living in my shadows; emerging into truth

It’s a privilege reading and reviewing adoptee work. I do this not just for myself, but for all of you who struggle to find relatable resources and portraits of adopted life. No one can possibly know everything, so books and art help enrich our knowledge-base. I review adoptee writing not on the literary quality, but on its earnest storytelling and its balanced perspective.

I chose this post’s work since I know embarrassingly little about black adoptees, beyond what’s been explored in the academic literature and on social media. Like other adoptees, they struggle with separation trauma and attachment issues, but their race adds a deep complexity that isn’t discussed as often as I’d like (hint: keep producing content, black adoptees!).

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Living My Shadows: Dreams Do Come True (Kevin I. J. A. Barnett, Sr.) reads like a conversation with a friend over email. Barnett employs a casually engaging writing style, sharing his journey through a clear and linear lens. Such a style keeps his memories fresh and raw.

It a fairly quick read. Where it lacks in deeper introspective analysis, it makes up for in sometimes-painful vignettes that will keep readers nodding their heads in either agreement or disgust. As a memoir divided into three parts, Barnett traces his life from foster care, adoption, and finally, reunification with his biological family. Such a timeline fits most adoptee’s adoptee typical life paths. Typical, though, doesn’t mean unoriginal.

What surprised me wasn’t the physical abuse and emotional abuse Barnett experienced, but the colorism Barnett suffered from within his first same-race foster family. Though I speak heavily on the impact racism has on transracial adoption, Barnett’s account brought to life the colorism spoken about in Lori T. Tharps’ Same Family, Different Colors. Of his foster family, Barnett writes:

They called me “Negro.” They called me “Black Nigger.” They called me “Ugly,” and “No-Good.”

Colorism within foster and adoptive families needs a closer look overall, but Barnett doesn’t reflect on this abuse. Instead, Barnett shares the impact of this poor treatment with further anecdotes. For example, the day his foster father died—his main abuser—the last meal eaten by the now-dead man was black-eyed peas. To this day, Barnett avoids the beans, because when he “sees ’em that’s the only time I think about [my foster father].” A poignant statement as many adoptees and abuse victims can understand these triggering associations. Hopefully, Barnett’s account will inspire in-race adoptees to reflect upon their own similar experiences.

After being adopted by a black family, Barnett slowly discovers personal security (or at least security as an adoptee can manage). It’s after his adoption and foray into adulthood that Barnett begins his search for his biological mother. After many discouraging false leads, Barnett soldiers on and eventually finds the woman who birthed him almost sixty years prior.

It’s at this point I felt both inspired and envious: Inspired, because Barnett shares a letter he wrote to his birth mother, which I read at a point of my own birth family considerations. Pulling back from Barnett’s memoir, I was struggling with disappointment that my own biological mother had died only a few years after my adoption; seeing Barnett’s process admittedly made me step away for a bit. Still, this is the life of an adoptee–a few steps back and then forward into a conflicted present.

But back to Barnett. After tentatively making contact with this biological siblings, he composed a sweetly vulnerable letter to his birth mother:

I understand the circumstances that surrounded the reason why I was put up for adoption and have no hard feelings…I sincerely hope I didn’t cause any problems with the [earlier] phone call and I wish in my heart we can meet. My contact number is listed below if you decide to want to chat.

Take care and God Bless.

Kevin Hodge.

My heart broke. As an adoptee, such hesitancy and forgiveness is part of a daily push-pull cycle as we attempt identity reclamation. At this point, I started really rooting for Barnett, despite knowing his story’s outcome (spoiler alert: it’s good). I suspect many adoptees and former foster youth reading this will feel a bittersweet sense of camaraderie.

For some reason, I emotionally struggled through this section. Perhaps it was his straight-shooting writing style; or maybe, it was here that Barnett truly let the reader in so I could be in his story with him. It’s here the story truly shines.

The last section reveals current information about his reunion with his birth family, an overall enviable experience for many adoptees. From Barnett’s telling, he was welcomed with open arms into his biological family, serving almost as a center from which life radiated around him.

Still (and I won’t give away too much), Barnett’s story shouldn’t be considered “just more adoption reunion porn.” Like many adoptees, not everyone shows up for his re-arrival, but there is a gut-wrenching scene where someone did come looking for him–and never came back again.

Living My Shadows draws strength from its humanity. After a long military career, Barnett is now a motivational speaker, a profession I initially feared would color his adoption story as yet another hope-spun tale of adoption’s great wonders, despite a few pesky hardships. But no, Barnett left me inspired, not patronized—a feeling many adoptees encounter. Many readers will find this refreshing.

