Why would someone think that Adoption erases a child’s identity?

This is the fourth question in the series: “Anti-adoption month: 30 answers to 30 questions on adoption” [link].

The follow question originally appeared on Yahoo!Answers:

Why would someone think that Adoption erases a child’s identity and replaces it with a fake one?

Answer: First, we need to define our terms: what do we mean by “identity”? Adoption laws, courts, agencies, and most any and all other agents involved in adoption have a clear interest in rupturing all ties of a child with its progenitors and community, and replacing them with others, as defined by the legal system that they control on all levels. To do this, myths have been built up concerning adoption that, when challenged, place those in power, those in control of the situation—including parents—in a moral dilemma: Even if they agree with what is being explained here—theoretically, morally, ethically—the circumstances of their lives, the weight of their laws, the preponderance of notions of property in their legal system, as well as the sheer desire to make it so, all result in questions such as this one being asked. The question is pre-framed by their lived reality, and despite their claims to “agency”, in actuality they are performing the will of the nation-state. In purely legal terms, due to the fact that for the majority of states in the U.S. a child’s birth certificate is sealed by the courts, or that for most of us adopted overseas our birth documentation is completely falsified—an avalanche of bogus paperwork in order to shuttle us out of the country—then yes, I think it is fair to say that an adopted child’s identity, as defined in this legalistic manner, is not his or her real or true identity.

Second, what strikes me particularly strange about having growing up in the United States is the attention given to all aspects of, say, the immigrant experience, and genealogy, and “roots”, and ethnicity, such that everyone gets a “hyphen” attached to their country of origin—Polish-American, Italian-American, and in my case, Lebanese-American—except for the true-blue Americans, who are simply “all-American”. Given this pride taken in ethnicity, and the obvious hierarchy it establishes in terms of racism, xenophobia, and the like, how is it possible to claim some kind of ethnicity—or other marker of identity—for any child who has not grown up in his or her culture? Eating falafel does not make me “Lebanese”, and I still do not claim to be Lebanese now that I’m living here. Why allow such pretension in the States? So in this case as well, I think that my American identity was not “true”—it was instead a series of masks, of affectations—both in terms of my adoptive family, and in terms of my birth country.

Third, and as an elaboration of this, I would admit to having an identity, that is made aware to me when I am around people from where I grew up—our speech patterns, our cultural references, our way of seeing things—all are reflective of a time in U.S. history when local areas all had their own manners and mores, quirks, and culture. This of course has now been paved over, suburbanized, and WalMartized. This truly local culture has been replaced by a strange globalized and globalizing hodgepodge of references to superficial trappings of ethnic “style”, such that a child’s identity is not formed in a local town, say, but from a Mountain Dew commercial instead. Perhaps this is what is meant by “identity” in this question?

Fourth and finally, I think there is a hypocrisy within the American view of itself in terms of adoption, in the sense that society and culture in general make reference to blood lines, ancestry, familial ties, and the “nature” aspect of family relationships, such that we have no problem saying, “he’s a chip off the old block” or else, “she takes after her grandmother on her mother’s side”, or “he’s the spitting image of his father.” Why should it be, then, that all of a sudden the adopted child is supposed to believe that in his or her case, this doesn’t matter? That there is no nature, only nurture? How is it not possible to understand that each and every one of these references might seem slight in and of their own selves, but in the aggregate, they are like being bled to death from a million tiny cuts?

The problem here is much deeper than portrayed, because it isn’t a bunch of so-called anti-adoption activists that have made suicide the number one cause of death for adopted Korean males in certain adoptive countries, for example. It isn’t “bad answers” on this bulletin board that have driven hundreds if not thousands of adopted children from Korea, Taiwan, Lebanon, etc., in progressive waves of generations of dispossessed children who vainly attempt to reverse their exodus and return to their lands of birth, in a useless but necessary attempt to re-establish some vague sense of what we currently refer to as “identity”. In 10, 15, and 20 years, it will be the turn of Ukraine, and Russia, and Guatemala, and Ethiopia, and Kenya, and Kazakhstan, and and and…., until such a day, God willing, that the injustice of adoption, and thus this destruction of identity, can be definitively stopped, once and for all.

And so you can challenge this “revolt”, with a kind of haughtiness that I’m sure is not normally of you, and thereby risk alienating your adopted child, or you can make the huge leap necessary in your worldview in order to attempt to finally understand, instead of simply imposing on him or her, and by extension, on all of us, these myths that we simply wish to point out as being such; in an effort to clear the air; to breathe. To start a process of healing. To know who we are.


Cold War Orientalism, by Christina Klein.

Race, Nation, Class, by Etienne Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein.

The Karma of Brown Folk, by Vijay Prashad.

National Identity, by Anthony D. Smith.

More books on the subject…

Debate Tactic: There are two sides to this debate. The first is about “claiming” identity; the second is about “assigning” identity. Both are fraught with peril, because the proud claiming of the first maps too well onto the pejorative assigning of the second. By this I mean to say that my “pride” is someone else’s “epithet”, or tool of destruction. Like much that is currently taken for granted within an acculturation of individualization, the fact is that “identity” is not a function of an individual, but of a community and a society. The first step to break out of this debate is to drive it away from its usual reductiveness. To do so, we need to consider what the prevailing formative norms of language and culture are, and where they come from. This brings us to the very local, for example, my neighborhood in Beirut is radically different from the next one over; Two people from the East or West “Upper Sides” of Manhattan have very different ideas of what being a “New Yorker” is. So even when I claim to be a “Jersey boy”, I need to really say “North Jersey”, and then “suburban” (as opposed to rural or urban), etc. To resist along these lines requires us to question any effort to define and delimit us. Checkboxes on government forms, placement in certain lines at the border screening within an airport, replacing an entire culture with a discussion of certain foodstuffs: We must challenge a reductive idea of what identity is. Adoption, in and of itself, is designed to destroy identity. But too often the stunted and crippled shoot that comes from such a pile of rubble is, itself, a Frankensteinian construct. Ironically, it is perhaps in not claiming an identity that we find ourselves.


