Last November, a campaign corresponding with #worldadoptionday marketed clothing using images of minors, intended to represent adopted children, wearing t-shirts with messages like "love child" or "crowdfunded." It was clear that the campaign, and others like it, and the celebrities and musicians that "shared" it, hadn't done their homework on why these terms are inappropriate. And it wasn't before long that push-back from the adoption community resulted in these images being removed. Unfortunately, this was nothing new; the adoption community faces the assault of poorly chosen language everyday. So how do we know what words are OK to use, and how do we know when we've crossed the line?
"Positive Adoption Language" (modernly revised as "Respectful Adoption Language") is the most widely implemented framework for making adoption references. Developed decades ago by Marietta Spencer, PAL negates terms that PAL proponents call "Negative Adoption Language." Yet, the guidance PAL/RAL offers on is exclusive to its glossary of set terms that are acceptable and unacceptable.
As Dr. Kit Myers suggests, it's time to rethink PAL/RAL altogether, and that goes beyond its limited list of words. He points out that PAL/RAL seeks to use words to shape what is or isn't true about adoption, such as that adoption, particularly transracial and transnational adoption, never has problematic outcomes. Furthermore, Dr. Myers says that PAL/RAL's "emotionally positive" and "seemingly race-neutral terms" erase the institutional racism experienced by mothers of color and falsely suggests that all women are regarded equally within the adoption institution. Dr. Myers argues, PAL/RAL "came at the cost of the first parents and first families, who became the absent presence of normalized (adoptive) motherhood and family." Unsurprisingly, original mothers are among the most outspoken critics of PAL/RAL.
Person-First Language, developed within the disability community, is an emerging language framework in the adoption community. PFL is somewhat self-explanatory: you put the person before the label. Someone is not "wheelchair bound," they are "a person who uses a wheelchair for mobility." PFL also holds that it's inappropriate to use terms like "Autistic person," and instead say "person with Autism." In adoption, some people say "mother who surrendered" instead of "birth mother" I have advocated for PFL for when describing adoption in the past as a way of mediating the desire to be respectful with not always knowing how readers or listeners self-identify in adoption. I realized, however, that PFL didn't quite sit right for me when people would correct me and tell me I needed to call myself an "adopted person" or "a person who was adopted" when I am very much comfortable self-identifying as an adoptee.
Person-First Language does not go uncontested within the disability community and autism community. I've learned from listening to their voices that Person-First Language isn't always wrong, but it's not necessarily the best and only way to use language to combat stigma. Emily Ladau writes:
"Consider how PFL intentionally separates a person from their disability. Although this supposedly acknowledges personhood, it also implies that “disability” or “disabled” are negative, derogatory words. In other words, disability is something society believes a person should try to dissociate from if they want to be considered a whole person. This makes it seem as though being disability is something of which you should be ashamed. PFL essentially buys into the stigma it claims to be fighting."Regarding what PFL accomplishes for the autism community, Autistic Hoya writes:
"Yet, when we say "Autistic person," we recognize, affirm, and validate an individual's identity as an Autistic person. We recognize the value and worth of that individual as an Autistic person -- that being Autistic is not a condition absolutely irreconcilable with regarding people as inherently valuable and worth something."
I'm a person and an adoptee, but I don't need to separate the "adoptee" part of my identity to be recognized as a person. The more I distance myself from "adoptee," the more I see myself validating the stigma attached to it. "Adoptee" is what I prefer to be called. So the most important guideline for me is, when wondering what to call someone or a community in adoption or anywhere, ask them. Listen to their voices.
What About Other Terms?
I have intentionally focused on frameworks that speak to how to refer to people, identities, and communities. This was to address a need left by mainstream adoption language that prioritizes the image of adoption as an institution above the identities of the people living in its shadow. People often ask me, "what terms in adoption should I use then?"
Speaking respectfully about the adoption community and realistically about the adoption institution means paying attention to the words used by those who live it and experience it. If you want to know what language appropriately describes adoption, put the identities of the people most affected by it ahead of the institution itself. Calling adopted children "love child" and "crowdfunded" could have been completely avoided had adoptees been consulted, and had the historical context of our experiences been considered. The information is out there, it's not found on a glossary. It's not something I can make easy for you or over-simplify on a list. It's found through the practice of listening.
I don't suggest exploring IFL's application to adoption to suggest "sameness" between oppressions faced by adoptees and disabled people. The IFL framework coincides with a long-standing trend in the adoption community to consider "adopted" or "adoptee" as an identity that connects us to a larger community of other adoptees. Thus, we have a lot to learn from the disability community and autism community on using IFL in our shared need to promote identity and combat shame.
This post was in response to today's #flipthescript #NAM15 prompt: "Talk about whether or not you agree with the appropriateness of specific terms on either list from an adoptee perspective. Do you feel the vocabulary proposed is respectful of adoptees? Do you have any alternate suggestions for specific terms on either list? How important are the words we choose to speak about adoption? Are there other terms not on these lists that you either wish were used more or wish everyone would stop saying?" What do you think?