. But all those things, in my mind are internal. I am not here to tell parents what they are doing wrong or right. How can I do that? I am a parent of two, a preteen and a teenager. I am by no means an expert on parenting them. Parenting is a journey that never ends. I miss my deceased, adoptive mother for the sole fact that I cannot compare my mothering to hers and laugh over coffee about our foibles. What I can do is relay my experience and hope that some parent or child will feel comforted that they are not alone.

Mila: As far as why TRA voices are so often omitted, ignored, dismissed, undervalued, marginalized? I think it is in part due the "perpetual child" perception that all adoptees experience. We never grow up in the eyes of others. We remain eternal children, and hence our voices are viewed as immature and negligible. Because people have such a difficult time NOT seeing and treating us as the cute little children that were helpless and in need of rescue, they believe that we still need a representative, i.e. adoptive parents, to speak for us. It's so hard for others to view us as adults who are intelligent, critically thinking peers and experts who are qualified to speak on our own behalf. The added layer of race in transracial adoption further minimizes the validity of our voices. White people are always more qualified--it's exactly what Angela said, "People of color are subconsciously still thought by the white majority not to have as much worth,
value or credibility." So, the perpetual child + racial minority = silence.

Furthermore, we are also seen as pathological. So now the equation is perpetual child + racial minority + pathological = silence. Adoptees have "issues" and hence we cannot be credible or trustworthy sources regarding our own experiences. We need a representative because we are not competent or capable enough to speak independently.

White folks in general have a hard time swallowing that they have race all wrong--this would include White folks in the media, of course. I've seen it, experienced it time and time again. They think they "get" race and hence, they think they can represent racial minorities. And ultimately, they view themselves as our saviors--we are helpless without them. So in excluding our voices, they actually think they're helping us. I mean, look at the movies in America: "Dances with Wolves," "The Last Samurai," "Avatar," "The Help", to name just a few--it's always the White people coming in and rescuing the powerless, primitive, helpless ethnic minorities. It happens all around the world--White people thinking they need to swoop in and speak for the non-Whites.

I'm not saying that we don't need White people as allies. Their role is important and crucial, but not as our representatives. They need to step aside and support us, not push us to the back of the stage and hog the podium, as is often the case. I know I'm sounding pretty harsh. But I get tired of having to measure every word so White people will listen.

As Rosita mentioned, there is a lot of emotion at stake. Many White adoptive parents of minority children would rather listen to other White people, and in this case, other White Adoptive Parents. It's just easier to stomach something coming from a fellow White person. Hence, I think in part that is why TRA's are so often excluded from the conversation on transracial adoption in favor of a White adoptive parent. Our voices are frightening and upsetting at times. They want to hear that they're doing it all right and that they can prevent and protect their children from the ugly side of American racism. This is impossible. They can only prepare them and equip them to know how to deal with it and overcome it. Excluding our voices only hurts the adoption community.

Rosita: There are so many examples as Mila points out. Unfortunately in our society as it exists, it is the groundbreakers, almost always the favored majority and not the marginalized group, that make the first steps in change. My issue with the NPR story was its one-sidedness.

I recognize and am comforted when I meet an adoptive parent who empathizes and wants to hear how it was for me. The good and the bad. We are a village, and it takes the village to make change. All … adoptive parents, adoptees, original parents have a role to play in change. We work better together.

Mila: To be clear, I realize there are some White adoptive parents out there who do get it and are doing an awesome job (I am friends with some of them). But in my experience, they are the minority, not the majority. The media wants good ratings, and so they're going to cater to their audience and give them what they want to hear. Right now, in the adoption community TRA voices are still threatening to many adoptive parents. And there is still a bias that favors what adoptive parents want.

But I am also confident that this power dynamic is shifting. It is progress that Angela was even contacted and interviewed. Of course, ultimately, it was all for nothing, which also indicates we still have a lot of work to do in the adoption community. But I do believe the TRA voices are gaining an audience and will only continue to do so. We know our experiences and voices are important. We know that what we have to say matters. That is not going to change. And for the sake of all the TRA's coming of age, we cannot help but be compelled to continue making our voices heard. We are the only ones who know what it's like to be a transracial adoptee. We are the experts.

Rosita: To continue your point, Mila, last Saturday I attended a workshop meant for adoptive parents to learn about their teenaged, transracial adoptees.

Obviously, going in, I was fearful and skeptical because it was run by a white adoptive parent. I was surprised by the number of parents in the room, maybe 40 or so.

