On “adopted” as an epithet.

This is in response to my half-reply (the other half was in a tweet) at the “This Family’s Journey” blog, in a post entitled: The “Ohhhh, they’re adopted” Reason.

What I said in my tweet reply was that as an adoptee, I prefer this, the culture’s honesty concerning adoption. It’s not a matter of opinion, but a difference in how we view a mythology. It’s like the racism that I experienced while living in France which was direct and in my face (“I don’t rent rooms to Arabs”) which I greatly prefer to the inverted American version (“Where’re you from?”); I prefer Cultural Honesty.

For the paper I’m writing on the presentation I gave at the Adoption Initiative Conference last October in New York, I wrote the following:

More prevalent than the mediated “saviors” of children referenced within the culture are these more popular references to thievery of infants and stealers of children, those who abscond with or remove children from their place, in an evident archetype that is always negative: The Pied Piper, the witch of Hansel and Gretel, the Coachmaster of Pinocchio, the Child Catcher1 of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; and further afield but no less relevant, “Dzunukwa” of the Pacific Northwest’s First Nation and “Abou Kiis” (The Bag Man) of Lebanese folklore, just to name a few, and pointing toward a negative cultural understanding of this archetypal bogeyman.

Interestingly, this focus on the “stealer” prototype is starting to present itself in the sub-mediated films and theater dramas of targeted countries. This use of adoption as a storyline in which the adoptive “Westerner” becomes the stock antagonist continues in this tradition2. Adoption mythology can thus be seen as an aberration and an attempt to countervail archetypal tropes that run deep within various cultures. These are thus revealed to be normative references that always proclaim the necessity and taken-for-granted nature of children’s connection to family, with adoption relegated to serving purely economic purposes.

1 Interestingly the title of a new book: The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption.
2 Mercy Madonna of Malawi, staged in reaction to Madonna’s adoption of African children, for one example; the surprisingly welcomed shooting of Pauly Shore’s film Adopted in South Africa for another.

What I am saying here is that an adopter is offended by what is a cultural norm that has not yet succumbed to economic and political pressure; this is a popular reaction, and the adopter, of a given class and stratum in society, is offended that someone from “below” doesn’t “get it”. Given the attitude toward our original mothers, families, communities, and societies, this should not surprise us.

The fact remains that such popular views need be changed from the grassroots up. My adopted-name self recently received his three-year “courtesy” residence visa (my orphanage-name self has his nationality). Where the names for parents should be were two lines. My ID card will carry a word identifying me as “parentless” (implying bastardy in the colloquial language). Drones were recently referred to in the media as “bastard planes” as a play on this. I know that in the long term this will all be easier to change culturally speaking from the ground up than from an imposing dominant class and discourse from above. Imagine how quickly this terminology would disappear if these societies had no class disparity, true equality, and a valid system of caring for children.

As an adoptee (adopters dismiss us so readily!), I much prefer this honesty to the bogus mythology of adoption. This is a statement without emotion or malice. I’d much rather someone assume I’m a “bastard” than assume I’m “grateful”. The power differential of the first assumption is much more readily overcome than that of the second. I prefer knowing what the culture “thinks”, as opposed to the attitude that some classes within it “affect” and then attempt to impose on everyone else. There is a big difference. And the sooner that adoptive parents “come back to Earth” the better off we will all be.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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8 Responses to On “adopted” as an epithet.

  1. eagoodlife says:

    Reblogged this on The Life Of Von and commented:
    Daniel writes – “I know that in the long term this will all be easier to change culturally speaking from the ground up than from an imposing dominant class and discourse from above. Imagine how quickly this terminology would disappear if these societies had no class disparity, true equality, and a valid system of caring for children “

  2. I love what you say here, and I’ve been thinking much about it. I’ve been rereading the “Iliad” and marveling anew at the epithets I’ve always loved: grey-eyed Athena; darkly brilliant Achilles. I would, as you, rather be trussed as adoptee/bastard than “grateful” or “lucky” or “rescued.” I can throw off the former as labels based on legal status while the others imply inequality, an equation that says I have something that I don’t quite deserve, something that marks me as less than. Epithets depend on the point of view, to be sure; I would rather choose the truth rather than a brushed-out version of something more palatable for someone else. Take the mask off that falsely smiling face and just say what you think: I am not exactly human.

