The Dehumanisation of an Adoptee

by Kayla Zheng adopted from China to the USA.

I would be so bold to say that the vast majority of, if not all, adoptions are the selfish act of those wanting to, or having already adopted. The result of adoption leaves the adoptee in a perpetual state of dehumanisation. If we look at the word dehumanisation defined by  the Oxford Dictionary, it means “the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities.” For the public and individuals who are not well versed in adoption, the adoption industrial complex, and its practices, this can be quite confusing and the representation of adoption and adoptees have, for the most part, been a glamorised sensational plot twist or form of character development. Yet, here lies one of the many ways adoptees, both on-screen and off, are dehumanised and portrayed as void of any critical thought or experience. 

Adoption, as portrayed by social media and film, consistently shows adoptive parents (who are often white) as selfless philanthropic couples whose only intentions are to dote and shower love on a poor child (who are often BIPOC), ever pushing the narrative of white saviours. The consistent and inherent goodness and altruistic nature of whiteness by default shifts both power and racial dynamics in favour of whiteness and the dependent, in need of saving, is helpless without the all-powerful and knowing whiteness bestowed onto the child of colour. When these patterns of adoption become representative and up for societal consumption, it dehumanises the adoptee to be merely a puppet without inherent positive attributes on their own. Any potential is tied and associated to the people who adopted them, leaving the adoptee as a hollow shell used to narrow in the spotlight on the adoptive parents. Through film and TV, adoption is the stripping away of an adoptee (again, predominantly BIPOC), the illumination of adoptive parents (and, again, predominately white), how can society possibly see us as humans when we live in the shadows of those who adopted us? How can we be seen with inherent potential, with the successes of our ancestors running through our blood, and dreams reflecting our truest selves when we are constantly being shown that we are nothing without adoption? That we are nothing without whiteness?

In the continual film and TV portrayal of adoption and adoptees, adoptees are always pitted against one another. When you think of some of your favourite films or characters that are adoptees, who are they? Do they happen to be Loki, Frodo Baggins, Black Widow, Batman, The Joker, Lord Voldemort? The paradox of society’s fascination and indifference for orphans is destructive, the demand for adoptees (and thus, adoption) is binary and forces adoptees to fill the dual desire to save adoptees/orphans and villainize an adoptee/orphan. The loss of biological connection and identity loss is fantasised to create a more contextualised storyline. The need for adoption to contribute trauma and fantasy for character build-up is highly sought after. This is the double dehumanisation of adoptees through film and TV.

The danger with artificial and weak backstories is that it boxes adoptees and orphans into narrow forms and compounds the stigma and expectations surrounding our existence. This forced role of villain or hero does not provide a realistic experience of cohesively incorporating mountainous rage, burdening grief, exuding joy, and love. What Hollywood and the media project of “bad” or “good” adoptees/orphans limits and strips them of their individuality, autonomy, and humanness. The “damaged and broken” adoptee or “overcomer and hero” orphan are roles that are inaccurate and are a weak reality that is far from the nuanced life an adoptee/orphan lives that requires a burden too heavy to carry. Film and TV strips away our humanity and adoptees do not get the privilege to exist as ourselves. We are only for consumption and the limited space provided for us in the binary tropes romanticises our trauma, confines our capabilities, and diminishes us to fit a consumer’s palate. We never belong to ourselves. If we cannot have ownership over our own stories and lives, are we even able to be fully human? 

In my experience, the greatest form of dehumanisation occurs for an adoptee within the church. Growing up in an all-white environment and heavily involved in a white church that preached white Christianity, I had to survive in an ecosystem of whiteness that demanded gratitude to the good white Christians who saved me from big, bad, heathen, communist China. I would find myself, more than once, being paraded around as a token of Christian and white goodness. Of how “the Lord works in miraculous ways” and gave lil ol’ me the “opportunity and privilege to be adopted by a Christian family in a Christian country where I learned about Christ.” What that told me loud and clear was that China was irredeemable unless under the power of the white Christian church or through adoption by whiteness. In other words, I did not possess inherent potential and positive traits without the white man liberating me and providing me access to success under the guidance of white Christianity. 

The dehumanisation continued, as in my early years during conferences I would be brought in front of a congregation or made to stand onstage alongside my adoptive parents, and they would discuss how adoption was a beautiful gift that touched their life. Other times, youth leaders would openly discuss how my adoption is a metaphor for how Christians are “adopted” into the family of Christ. And how my adoption gave me a new father – we have a new father through Jesus! Different variations and versions of these scenarios have plagued my youth and further trivialised my existence into a metaphor that others could benefit from. Not once did anyone question if adoption was a gift to me, if being taken away from my homeland touched my life in a beautiful way or not, or being uprooted twice before the age of three with a group of white strangers benefited me or could replace a sense of family for me.

To have your story told through a white lens as a person of colour that protects the white man while diminishing your autonomy and the multifaceted complexities of your existence, is one of the most dehumanising grievances that can happen. Adoption through mainstream media and the church gave little room for me to feel human but instead made every space feel like an advertisement that others could project their value onto, for their own benefit. Winners have the privilege to write history or speak about it on stage. Losers, those who are not given the same chance to speak their own story, those who are bought…are dehumanised. 

Kayla’s most popular articles: Decolonizing Moses & Atlanta Consequences

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