Barnett simply asks readers to “push harder,” and if “you’ve got a passion, or something or somebody that’s missing in your life, don’t give up the hunt.” Barnett faced doubt, a foster family who told him no one could ever love him and he’d never amount to anything. But he realized as I hope so many others who read his book do, to recognize those doubts but move forward anyway.

You are the author of your own life. You can change the plot, and rewrite your story any way you choose. -Kevin Barnett, Sr.

And you know what?

He’s right.

 

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Barnett at a recent book signing and speaking event in Easton, PA.

Thank you, Kevin, for the honor of reading your book and reviewing it.

For those interested in Kevin’s work, follow him on Twitter and learn more about him on his website, Living My Shadows.

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transracial adoption: how can we ever get it right?

This post is a little off-the-cuff today and started as a Twitter thread, so apologies for lack of editing!

I’m often asked if getting transracial adoption “right” is possible. My response is always, “This isn’t a science, but by reaching out and talking to transracial adoptees with diverse and uncomfortable experiences, you’re on the right path.”

I know speaking critically of a practice sometimes leaves little room for hope. With transracial adoption, hope means a parent’s ability to confront unfamiliar racial conversations and barriers remains at the forefront of their parenting journey. I relate my experience as extreme circumstances, although having an openly racist family isn’t as unusual as you’d think. Even still, much can be learned from extreme positive or negative experiences, since examining both will help land on a more favorable outcome.

I still don’t proclaim myself an expert on anything but my own life. Biases and emotional attachments trap me, too. But in order to help transracial adoptees and their open-minded parents–and ultimately, myself–I frequently question and confront my own potential prejudices and must remind myself to stay open-minded.

Doing transracial adoption “right” doesn’t require uncovering a super-secret checklist of things that definitely won’t f*ck up your child. I wish there was one I could offer, but like my mom said, “You figure it out as you go.”

Figuring it out in transracial adoption, though, does require more digging than what typical parenting might. First, there’s the obvious cultural and heritage loss. Second, your relationship ultimately began with traumatic separations chosen not by your child but strangers. Third, your child’s race will play a significant role in his identity and it can’t be hand-waved with camps, holiday celebrations, food, or even language classes.

I’m aware this leaves little room for a parent to succeed. Perhaps it’s not about success, since I view parenting as an ongoing duty, one in which I’m constantly forced to challenge my emotions and preexisting values. So, what’s a transracial parent to do, once they realize love is not enough?

One, acknowledging our racialized society before transracially adopting is crucial. This means understanding you are considered privileged and by adopting transracially, you’re in a privileged position to “take” or “obtain” a non-white child. This will be uncomfortable for some, while others will view this as an act of bravery. It’s more helpful to review white saviorism and, while you may not subscribe to that believe, transracial adoption stems from that mentality and should be understood.

If you’re feeling defensive right now, that’s fine. Sit with it and be mad, but think not of yourself as the accused but consider the society that grew these issues.

Next, start exposing yourself to POC’s books, music, movies, news outlets, etc. Get a Twitter and see what #BlackTwitter and #AsianTwitter, etc., are saying. Read their struggles and observe how you are feeling when you encounter them. Stay out of the adoptive parents’ groups for now and start following the transracial adoptees’ feeds, because they are POC, too.  Don’t filter out the stuff that speaks against white people or white parents; if it hurts, keep going.

Hopefully this makes you realize no matter how hard you try, the color gap between you and your transracially adopted child will never close. Families of color struggle with colorism within their own environments, so transracial adoptive families will undoubtedly experience conflicts.

Then, when you’re ready, ask questions. Not to other transracial adoptive parents right now; ask the adoptees. Many of you who are already doing that–and taking time to listen and consider our experiences/advice–are light years ahead of everyone else which is why I love you all. By getting uncomfortable, by questioning your parenting ability, by thinking about your situation–those are signs you ARE putting your child first.

Look, there won’t be any easy answers for getting transracial adoption right. There will always be holes, there will always be loss, there will always be inner and external barriers and anger. Instead of focusing on doing it perfectly (or thinking you already are…), focus on reaching out to the transracial adoptee community.

