Angela Tucker be invited to the Red Table to address transracial adoption from
the perspective of an adult adoptee was possibly a landmark moment for many of
us. I‘m thrilled that she had the chance and the courage to speak on a subject that
adoptees know creates disruption, and frequently outright hostility.
I waited all day for it to appear watching a back catalogue of episodes including one that I couldn’t bring myself to watch before that day, addressing the question “Should white people adopt black kids?” in which the guest is a white adoptive parent and notably absent are any adult adoptees.
It’s not lost on
me that one such episode on white privilege the family discuss the meaning and
impact of the quote “Prejudice is the emotional commitment to
ignorance”. In another episode on relationships between black women and
white women, Jada talks honestly about the difficult feeling she gets around
white women, especially blonde white women. Later I will think of this and
imagine what she would say if she were asked to fit in with a group of blonde
white women the way it seems they expect Angela can do in a black community.
Angela expresses things many adoptees will relate to in one form or another, while others may not. For example, she currently feels more comfortable in white communities and parenting white foster children, and I see a lot of criticism online for that, from both adoptees and non-adoptees.
If there’s one thing we know about being an adoptee it’s that we can hold changing perspectives on our own experience over time and offering others the space to be where they are is to offer it to ourselves.
moment that touched me was when Angela said “I’m hoping that I live to see the
day where people say, when I say ‘I’m adopted’, they say ‘oh my gosh, did
someone try to keep you with your family first?’ instead of celebrating her adoption and
expecting gratitude for it. When Jada said “I’ve never thought of it that
way before” I exhaled, there’s healing in having your experience seen and
acknowledged that way. I’ve felt it lately with friends, who told me
“You’re really opening my eyes”. In a world where people actively
fight to deny my reality, I’m so healed by having people in my life who can and
do shift their perspective. Equally, I can see that those moments have often come over several months in
which I share openly and not without misunderstandings. So perhaps it’s a lot
to expect a 20 minute show to shift perspectives very far in one day. It will
take time and more of our voices to build understanding.
Back at the red
table, a tonal shift in the conversation occurs swiftly with Angela’s vulnerable
admission that she feels fear in the company of black people, in this moment I
sense she lost some of her hosts empathy as Gamma tenses and asks her to
explain why she chose the word ‘fear’. The fear of black people is so
inextricable with a legacy of discrimination and violence it’s hardly
surprising the word fear is alarming, I myself held my breath. But ‘real talk’
is at the centre of the show and to understand transracial adoption is just
that, real. Gamma had shown evidence of it herself in an earlier show when she
admitted she had found it easier to accept a white man into the family than a
As a fellow
adoptee what I know is that the fear I feel around people of my own culture is also
an implicit memory of my own relinquishment. Around people who look like those
who gave me up and those I’ve lived without, I feel vulnerable, rejectable. Can
a non-adoptee ever truly understand that feeling?
Getting into her stride, Gamma soon advises Angela to ‘counsel yourself’ for questioning how she could teach a black (foster) child to be black, Gamma points out that Angela counsels white couples in transracial adoption. Angela however, doesn’t counsel white people on being black, she doesn’t counsel them on fitting in to black culture, instead she uses her lived experience as a transracial adoptee to educate adoptive parents on the hazards, missing racial mirrors and role models. That’s not the same thing as actually being a black person trying to fit into a black culture they’ve grown up without.
You can’t counsel yourself into belonging.
You can’t learn belonging any more than you can learn to be a peacock. You may learn enough to hang out with peacocks without alarming them but try to fly and you’ll know you’re not peacocky enough pretty quickly. Just so with the iceberg of culture. A myriad of secret handshakes lie beneath, unspoken tests and initiations sit between ourselves and others.
Belonging is at the heart of identity. Those who think it’s enough to decide who you are independently of others beliefs, are underestimating the role that being seen plays in our identity. Self-acceptance in our identity is a small, sometimes inconsequential island, validation of our identity is a continent. For transracial adoptees there can be a lot of sea between our island and that continent.
I think about Angela sitting at that table with three generations of black women, secure in their kinship with each other, bound together by biology and a shared history. Across the table Angela sits between a white couple who raised her, and look nothing like her, and the black women who gave birth to her – who looks like her but is foreign to her. I try to imagine what Angela needed from those women across the table chiding her to counsel herself.
I think there
could be healing both for Angela and many adoptees who relate to her if they
could have said, “I’m sorry you have to struggle to belong with your own
people, I completely understand why you feel that way. We want you to know that
for us, you belong right here at this table here with us”.
Angela and all adoptees – you belong at our table, your voice is important to us, thank you!
By Mark Hagland, South Korean intercountry adoptee raised in the USA.
One of the topics that we adult transracial and intercountry adoptees talk about a lot–A LOT–is the “adoptee fog” and our coming out of it.
I have to tell you that it took me several decades to pull myself out of the transracial adoptee fog. I grew up in near-total whiteness, and intensely internalized racism towards myself, ending up with a massive complex about my own physical appearance that I’m still actively working on healing, even now, at 59.
Here’s the thing: growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of the US in the 1960s and 1970s, even with wonderful, wonderfully loving parents, was incredibly devastating for me. It completely disabled my ability to navigate the racist society we all live in, and, as I say, I totally internalized racism towards myself. What society told me every single day was that it was an atrocious crime not to be white, but at the same time, I was at least undeluded enough to know that I couldn’t ever BECOME white–I just couldn’t. So basically, I felt like some kind of alien and criminal.
I instinctively knew that I had to get away from where I grew up (again, even with very loving and wonderful parents there), and had to find my way to the big city and somehow find an identity that I could live with. But, having grown up in near-total whiteness and having internalized both a white internal identity and racism into myself, it ended up being an incredibly long, complex path. Having had zero access to birth-country culture or to any significant number of people of color, I flailed at first.
