Tuesday, March 20, 2007

What I Learned from Harlow's Monkey

Like many husbands, I was the reticent one, when it came to adoption. Unlike most, my reticence came from only one concern -- that I wouldn't be up to the task. That after a wonderful childhood, I'd encounter a daughter who felt unprepared to be African-American, but wasn't accepted as white, and would be doomed to be forever alienated by both cultures. And it would be my fault -- for "sins" of commission, adopting her in the first place and "sins" of omission -- not giving her the tools she needed to explore her African-American identity, her "blackness", as it were.

Having been very close to some transracial adopted kids myself, some of whom had issues, some of whom didn't, I wanted to do more research before initiating the process.

I searched for any kind of study of adult transracial adoptees, and immediately came across The Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute's The Gathering of the First Generation of Adult Korean Adoptees: Adoptees' Perceptions of International Adoption by Madelyn Freundlich and Joy Kim Lieberthal.

Check it all out. It is fascinating. For me, it also validated my concerns (how's that for a nice way of putting "scared the hell out of me"?). I wasn't SURPRISED, as I said in my first post, I keenly understand racism at work in our world. But I'm not the victim, my daughter will be. Here's the pertinent part:

Experiences with Discrimination

The majority of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination while they were growing up. Race (70%) was cited more often as the basis for discrimination than was adoption (28%). A number of adoptees provided comments in response to the question, "If you felt any type of discrimination as you were growing up, are there any thoughts you would like to share about that experience?" The comments reflected a range of experiences. A few adoptees stated that they did not experience discrimination ["I feel like an oddball who grew up without experiencing any discrimination"]. Others recounted experiences with discrimination that they described as mild ["I didn't feel injured or threatened because it was infrequent or fairly mild;" "The only thing that bothered me was that a lot of people asked me if [or assumed] I was Chinese or Japanese;" "The discrimination was mainly the minor kinds of teasing that many children experience because of their peculiarities. Mine happened to be because I was Asian"]; as persistent ["It wasn't blatant -- just the everyday little things (ridicule, stares, comments, assumptions) which accumulated over a lifetime simply wore you down;" "Very sad memories of the constant teasing of my ethnicity, more frequent in elementary school but more intense in high school"]; or as severe ["It was very humiliating, degrading and painful"]. Some adoptees highlighted certain factors as most central to the discrimination they felt:

  • Adoption: "I grew up in a small, predominantly Caucasian middle-class town where adoption seemed, to me, to be unacceptable because it was "un-natural" -- children, more so than adults, were more unaccepting and, at times, cruel;"
  • Race: "Unfortunately, my parents were not particularly open-minded in the area of race despite having adopted two non-white children. They made racist comments to us about Koreans as well as other non-whites;" "The racism I experienced was enhanced because I felt like the people I most closely associated with . . . turned on me;"
  • Stereotyping: "I had to be smart because I am Asian;" "Any discrimination I felt was because I was Korean and overweight. I didn't fit the 'tiny' Asian role;" "People tend to think you are really intelligent and a stereotypical nerd. I was discriminated against by Asians because I didn't speak my native tongue and discriminated against by Caucasians because of how I looked;"
  • Gender: "Any discrimination I experienced was related to being female, not race or adoption;"
  • A combination of gender and race: "It was mostly internalized attitudes towards gender and race combined that helped to foster [in me] an internal conflict between an assertive intellectual and a passive, shy Asian girl;" and
  • Physical appearance: "The pointing out of physical differences made me think I was ugly;" "Being called 'greasy haired' and 'chink' was hurtful;" "Because I am Amerasian, I was not Korean enough and not Caucasian enough;" "Growing up in a small white community, I was a 'novelty' but very few people associated with me;" "I wanted to be like [everyone else]. Instead, I was always catching attention [both positive and negative] for being different."
Adoptees described different responses to discrimination. Some stated that experiences with discrimination did not significantly affect them because of inner strength or that these experiences made them stronger:

  • "Those rare times [in which I experienced discrimination] did not affect my esteem or confidence because by that time I already had much pride in my heritage and a strong foundation of worth. My parents told me, instilled in me, to empathize with these children because they must have felt badly about themselves in order to have antagonized others."
  • "I learned early on not to obsess over things that I could not change. I couldn't necessarily change how others saw me, but I could change how I saw others and myself."
  • "I feel the discrimination I endured when I was younger made me stronger. It made me see me for who I was and not how people viewed me. I learned to see myself as special."
  • "I think it made me stronger and more secure in my identity."
Other adoptees reported a negative impact from their experiences with discrimination:

  • "[It] taught me to deny my Korean part."
  • "The teasing and discrimination by other children made me deny and hate my Korean heritage."
  • "The experiences of being picked on and singled out due to my Korean heritage made me want to hide my differences in order to 'fit in.'"
  • "The persecution affected my personality -- [I became] introverted, unhappy, and hostile."
  • "When I was younger, I tended to head off discrimination at the pass by poking fun at myself. Therefore, many of my friends felt it was okay to call me names such as 'squint eyes' or 'chink face' because I allowed it, even laughed about it."
Thoroughly freaked out, I hit the Transracial Adoptee blogs. I, evidently, am not alone in this, as almost everywhere I turned, I heard a variation on the complaint, "This blog is for me and my fellow Transracial Adoptees, and it's getting ruined by overly-sensitive adoptive parents, or ready-to-adopt parents, flaming my comment board." Ouch. (Twice the Rice, another great blog, candidly disclaims that she "doesn't do advice".)

Having not flamed, but understanding the anxiety that would lead to defensiveness, that would, in turn, lead to flaming, I tried to find some middle ground (for the Buddhists in the crowd, the "middle path") between doing it badly and not doing it at all.

I came across Harlow's Monkey, an unflinching but thoughtful blog, written by a Korean Adoptee and social worker. My earliest posts, in a large part, were my "answers" to hers, my reflections on how her language impacted my thought process. The best thing that I can say is that she is smart enough and informed enough to channel emotions which adoptive parents often view as open hostility into lucid, well written, but intellectually and emotionally uncompromising views from the transracial adoptee's POV. Our childrens' POV (or possible POV). Most importantly, she is not someone who opposes international transracial adoption out of hand. She points to that middle path. So I tried figuring out how to encapsulate her world-view. Luckily, she just did it herself, deep in her recent post:

If I could rule the process myself, I would have a few additional requirements for adoptive parents who wish to adopt transracially or transculturally - including proof that they had actively worked on investigating their own whiteness and that they have the ability to educate themselves and act as allies in the issues and concerns of communities of color. Because just loving and being "open" to a child of another race or culture is NOT ENOUGH. And just hoping that as a parent, one would be able to help them with racial "self-esteem" is NOT ENOUGH. Adoptive parents must be part of a larger movement of anti-racist work. If as a white adoptive parent, you can not picture yourself working within the political movement of your child's race or culture, then I believe you must take a hard look at why that is.

This goes way, way beyond issues of whether you can love your child, or parent them if they have "special needs" or even whether you live in a diverse neighborhood or read books to them about their culture or take them to culture camps. This is about realizing that your little one is a member of a group of people with a long history of struggle at the hands of whiteness and you, as a member of that oppressive group, must be willing and able to step up and actively work towards dismantling those very structures. This means you will be risking your own membership in the elite group of whiteness; others who are part of the dominant structure will begin to challenge you, call you a traitor and try to bring you down. It won't be easy. You may even risk losing friends and family who won't agree or understand.

In the White Racial Identity work by Helms* and Carter**, they point out that many white people who become actively involved in dismantling racism face a stage where they have to learn to give up their membership in the dominant white reference group and yet accept they will not be accepted as members of a community of color - having to exist being "betwixt and between." If adoptive parents can understand this, they might begin to understand the "betwixt and between" that their transracially adopted children will deal with in their lives.

This is tough work. My advice for pre-adoptive parents who think I am being unreasonable in suggesting they engage themselves in active anti-racist work? They should reconsider whether they are really about the child or their own needs. Nobody ever said that this work was going to be comfortable or easy.

My conclusion is that we are going to be DIFFERENT. We will not be WHITE families. We won't even be "Multi-Cultural" families, since, as I stated in a previous post, our kids don't have the leverage to introduce their own culture into the family. We are swirled (or "swerled" in my Google-friendly parlance). It is OUR JOB to make the families Multi-Cultural, and that means leaving our "white" selves behind and embrace a culture, tastes, expression and history of another race and another culture, even though we will never be able to embody that culture. In other words, we must make sure that our household offers a MIXED experience, even though we, ourselves are NOT.

In order to hopefully make our homes more of a comfort zone for our children, we need to venture far out of our own. If we are asking our kids to be different, we need to do the same.


Bek said...

All true... I do research for an African country trying to write adoption law... so I have those reports memorized inside and out. If you think about it too long you can get really worried that any child you raise in a transracial family will end up unhappy. My kids are still little and I don't know what will happen, but I do that by reading as much as I can and listening to the ones that have walked the path before me will help me be better prepared. Maybe my kids will be the ones that don't have much anxiety over it, but if they are, we want to be ready.

Ironically, I rarely discussion adoption or race on my blog b/c each time I do I get flammed by the angry birthmothers who know nothing about me and my situation but just want to say hateful things. I don't touch it with a 10 foot pole any more b/c it was making my mom cry..... this could be a good forum for this kind of discourse.....