Set aside your judgments and fears so you can give your child the best possible future, even if adoption mucks things up a bit. That’s the nature of adoption; it’s a complex thing, and it’s why so many adoptees dislike the “adoption is beautiful” myth because it overlooks the many ways it isn’t. You are experiencing parenting hardship by stepping outside your comfort zone, but the adoptee will forever live with some level of confusion. As a community, we can help mitigate that loss and work together to build from it instead of make it worse.

PS–Adoptees get offended by the cutesy adoption videos and photos because when we see those, we can’t comprehend how one person’s excitement is based on another person’s loss. As a mother, I understand the excitement over a new family member, but please remember how adoptees began their lives.

PS again–No, I don’t hate you and I don’t think you’re bad for adopting transracially, but yes there are pockets out there who might but not everyone does so please don’t let that discourage you.

PS YET AGAIN–always remember this:

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Please reach out any time to chat!

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!

announcement: article feature on resonate mag

My auspicious connect with blogger and social commentator, Eliza Romera aka Aesthetic Distance, has led to so many incredible opportunities. She helped me get my infamous Think Adopting Children of Color Makes You Woke? It Doesn’t. article launched. Now, she and her editor friend over at We Are Resonate supported me enough to feature a second transracial adoption piece!

Below’s an excerpt and a link to the full post. THANK YOU!

FEATURE: WHAT THIS KID’S AMAZING AMERICA’S GOT TALENT AUDITION TAUGHT ME ABOUT RACIAL MIRRORING, ADOPTION, AND PARENTING

Humanizing Asians in popular culture will provide racial mirrors for those of us unlucky enough to lack them.

I’m not a singer, I’m not a consumer of pop culture, and I’m definitely not that into music. But when I watched this kid’s amazing rendition of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up,” I was taken not just by 13-year-old Jeffrey Li’s unquestionable talent but by something else completely.

Through my work as a transracial Korean adoptee, I write a lot about racial mirroring and its importance for children of color. Without families or communities resembling them, many Asian adoptees grow up insecure about, ambivalent toward, or hating everything that makes them Asian, all characteristics–like their adoptions–completely out of their control. Unsurprisingly and without remediation, such attitudes become deeply ingrained in children who grow into adults with complex racial identities.

Read the rest here at Resonate!

move over, primal wound: same family, different colors is transracial adoption’s new guidebook

“Skin color matters because we are a visual species and we respond to one another based on the way we physically present.”

I’ve mentioned Lori L. Tharps’ book in several other articles, but I’ve finally decided that it needs its own feature.

In light of the recent “white woman drives her and her black adopted children off cliff and kills them” story and the “Indian adoptee beaten to death by her white family” event and the many other documented cases of transracial adoption gone horribly awry, I can’t think of a better time to discuss this book.

To be clear, I’m referring to transracial adoption as white families adopting children of color.

When I initially started writing, I took an ambivalent stance on transracial adoption. Specifically, I said

I am “adopt transracially with extreme prejudice.”

But several months ago, I read Same Family, Different Colors and have been sitting with Tharps’ findings ever since, carefully weighing her honest accounts of interfamilial colorism among non-adoptive families with my transracial adoption experience and research. Tharps examines how African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and bi-racial Americans confront color in their own families, questioning her own child’s light skin tone against her own, wondering how society perceives a dark-skinned mother with an almost-white daughter.

Through extensive conversations with ethnic families, Tharps found that even “microscopic” skin color variances can “impact everything from interactions among family members, parenting practices, and sibling relationships to racial identity formation.”

Tharps continues, saying what all adoptees (especially transracial adoptees) know:

[E]ven in the twentieth century, the general public does not understand that families don’t match.

“People expect families to match,” Tharps writes, “despite the fact that interracial marriage has been legal in all 50 states since 1967.”

My aim here is to position Tharps’ work within the scope of transracial adoption and ask: If same-race, non-adoptive families experience colorism, how are transracial adoptive families expected to succeed?

In her chapter discussing black colorism, Tharps states that “[b]lack family parenting might look different than white family parenting.” Specifically, Tharps points out “raising Black children adds an additional layer of responsibility for parents.” This me wonder if white parents are aware of these issues and can adequately prepare transracially adopted children for such survival.

Other academics tentatively suggest that no, white parents cannot prepare black children (or, I’d argue, other children of color) for a racially-colored life. Since, as Tharps makes clear, much of this parental racial “training” is done via “osmosis–meaning most children simply pick up on the opinions and attitudes of their parents–some of the lessons are more overt.” In a transracial family, discussion of race would be anecdotal at best. And, when viewed through a “white” lens, racial attitudes are formed less on colored experiences and more on moralistic views.