I was incredibly, incredibly lucky in one respect: when I came to Chicago for graduate journalism school, I was admitted to a school that was run by deans, a significant number of whom were Black journalists, and who were committed to diversity and to the empowerment of young journalists of color. So for the first time, I actually found myself in an environment in which I wasn’t one of only a couple of or a few people of color, and I began to “get it.”
And, over time, I found friends of color who would accept me. I was lucky in that regard, too, being a young gay man, because it is easier in the gay male subculture to meet people of color and to socialize across races.
Through my 20s and 30s, I began to create for myself a social environment that worked for me, and then when I was 40, I was brought into the transracial adoptee community, and my head exploded, and my development accelerated dramatically. I was able to begin to truly embrace an identity as a person of color through interacting with fellow adult transracial adoptees, all of whom had also struggled as I had, to find our identities, given that we were all raised in significant whiteness, and had had to figure things out entirely by ourselves.
Over time, I was able to build my own social environment, and to learn how to interact successfully with fellow people of color. It took decades, but I managed to do it. And now, finally, in my 50s, I have a proud, relatively integrated sense of identity as a person of color in the world.
And I’m absolutely committed to mission, and that means supporting my fellow adult transracial adoptees on their journeys, and educating white adoptive parents, so that they can learn and can help their children of color to move forward successfully on their journeys.
And in that context, I am constantly, constantly urging and imploring white adoptive parents to move into diversity for the sake of their children. I do not want the littlest transracial and intercountry adoptees to experience what I’ve experienced. I do not want them to have to spend literally 40 years before they begin to feel comfortable in their identities as people of color.
Above all, I want everyone to understand that raising a child of color in total or near-total whiteness is profoundly devastating to that child. It means that that child will grow up inside an intense transracial adoptee fog, and will inevitably spend years struggling to begin to build a successful identity as a person of color. And that is tragic.
So I am absolutely committed to this mission. And I am glad to be fully out of the transracial adoptee fog. It only took me several decades to accomplish it–WOO-HOO! LOL. But seriously–no transracial and intercountry adoptee should have to struggle that long. And honestly, I know a significant number of adult transracial and intercountry adoptees who are still fully in the fog, and don’t even know it.
Adoptee advocacy and activism for me, is about adoptee healing and claiming back our power.
This week has been so powerful but raw on so many levels. I have travelled to America to attend the Dept of State’s Intercountry Adoption Symposium (Sept 17 & 18) which brought together all the government bodies and NGOs related to, and fulfilling, intercountry adoption processes, the accredited entities which include IAAME and the adoption agencies, and for the first time, representation from the adoption triad. After this ended, some of our American intercountry adoptee leaders and individuals who wished to be involved at government policy and practice level, met with the Dept of State (Sept 19) and had a chat about how we might interact/liaise together in the future and what our goals are and issues of concern.
The following are my thoughts after attending these past three days.
Hearing the same chants for “more adoption” that I’ve read about across the waters but got to experience for real, has been nothing short of gut wrenching.
Getting to personally understand the life experiences of some of my fellow activists has been an honor.
The question was asked to our adoptee group why few American intercountry adoptees in recent years, had until now, not risen to involve themselves at policy level.
After being in America for a week, seeing the level of anger for those who dare to voice any truth that doesn’t match the “we want more children” chant has been a massive reality check. America the land of the free! Well, I see it’s more the land of the free for those who share the dominant discourse — but it can also be unkind and lacking compassion to those who express a different story.
The scale and depth at which intercountry adoption has been conducted in America, that adds avoidable emotional damage to some adoptees, has finally helped me understand why their voices have not been at the table. The ability to rise above one’s terrible reality of adoption is a massive ask. What struck me in coming to personally understand these journeys en-masse over the years I’ve been connecting to fellow adoptees, is how much worse it is here in terms of size and scale. It is not just the historic adoptions from the 50s to 80s. I’m meeting adoptees from the 90s to 2010s and hear the same terrible experiences! I’m also not denying there are probably a ton of intercountry adoptees who have little motivation to make things better because they already had it wonderful. Their reality is not dismissed and neither should the other range of experiences across the spectrum.
Some of the audience responses were so dismissive of our struggles citing that we were just a “moment in time”, or unlucky enough to be a consequence of “a few bad apples”. As I said on day 1 in response to Laura Ingraham’s speech, one terrible adoptee experience is one too many! So please, if you really want to hear what we have to say as adoptees, believe me when I say – “these bad apple adoptions are still happening since the past 20 years”.
Hearing calls and support for “unregulation” and “streamlining” is not the answer in the face of the huge reality. What do we need governments and stakeholders to do differently that hasn’t been done, either at all, or enough? We need them to acknowledge the wrongs of the past to the present. We need full acknowledgement that the decisions made FOR us as vulnerable children, have been terribly painful, terribly damaging for too many .. we need to hear it not just once, but over and over many times so that we know you do not forget the mistakes of the past and those who have been a victim, can feel safe knowing we have learnt the lessons, or at least are trying to.
From my own personal journey of healing, I know how incredibly important it is to hear, “I’m sorry it has been a terribly hurtful experience” from a heartfelt place. Not only do we need to hear that you’ve heard and acknowledged our pain, we need you to give us time to then process that acknowledgement, allow us to move further in our journey — and then ask us to focus and work together on how we prevent it from ever happening again.
For adoptees it is terribly triggering to be dismissed, our reality denied, and our concerns brushed over with “it’s not like that now”. Yes things have changed … drastically, but they need to change more! Support services for the duration of our lifetime, need to be implemented that help us move past the damage. We need reparation that allows out of the box solutions for individual journeys of healing. We need to see that sending children back AS SOON AS WE KNOW something isn’t looking right, is totally a first option that will be supported by all the players who facilitated the adoption. Keeping the child as the only option adds further complications that we adoptees are eventually left to sift through.
