Hollee McGinnis on Identity


11-13 August 2014
International Institute of Social Studies
The Hague, Netherlands

Session 2: Countries of Origin and birth families – issues of identity, searching and open adoption – (Theme 3 joint with Themes 1 and 2)
Tuesday 11th August 10.30 – 12.30.
Opening Presentation

Hollee McGinnis, MSW Washington University in St. Louis

Identity issues; connections to birth culture; connections to birth kin; reunions; role of the internet in searching for birth relatives; open adoptions

Good morning and greetings! My name is Hollee McGinnis and I was adopted from South Korea and raised by my family in the United States. As a transracial transnational adopted adult, community organizer, and scholar I am honored to be able to provide the opening comments for this session with Barbara and get us thinking about issues of identity, birth culture, connections to birth kin, search and open adoptions in the context of intercountry adoptions.

Many times we adoptees are asked to share our personal story rather than our expertise as a scholar or professional in adoption. And so I hesitated at first to talk about my personal experience during these comments. However, I think it is vital that we bring the lived experiences of adoptees into this room and into this forum – and not just in our writing or books, but as the real people who are here present in this room — many of whom I am grateful to call colleagues. And so I will share some antidotes from my story — taking full responsibility that it is my story and does not necessarily represent all adoptee experiences — to illustrate some important points I think we need to consider when we think about these issues based on research and what we know about adoptees experiences.

For adoptees and other members of the adoption triad, adoption is not an intellectual endeavor, or a political issue, or a human rights issue. It is our life. It is an experience that is done to us that lives within the very cells of our bodies. It is an experience that we take with us to our grave, and pass down to our children.

What I do not know about my biological history or genealogy, my son also will never know, or his children after him. The biological relatives I never get to meet, my son also will never get to know as his family. What we deprive adoptees from knowing about their biological families we also deprive generations after the adoptee as well.

For too long adoption practices and policies have focused on only the short term. The “best interest of the child” is usually applied to what is in the “best interest of the child right now”. And when we think of only the “now” this can led to “rescue” and other practices that do not honor the full life of the child. And so one paradigm shift I think we need to begin to do is think about: “What is in the best interest of the child now, and throughout his or her lifetime and generations to come” – much like Native Americans.


Another point I would like to make is that adoptees issues with identity are not just personal. For too long research on adoptees has focused only on the individual and not the person in context. Adoptees’ struggle with identity is not OUR problem, it’s a problem that is thrust on us because of the societies in which we must navigate.

Growing up, I was clear with who I was. I was Hollee McGinnis, Asian face, Irish last name, blond haired mom. I always knew I was adopted and that I came from Korea and these were sources of pride. But it was when I began to leave the security of my family as an adolescent and ventured out into the world that I realized the world did not see me this way. They only saw my Asian face. And so began my education in racism.

In the research I conducted at the Donaldson Adoption Institute “Beyond Culture Camp” we also found this developmental trajectory among adult Korean transracial adoptees. When we asked them at what point in their development was their racial/ethnic identity important to them, by middle school half of study participants said it was important, with over 80% indicating it was important to them by college and young adulthood.

In adoption practice we have used “culture” as a way of masking the real issues of racism within the Western nations in which we have placed children of color from around the world. In encouraging a “color blind” approach to adoption and encouraging adoptive parents to instill “cultural pride” instead of preparing them and giving them tools to navigate racial bias, we have neglected to name a core experience that adoptees experience.

Barbara Yngvesson will touch more on the problems of “culture” in adoption but I just want to make this point:

For adoptees our “culture” and “heritage” is not something from our past, something to be remembered. Our birth culture is here in the present, every day and every moment. We wear our birth culture everyday on our face.

We transracial adoptees walk in the shells and outer casing of our mother cultures, wiped clean. We are no longer Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, or Ethiopian. We are American or Dutch or Swedish – by adoption. The loss of our mother culture is a constant ache to understand, a reaching for something which was ours, but no longer. For all that we might try to forget, our bodies betray us, and are a constant reminder of where we had come from.

