On the New Adopter Narratives

Parental Co-opting of Adoption Activism

As adoptees, we are used to this drill. Adoptive parents, in a fit of what they believe to be enlightenment, deem themselves worthy of writing up our adoption experiences. These narratives are designed to be consumed by those of the very class which allowed our adoption in the first place. Ironically, we are left out of this equation, and this becomes the flip side of a double-edged sword should we decide to try to turn this narrative around. This results in our further rejection, the inscribing of our “outlier” status, and the realization that “flipping scripts” is as useless as it is impossible. We need to learn from our own histories, as well as those of every other group that has experienced such disempowerment. Our Voices on some level have been heard, and the response to it is as strategic and tactical as it is silencing. Despite being brought into another family and often society, we remain, for all intents and purposes, Outsiders.

Such writing now forms a trend, and this is of no small import. What remains most disturbing in this new genre of adopter narrative is how removed from reality the authors are. Like previous exemplars of the genre, such as rehomers who then peddle their tears online, or else their supporters who come to their defense, or the NPR stars and their stories of Adoption Success,1 I understand perfectly that we the adopted, transracially or otherwise, will have to put up with the narcissism, megalomania, and sheer privilege of the adopting class which still, still, tries to pretend that it is somehow “progressive”, or that adoption is a kind of liberal “activism”, and that they will “win” in their quite individually waged battles against racism. Unfortunately, this is a “battle” in which we have become unwilling pawns and secondary bit players. In this surreal simulacrum of the real world, we have no role to play.

These adoption myths are legion, and they are of course based in the economic needs of those who maintain power, as well as those who are coddled and sustained by such myths. The article I am referring to here, written by Betsy Berne,2 reveals all the telltale signs of such mythology. For starters is the myth that adoptive parents have some kind of unique agency and free will outside of the society in which they acculturate the children temporarily in their care. By this I mean to say that adoption, as an institution born of and reflecting its roots in indentured servitude, racism, and class warfare, does not suddenly “shift” into a tragedy based on the adoptive parent’s “awakening”. It did not just “happen”, divorced from very real economic and political incentives placed on those adopting. It is a tragedy, and a criminal one at that, from the get-go. It has never had any other purpose than this, and especially not family creation, its biggest myth. That some of these tragedies individually speaking have more-or-less better or worse endings doesn’t change their status as, communally speaking, tragedies and failures of society.

Until such a time that adoptive parents realize the power structure they are part of which incorporates and manifests forward via their actions these core and founding conceptions of slavery, racism, and class animosity, there can be no absolution of the guilt of said actions, simply because they believe themselves to be of a “progressive” class, or members of a “civilized” society. They are neither, and they need to be as honest with themselves as we have become among ourselves, as well as with them. If we can admit the Truth, why do we allow such Delusion? Instead they wish to butter their bread on both sides, have us be abettors to the charade, and thus we have to put up with this Pabulum. One adoptee in a conversation on Twitter described it as “triggering”, and this is quite an understatement. Again, we need to keep in mind that we are seen as external to this discussion; that we are not even considered to be part of the reading audience of such drivel; that we can never compare to the perfectly raised adoption case studies currently in the care of those who sell this dreck.

I no longer believe that the only valid response is to counter-air our points of view, as much as I wholeheartedly believe in our narrative potential, the worth of mass witnessing, in oral histories, etc. Something much more sinister is transpiring, and this shows up how unequal our words are when spoken on corporate-sponsored platforms equally bent on painting a Happy Gotcha Day for all involved. In terms of such a discussion, the fact remains that washing one’s hands after a murder does not efface the crime nor absolve the criminal. Sending a slave off to a “better” plantation does not lessen the crime of the original enslavement. That adoptive parents might pat themselves on the back after actively participating in this trauma and tragedy needs to be called out loudly and without equivocation. That their “journey”, supported as it is by every aspect of their society, needs to thus become the one and only narrative, eclipsing the Voice of those they claim to “save”, demands more than a rebuttal. Their actions (and their speech is “active” in this linguistic sense) in the bigger picture paint them as members of a bourgeois class that continues to peddle the very discourses and mythologies of adoption that created the problem of “orphans” in the first place. This has resulted in an endless debate concerning motive and not crime; which we seem bent on discussing endlessly, year in and year out. It does us no good to either uphold that class structure in any way, or claim to be a part of it, or to add to a conversation in purely defensive terms.

What I want to say to Betsy Berne is the following:

You are of the dominant class, as expressed via race privilege. You follow in the footsteps of gentrifiers, usurpers, colonizers. Like them, you have the entirety of a billion-dollar industry supporting everything you say and do. You have the legal, governmental, medical, religious, and media-based systems of support at your back. You have mediated adoption into a realm of “no arguments allowed”. You are like every other oppressor before you, bent on shutting up and shutting down those who go against you (plural) in any way. Do you really think we have not tried to be the docile, acquiescent, “good” children you thought we would be when you cut the ties to our families and brought us to your home? It doesn’t matter that the child in your home calls you her “white slave”. That you can’t even imagine the offense of such reverse role-playing only reinforces what I am saying here. For nothing is as racist as your original adoptive act; and nothing you write can absolve you of that action.