    My Cambodian friend taught me that there’s a wonderful verb in Khmer that doesn’t translate into English: “sneng.” It describes the action of false kindness, that horrid smile that people paste on and think you don’t see what’s happening behind it, when it’s blatantly clear that they don’t like you at all, not for a moment, but they hope you are taken in by their hard sweetness. It’s a foul performance; we’ve all seen it. How great that Khmer culture has a word to describe it.

    I think back to all the times when my aparents’ siblings were told that they were “lucky” I turned out smart and not to be much trouble; in turn I was told that I’d better be “grateful” for all my parents’ sacrifices and that I didn’t deserve my adad’s generosity. (To be clear, my aparents were the black sheep in their respective families, so perhaps I would have had some crap visited on me no matter what, but there were always looks and off-hand remarks about my being such an “unknown quantity” and how surprising it was that I turned out so well. My aparents did not participate in this abuse, but they witnessed some of it and told me privately not to engage and to look at my aunts’ and uncles’ own situations, amidst much talk of glass houses.) Of course, no one asked *me* how I felt or what being adopted meant for me. I was privately miserable my entire life, despite having loving aparents. My goal from Grade 1 was to do well in school, move far away, get a good degree, and stay away from everyone who had taken such rude liberties with me; I learned early on that self-imposed isolation is not always torture.

    At work I am in a union, as you know, and last week we went out on strike for a week (our ninth in two years–Sutter won’t budge from its insulting “last, best, and final” offer). Apathy abounded amongst my colleagues. Some days there were only seven people on the line. I don’t know if the corporation was moved a hair in its resolution to break us; sometimes I worried that poor turnout was the end. But on the last day, we attained critical mass and stormed the barricades! Several hundred of us rushed up to the hospital doors and shouted our demands. The private security hired by the hospital and the Berkeley Police, to their credit, stood aside and we had our say, loudly and unrestricted. It felt good to rise up and shout about unfairness, united together in larger numbers.

    I don’t know what it will take for adoptees to find a similar rallying point (some say it’s OBCs, some say it’s the rampant corruption; I don’t know what it will take), but I hope adoptees *will* come together one day. I concur that it probably will have to be a grassroots effort; it will take many more people, and many more minds willing to question the status quo in an increasingly radical way.

    Thank you, as ever, for your eloquent words that stir me to action.

    • Thanks for the reply. Along the lines of what you are saying in terms of the legal aspect, a member of the group we’ve just founded here in Lebanon to advocate for a child’s right to know her origins challenged the media outlet that was using a play on “bastard” to refer to a drone, and the offending term was taken down after a lively discussion. To understand is that the negative aspect of this epithet, and its inhumane nature is easy to point out. If someone calls us “grateful” they are actually complimenting themselves; they are using us to self-aggrandize. This is completely dehumanizing, and harder to go up against.

      The word نفق (nafaqa) in Arabic is the root of منافقة (munafiqa) “hypocrite”. The root word means both an active or brisk market as well as the result of that, a spent or exhausted stock. From this we might imagine that pretending to be doing well in terms of business masked the reality of an absence of merchandise, and so “hypocrite”. The English translation of this term reveals words that are not widely used in the language: Dissimulate and dissemble. They do not carry the force of your Cambodian term. On some level, the Arabic definition works well with adoption: The reality of a depleted stock (of children) results in an aggrandizing of the mythology of adoption. I’m thankful that more and more people are speaking out about this abject hypocrisy.

      I don’t get angry at those who don’t activate the way they probably should concerning their own interests. The population is exhausted; wages have not gone up since the ’70s; incentives run toward competition not collaboration; Americans it seems tend to be trusting of their officials and representatives (to their own detriment). I often say the “revolution” will come from without rather than within. But the facade cracking is a first step….and as always, the Truth will out.