People and countries make mistakes .. we are only human. What’s currently missing is the acknowledgement and the sensitivity across the SPECTRUM of players to recognise the trauma from decades (yes, 70 years!) of intercountry adoptions done poorly. The reality that the current and previous American administrations have failed to address intercountry adoptee citizenship, the basic cornerstone of permanence, continuity, and family— clearly demonstrates how little understanding and support exists for the displaced adoptee. This is brushing the wrongs of the past under the carpet on a massive scale!
I realise why adoptees have not been at the table pushing their way in. The depths of pain can be too raw and the risk of receiving further trauma by those who invalidate our experiences, is incredibly high. For a country as religious as America, it sure has little understanding of the need for the power of healing and the acknowledgement of wrong doing. All Americans should be praying not for adoptions to be increased but for the ones who are here already, to be given the right support in order for them to find healing. For the ones deported to be given the supports they need along with their broken up families.
Only once we are fully supported to heal as those who have already suffered, can we truly contemplate ethically adopting more — at least then, we can be confident that despite mistakes being made, the great America has the maturity to help the victims overcome.
My heart breaks for my American brothers and sisters who struggle to rise from out of their ashes. I found it fascinating to see the 9/11 section of the Newseum and the way in which so much compassion is portrayed for those victims, yet in intercountry adoption – I ask where is that same compassion? Is there any recognition of the collective suffering that too many generations of intercountry adoptees have been experiencing in America?!
No! They remain a blip on the radar screen, barely seen, largely misunderstood because they are cloaked with, “You should be grateful to be in this amazing country” banner which denies the tragic realities of so many!
I am compelled to lead by example and demonstrate that adoptees can find their power. My path is but one way to rise above the ashes. I have learned for myself how incredibly healing it is to turn my pains into triumphs and to attempt to make this world a better place and I always wonder what I would have achieved had I been left in Vietnam (my adoptee sliding door/ parallel universe musing). This path of adoptee advocacy is my way to make sense of my adoption and life . Perhaps I was saved to give this message — to be this voice, to truly represent the “child’s best interest” and make sure it is not shoved away?
I hope that this week has been the beginning of the start, that momentum will flow because …
it only takes one to take a stand for truth, for another to find their courage.
What a week of learning, what a week of connecting! I hope America will come to embrace the mistakes of its past in intercountry adoption and provide a safe space for the many intercountry adoptees who need healing and be given many places at the table, not just one place filled by an Australian/Vietnamese.
I also want to acknowledge the many true supporters of adoptees who came from so many stakeholders groups. It is incorrect to assume all government workers, all agencies, all adoptive parents are against us speaking our truths. Despite the intense and sometimes times painful challenging moments, I was uplifted by the volume of supporters who told us they were so happy to see us and hear our voices. I hope I live to see the day when they will become the majority AND the loudest voice we hear from.
I was told that supportive adoptive parents have sat back from the table, out of respect to allow us adoptees to take the platform, to make space for us — but I want to tell those parents and advocates, please don’t be silent in your support. We are at a critical point where intercountry adoptee leadership is emerging and we need ALL the support we can muster.
What I deeply respected was my fellow panelist, the birth mother representative who demonstrated no fear in telling her truth, nor the consequences for doing so. Whether we agreed with her views or not, I imagine her journey of overcoming the stigma, fear and trauma throughout her life has helped her realise there is little to lose, in having the courage to speak her truth. As two representatives of the adoption triad, we both know “the cost of remaining silent”.
Her ending sentence was so respectful and she said, “It should be the adoptees who you listen to the most”. I can only say how much that meant to us. This is the message we need our supporters to uphold – it will encourage us to rise above our pain and fears. Please don’t be silent — it is too open to interpretation!
Huge thanks and respect to the adoptee leaders who gave of their time, money, and energy to be at these forums.
Joy Alessi – adopted from South Korea, co-director of Adoptee Rights Campaign.
Cherish Bolton – adopted from India, co-director of PEAR, academic.
Trista Goldberg – adopted from Vietnam, founder of Operation Reunite, educator.
Marijane Huang – adopted from Taiwan, social worker in adoption and foster care, educator.
JaeRan Kim – adopted from South Korea, social worker and PhD research academic.
Kristopher Larsen – adopted from Vietnam, co-director of Adoptees4Justice.
Monica Lindgren – adopted from Colombia, barrister in family law.
Reshma McClintock – adopted from India, founder of Dear Adoption, co-founder Family Preservation365.
Patricia Motley – adopted from Peru, member of Peruvian Adoptees Worldwide.
Diego Vitelli – adopted from Colombia, founder of Adopted from Colombia, studying masters in counselling.
Hello everyone. My name is Jessica Davis. My husband and I adopted from Uganda in 2015. I would like to share my thoughts regarding a memory that appeared on my facebook timeline.
If you are at all familiar with timehop on facebook you know that almost daily either a photo, video or post from your past will show up on your timeline giving you the opportunity to reflect and share. Well, today this is the photo that popped up for me.
Four years ago today, we found out Namata’s visa was approved to come to America with us. As westerners, we tend to love pictures like this when it comes to adoption and in some ways that is understandable. If Namata had actually needed to be adopted, it would’ve definitely been a photo worth getting excited over!
The problem is that all too often, we want things to be just like this picture. Everyone smiling and things wrapped up neat and tidy. But real life, even in this moment pictured here, things aren’t always as they seem. Adam and I were definitely happy in this moment and ready to be home and begin our life together, and on the outside Namata was too. But on the inside, she was about to leave everything and everyone familiar to her, for reasons she was too overwhelmed by to even question. Thankfully, over the next year she was able to express to Adam and I her questions about how she ended up being adopted. Thankfully, Adam and I didn’t go looking for the answers we wanted to hear. We chose a road that was definitely filled with uncertainty, but one we hoped would lead us to the truth. Namata deserved that!
