Racism, Class, and Adoption

Facing Off With the "Smiling Foxes" of NPR

Uproar at NPR

Recently there was an uproar of sorts concerning NPR, after they aired an interview with a white adoptive mother of black children. The main point of offense most stated by those commenting on this show was that in this report and on her blog, the woman interviewed claims for herself a voice which is basically not hers, and there was a perceived need for “balance”, which was to come from transracial adoptees. This was witnessed by the discussion that followed in various social media as well as at their web site. As a transracial adoptee myself, I would like to state for the record that in this ensuing discussion, much goes missing.

Comments and posts pointed to the fact that NPR interviewed an adoptee of color, but did not use this material in favor of this adoptive mother. It further seems that NPR did not allow comments from adoptees to go live until the outcry became too great for them to ignore, or to control. What ended up being expressed, unfortunately, was more of a “competition for acknowledgment”; a reductive binary of “us vs. them”. This is not a “debate”, but a devolution. Here lies a great problem: These forums and their sponsors claim a “progressive” and “communal voice” but in fact project nothing other than the dominant mode, the status quo, whose aim is to keep us quiet.

Some will see in the allowance of comments from us at the NPR web site a kind of “victory”, however small. I would like to argue the opposite: The woman interviewed and the author/publisher of the interview (NPR) are in and of themselves symptomatic of something far more insidious that need be discussed. In calling simply for “balance”, we allow a premise to be stated that need instead be questioned from the outset. I will try to point out what is going “unsaid” as I see it.

Self-promotion of adopters

The sheer promotional aspect of the presentation was disturbing, beyond the usual indecorous mediation of adoptive parents concerning their actions. I mean to say that NPR is not in a position to give balanced representation to this issue when its own authors write on their international adoptions and then promote their own books via the radio station that they work for. The discussion that follows such PR machinations are usually caustic and demeaning toward adoptees and mothers, and obviously no lessons are learned by the sponsor of it, who determines what passes and what doesn’t in terms of valid discussion.

The mother in question has published her own book, which promotes itself as a “guidebook” for white adoptive parents of black children. Whatever her intentions, wherever her heart may lie, this should, in and of itself, set off a million alarms. More problematic is that in both these cases, there is a tacit acceptance of adoption as a given, and so any discussion concerning the impropriety of either begins at a false starting point; we are forced into an acceptance of something that many of us question outright. Even if we do accept it, we can at least admit that an inclusive debate cannot start from such exclusionary assumptions. There is no fairness or justice to be found here.

And so it is not enough to simply “have our voices heard”; we need reset the starting point of the argument. Personally, I refuse to accept the status quo of adoption as a “given”. It was not a given (of family creation) for most of its history (it stems from indentured servitude), and I refuse to discuss it as if it were. It needs to be discussed as an institution in and of itself, in all of its historic complexity, in terms of what it maps onto (meaning other displacements and dispossessions) and not just in terms of the personal, or the social, but in terms of the economic and political, and covering the entire range of the subject that is currently maintained as “off limits” by the likes of NPR, as well as many currently decrying NPR’s “exclusion”.

Inherent racism of adopters

We need further admit that Anglo-American society is, historically speaking, inherently race-based, if not resultingly racist, and yet “markets” itself as the exact opposite. Such that a deconstruction need take place as to what this woman’s actions map onto or bring forward, historically speaking. For example, the adoptive mother in this interview maintains a Twitter account; her handle there is “@whitebrownsugar”. The use of such food analogies by those who maintain dominance in terms of cultural dialogue was brought up at the web site Transracial Eyes, so I won’t belabor it here. I would only say that such use reveals much about the naivete (to be kind) or outright ignorance (to be harsh) of someone who portrays her relationship to the children temporarily in her care in such a “consumptive” way; one with a long history of sexualized and racist

This “Postracial-America Syndrome” of so-called progressives (“I voted for Obama!”), which mistakenly conflates class with race (“My kid’s school is very diverse!“) is a million times more offensive than the outright in-your-face racism of any member of the Ku Klux Klan, or of any White Power movement. At least I know where I stand with the latter; all the while the former actually wields much more in the way of discriminatory systemic power. Malcolm X referred to these as the “smiling foxes” who are much more dangerous than the known-to-us wolves. That this woman invents wholesale a new term–“colorism”–to define what she has experienced goes far to explain such ignorance, as well as her luxury and privilege within society, and beyond that the power differential that represents on the familial level the racist chasm that exists on the societal one.