  3. One of the small but interesting aspects of being a bastard is the shock value the word still has. When we started Bastard Nation in 1996 a lot of “adoptees” got it and some birthers and adopters got it, too. We were, however, faced with people screaming, “I’m not a bastard. I’m adopted!” Oh well!

    Anyway, the biggest purveyors of shock to this day are libs and progs. They spew out cats profusely at the name “Bastard Nation” and assume that we are all unhappy, ungrateful or both. “Oh, I’m so sorry, they wheeze.” Or worse. Even explaining that we are not only bastards in the legal sense, but that we are bastardized by in a social sense by crappy laws, etc. doesn’t phase them. But…but… Conversely, when I’m around conservative individuals and groups the word doesn’t phase them a bit. I once called a policy analyst at Family Research Council to discuss baby dumps. I introduced myself as being from Bastard Nation and she didn’t miss a beat.–unlike sputtering libs who refused to use the word out of fear of “offending” somebody which I guess is me since that’s whom they were taking to. Of course, this is just anecdotal general observation, but I’ve found it much easier to discuss issues with conservatives (even christian crackpots) than the PC crowd of mealy brained libs. While I disagree with cons, progs, and libs about most everything (they are just branches of the same corrupt system), I appreciate honestly.

    As a side note to Mirren: the problem with adoptees coming together is that so many of those in the “movement” are willing to take what they can get and go home. We have proven in the area of OBC access what works and what doesn’t, but what doesn’t is still the popular MO. Those of us who insist on rights not privilege are constantly marginalized as “unrealistic” at best and “troublemakers” at worse. (A rather prominent leader of a so-called rights organization in a key state, referred to unrestricted access as “communistic.” ) The late Bill Pierce, founding president of NCFA, told me repeatedly “you won. It’s over.” Unfortunately, deformers didn’t get the message and continue their folly to hell. I think our side is starting to get through to more of “our” people, but it’s hard to tell. Just when you think they’ve “got it” some crappy bill gets introduced that everybody fawns over.

    Back to the trenches!

    • Thanks for the comment Marley, good to see you here. Your words come at a crucial time. Like every activist/civil rights movement before it, this one is splitting along the usual fault line of those who have tasted sitting at “the table” and those who know that a few who “make it” is not the answer and is, in fact, divisive and destructive in the end. When I hear the words of the dominant discourse coming out of so-called “progressive” mouths I realize that all is lost; that there is no hope. And, as you say, I much prefer to deal with those I categorically disagree with because at least I know where I stand. I find it bizarre that much in the way of support for what I write and do comes from adoptive parents; much in the way of denigration and distancing comes from those who should know better, and for whom we have seemingly become albatrosses around their necks. Personally, I think it is time to call out this behavior for what it is: kowtowing; acting the Uncle Tom; being a comprador; living life in the big house. Back to the trenches, indeed.

    • I’m absolutely flummoxed at the number of people who know what is right, yet refuse to do it. So many attempt to re-invent the wheel. It’s not like this is a new movement and people are still feeling it out. We know what to do! We know what wins. I’m really discouraged when I see people who should know better living in the 1980s. Players and opposition and rhetoric have changed, yet they prefer the same old saws. Speaking personally, it’s interesting that I can walk into any “opposition” group and be treated with respect along with good humor–because we do what we say we will, not fall down and lick their boots. I know for a fact that some big names have changed their minds on records access–because they told me I’m responsible for it. These people are not always in a good organizational or political position to say tpublicly hey’ve changed, but they have. And they get trashed by deformers who have no idea what’s going on (who have never lowered their “standards” to talk to the opposition)–along with those of us who hold an ethical line. We’re the bad guys, when the people

      I’ve called out some of these people and their minions gather around them like busy little birds. How can you say that after all fill-in-the-blank has done. Some “names” have told me and BN to shut up (literally) and stop spoiling it for them. To top it off, they get fucking awards for their “work.” We need to do more calling out of these Benedict Bastards.