Intercountry adoption should never be about doing a good deed in the world or becoming a mom or dad. Yes, those reasons are normal and usually are the basis for beginning the process, but at the point when one begins the process to adopt, we need to recognize that those feelings are all about the adoptive parents and not the child or children we are hoping to adopt. Adoption for them stems from a complete loss of everything and everyone familiar to them. Recognizing this is vital to a healthy adoption process. I’m convinced we, as a society, have made adoption all about becoming a family. When we do this we tend to see adoption in this happy light that doesn’t allow the adoptee the freedom to express what adoption actually is for them — loss. There should be absolutely no focus on becoming “mom” or “dad”. While I do believe it can become a natural outcome through a healthy adoption scenario, I believe it needs to come when, and only if, the child feels that connection.
I often get asked how Adam and I did what we did when we chose to reunite Namata with her family in Uganda. While there are several factors that contributed to being able to do this, the main reason was that Adam and I had both committed to meeting the needs of Namata. Finding out that she had a loving mother and family that she was unlawfully taken from, made the decision for us. As a parent I could never have lived with myself knowing I was contributing to the Ugandan sized hole in Namata’s heart. Her family and culture should never have been taken away from her in the first place. I’m eternally grateful now looking back that even in the midst of our heartache in losing one of the most amazing little girls I’ve ever met, we were given the opportunity to make things right!
Currently, there is no legal precedent for situations like ours. There are kids here in America that have been kidnapped, their families lied to, and their adoptions produced from bribes and manipulation. There are families in Uganda, and all over the world that hope daily, just see their children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.One way to address this madness is by fighting for intercountry adoption laws to be reformed. Another way is to help change the narrative behind intercountry adoption. Within our churches, social circles and places of business, we need to recognize that intercountry adoption has become infiltrated with money and greed. When we read the statistics that say 80-90% of children in orphanages overseas have families, we need to be doing more to ensure we aren’t contributing to a system that is actually tearing families apart. There are many Facebook groups and websites that delve into the intricacies behind intercountry adoption. Join these groups and visit these pages to learn. Appeal to legislators for change and become a person that stands up against these horrible miscarriages of justice.
Adoption is not heroism. It does not fight poverty, disease nor the root causes of inequality.
Adoption doesn’t even raise awareness about the real causes of poverty, inequality, parent-child separations, disease or social immobility. Instead it creates idolatry of those who look to adoption in a world which stigmatises infertility, disease, poverty and poor access to education.
Celebrity adoption doesn’t give adoptees a much-needed voice – rather it silences them, trapping adoptees in a pernicious web of gratitude in which life with their rich, famous and predominantly white culture, is normalised as better than the one they’d have had with their (implied inferior) families.
Celebrity adoption harms all adoptees. They’re the most highly-publicised way in which most people come into contact with adoption, and yet are least likely to highlight the voice of adoptees. Celebrity adoptions come with a literal team of agents, publicity experts, legal minds and brand managers whose job, in part, will be to keep any dissenting adoptee voices about their famous families out of the media.
In the everyday life of an adoptee minus celebrity, the media is highly effective in idolising the role of gratitude towards adoptive parents. So much so, that adoptees speaking out on social media come with a high risk of trolling and death wishes. Imagine the extra risks and isolation for a celebrity poster child of adoption.
Celebrity adoptions exacerbate a climate of silence and create an inadvertent marketing campaign for child trafficking. The outcome of showcasing only (false) saviourism in adoption is to make adoption fashionable and highly desirable to the upper and middle classes and wannabe saviours. To make intercountry adoption fashionable, with anonymising family history at its centre, this creates a commercial market for baby farms, coercion and kidnapping and provides a kind of diplomatic immunity and witness protection for all agencies and families under the magic umbrella of adoption.
Adoption is the look over there strategy of distraction from what by other names catalyses police searches, support groups, societal outrage, concern and campaigns for separated (and trafficked?) children. But in the name of adoption, society is sure that some kind of mystic lottery ticket win has been exchanged for riches and happy ever afters.
As if to prove the effectiveness of adoption mythology – I know the above will seem like shocking hyperbole to the average non-adoptee, to anyone who hasn’t spent time listening to the stories of adult adoptees who has seen adoption only through this beautiful adopter lens, and the seemingly happy adoptees in their own community (who are actually committing suicide at an alarming rate and are over-represented in addiction and depression).
But it will come as no surprise to any adult adoptees who have listened to a community sharing their experiences. It is a support circle that is part activism and part healing in response to our own search for answers and the need to shake off the mythology of adoption stories.
I’ve yet to see a celebrity adoptive parent raise the voices of adoptees. Even Hollywood writers, skilled in empathy for their character inventions (and surely now alert to the need for representation), present adoptees as one-dimensional ghosts. For some reason (alluded to herein!) the adoptees in dramas are extremely grateful for their superior adoptive parents. Searches are presented as a simple, in-the-moment decision with results in minutes and dramatic reunions which quickly morph into happy blended families. They barely touch the reality for adoptees, or the reasons adoptees hide their feelings, nor the emotional or geographical and language barriers to intimacy in family relationships. Instead adoptees’ stories are presented as a bump in the road of an otherwise pain-free life growing up in their amazing adoptive families, only slightly inconvenienced by the literal absence of medical data and not the complexity of identity in a family of strangers and belonging in biological, perhaps even racial, isolation.
In this fictional world, nurture is presented as having the power to defy nature, where every desirable trait and strength is credited to adoption.
This half-truth or just plain false story of adoption as saving children also disguises the reality of parenting adopted children. Children who’ve experienced body held trauma of separation from their most primal relationship cannot replace the never-had biological children of infertile people. The failure to address this grief in all parties and to instead speed towards wishing for the separation of babies from families, helps no-one but instead leaves everyone having to repress forbidden feelings. Something which never ends well for anyone.
The cost of supporting a family in crisis, particularly in Africa, is a fraction of the cost of adoption and lifelong parenting costs in the west. So is adoption really about saving babies?