Usurpation of victimization

Which brings us to “false victimization”. I have often written about the avoidance of self-victimization of those on the downhill side of the uneven playing field. This takes many forms, most obviously an avoidance of speaking personally, as well as framing everything within a greater picture of economic and political realities. I don’t want anyone’s pity, and I won’t beg for empathy, especially from quarters whence it is rarely forthcoming. Such victimization, self-inflicted or otherwise, denigrates if not annihilates our Voice; and in a cultural environment which falsely states “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, nothing is more easily dismissed.

There are multiple levels of “de-voicing” taking place here, if we look more closely. The children temporarily in this woman’s care are not allowed voice, or agency; they continue to be third-person “direct objects”. Second, the white adoptive mother “claims” for herself–“usurps” would be a better term–a victimization that is a result of her own unacknowledged racism that disempowers them via the very act of adoption. In an attempt to perhaps assuage her own guilt, or claim some sense of grace, she claims a “victim” status that is simultaneously imposed on yet denied (in terms of agency) to the children in her care. This is an Orwellian inversion of no small proportion.

This perpetration of victimization on those who might, given an ability to speak, renounce or deny such victimization, or claim a sense of empowerment that questions their very adoption or family situation is a “doubling up” of racism as well as classism, and brings us to the main reason we go unheard on the likes of NPR: our speaking out, no matter what we say, challenges the status quo. In other words, we are being told to “know our role”. This is likewise revealed in this woman’s hiring of cultural-reference “laborers” who are engaged to educate these children as to their “culture”; a private (and horribly reductive) “culture camp“, similar to the ones many adoptees are packed off to when they are kids.

It is almost impossible to parse how offensive this “reverse Eliza Dolittle indoctrination” is in terms of race, of class, of reductive cultural relativism, of labor relations, of house slavery, of hegemony, of historical voicelessness. That NPR picks this up and runs with it as a continued mediation of such inequality should not surprise us. This speaks to NPR’s place within a culturally hegemonic media, and its role in disseminating such views. And so we should not fool ourselves that NPR is a progressive voice. It isn’t now, nor will it ever be; quite the opposite.

Common displacements

This brings me to a final point concerning the “discussion” that took place on the NPR web site. I want to state quite clearly that I am not satisfied with this token inclusion. We have not been “heard” by posting here. We have not changed anything by stating our grievances. NPR is not going to start airing adoptee voices that in any way challenge its own hegemonic viewpoint concerning the status quo.

At one point of the discussion I was taken to task for comparing (as I do) adoption to slavery. I wish that NPR had not deleted the lead-in post, because I think it is important to reveal the invective leveled against us for speaking up and out. If I can handle such outbursts, then no one should pre-emptively edit them out of the conversation. To the gentleman castigating me, I replied:

Angry? Yes. Misinformed? Hardly. I’ve spent the last ten years researching the historical roots of adoption, both in the place of my acculturation as well as that of my birth to which I have returned, definitively. I wouldn’t wish what I’ve learned on my worst enemy, and I derive no pleasure from bringing it up. The only “pointlessness” comes from those, like yourself, who prefer the mythologies of a society which doesn’t dare face the truth of yet another one of its “peculiar institutions” which displaces and dispossesses others seen as “lesser than” based on economic and political disparities, treating human beings as property. If you are okay with this, I imagine that this is, as I stated earlier, your luxury and privilege to do so. But the days when the rest of us are expected to “know our role” and “stifle it” are long over.

I further felt compelled to state that I do not claim any “parity of experience” with slaves by virtue of having been adopted. This projection onto me of individualistic identity markers that I do not myself claim can only come from members of a truly ailing society that sees everything individualistically before communally, and there is no argument to be had along these quite separate wavelengths. I would never have the audacity to claim to understand what it is like to be a slave, or to have lived with the harsh realities that they lived with or which their descendents live with on a day-to-day basis. I have, on the other hand, been revealed an aspect of this growing up transracially adopted, and now especially in my return, among those I currently find myself here in Lebanon. I have been awakened to its repercussions, and have the luxury and privilege of a leapfrogged class position that affords me an ability to “speak out” about it. Here, in the class imbalance that came via my adoption, as well as in our perceived “reverting to form” by the adoptive class, can be found the principle reasons for the epithet “ungrateful adoptee”, as well as the latently projected racism of our adoptive acculturation.