      While I”m here do you have a website or any information for your group in Lebanon. I want to make a BN page for it.

  4. Marley and Daniel,

    You have great points, and I am with you 100% on sticking one’s ground for ethics. I am not happy about dirty bills, not one bit. I cannot see any point in supporting *any* bills that leave some adoptees behind; those bills set bad precedents, no matter what their supporters say about “fixing” them down the road. As if politicians care about “fixing” anything once the ink has dried! Their selfishness and naivete makes me laugh. As a Missouri bastard, I might as well be a table for all the “rights” I have or might be afforded in the near future. It’s disgusting what people have asked me to support in the name of incrementalism. Screw that.

    As you said, Marley, it’s about some taking theirs and skipping home, “privilege” not “rights.” It’s not the ones screwed over who are loving these bills, I’m thinking. I personally cannot stomach the apologetics: “It’s the best we can do!”

    Yes. It’s important to speak to one’s opponents, and yes, there are political masks. It’s part of the game; do people not understand subtlety anymore? (Rhetorical question) And yes, I agree, American politics are all one big set of puppets with not much differentiation at the end of the day. The conservatives I know will call you like they see you with no niceties; I prefer their bald speech to doublespeak and protecting *everyone’s* feelings (which is an impossible task and simply creates different scapegoats).

    I have actually come to appreciate my German husband’s culture for their honest debates in politics. Germans aren’t afraid political discussions, aren’t afraid to disagree, and they don’t get their feelings hurt in arguments. I was raised by liberals and used to cringe in discussions with in-your-face Germans, but now I prefer to hear and know where people stand. Not *everyone* can be right, all the time. People-pleasing adoptees create huge messes in this way.

    It’s strange how heavily defended (defensive?) discussions of bastard life have become. What next, Adoptees, Inc.?

  5. “Privilege” is the key word here. This is not limited to our corner of the activist realm, either. I think we are seeing a bizarre attempt to maintain the status quo from those who, as you have both stated, should know better. So it becomes a question of who is willing to change, or rethink, or explore options and who isn’t.

    The fact is that the “frameworks” for discussing adoption have completely shifted. I was ecstatic at the Adoption Initiative Conference in October to attend panels by evangelical Christians critiquing the evangelical push for adoption, as well as younger graduate students full-on examining the economics and politics of adoption as a function of globalization and capitalism.

    This puts us on much surer footing, and so it is endlessly bizarre to me to see those who a) want to keep the discourse within a kind of wishy-washy overtly personal and emotional realm and b) take on the trappings, luxury, and privilege afforded by the same economic system that gives us adoption and claim they are able to “fight the system” somehow.

    Their tactics then become very telling, for example, the destruction of years and years of history at a web site for adoptees by deleting thousands of old posts. That the destruction of culture and history is a tool of a system that promotes adoption does not enter the discussion, but for me there is no way to advance or carry the banner of being an “advocate” once you’ve done something like this.

    For another, the move to a paid-content model that caters to an “audience” made up of those who have been “touched” by adoption. I try to imagine someone coming up with a paid-content model destined for slaves during the years that Abolition was taking hold; it is a de facto admittance of the status quo, an embrace and acceptance of it, a desire to somehow profit from societal misery that just leaves me stupefied.

    And thus those actually advancing and making progress on the street and otherwise become targets either to ignore or destroy. Look at how those in Korea are ridiculed within certain adoption circles here. This is the history of activisms as we know and live them. Personally, I am convinced that our battle need move to address those who are left out of this party of the privileged—namely, those denied access to the “triad”; the voiceless who are targeted for their children. Beyond this, common cause with others displaced and dispossessed in the name of economic and political expediency is also a must.

    Our group here in Lebanon is awaiting governmental approval, but once we’re up and running, this will be the basic premise of our work: The right to “know one’s origins” becomes a way of creating this kind of umbrella approach that will, God willing, avoid any kind of “I’ve got mine, now I’m pulling up the ladder” behavior.

    Thank you both for adding your voice here.

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