One woman Tharps interviewed, Linda, enjoyed playing outside as a child, but recalls her mother’s admonishments that doing so was making her “Black.” Because of the colorism within the family, Linda came to understand that “Black was not something she wanted to be.” Her sisters, meanwhile, were praised for their light skin and straight hair, with her father’s dark skin causing internal family strife so bad it eventually tore the family apart.

In a Latina example, a woman’s lifetime of teasing from her family about her “African nose and springy hair” drove her to straighten her hair and undergo a nose job.

Another interesting finding was that some

“[b]lack parents treat their children differently based on the shade of their skin.”

Current transracial adoptive parents have spoken with me, doing their best to navigate their child’s color and race. I don’t have easy answers but the best ones are those who acknowledge their limitations. There isn’t an easy answer, but my hope is transracial adoptive parents and adoptees read this book now (yes, I’m that excited about it) because it’ll help spotlight the real truth:

  • Color matters.
  • Society will judge non-matching families.
  • You won’t be able to figure it out.

Instead, let’s focus on understanding and admitting our chosen family’s inherent boundaries. Perhaps from within that framework, and with ongoing education, we’ll dispel the hope of a white saving grace, embracing our differences while constantly advocating for deeper conversations on color, family, and the myth of the homogeneous family.

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I can’t emphasize enough how highly I recommend this book. If you’ve already adopted transracially, it’ll give you an amazingly genuine insight into the difficulties color creates, hopefully motivating you to continue learning from, speaking to, and truly listening to transracial adoptees.

If you’re considering transracial adoption, Tharps’ work will prepare you for the intense struggle monoracial and interracial families endure. Consider their perspectives when adding a transracial adoptee to your home.

adoptive mom returns children; i respond

In case you missed it, I wrote an article in response to a white woman who kept her adopted children for four months–and then returned them.

Here’s an excerpt:

Dear Every Adoptive Parent Who Thinks This Is Okay,

You promised to love your adopted children like your own, thinking adoption was the solution to whatever inability you had to bear your own biological children.

You underwent the process to obtain someone’s children, tiny human beings with souls already marked by uncertainty and insecurity. Children who, from birth, were subject to separations no being should ever consider humane.

For a short moment in these children’s lives, you provided hope and excitement. Even at young ages, children learn vulnerability is a liability and don’t offer it easily. But with their adoption, they believed they’d found a home.

But after only four months, for whatever reason — but my guess is that it was the side effects of their trauma and unstable upbringings — they were actually given back.

Read the rest.

to survive or thrive

I love gardening. I love waking up and walking outside to my suburban yard each morning and seeing what sprouted up overnight, checking if any tiny tender green leaves cut their way through my sandy South Jersey soil.

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I’m an impatient gardener, though, getting down on my hands and knees several times a day, inspecting the dirt while the morning’s moisture seeps through the knees of my pants.

Recently and at my urging, my husband and I moved a knockout rose bush from our shady front yard to a super-sunny spot in the backyard, knowing it’d bloom tremendously with the sun’s uninterrupted light. In its previous location, it was a woody and awkward thing–bordering on an eyesore–producing only one or two tiny roses each season but never anything more.

It was surviving out front, sure. But was it thriving? No.

Any plant will survive in imperfect conditions, as long as it has the absolute minimum requirements to keep itself going. But if it’s a flowering species, it likely won’t offer blooms, only green leafy stems and foliage but never reaching its true potential.

Like that rose bush, many adoptees simply survive. We move forward using grit and adrenaline, pulling through abuse and racism and second-class status and hurt and loss, and we become functional adults with lives built on, again, survival.

But we’re not thriving.

I think about what happened with that rose bush and what happened to me and plenty of adoptees like me. Taken from uncertain circumstances in mysterious greenhouse incubators, plunked down in an environment offering life’s basics and maybe even a little “more,” yet still unable to reach our full potential. We fail to thrive. Or, using my gardening example, maybe we notice a struggling little patch of grass attempting to set seed, give it water, and walk away, wondering why isn’t it growing?

But this is what’s happening:

After we got my dog, after my husband attended therapy with me, and after I slowly discovered that what adoption and racism did to me wasn’t healthy, did I find myself just like the plants outside. Because when I was young, after growing not into the docile Asian daughter promised by the adoption agency, but instead a headstrong girl with her own personality, genetic code, and needs, I was transformed into my family’s ungrateful wench. The miserable bitch who started arguments with my parents and just couldn’t be happy.

