What does “adoptee” mean to you?

This is the 27th question in the series: “Anti-adoption month: 30 answers to 30 questions on adoption” [link].

The following question originally appeared on Transracial Eyes:

What does “adoptee” mean to you, and how does race affect this?

Answer: On a minor irksome note, at least on the Macintosh computer, anytime I type the word “adoptee” into anything with a spell check, the word is highlighted as incorrect. It doesn’t exist in the computer’s dictionary, although the word has been around since 1892 (says Merriam–Webster’s 11th). For what that is worth.

In terms of “disambiguation”, I would point to an attempt to redefine the term. I found this at a great web site (though seemingly dormant now) called Transracial Abductees. I always liked their redefinition of adoptee to abductee because, as they say:

“Adoption” conceals the unequal power between abductors and abductees, and in the abduction industry in general.

It fits so perfectly. Now that I have Webster’s out, under the definition of the suffix –ee, there is only one meaning that can apply:

A recipient or beneficiary of (a specified action): <appointee> <grantee>

This is distressing in what it reveals to us. “Adoptee” thus means being the direct object of a (rather heinous) transitive verb. Except that unlike “abductee”, the negative connotation of the verb goes missing. Furthermore, like the above words that insinuate an “appointer” and a “grantor”, we are literally and linguistically incomplete without our “adopter”. In a culture that gives great credence to individualism, this inability to thrive on our own—think of a grafted rose—leaves us live a paradox worthy of Sisyphus: The more we try to get away from it, the more we see the extent of how much we are bound to it.

In terms of race, it is interesting to focus on the expressions that are used to define us in our lands of abduction and that link us to other Outsiders. For one example that came up recently, in Quebec the expression pure laine (literally, pure wool) refers to original French explorer/settler/colonizers. It seems to be the racial equivalent of “all-American” or “WASP”, and refers to bloodline purity, and one’s relation to the original invaders, similar to the Daughters of the American Revolution (my adoptive mother’s side of the family), or the “invisible majority” that is offensively implied by the phrase “visible minorities”, as used by Anglo-Canadians.

These terms, when applied to original outsiders now insiders (immigrants, migrant slave labor, adoptees), set an impossibly high bar. I came across another expression in an article about demanding Chinese mothers (“Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother”) which referred to this enforced isolation (as in quarantine, ghettoization, exclusion) concerning the immigrant population: “The bamboo ceiling”. Meaning, the point beyond which you can’t go or grow because of your (always perceived) race.

This sets up a triple bind for the adoptee. We are acculturated to be “pure wool”, or “All-American”, or “de souche” (used in Francophone countries, vaguely translated as “of original stock”). Yet we have no claim to such a thing. Furthermore, we have no access to the supportive ethnic community of our place of abduction’s diaspora to fall back upon. At the same time, we are bound by the strictures of perceived-race racism in the society. Three strikes, and we are out. This is the debacle that awaits us, as defined in the word “adoptee”.

Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, states:

The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged.

The “crushing truth” of adoption is our burden; the endless voicing of it our seemingly useless effort; the unceasing undoing of such efforts the eternity of our Hell.

If there is any relief, it can only come in believing, in knowing, that one day no one need follow us. That the truth of adoption, once acknowledged, will be its very undoing. An adoptee is free when she has removed herself from the shackles of her transitive status. And this is not an individual action, but a collective one. For now, such awareness need suffice; will have to be solace enough.


Ethics and Action, by Peter Winch.

Lectures and Conversations, by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Debate Tactic: The dominant discourse speaks, even in silence. To undo this requires that we, too, be heard in our silence. For screaming into an abyss is a useless endeavor.


About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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