The cost is not only financial and parent-centred, it is biological in its impact on adoptees. In the context of adoption, people frequently confuse being preverbal with being pre-feeling and pre-memory, the myth of the blank slate. In truth there are many things you learn as a baby which you don’t remember consciously — walking, talking, or laughing for example. Babies comprehend without words, a sense of safety and primal connection lays a foundation in which to form strong attachments, robust relationships and resilient immune systems. All our lives we rely heavily on unconscious memory as much as we rely on conscious memory to make decisions, learn, build relationships and sense threat.
If celebrities and royals truly want to help – they could instead work to raise the voices of adoptees. Seek answers instead of trusting in the ones entrenched in a legacy of bias. Look for the reasons behind poverty cycles, mortality rates and family struggle leading to adoption, find the best and brightest minds and put them to work. Look past discomfort to explore and educate about colonialism, identify ways to undo harm, to allow others to reclaim cultural identities and heal broken families.
Those in positions of high status and power could explore how to avoid separating a child from its family and community.
Create foundations and charities dedicated to keeping children in their culture and with biological relatives. Find ways to make intercountry search and reunion easier for adoptees, fundraise for therapy and research into the experiences of adoptees. There is still so much that adoptees and science are only beginning to understand as we gather data and experiences and we are only just beginning to be heard – this is where you can help!
As an intercountry adoptee from the early 70s era, I became so assimilated into my adoptive country’s white culture and value system that it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, that I became keenly aware of being disconnected from my intrinsic and inherent origins and wanted to do something about reclaiming them back.
At various stages throughout my adult journey of adoption, I began to unravel and explore my origins which included exploring the language, the religions, the foods, the customs and value systems of my birth land. This can also include exploring and embracing the ways one’s birth culture celebrates certain milestones.
A huge change over time for me has been that when I married, I felt so totally Australian that I didn’t even consider embracing my Asian origins by wearing a traditional Vietnamese dress, the ao dai or by having my wedding embrace any of the traditional Vietnamese customs. Now, over a decade later and after returning to my birth country twice, I wish I had included elements of my Vietnamese origins into my wedding.
An Indian intercountry adoptee friend of mine, adopted to Sweden, is willing to share with you her thoughts about what it means to embrace her origins on her special wedding day. You can read Jessica’s thoughts here.
Hopefully, by sharing our thoughts we will help other intercountry adoptees feel positive about embracing and exploring their origins. It is totally normal for intercountry adoptees to want to do this even when we are happy in our adoptive lives. It is a healthy thing to want to explore who we are racially, where we come from, exploring the customs and traditions of our origins, embracing the cultural elements we connect to and displaying it in whatever ways we feel comfortable.
Growing up in near-total whiteness in the Midwest of America in the 1960s and 1970s, as a member of the first large wave of transracial intercountry adoptees, I experienced consistent marginalization and ostracism because of my race, and, to put it more bluntly, because of the race I was not—white. Constantly asked where I was from—no, REALLY, where was I REEEEAAAAALLLY from?????—I can say that the society around me made it very clear that I was an outsider, a foreigner, a stranger, an alien. I was often asked where I was from, and sometimes asked when I was going back to where I was from. And very occasionally, yes, I was told to go back to where I was from. All of this was deeply hurtful and wounding, of course, but I largely internalized a huge amount of racism and xenophobia to myself, and ended up with one gigantic complex about my physical appearance, which it’s taken me more than four decades to self-heal from—and I’m still working on that.
Indeed, one huge element in my participation in groups on Facebook around transracial adoption, as well as in-person participation in conferences around transracial adoption, has been a profound sense of mission around not only supporting my fellow adult transracial and intercountry adoptees to navigate society, including racism and xenophobia, but also around trying to help white transracial adoptive parents prepare their adopted children of color to navigate the world around us. I feel an intense identification with the littlest adoptees, who in some cases, even now in 2019, are experiencing what I experienced as a small child back in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in the 1960s; and honestly, with all the resources available to white transracial adoptive parents now, in the second decade of the 21stcentury, is there any reason at all that the littlest transracial adoptee should have to experience what I and other transracial adoptees in the first waves experienced several decades ago???
Meanwhile, a great deal has happened in America, and elsewhere, in the past couple of decades. For one thing, enough white Americans were willing to give a Black/biracial man a chance, that we elected our first president of color, in November 2008. I still remember the thrill of election night on November 4, 2008, when then-Senator Barack Obama appeared on the stage in Grant Park in Chicago (the city that I am proud to say is my home) with his beautiful, accomplished wife Michelle Obama, and their adorable then-children, Malia and Sasha Obama, and were greeted by the most thunderous applause I think I had ever heard, on the part of hundreds of thousands of people gathered there, cheering, screaming for joy, weeping, many in stunned disbelief that our country could have the mind and the heart to break that barrier. And I, like millions of Americans, hoped in that moment that at least some people who had not voted for Barack Obama actually wished him well, and would be willing to give him a chance to lead all of us, all Americans, and to use his position as president of our country to also help lead in the world.
At the same time, I and so many Americans of color knew that there were many who hated President-elect Obama simply for his race (even though he had two, another complexity of his identity), and that some of those people would do everything they could to undermine him simply for his race, even apart from any ideological issues involved. We people of color knew that there would be a backlash; but the size and endurance of that backlash has shocked even many of us. And, shockingly, 62.9 million American voters, or 46 percent of the electorate, voted for Donald Trump, a man with absolutely zero political or public policy experience, and whose entire campaign had been based on racism and xenophobia; and because of our bizarre (and, to non-Americans, essentially inexplicable) Electoral College system, Trump won the presidency, even though 65.8 million voters, of 48 percent, had voted for former Secretary of State, former Senator, and former First Lady Hillary Clinton. In any case, based on how our strange Electoral College system works, Trump assumed the presidency on January 2017, and from literally the first moments of his presidency, he framed everything in apocalyptic terms, speaking of “American carnage” that only he could stop, and intensifying his racist rhetoric month after month.