My family was full of homecoming queens and prom kings and sports stars. I was anti-social, a bookworm, and hung out with losers (even though I had few friends). I frequently lost friends due to my jealousy and difficulty trusting people. None of this was attributed to adoption or my insecure attachments. Instead, it was my status as my family’s outcast that simply explained it all.

I was difficult, yes. But like many adoptees (especially transracial ones adopted in the early days), emphasis was placed on my problems being due to lack of gratitude and severe personality defects. None of it was attributed to my environment or stuff like this:

or this:

I’m not perfect. I absolutely had an attitude problem, but like my rose bush, in the wrong environment–even with the minimal requirements needed to live–an adoptee or wounded child won’t grow into a happy teen and contented adult.  For many years, I blamed myself for being different. I lashed out at anyone white, anyone thin, anyone better than me because there was always something wrong with meWithout understanding or compassion, there’s no way to safely move from survival mode to thriving. So we shift into fight mode, unable to take flight until we’re able to detach ourselves from that environment and rebuild our lives.

I don’t blame my family or my community. By stepping back and observing life’s strange landscapes, I’m able to see that we all had a responsibility to each other and somewhere, something failed us. And maybe that’s why I’ve spent years trying to perfect my plants. Seeing life take shape from my best efforts rewards me by providing a living metaphor for life.

I am so happy to have found support and space to thrive. Learning to trust this environment–one I’m building entirely on my own with a few special folks (and you) along the way–is terrifying. But my hope is that we all tell our stories and are given equal representation in the media and the safety to explore our histories. We aren’t perfect, but we aren’t to be shunned for our depression or rage or challenging behavior. No child deserves to be labeled by their own family, but as my time in my garden illustrates, thriving is possible once you find an environment that allows you to bloom.

what my first launch party taught me about adoption writing

Hello, adoption activists: We’re begging the non-adoption community to #JustListen, but I think they might be hearing us.

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Thank you, Tilde: A Literary Magazine and The Spiral Bookcase!

Before reading “the lucky ones,” I introduced myself as what others would consider an adoption activist, but I told the crowd that I just call myself a writer. I explained that adoptees are desparate to be heard, but we’re speaking to a crowd already familiar with our struggle.

But art, I said, is a great unifier.

Through “the lucky ones” and other pieces I hope to release (including the upcoming “playground ghost,” due out next month by Parhelion Literary Magazine), I present, in what’s intended to be a relatable way, our pain and loss and longing. All of those heartaches are easily identifiable by anyone, adopted or not,  who circulates among us throughout this sometimes-wretched hive. But by weaving the subject within words recognizable by any human who experienced abandonment, people will, I think, find themselves behind the same mask adoption activists wear and understand our small niche’s large undertaking.

I encourage you to use whatever skills or talents you have to keep pushing for an audience. Knit hats for struggling young mothers, donate diapers to women’s shelters, create pottery for baby mementos–it doesn’t matter. Our art will resonate with the greater community–just speak to them and they will listen.

It will happen–we won’t give up.

A special thank you to Frank and Stephanie and Reshma and Lynelle and Rochelle and Marcie and Suzan and Lana and Adam and Liz and countless others who have helped get my work off the ground. Much appreciated!

it’s a matter of perspective

The internet is up in collectively confused arms (do we increase our tissue box supply or dust off our pickets?) over this latest factoid:

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Tear-faced children: The perfect antidote to critical thinking.

On the one hand, proponents for adoption reform or cessation are thrilled. On the other, adoption supporters or those who just don’t understand why adoptees are skeptical about such a seemingly heart-wrenching newsbite should then read the troubling responses like this:

There are a few errors here, but the assumptions (and rhetoric) stated above routinely plague adoption activists and hold us back. Let’s break it down:

  1. “the cost”
    • Implies financial barriers prohibit “getting” a baby, as though a baby was an inanimate object or another status symbol; commodifies a human being
  2. “3rd world places”
    • Ethnocentrism implying undeveloped countries can’t care for their own
    • Partially racist
    • Outdated terminology (very telling)
  3. “[give] Americans their unwanted”
    • WHAT.
    • Reinforces the idea that adoptees began life as truly unwanted, partially upholding the “perpetual child” myth
    • Does not support in-country social services or family support
    • Ethnocentrism, and like there isn’t an adoptee issue here in America?