About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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10 Responses to Why would someone think that Adoption erases a child’s identity?

  1. I feel assaulted by the faux naif nature of that question, the “Why would someone think that adoption erases someone’s identity?” How can people even *ask* that? Conversely, how can people coddle the people who ask that question? I don’t want to educate. I want to scream.

    Maybe I am simply too raw today.

    Your point about the Frankenstinian nature of that crippled shoot of grass, emerging from the rubble has haunted me overnight. I am that shoot. I am cobbled together, denied. I have found who I am, and I am a horror to those who should love me, given societal mores. Those who bought me want me to be the “good” girl, the one who always acted and did the right thing, never questioned (or only within sanctioned boundaries), never shamed them (that they knew of). I am so very tired of the masks.

    I embrace my Frankenstinian self. No one else in my families does, or will. As you say, maybe it is in the forging of our own sense of self that we can find freedom. I wouldn’t exchange not knowing for this pain, but at the same time, people are so very, very cruel.

  2. This has been my salvation. Throwing all caution to the wind and dis-affecting myself. I refuse to claim identity markers of any kind. If we think about it, this is a power shift—those in the dominant mode have the luxury and privilege to not claim for themselves, as well as to categorize Others. I see it as refusing their power, assuming a similar stance of not claiming, while rejecting their categorization. The Frankenstein monster was horrific for being a base reduction of a human being; a literal sum of his parts. This need be rejected wholesale.

  3. Pingback: An Adoptee By Any Other Identity . . . | Lucy Sheen actor writer filmmaker adoptee

  4. Sherri Gabel says:

    I am a mom of 2 boys who were taken and then forced adoption to 2 different families. Through the years I have had a range of emotions in regards to the entire adoption scene. As I found out more information about those who adopted my boys there was a lot of anger and a lot of frustration. There have been a lot of lies told, voluntary choices made, and facts buried to make it easier on those who, from day one, had ulterior motives. Both of my boys have found me and we are working to repair the damage caused to my boys’ emotional and psychological health.

    One of my boy’s adoptive family has opened lines of communication with me and we work together to keep those lines open so that my son doesn’t feel like he has to choose between his adoptive family and his birth family. We have spent time together with our mutual son and all get along.

    The adoptive parents of my other son have made no effort to return even a civil communication. This makes it hard to have an open relationship. I am these boys’ birth mother and I love them both with my whole heart. Their adoptive parents have been there for them as their parent figures for more than 15 years. I know first hand how it feels to be left out of so many firsts in both of their lives and do not wish that on any parent, adoptive or birth. Its a tough situation, but there are ways to make it easier for those have been adopted. Both sets of parents need to be open to the fact that our kids love all of us and that they have a right to know where they came from. It does not mean that they are rejecting their adoptive family it simply means they want to fill a void they are feeling.

    We can make it a great experience for our kids by being open and honest with them while helping them to deal with their feelings and their needs.

  5. lktrevino says:

    Reblogged this on Living Live – Lori's Way and commented:
    An interesting take on adoption as a whole….

  6. uuvegan says:

    In my eyes you’re Lebanese, Lebanese-American. I feel you are your blood. My adoptive parents tried to make me Italian, but when I searched and found out my birth parents were Puerto Rican, I claimed Puerto Rican as my identity. Of course that culture and language was taken from me, but it’s still my blood.

    • Thank you for this, uuvegan. It’s funny, because reference to my “blood” comes up a lot here in terms of this subject. Just the other day I was hanging at the corner, and the discussion was the World Cup, and support of teams. I remember saying something jokingly along the lines of “I’m without a country” to which my friend quickly replied: “You have Arab blood! You have a place in Syria!”

      Now, the fact that he said “Syria” and not “Lebanon” is left for a whole other discussion of the origins of the nation-states of this region…but it is interesting to me how a place can “claim” as much as we can. I don’t claim the identity because there are hundreds of them, all tied to very local places. I wouldn’t be able to describe what is “Lebanese” (or “Syrian”) identity at this point if I tried.

      Being in the States for two months was interesting in this regard. I spent most of my time in North Jersey, and it was extremely…comfortable. So my acculturation does count for something. And I’ll proudly claim to be a “Jersey Boy”, knowing how “foreign” this makes me in much of the rest of America.

      There’s something “romantic” to the notion of our blood….but the truth is we are all much more “mixed” than we perhaps want to admit at times. Over at Transracial Eyes there are quite a few discussions on DNA; I recommend them highly.


    • uuvegan says:

      I will check out transracial eyes for this topic. I am interested in DNA too and had my DNA done by Ancestry.com. It was quite interesting and there was even a percentage for hunter-gatherer if you can believe that.

  7. Only Me says:

    Excellent post. For me though, having roots going back to 1630 from immigrants arriving on the Mayflower (2nd trip). LOL. I can’t imagine being anything else other than American. I wouldn’t know how to be. I feel for those who’s experience is much more complicated and involved than my own. Good luck to all.

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