And then, this month, Trump stepped up his hate-filled rhetoric against four first-term U.S. representatives—Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, hurling insults and accusations against them, branding them as “anti-American,” and piling lie on top of lie, in an effort to solidify his popularity among his core supporters, as the American presidential campaign (which, surreally, lasts two full years here) got underway. And then, on July 14, Trump tweeted that those four congresswomen should “go back to… the places to which they came,” even though three of the four were born in America.
Then, after massive condemnation of his remarks, Trump said on July 17 at a campaign rally in North Carolina, of the four congresswomen, “They never have anything good to say. That’s why I say, ‘Hey if you don’t like it, let ’em leave, let ’em leave.’ … I think in some cases they hate our country.” He then called out Rep. Omar specifically, once again falsely claiming that she had praised the terrorist group al-Qaeda (a charge thoroughly debunked numerous times in the past), and stating that Congresswoman Omar “looks down with contempt” on Americans; and the crowd reacted by chanting, “Send her back, Send her back.” Trump did nothing to stop the chants, and, after feebly distancing himself from them in the days that followed, now appears to be endorsing them.
For those of us who are immigrants of color—and even for many people of color who are not immigrants—we grew up hearing the “go back to where you’re from” taunts. They are hurtful and devastating. Padma Lakshmi, an ACLU Artist Ambassador for Immigrants’ and Women’s Rights, writing in The Washington Poston July 19, spoke for many of us when she wrote that, “Those words, those hurtful, xenophobic, entitled words that I’ve heard all throughout my childhood, stabbed me right in the heart. They echoed the unshakable feeling that most brown immigrants feel. Regardless of what we do, regardless of how much we assimilate and contribute, we are never truly American enough because our names sound funny, our skin isn’t white, or our grandmothers live in a different country.”
And for those of us who are transracial, intercountry adoptees, growing up in whiteness, and often surrounded by racists and racism, the pain can run very deep indeed. Kurt Bardella, who like me is an adult Korean adoptee, on July 17, wrote, in nbcnews.com, the online news website of the U.S. broadcast network NBC News, about his reaction to the “go back” taunts by Trump, in an op-ed entitled “’Go back’ is how racists try to deny my American-ness. But I’m never leaving.” Among other things, Bardella wrote eloquently that, “Like so many marginalized people in America, when we speak our mind in the political sphere, when we challenge the normalcy of the white status quo, we are attacked as less-than-fully American. I guarantee you, every single person of color who writes a column or appears on cable news to debate the national issues of the day (particularly from a perspective critical of the current president) receives a barrage of tweets, direct Facebook messages and emails from white Americans telling them to effectively ‘go back home.’ These reminders in which others perceive the color of our skin as a reason to reject our Americanness, is a constant reality that has been a part of our lives for as long as we can remember.”
What’s more, Bardella wrote, “Of course, Donald Trump’s weaponization of existing racism is not new; it has been his tool of choice ever since he expanded his presence on the political scene by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president. As president, he has praised white nationalists in Charlottesville, pardoned a racist sheriff in Arizona, labeled Haiti and African nations “shithole countries,” attacked NFL players for protesting the National Anthem and presided over an administration that locked up and tortured Central American children and their families at the southern border while deriding them as potential gang members.” Essentially, Trump has filled his entire time in the Oval Office so far—two-and-a-half years—with racist, xenophobic attacks and disparagement, literally nearly every single week.
What Bardella and Lakshmi have written says more articulately than I could, how I also see things. Frighteningly, it appears certain that Trump is going to base his entire 2020 reelection campaign pitch on open racism, white supremacy, and xenophobia, hoping to capture more of the white vote than in 2016, even amid demographic shifts that will make the United States a “majority-minority” country by 2045, according to the United States Census. And actually, that’s what all of this is about. The fear and apprehension of some white people in the United States is now palpable: in big cities and small towns across the country, the presence of people of color, including of very identifiable immigrants of color, is unmistakable. And Trump’s core base supporters are terrified and enraged.
Sadly, a large number of white transracial adoptive parents in America refuse to accept that the explosion in the open racial aggression of people of color has anything to do with their adopted children of color. Ensconced in bubbles of (often-right-wing) whiteness, and with no or few adult friends of color, many white transracial adoptive parents in the U.S. are convinced that their children will be treated as “special,” and further, that Trump and his core followers wish only the best for their children.
I had a very recent involvement in that issue this very week, when a thread in a transracial adoption-focused group that I do not moderate but was a member of, blew up because a friend of mine, a transracial adoptive mom whom I like very much, posted Kurt Bardella’s op-ed in the group. Facebook notified me of it, and I thanked my friend for posting it, stating that I so appreciated her lifting up the voices of transracial, intercountry adoptees in this difficult moment. But a racist white mother who fully supports Trump assured us that Trump could never possibly be racist, and that nothing he says or does could possibly be racist, and things exploded from there. Along with a large number of like-minded members, I (one of only two adult transracial adoptees participating in that discussion thread) and the others protesting racism and white supremacy, were promptly removed by the moderator from the group, while the racist adoptive mother was retained. I was also told that I was removed not only for discussing politics, but also for, one time only, using the f-word in one phrase in one of my comments in the discussion thread.
In other words, using foul language, even once, and in the context of protest, is far more offensive than racism and white supremacy. Not only that, by retaining the racist/white supremacist member of the group and ejecting all of us who were protesting racism and white supremacy, the moderator of that group—which is what many of us in the transracial adoption world refer to as a “rainbows-and-unicorns” group—a group focused only on the sweet, pleasant aspects of transracial adoption, and disallowing any discussion of race or anything else complex or challenging—proved our point. If enforced politeness around middle-class-white-American-woman sociocultural norms, is far more important than challenging racism, then clearly, no authentic, meaningful discussion of racism is possible in such a group.