We MUST continue dispelling the myths surrounding adoption. From an adoptee perspective, this is a huge sign that we have miles to go before people understand the damage done by adoption. What’s worse is that attitudes demonstrated above discourage support for struggling mothers and fathers, framing adoption as the only ethical solution to their temporary problems.

As long as dialogue like this continues, control will steadily be wrested from families, as they remain convinced they cannot or should not seek help from their own governments. Shipping children out to the U.S. is not the answer.

Adoption, when it works as intended, can be wonderful. But supporting family preservation is an excellent solution as it empowers mothers, fathers, and children, rather than reducing them to desperation and lifelong trauma.

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!

Society’s Perpetual Children: An Introduction to the Adoptee Condition (Part Two)

Part One introduced adoptees as perpetual children and their status as invisible minorites. Part Two focuses on adoption insults and the American family.

We might wonder how we arrived here, with so many adoptees divided on the subject of their birth and subsequent adoptions. We’ve established that inevitable myths and maybes are associated with adoptions of all kinds (intercountry, transracial, domestic, etc.), creating chasms among diverse sets of adoptees, but what else created society’s invisible minority?

Two ongoing external factors keep adoptees in a childlike stasis: One, the continued abuse of the phrase “You’re adopted!” and two, misconceptions of the traditional American family.

Let’s go back in time by briefly recapping American family history, starting with the 1950s—the time when adoption (especially intercountry/transracial adoption) became more common. Then we’ll look at the media’s use of adoption as an insult and tie the themes together to understand adoptees’ current condition.

Remember, this article only briefly summarizes a deeper conversation—my work-in-progress dives further into the literature and its greater impact on adoption. For simplicity’s sake, I’m focusing on the period between 1950 and 1980.

Be sure to follow me for more sneak peeks!

Leaving “Leave it to Beaver” Behind

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Children of the 1980s watched reruns of “Happy Days,” “Leave it to Beaver,” and “The Donna Reed Show,” often alongside parents for whom these programs elicited nostalgia for the good old days. Dads knew best, making fathers all-knowing beings who created and supported progeny with guaranteed good futures. Moms were usually smiling dress-wearing chefs.

Younger generations criticize these whitewashed shows, mocking the racially and gender-role limited representation of the all-American household. But popular culture is a pervasive creature, weaving its way into fading memories and creating reality out of potentially unhappy fictions. What we end up with is a pervasive idea that families must match and anything else—especially a white family with a non-white addition—symbolizes failure or distrust.

Adoptive parents raised in the 1950s absorbed a culture that newly encouraged “men as well as women…to root their identity and self-image in familial and parental roles.” What with Cold Wars and World Wars, an emerging middle-class of white Americans were ready to embrace their latest post-War economic gains and make the nuclear family “the most salient symbol and immediate beneficiary of their newfound prosperity.”

These financial freedoms weren’t available to non-Whites, but that’s no matter: The rising racial divides and battles for equal minority representation were mostly hidden from families nestled in homes behind white-picket fences and cul-de-sacs. As a result, the ideal family was neighborly, homogenous, and conformist.

Today, it’s easy to see the consequences of such self-imposed sheltering, but how did it impact adoption?

Adoption: the Ultimate Non-Conformity

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At the same time monoracial middle-class family units prospered, Korean adoptees—brought to the United States beginning in the 1940s and continuing en masse through the 1980s—matured alongside this budding American dream. Their existence, along with black adoptees (adopted less frequently than Koreans), was set against a backdrop of sameness. But transracial adoptees represented to liberals a social progression; proponents for racial equality could point to transracial adoption and proclaim that we’ve achieved success.

But for others, adoption may have been a blight on American achievements. Since non-white persons still retained “other” status, their unmistakable presence among their adoptive families may have led outsiders to question the stability of the so-called traditional American family.

And, despite the 1960s and 1970s notable progressiveness, adoptees whose appearance differed from their families remained polarizing symbols: either progressives were doing something right or they took equality too far. For adoptees who matched, their existences became a sometimes shameful secret—what damage could an unwanted child bring to a family?

The Adoption Insult

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With the nuclear family tantamount to success, adoptees symbolized failure: Someone failed to care for these “orphans,” someone failed to take advantage of the economic prosperity available to middle-class Americans, someone failed to adhere to the country’s still-pervasive Christian values.

It’s then that adoption became an insult since adoptees represented an affront to “proper” society. On one hand, optimistic people viewed it as another American achievement; we can afford to take care of others as well as ourselves. But ultimately, less-informed or more traditional folk may have viewed it as a serious decline of moral values.