What was even more surprising were the anonymous transracial adoptee voices. The moderator was a writing teacher and had worked with teen adoptees to help them express themselves through writing. She handed out slips of paper with quotes that addressed race, adoption loyalty, adoption in general, homeland countries, the disconnect, etc. Their words were poignant, pained and honest.

I purposely kept to the back of the room and said nothing other than to tell of my use of the “Mommy and Me” journal. No one knew for sure I was an adult adoptee (Or did they?). I wanted it that way so that parents felt they could talk freely. I did speak up at the end to say that I was like many of the children we had heard.

Afterwards, only three parents approached me to talk. THREE. One of them was a Korean woman who had adopted a Korean girl with her white husband.

I just hope that those three parents can start a ripple effect.

Mila: What would have been inspiring to me is if the adoptive parent on NPR's piece had fought for, demanded that a TRA be included. That she would have pushed for her children's original parents to be included in the conversation. That's the kind of alliance I want to see. That's the kind of alliance that leads to real change, as evidenced in history, as Rosita alluded to. Those in power using their power to lift up those who have been neglected, marginalized, silenced, rejected for so long. And then those in power finally stepping aside. How amazing would that have been? How much more would the listeners have grown, benefited from that kind of discussion? It's not only the one-sidedness of the conversation that bothered me, but also the ongoing willful omission of the voices of original parents and adoptees after years of us trying to be heard. The way White privilege still is blind to race and the very real effects and consequences that TRA's experience because of the blindness of the White privilege of the adoptive parents. The conversation has been one-sided for much too long. Race is real in transracial adoption. And our voices must be included!

I don't mean to make this about White adoptive parents. I don't have anything personal against WAP's. (disclaimer: I love my White American parents.) And I'm not out to "get anyone." I think it's just very difficult for me to discuss the question at hand without discussing White adoptive parents. Their role and influence are inextricable in transracial adoption, and their responsibility as parents of transracial adoptees. Our voices are excluded, in part, because WAP's allow our voices to be excluded. I realize it is more complicated than that--as everything in adoption is. But their connection is direct as well as prominent and influential. If they would advocate for our voices--as I posited above--and defer to us, at times, I think this could be an effective way of making sure our voices are heard more often, particularly in the media.

Aselefech: People who adopt Ethiopian children too often do not identify their child as black. They need to understand the difference between ethnicity and race and embrace black culture as part of their children's identity. I had a parent once say to me, “My child is not like 'those people'-- they are rude and have no manners." Believe me that is not the worst I have heard from an adoptive parent. Sometimes I ask myself how did an agency place a child of color with some so ignorant, naive and borderline racist.

Rosita: Aselefech! I don’t know how many times I have heard this from adoptive parents, especially when they are addressing the private versus public school debate. I must admit, I am stumped when they say this. I don’t want to come across as rude, and it pains me.

That is one of the many reasons why I blog. Blogging allows me to look at things more objectively and hopefully persuade parents to understand the adoption experience from the adoptee perspective. Thank goodness for the Lost Daughters!

Aselefech: I know. Honestly I don't get surprised at the things adoptive parents say anymore. I just feel bad for the kids, and I agree Lost Daughters is an awesome community to be part of. It allows us to express our feelings without judgment.

Mila: Aselefech, that is a great insight. It has definitely been my experience that adoptive parents have a very difficult time acknowledging that the world does not see their TRA children the way that they do. So often, adoptive parents will say something like, "I don't see color, I just see my daughter/son." This is a well-intentioned ideal but it ignores reality and does nothing to help prepare these children who will grow up to be adults in a very racially charged world--everyone sees race, and this is something that is crucial for adoptive parents to recognize. Their White privilege can somewhat "shelter" their TRA's from the racist world we live in for only a brief time. But ultimately, once we start attending school and no longer have the context of our White families, that White privilege can no longer shelter us from how people perceive us and treat us based on our race, and ultimately how we will see ourselves...

Aselefech: You said it perfectly, Mila. I'm tired of sugarcoating important but tough issues. Most parents don't want to hear what you have to say or they feel like you're criticizing their parenting abilities when all you're trying to do is make them aware. For those reasons I no longer participate with some agencies when they ask me to speak because they don't want to scare away the prospective parents.

Rosita: Parents who separate their adoptive children from “those people” do not realize that “those people” will one day be their adoptees’ people.

Today, we at Lost Daughters challenge and invite our non-TRA readers to Twitter this round table and ONLY retweet TRA voices, not to speak themselves.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”