And so we must begin to pull apart issues of race from issues of culture. Adoptees do want to know about their birth cultures, about their roots, and about their heritage. But this is distinct from the struggles adoptees face because of their race.

As in the Donaldson report, we must go beyond culture camps and just fostering pride in one’s heritage – while valuable and a place to start – to talking about racism and helping adoptive parents and adoptees prepare for racial bias. Culture is comfortable. Racism is not. But it is the racism that adoptees struggle with, not cultural pride.


In thinking about issues of identity for adoptees we must also be careful to avoid purporting a “best” or “better way” for a transracial adoptee to identify (Baden, 2002, p. 189) — which fails to acknowledge adoptees as active agents in the formation of their identities.

Adoptee identity struggles rest in coming to understand not only the place we were born into but didn’t get to grow up, but the place we were raised but not born into, and the integration of these identities into one whole self.

For me, the struggle with my identity was created because I felt I had to choose one identity or another. I felt I had to choose either to identify with my adoptive parents or my birth family. My race forced me to identity as Korean, but my lived experience told me I was an American. The fact was that I was both.

In 1996 I started an organization in New York City for adult intercountry adoptees. The name of the organization is “Also-Known-As” because I wanted to create a space where adoptees could freely explore all aspects of their identity, but especially come to know their dual identities imposed on them because of their adoption.

Who we are is a complex web of ancestry, traditions, language, looks, experiences and choices. While some aspects of identity involve a degree of choice such as occupation, religion, or political values, others do not. Like race, gender and sexual orientation, being adopted is an imposed identity. The adopted person has no choice in being relinquished or being adopted.

For some adopted people this lack of choice and control in their own adoption can be a rightful source of anger, especially when imagining the “what-might-have-been” in their lives. However, if identities are ultimately formed by our declaration, then adopted people do have a choice: We get to choose what it means to be adopted. As children we are told what our adoption means. It is often told to us as a narrative of love. But as we get older and start to do some digging, some of us realize the meaning of adoption can also be a narrative of force and coercion.

So as we sit here and think what we as professionals can “do” to help adoptees and their identity development I would rather ask this: How can we support adoptees so they can do for themselves?

The fact is that adoptees have been figuring these things out by themselves often without the emotional or physical support from our adoptive families or professionals. This, of course, has slowly been changing, but still for too long adoptees has been left to their own devices to figure out the complexities of our lives because of adoption. The formation of adult intercountry adoptee organizations has stemmed directly from this need to not feel alone, and the power of community to normalize our experiences and to help each other.


Finally, I want us to think about two other possible frameworks to think through these issues of identity, birth culture and kin in a different way. And I’ll start off with this story, which some of you may have already heard.

I was adopted from South Korea in 1975 at the age of 3 1/2. My parents told me when I arrived I would sing and talk in Korean. Usually it was my mother who would recount these stories about my arrival which I always enjoyed hearing about. One story she told me was how in those first few weeks of my arrival to my new home in the suburbs of New York City, I would run to the front door, throw my body up against it and cry and cry and say something in Korean. My older sister, who is biological to my adoptive parents, and was 9 at the time, would copy me. In my mind I imagine my sister doing this over and over as children are apt to do — turning my tears into laughter. Years later my parents learned what my Korean words meant: I want to go home.

I share this to illustrate two things: First, that no matter how old a child is when they are adopted — either as an infant, a toddler, or young child — they come with a history, a past that is real. For all adoptees our history begins with our conception, 9 months in our birth mother’s womb, and in those moments when we took our first breaths. Every child is born to someone.

Second, that when we cross borders, cultures or races, there is movement. There is movement from one place to another, from one culture to another, from one family to another, and in these movements there are losses and there are gains.

It is clear that as a 3 year old I knew I had lost something. I lost my home and I wanted to go back. But since no one could understand my words, no one in my adoptive family knew or could help me with my loss. And so at the age of three I had to figure out how to cope with those feelings by myself. Children have only two mechanisms really to cope, namely shut out or act out. For me, I shut out. Within a couple of months I refused to speak Korean and with it the life I once was had there.