*

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan declared

[T]he family has somehow become less important. Well, I can’t help thinking just the opposite: that when so much around us is whispering the little lie that we should live only for the moment and for ourselves, it’s more important than ever for our families to affirm an older and more lasting set of values.

In Reagan’s conclusion, he wistfully noted that “there is a certain quietness, a certain calm: the calm of one still night long ago and of a family—father, mother, and newborn child,” leaving very little room for adoptees and plenty of space for stubborn adherence to so-called societal norms.

With so much optimistic fervor surrounding family traditions, it logically follows that “Mom and Dad don’t really love you—you’re adopted!” and “Don’t mind Johnny’s taste for eating paper plates; he’s adopted!” would result.

Unfortunately, Hollywood love(s) this trope, prominently featuring it in 1990’s Problem Child, where even considering adopting a troubled child creates a black mark in an entire neighborhood. (Not to mention the “He’s not even a real kid. He’s adopted!” quip.) The implication seems to be that orphans are dangerous cat-throwing pyromaniacs who worship prisoners in the guise of Michael Richards. And the overarching sentiment lies solely with his poor, well-meaning parents–Junior’s issues are only barely acknowledged.

This movie—and countless other media representations—made adoption a punch line, a stigmatizing condition that’s either all good or all bad. And despite the rise of charities supporting children’s needs, it was best to philanthropize at a distance; inviting stranger children into our homes overstepped boundaries, highlighting unsolvable societal problems.

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*

Maybe my definition of adoptees as invisible minorities needs a revision. Adoptees may be more accurately described as “society’s shameful open secret,” especially when leaders declare that “in recent decades the American family has come under virtual attack.” Donald Trump’s recent State of the Union address also perpetuated adoption misconceptions, firmly entrenching adoptees in a state of inertia.

*

Part Three will conclude this series, wrapping up with discussion of adoptees’ current efforts to undo these misconceptions. I’ll disuss the challenges they face, as well as what else must be done if adoptees are to change adoption’s public perception.

In the meantime, I recommend reading The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. She breaks apart the so-called traditional family myth and shows that no such thing really existed.

I encourage you to comment or contact me–we can’t grow without a good discussion!

Thanks so much for reading and remember: Share this article so non-adoptees can be drawn into our cause.

Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!

Society’s Perpetual Children: An Introduction to the Adoptee Condition (Part One)

The mismatch in expectations versus reality for adoptees and non-adoptees is obvious. To expand adoption’s relevancy, this ongoing longform series provides a high-level view of adoptees’ current perspectives. I’ll attempt to uncover why adoptee writing stays relegated to niche groups or newsletters; why adoptee mistreatment and abuse makes ripples only amongst those affected; and what we can do to simply care. By moving away from adoptee-as-child terminology and welcoming non-adoptees into the conversation, we can begin taking their experiences seriously.

dear adoption
Dear Adoption–great site with amazing perspectives.

There exists a group of people, foreigners within their own families, who form kinship from strangers’ blood. Adopted as babies and children and teens, they mature into adulthood yet remain forever frozen as society’s adopted children.

It doesn’t matter how assimilated adoptees become, into their new families or into new cultures if immigrating from another country. For some reason, they’re referred to — even by government representatives — as children. Adults adopted as a result of wartime conflicts, like Amerasians of the Korean War or the Vietnamese left behind after that war, have clearly aged into adults. Many, like Lynelle Long, become activists who meet with country officials to voice their concerns with the practice. Despite their accomplishments, though, they’re still viewed as the children sent away.

Why are we categorizing a subset of our adult population this way?

Adoptees have known two mothers, two lives, and migrated within two worlds, sometimes jarred violently from a womb to a stranger’s waiting arms. Adoptees survive this and develop into mostly capable adults, but then have their frequently traumatic experiences buried under childlike descriptions.

There is a reason for this stasis.

Society still devours happy endings. Adoptees are the ultimate humanitarian symbol: Presumably unwanted, a willing family took a child in and saved them, imbuing an aura of childlike wonder around them. Refugees and orphans become a parent’s act of charity and love. What could be better than that?

But admitting the adopted child grows up means acknowledging that we may have objectified a human being. To remedy the mistake, adoptee experiences that don’t align with our expectations are discredited.

It’s time to #JustListen.

The Curious Phenomenon

Ending the story once an adoption’s finalized creates a curious phenomenon: We tune out the object of fascination, hearing from them only what validates our values.