Common cause

For even if we do not, cannot, know what it’s like to “be” a slave, we still have a better idea of what that means than those who maintain mythologies of a post-racial and classless America, and this for the very razor’s edge of class and race that we walk. And here there is common cause, depending on which direction we lean. This remains a common cause that the likes of NPR wish to remove from the realm of possibility. I don’t think it is possible to state more firmly that the societies that created the machinery of adoption cannot now dismiss a discussion of its internal workings. Furthermore, I can think of no worse fate than attempting to work from within this machinery in an attempt to change or reform it. We can only be ground up and spat out by such efforts; I think many of us suffer from this without really acknowledging it or speaking up about it. I want to get to the point where we are actively allowing a discussion that talks about the sheer possibility of dismantling this machine. At this point, even if only by virtue of keeping such a utopian ideal in our heads–in changing the starting point of the discussion–something approaching true reform might actually take place.

In the book The Politics of Knowledge: The Commercialization of the University, the Professions, & Print Culture by Richard Ohmann, in an essay on the dilemma of the radical within academia faced with the machinations of academia that thwart her at every turn, he states:

We now enact and dispute the personal in a conversation chiefly among ourselves, on terms that have more to do with academic politics or even fashion than with changing the world….the personal tends to imply that identities are given and fixed, to reify difference, to veer away from disclosures that might strengthen a universalist solidarity or even point toward coalitions.

The book drives home for me the following: I don’t want to discuss purely for discussion’s sake. I don’t want to “win” any argument; I don’t want anyone to think that I see arguments as “winnable”. I do not wish to exclude others reminiscent of how I’ve experienced exclusion. I don’t want to spin wheels and cogs of a machine that maintains as a prime directive my silence and that of anyone who challenges it in any way. I don’t want anyone to think that I am in this “for myself”; I would give anything to not think about adoption–and by extension, displacement and dispossession of any kind–for two split seconds. I do not want to engage outside of a communal understanding. I no longer want to witness the inversion of those of means parading and promoting their absolute failure at constructing an equal society. But more than anything, I don’t want children like those temporarily in the care of this woman interviewed by NPR to grow up most potently devoiced, disempowered, and voided of agency by those on the “familial” and societal level who claim most loudly and most hypocritically the exact opposite. This can’t take place on our watch.

And so I state: I do not want to have my voice heard on NPR. I want to be rid of NPR, and to bring forward truly communal radio, truly collaborative and local media. I do not want to “arrive” at NPR’s table. I want to disqualify the hierarchy that imposes such a table on us, and offers us crumbs therefrom. I do not want to argue with the purveyors of the status quo, or the enablers of our current inequality, or the perpetrators of mediated crimes such as those committed by Scott Simon, Rachel Martin, or anyone else who sees in the Pabulum of NPR a worthy use of broadcast media, with its pathetically remote and removed sliver of “cosmopolitan-class” elitism.

I want us to reach out to those outside of our own comfort zones: the children temporarily in the care of others; the mothers targeted for their children; the communities fighting to repatriate and return such children, and re-establish families undone by the ignoble institution of adoption, or any societally enforced dispossession and displacement. Enough with our own elitism, our own echo chambers, our own exclusionary actions, all of which are no more than an empty and false mimicry of what we know to be the very markers of the elitist status quo that put us where we are in the very act of adopting us, with no qualms and no apology concerning that action coming to us anytime soon.

It is time to move to an expansive discussion, an inclusive activism, an open engagement that allows for the full spectrum of those who have suffered displacement and dispossession of any kind to hear itself given voice. On our terms, to our audience, outside of the one percent currently able to afford the luxury and privilege of stroking their own egos without any sense of awareness as to the extent of their offense and the damage they have wrought. There is no “binary” in this seeming exclusion, because we are not talking “50/50”. We are talking “99/1”. When 99 percent of those currently without voice are given said voice, then and only then will I be willing to listen to the one percent, despite the fact that this voice has been ingrained in my head from the age of one month onward.

I use the following turn of phrase fully understanding its derivations: NPR and the discussions that take place under their auspices are just so many tar babies, and they know it, though they are loathe to admit it. There is no point “spinning our wheels” wrestling with such deceptive ploys. We should not fall for the trappings of nor the traps set by the “smiling foxes”. The “control room” is ours, if only we might realize our ability to occupy it; to own it; to give it valid purpose. And from there the machine, as it were, might, in fact, be slowed down; might, at long last, be quieted if not finally shut down for good. For its own good, and for ours.

Daniel Drennan ElAwar currently lives in Beirut. In 2009 he founded the artists' collective Jamaa Al-Yad. He co-founded a collective of transracial adoptees, Transracial Eyes. He can be reached by email at: drennan@panix.com. Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.