For infants and children the most significant traumatic experience is the loss of one’s caregiver. In the U.S.A. there is a current push to develop trauma informed systems of care so that child welfare systems, juvenile justice systems, and mental health systems minimize the re- traumatization of children as they enter and go through these systems.

Adoption has sanitized much of the raw experiences of adoption by using terms such as “relinquishment” and “making an adoption plan”. While the efforts to de-stigmatize adoption is laudable, it has also resulted in us neutralizing the raw emotions of adoption and minimize the loss that is inherent in current adoption practices.

Intrinsic to current practices of adoption – of what Barbara Yngvesson has referred to as “clean break” adoption practices, where the adopted person is severed and traces of his or past birth family and country are erased albeit for what he or she wears on her skin – gains and losses are necessarily two sides of the same coin. For us to have gained a new family through adoption we necessarily had to loss another family. But do we need to continue to practice clean-break adoptions?

And so I invite us to think: Can we create an adoption system that doe not, or tries to minimize the re-traumatization of children?

We retrautmaize children when we lie to them and keep secrets. When we do not give full information and disclosure about their histories. When we deny children the truth of their past and make nice stories that fail to develop and reflect the full complexity that gave rise to their adoption.

We retraumatize children when we deny or minimize children’s lived experiences. We retraumatize children when we deny that there is racism in their adoptive countries in which they are growing up. We re-traumatize children when we deny that birth parents and birth kin matter.

We re-traumatize children when we attribute their problems soley to their pre-adoption histories, and minimize the role adoptive parents and context have on their well-being. We retraumatize children when we deny them a voice and infantilize adopted adults’ contributions.

We re-traumatize children when we deny their trauma.


And so related to trauma I would like us to think about this complimentary framework: Can we develop an adoption system that is not based on fear but from the heart?

I am standing in a room with some of the biggest “brains” in adoption. We have a powerhouse of intelligence in this room. But I want us to see if we can see this issue not from our intellect but from our heart. As is aptly said in the book, The Little Prince:

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; What is essential is invisible to the eye”.

We have intellectualized this enterprise of intercountry adoption to often rationalize our own fears – fears driven by the losses inherent to the practice of “clean break” adoption practice, rather than an integrated adoption practice where we try to integrate a child’s past, present and future and all those involved into a whole.

An integrated adoption practice would frame adoption practice as circular, not linear. “Clean break” adoption practice emphasizes a linear progression away from the birth family, birth country and to the “progress” promised by a new family with no looking back to the past, or where the past if framed as only a vestige of the former self.

The lived experiences of adult adoptees like myself and numerous others who have committed significant psychological, emotional, and physical energy to making sense of the lives we have been given because we are adopted, know that this linear model does not reflect the process of claiming our identities.

Our lives are circular – we go to our birth countries to learn about ourselves — not to become “Chinese” or “Ethiopian” nationals again (although a few do) — and we return to our adoptive countries to learn about ourselves. Each cycle of going and returning helps us to grow to develop our full sense of self.

What would laws and systems and agencies look like if we worked from a point of compassion and healing for all those involved? I would like to call it Fearless Compassion, to distinguish it from what I might call “False Compassion” which always asks, “What can I do?” And hence reproduce hierarchies of power; rather than asking, “What can I let go and what resources are needed to so others can do for themselves?”

I think one question that is hovering over this forum is the question, Can we REALLY cross borders and form families without borders, and should we be continuing to do so? I say yes we can. We have been doing it — sometimes more successfully than others. However, the best ways of being successful border crossers is by first and foremost acknowledging that these borders exist, are real, and are painful. Adopting across race, nationality and culture is complex and requires courage, honesty, commitment, and of course, love. And so we must be willing to talk about the hard stuff — the discrimination, inequalities, and prejudices that exist in the world. But ultimately I believe our work is about hope: That we can be someone bigger than our fears.

Hollee McGinnis, MSW, previously worked as the policy director at the Donaldson Adoption Institute. She is currently a doctoral candidate conducting her dissertation in South Korea as a U.S. Fulbright and Korea Foundation grantee . Permission to reprint upon request to the author at holleem@gmail.com


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