In an era where hasty generalizations are eschewed, the population most impacted by adoption — adoptees —  remains largely overlooked.

Some adoptive parents make cutesy videos about their adoption announcements, garnering thousands of views, shares, and outpourings of financial and emotional support. (Note: I do not support that video. At all.)

Once the object — the child — is obtained, the story ends. At least for the adoptee.

The parent’s journey continues. Their struggles raising a child with predictable attachment and other behavioral issues become the parent’s burden, not the child’s. Here the parents are at an advantage, getting to tell their story before the child has the vocabulary necessary to speak out.

The adoptee doesn’t get the opportunity to speak, at least not until they’re older, when their disgruntled blogs and tweets and Facebook statuses are overshadowed by their parent’s love and selfless devotion. By then, the child has become trapped in a sort of suspended animation; always adopted, yet expected to accept — without question — their circumstances.

Yet — and here’s where it’s really curious — many kids, especially adolescents, experience turbulent, ragey years. As a natural reaction to the dichotomy of budding independence yet still dependent upon parental financial and emotional support, teens rebel. But adoptees, already hampered by origin issues and (for transracial adoptees) racial identity confusion, act out even stronger, filtering frustration from a place more primal than simple teenage rebellion.

They’re expressing grief. Deep, traumatic grief, couched in abandonment issues that manifest themselves as relationship difficulties, drug or alcohol abuse, or — in some cases — suicide.

And even so, reports focus on how much the parents struggled with the child’s behavior, how much effort was wasted on someone who was selfishly unreceptive to love.

 

When any child has serious troubles, it’s a tragedy for that child and the family. When the adopted child has problems, it’s personal. It’s a direct insult and a bitter truth: Love isn’t always enough. That truth manifests as resentment on a parent’s and greater society’s behalf; after all, if a practice so rooted in love and selflessness could be so easily dismissed by the “saved,” it’s easier to blame the victim than address the problem’s roots.

The Invisible Minority

There’s another reason we need to pay attention to adoptee voices.

Adoptees are the ones with first-hand experience in a system that took away their control, but no one seems to hear what they’re trying to say.

They live and work alongside you, but you’d never know their secret. They’re part of a population with life stories that began with true uncertainty and unwant. They encompass all races and hail from a plethora of countries.

They began their lives with loss and gains, asked for and about but never just asked.

Still, adoption remains an uncomfortable topic for some, an insult for others, or, in its extreme, a divine act proposed by God. Even as adoptee activists write strongly-worded missives against the practice, create catchy hashtags (#BeingAdoptedMeans and #JustListen are the popular ones), and maintain well-trafficked blogs, they only garner mass attention when something ugly happens.

Take, for instance, the South Korean adoptee who was deported then committed suicide in his “home” country. Or the recent article about the three-year-old girl murdered by her adoptive parents. Obviously these incidents belie any happy ending, though some are still inclined to believe these are one-offs in a largely beneficial system.

When adoptees speak out about the practice — mind you, they’re not doing it as a reactionary measure but in addition to these tragic events — they’re ignored or challenged:

This was actually said by an adoptee to another adoptee — the cannibalism is real.

If this were any other group clamoring for attention, I believe they’d be much more successful. Instead, it remains easier to cling to myths and maybes about a practice than systematically change our opinions. And when adoptee protests are drowned out by kitchsy videos and GoFundMe requests by prospective adoptive parents, adoptees are seen as ungrateful bitter jerks.

With minority status, perhaps their activism will be taken more seriously; rather than being viewed as ungratefuls rebelling against their saint-like parents, they’ll hopefully emerge into mainstream conversations as a marginalized group long misunderstood by stereotypes and stigmas.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Facing Forward

As families change shape and form, as reproductive technologies and the definitions of motherhood and fatherhood blur, adoptees cannot and should not be overlooked in these discussions.

Screenshot 2018-02-07 at 4.38.35 PM
Courtesy of Confessions of an Adoptee

After all, adoptees asserted their space in a society that still prioritizes biological relations. Adoptees, perhaps, are society’s pariahs. They don’t deserve that status. Adoptees were among the first to rewrite our country’s perception of the traditional family, yet are assigned passive roles. It’s the notion of the adopted child that keeps them ignored.

Part Two of this series will look at America’s role in creating adoption insults and America’s historical relationship with the traditional family.

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Like this? Want more? So do I! Find out about my upcoming ventures on my Patreon page!