From Tokenism to Social Justice

by Marie Gardom, adopted from Malaysia to the UK.

It’s become increasingly clear to me that not only is diversity alone not working but in fact it’s a tactic being used to immunise organisations against the charge of racism or marginalisation.  Here in the UK, the Conservative politicians who lead the most anti-immigration policies are people of colour.  They don’t represent the groups from which they came from instead they snuggle up to power by reciting the tired old Tory tropes, perhaps pining to belong to the in-group they’ve always been outside of, and always will be because they chose an intolerant in-group. 

We see this time and time again, a single minority group is represented and held up to be an example of why there isn’t racism/ablism/sexism etc.  Conveniently they proselytise the voice of the status quo with  passion and heady conviction.  When the dominant group is accused of inequity they wheel out one or two of the said minority group as a way of denying the charge and go back to making decisions to the disadvantage of minorities.
Over the decades an increasing awareness and demand for representation has led organisations, Hollywood and governments to create an illusion of diversity without inclusion, without meaningfully addressing power dynamics of majority groups and social hierarchies so power remains firmly in the same hands.  We’re often represented as a homogenous group if there’s one person of colour, or a gay white man, a box may have been ticked but meaningful representation hasn’t been achieved.

I see this in how we as adoptees are working as advocates.  There’s an awareness in society but a lack of comfort with the idea that adoptees are the experts.  As such there’s a performance of inclusion, adoptees are often at the forefront of adoption promo campaigns if they espouse how beautiful it is.  Even if they talk to the complexity of our experiences they remain comforting voices to those who see adoption as doing good and the only way to resolve family crisis in which a child needs support.

I’ve noticed that I’m rarely invited to give my opinion in policy or best practice within organisations who could reform it.  And when I am, the comfort of the majority group has been significantly favoured. Representation doesn’t give us power if we’re outnumbered, on someone else’s territory and way down the hierarchy.  I believe this to be largely unconscious, but always leveraged.  Those in the majority rarely have to consider the factors that create equity of power or more regularly inequity.  

Adoptees have very little representation across the world. In the UK alone, there’s not a single adoptee led group, which covers the wide range of experiences of adoptees here.  Instead  we’re disparate unfunded mutual aid groups trying to help each other and ourselves however we can.   I’ve observed the frequent ways in which many adoptees burn out from advocating.  Having been invited to conferences and policy events many have disappeared from view because of the traumatic nature of those events.  They’re traumatic because as a minority our voices are discounted, denied, argued with and often aggressively silenced.  This group is largely there at those tables because we’re so vulnerable, and so in need of change, our community has high levels of suicide, depression, addiction and more. 

If I’m going to continue my work as an advocate I need to set myself and fellow adoptees up for success in these spaces where we can find ourselves enduring dangerous levels of stress. So I think it’s important to name the power dynamics in play so that we can ensure we can address those problems in how we set up our boundaries, and have the language to name issues when they occur.  So I’ve created a simple infographic  which names the power dynamics and offers solutions for those genuinely interested in social justice.

See Marie’s other recent post in ICAV: From Charity to Justice

An Adoptee’s Take on “Crazy Rich Asians”

There are a lot of opinions and pieces surrounding Crazy Rich Asians right now. I am simply adding to the chorus, but from a slightly different perspective as a Chinese American intercountry adopted person. As an adoptee who watched Crazy Rich Asians, it is hard to describe all of the feelings I felt while sitting in the movie theatre, well twice. It was beautiful, funny, smart, and fun. Of course, the movie is receiving extra praise because of a cast that is all-Asian and not just the cast, but the music and the cultural representation as well. Representation matters and it was with a smile that I approached the end credits of the movie.

As an adoptee, I felt proud to see people who looked like me on the big screen. People who had similar features, presented in different shades where not every Asian was the kung fu master or nerdy IT tech support. The movie was refreshing and quite frankly a new experience, at least in major Hollywood films.

But…and this is a big but. I felt represented by the way I look, but not necessarily by how I grew up. As an adoptee I straddle in between the Asian and white cultures where I look Asian but was raised in a white household. To be honest, I am not sure I understood every joke in Crazy Rich Asians, and definitely didn’t understand every song. My parents didn’t necessarily practice the honor/shame ritual of guilting their children. I recognized it and laughed, but on an experiential level I couldn’t relate.

My immigrant story is a solo journey of going from a poor orphanage in China to a middle class white family in America. My immigrant story came without a choice and the expectation of gratefulness attached, because to some, I didn’t suffer as much as other Asian immigrant families did. That’s a topic for a different discussion. To the point however, Asian adoptees and others have struggled with identifying as Asian American or Asian because we aren’t seen as Asian enough. We are called “whitewashed” by other Asian Americans and we are clearly not white, but we are familiar with white culture because we had no choice but to be raised in it. We are left out because we don’t fit any conventional norms. We are the true bananas.

There was an article the other day of the mixed Asian actresses and whether they were “Asian enough” for the film. This type of debate only leaves my head scratching. To be clear, this is not a knock on the film. The film was great step in the right direction. I’m not asking for an all adopted Chinese American film. But if Asians complain about white people leaving them out of Hollywood and that there needs to be more representation, then surely Asians should also be open to a more diverse Asian representation and what it means to be Asian. Just like there are all different shades of what it means to be American, to some degree there can be different shades to what it means to be Asian or Asian American. I understand Asians are mostly homogenous within their own cultures and countries, but the world we are increasingly living in is multiracial and multi-ethnic. If Asians want more representation in a space they occupy like society, then maybe they should be open to others who occupy a similar space to them.

Change is slow. I get it. Crazy Rich Asians was a monumental step in opening the door for an all-Asian cast and potentially for more representation of minorities of all shapes and sizes. Personally though, I can’t wait until we can stop categorizing people and putting them in boxes just because it’s convenient or because it’s the way it’s always been. Rather, I’d like to let people blaze and add new categories and labels so they can be themselves. There is more to be done for sure but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t celebrate when it’s appropriate to do so. I left Crazy Rich Asians with a smile on my face and hope in my heart.