What Donald Trump is doing right now—absolutely weaponizing the tenets of white supremacy, and banking on the deep racial and sociocultural resentments of white racists—is not only profoundly morally abhorrent, it is frightening to Americans of color, both immigrants and non-immigrants of color. We are now being pointed out as obvious targets for racial aggression, and possibly even violence.
The bottom line is this: America has come to a moment of profound crisis and of moral emergency. It is impossible any longer to stand by in silence. That’s what happened in Nazi Germany in 1934-1937, when the “good Germans” either expressed open support of Adolf Hitler and his storm troopers, or docilely remained silent. We all know what happened afterwards.
So this is where I stand: this is no longer about politics; it is about the safety and well-being of all of us Americans of color. And I will not be silent. But I will engage with those who want to understand, and who are willing to be authentic allies. And I will work. And I will hope.
If my mum read my posts about adoption, she’d think, “Not Juliette, not my daughter!”
I’ve done the emotional work because I know my parents haven’t and never will. Brexit tore my family apart when my parents voted and arguments revealed just how little they understood they had an Asian immigrant daughter. I struggled and battled them over Brexit, Trump and racism for two years. I raged, I withdrew, I reflected, I dug around for answers but I knew I could only ever work on myself. I knew the whole argument about Brexit had always been about adoption, but they didn’t. Likewise, I knew the first rift that happened in my teens, on the surface was about moving (countries) for about the 6th time in my short life, was also about adoption. But I never said it, so we never talked about it. And as far as I know, they never knew it.
So when at age 46 a friend gently suggested I meet up with her 70 year old adoptee friend who’d done plenty of therapy around her own adoption, I shrugged and agreed. I did not realise how much it would clarify and soothe me to talk to another adoptee, something I had never done before. That’s still incredible to me! Imagine being blind and never connecting to another blind person for most of your life – never knowing how universal your feelings are or realising only those who’ve experienced it, truly understand. As someone who’s been adopted, compared with those who haven’t and think it’s a beautiful happy ending with little to do with anything else, there are things I could never tell anyone while growing up. My loneliness, my longings ended up revealing and highlighting that biology matters and that my family was not enough and that their difference (not mine) was a source of deep isolation and pain. I understood from an early age just how forbidden that topic was and just how little self awareness my parents had about their own grief and it’s impact on me.
I could not find my place in this large white working class family whose only experience of Asian culture was take-out food. I’m not sure they ever rejected me exactly, perhaps I rejected them? But I certainly wasn’t embraced by them. I wasn’t in the minds of extended family, except to be asked about politely as an after thought, after speaking with my parents. If it ever occurred to my immediate or extended family to wonder how I felt being adopted and different, transracially and intercountry adopted, I never had any evidence of it.
For those aware of Tuckman’s model of group development (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing) I never got past the first stage of Forming with my extended family. They never stopped being polite. That reminds me of the first reality show on MTV, “.. the true story…of seven strangers…picked to live in a house…(work together) and have their lives taped…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real…The Real World.” Perhaps it sounds blissfully charming to live in a world where people never stop being polite, but the real connection doesn’t actually happen until you do. That doesn’t mean when you stop being polite you start being rude, it just means you start exploring each other in a more open and honest way and that can get muddy – but done with curiosity and empathy, it can also lead to stronger and more meaningful relationships.
Now that I think about it, I’ve never left the storming phase with my adoptive parents. The classic movie 12 Angry Men is a great example in a nutshell of a group of strangers, moving from being cautiously polite through to an angry battle of wills, until they begin to learn more about each other’s stories and perspectives and in doing so, are able to reach understanding and consensus. A group can be colleagues, or it could be a jury, or new or old friendships. If you cast your eye on your relationships with friends or family, you’ll see the ones that got past the forming/polite stages, or through the storming phase, and those which never have. Side note, one of my friendships actually got a real life dose of this after we worked briefly together on a project and never saw each other again until we found ourselves on a jury together. We’ve been great friends ever since!
Some teams or relationships will never leave the storming phase and will then never reach their potential together. They will at best remain independent of each other and work alongside each other without too much jostling, at worst actively sabotage and disrupt progress and harmony. When they reach the storming, they will never test their own beliefs against differing perspectives, instead they will retreat into the safety of a story told from a single lens, their own. This is what my parents have done, you may be wondering right now if I have done that too. Certainly there is plenty I can’t know. But I can tell you I have thought it out from their perspectives initially more than I did my own, it’s the nature of life as an adoptee. For emotional safety, the pervading priority is the comfort of adoptive parents and the story they tell themselves. Society easily empathises with their longings — not ours as adoptees. It’s my deep understanding and prioritising of their perspective which also keeps me from unravelling theirs with my own. This also hinders the possibility of healing the widening rift in our relationship with truth.
Rightly or wrongly. Most of my therapy has been an attempt to work out the question of whether I should or not. Whether they are capable of growing at this point in their lives, or whether I would only cause pain and confuse them without any useful end game. In doing so, I create more emotional labour for myself in trying to explain the unexplainable.
When my mum went to see the movie Lion with her sister, I wondered whether it was an opening for us to talk. When I asked her how it was, all she said was, “It was good”. Neither of us pushed it further than that, though I remain astonished that she could have nothing more to say than that. I imagine that she looked at that story and specifically saw all the ways in which the protagonists story was not like mine, not like hers. What I think she would cling to was that I was a baby, not a few years old with memories of my family. In her mind, I had not experienced what he did as a lost child in India, searching for my missing relatives and not knowing how to get back to them. But of course I did, except as a baby, I experienced it all without language and by the time I had words for it, I also had awareness of the pain it could bring. And awareness of how little anyone would understand it.