The difference between you and those you glibly dismiss is two-fold: First, you will win on the local front and in the short term. You will erase us, our Voices, our presence, from the online realm, from your memory. The second major difference is that unlike you, we would much rather not be discussing this subject. We would much rather the reasons (whether you ignore them or actually manage to face up to them) both political and economic that form the reason why we are speaking out never existed. We would much prefer the injustices that resulted in our trafficking had been dealt with by you, the dominant class, in a noble, just, fair, and equalizing manner so that all might have a reason to speak joyfully of their birth and childhood, of their upbringing.

But this is where you make the biggest mistake: We are not going away. And we are organizing in those places which you don’t deem worthy: on the ground and in the streets. And those children temporarily in your care will one day be joining us. And we will all be going home to our families one day, in one way or another, and this with or without your consent, with or without your approval. In this light, what you say doesn’t even matter; you have no role in this greater conversation, taking place among those to whom you cannot be bothered to ascribe humanity. And the great question that everyone wishes you would answer instead is: What will you say to the child temporarily in your care when she echoes them, and voices such sentiment? Where will your “big heart” and “open mind” be then? You are a hypocrite, and your “article” is a function of your blatant hypocrisy. Don’t worry though. Sadly, we’ll likely still be around when the child temporarily in your care turns around and needs to speak for herself.

There is no real point in discussing this unless two questions are going to be posed: First, are these “liberals” who are simply acting true to their class position, willing to equalize their class standing so that adoption might not be necessary? Second, as critics of the practice, are we willing to go to the logical conclusion that adoption need be abolished, even if purely in a utopian-goal sense? If the answer to either of these questions is “no”, then this is a useless spinning of wheels; a bogus tilting at windmills; and our critique simply acts as an impetus for more of this genre of writing, and yet another (another!) generation of adoptees yet to come of age. The dilemma we face in replying, in a world of “no publicity is bad publicity”, and where the most vile of rehomers are given precedence in the so-called newspapers of record, is not to be misconstrued. The fact that some of what I’m posting here is cut and pasted is testament to how tired I am of saying the same thing over and over again.

Beyond this, there are two points I wish to bring up in conclusion. First, we need acknowledge there is an Adoption Marketplace now, and our words and narratives become as much a commodity as we ourselves were decades ago. This brings up a choice to make, in terms of taking part in the same market forces and using the same neo-liberal principles that brought us adoption in the first place, that are now at the root of our resistance. It also demands a recognition that there is no “owning” this discourse, if this comes at the dismissal of those who don’t fit the “branding” or the “marketing strategy”. Second, like everything that is taken up and sold within such a marketplace, our “content” has no value, only our “form”. All of this has resulted in splits within activist communities as concerns who is “too radical” to be considered, well, I guess, “sellable”. Given the difficulty of the razor’s edges we already walk, I prefer not to add this particular one to the mix. In this view, adoptees can be just as “triggering” as such parents.

Finally, I want to talk about the sheer exasperation of continuously replying, rebutting, answering, discussing; defensively re-enacting the Power Play that would have us remain indirect objects of someone else’s action. When do we activate? It’s not like the precedent is not there in our own histories as well as from previous eras of adoption activists. It further exists in our countries of origin; in places of the Disappeared such as in Spain, Chile, and Argentina; among those at the other end of the empowerment spectrum, such as immigrant mothers; among African and other communities demanding an accounting of their missing children; everywhere except in the places of our acculturation, but for a few glimmers of hope here and there.

Here we accept and enact the status quo. Here, we play their game and pretend that our narratives have individual weight that somehow balance things out. Nothing is further from the truth. This is a self-deception as destructive as thinking we are “of” this class for having been adopted. The recent realization that ten percent of Korean adoptees are not actually “citizens” should be a wake up call in this regard, as should be the deportation of two million Mexican immigrants, or the proposals calling for internment camps for Muslims. We remain Outsiders. The only role for us inside is that of “House Adoptee”. Again, this is a function of every activism ever waged on the planet, and can be analyzed based on this precedence.

Despite all evidence to the contrary we still think this is simply a “war of words”; a simple changing of minds. It’s not. The “adopter narrative” is morphing and adapting in order to silence us; it is stealing the power of our words and the weight of our tropes in order to render us harmless and pointless. And the correct response is not just more words, but, at long last, union; and beyond that, words that form a framework for praxis; for action. When all is said and done, when our silly hashtags are forgotten on the dustheap of history, there will be an accounting of our accomplishments, and how successful we were in “scripting the flip”; in paving the way for a revolution of all those displaced, dispossessed, and disinherited. For it begs the question: if not now, when, exactly, do we see this happening?

  1. “Racism, Class, and Adoption” []
  2. “More excerpts from Single White Mother” []
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.