I now have language for my experience and I understand the value of sharing it with other adoptees. Sharing with adoptive parents and with a society which harbours a one dimensional view of adoption through the lens of adopters, I want us to move past the forming phase of using babies to heal the wounds of infertility and opaque illusions of saviourism. I want us to move past the storming phase of denying the reality of adoptee losses and denial of our human rights, into an age of genuine problem solving, equipped with self awareness and the courage to learn from others. Still, it’s common to find people responding to this thought with, “Not every adoptee …”, not their friend, not their cousin, not their daughter.
To you, I remind you that my mum would read this and think that too.
I wrote this a couple of weeks after I returned from The Hague. I’d had some time to recover from jetlag and collect my thoughts and impressions after being involved at the HCCH Working Group for Preventing and Addressing Illicit Practices in Intercountry Adoption.
I feel privileged to have been invited to represent adoptees and I acknowledge I am but one adoptee, and it’s impossible to capture everyone’s varying views on such an emotional topic. I do not represent all adoptees but I did my best to ensure that the views I shared were not just my own individually, but represented the years of conversations and discussions I have had with many intercountry adoptees and adoptee leaders who have connected into the ICAV network since it’s beginnings in 1998.
One of the biggest insights I had in participating, was of the mammoth task it is to try and bring together various countries and get them to “agree and co-operate” on such a complex topic, including all the nuances within. Before attending, I had a utopian idea of what happens at The Hague level. Sitting in the reality and hearing the various views of country representatives, sometimes vastly different, I realised the important role the Permanent Bureau team plays in being the “facilitator”! Their role is to remind countries of the underpinning frameworks (the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for Intercountry Adoption), make proposals aligned with these frameworks, and ensure government representatives can speak and be heard, equally and fairly.
There can be no denying that the UNCRC and the Hague Convention for ICA are far from perfect tools, but at least they create a forum like this – where the cooperating countries get together to discuss major issues. It also became clear there are differences, country to country, on interpretation about how to implement the framework, the resources available to do so, and the limitations of existing legislation. The thought that really hit home for me was: how do we adoptees address illicit adoptions from countries that haven’t signed up to the Hague Convention? Where is the forum for that? Who do we go to in order to be heard? The answer is, there is none. We have to approach each non Hague country separately through their government. They might not have a government department that has authority in this area or there could be multiple departments.
I now understand the Hague Convention for ICA evolved with the UNCRC. They were both negotiated around the same time by almost the same countries. Together they historically reflect the journey of understanding in intercountry adoption at government levels. Back then, in it’s infancy, The Hague Convention for ICA was the minimum that could be agreed upon. Since then and through forums like the Working Group, the States are encouraged to increase their safeguards where they can. We are left with the reality that this Working Group on Illicit Practices is bound by the limitations included in The Hague Convention for ICA.
I believe it’s positive to understand the differences between the UNCRC and The Hague Convention for ICA but not to waste our energies fighting over which is better or worse. I’m pragmatic and the way I view it is, they are not going away any day soon. We have to live with what we have. There is no other international government agreed upon forum that allows these specific issues in intercountry adoption to be discussed. Wouldn’t we rather be involved discussing these things then not be there at all? In attending this meeting, it does not say I condone the pitfalls of either frameworks but says I commit to gaining a better understanding, build relationships where I can, and try to influence in whatever way I can, to improve things for my fellow adoptees.
Governments vary in their experience of implementing intercountry adoption policy and practice. Some countries signed up very early to the Hague Convention, others have just joined, and others still are still in the process. I wonder what it would take for the Hague Convention in ICA to be able to “mature” i.e., change or be superceded to ensure better monitoring and implementation? Is it possible? Does it happen in other Conventions? From what I understand, it has never happened before. All countries would have to agree and it would take a special process called a Diplomatic Session created to negotiate a new convention to supersede the existing one. Expecting most of the 101 convention countries in today’s political climate to agree to further refine the existing Convention is utopia! Historically, conventions and treaties of this nature only change when the world goes through a major war. State parties to the Convention meet every 5 years (it is called a Special Commission) to discuss the practical operation of the Convention. However, although States are encouraged to apply the decisions made during these meetings, they are not binding because only the text of the Convention is binding. So I’m not saying it’s impossible but pointing out how much more work we have to do if this is what we want to achieve.
The reality of how difficult it really is to expect governments to tackle the topic of illicit practices in adoption became crystal clear during this trip. Firstly, at this level, to get every signatory country to acknowledge that illicit practices exists is a huge task and with this working group, we are already part way there. Then to get them to agree on how to respond, even if it’s only in theory and for Hague adoptions only, is a massive undertaking. The politics involved, the legislations that bind, the limitations .. I can see why it will take some time for change to happen and it is never “fast enough” for adoptees and families who live it! But at the same time, I was encouraged to see that there were 20+ countries committed to attend the meeting and give the topic well considered time, money, thought and effort. In adopteeland, it’s easy for us to portray governments in a stereotypical way — “uninterested”, “not wanting to help”, or jump to conclusions because it’s not the answer we want/need to hear!
I believe we need to do more relationship building with our governments where it matches i.e., if legal action is not being made against them and where they show a willingness to truly understand our perspective. We can try to understand the barriers they face, be open to understanding that they may want to do something about the past historic illicit practices in adoption, but understand it’s not a simple task – legislation and politics can often be their barriers. They are but one arm in the massive government machine of each country. I hope adoptee leaders around the world will, if you haven’t already, give your Central Authorities a call – try and build a relationship with them and help them learn from your lived experience about the challenges and issues you face.
I came away from the meeting with a harsh stack of reality for how big the task is to have illicit practices in adoption addressed and acknowledged, especially historical adoptions prior to the UNCRC and The Hague Convention on ICA. But I remain positive. Many of the attendees spoke to me about how much they gained from hearing an adoptee perspective. I communicated that some of us are willing to be involved to help them understand the nuances from our perspective and talking with the participants reminded me of how important it is, to not only build commonalities amongst adoptees, but amongst all the players who have a key role in effecting change.