What is the future of adoption activism? What should be the focus of those who advocate for adoptee rights, the rights of children to know their origins, the rights of such children’s parents to maintain or re-establish filiation? It seems to me that much of the the focus over the last decade that I’ve been “defogged” has been on the psychological effects of those “touched” by the “adoption triad”. By this I mean to say much energy has been spent in trying to teach everyone how to “deal with” what has happened to us, and, in this way, to tacitly accept what has happened as being valid but, more importantly, inarguable. This reveals our status quo, as well as a power differential that demands that adoption be accepted as a valid, beneficent, and useful tool of family creation if not charity.
I think the days of this acceptance have come to an end. With the activism of Korean adoptees leading the way, that of mothers in diverse countries such as Guatemala, Spain, Argentina, etc. demanding repatriation of or reunion with their children, as well as Indigenous peoples, fathers, and adoptees themselves standing up and demanding their rights as concerns family ties, we are witnessing the growing voices of those who maintain that, in fact, adoption is not the status quo; that its roots are not in family creation; that it is a broken, corrupt, and failed industry; that the maintenance of this status quo is reflective of systems of power that are based in fabrications and mythologies as well as a hegemonic control of the discussion of the topic.
Among other activisms, we have seen a renewed challenging of the terminology used to define the adoption process, as well as those affected by it. Not in the puke-inducing politically correct terminology such as “birth mother” or “triad“, but in terms of self-empowerment. There is a growing awareness of the various levels of hegemony maintained by those who seek to control our narratives, whether this be in academia, the legal and medical professions, the religious realm, mainstream and social media, the popular press, etc. We are finally managing to unite along common lines that break through formerly disintegrative borders of race, age, or locale of adoption. The tide is turning.
For many years now I’ve been trying to cross a similar “border” if you will, trying to reach those who it always seemed to me would be most open to the activism represented by those fighting for their original birth certificates, or their medical histories, or their right to know their genesis, or for children bartered and bought and sold like so much chattel. I mean to say those who maintain a politics of liberation; the radical left-wing. This border was easier to cross here in Lebanon, with the publishing of an article in the left-wing local newspaper Al-Akhbar in 2007. For reasons having much to do with what I would call a bourgeoisification of the left wing shall we say, it has been harder to make “common cause” in the “West”.
One of the reasons for this I think stems from the very mythology that we are fighting; namely, we are “lucky”, and should be “grateful”, and thus to speak out about it was seen as unbecoming or worse. Much of the crossing of this border was thus left to those from outside of the adoption realm, such as investigative journalists: Dan Rather, ABC (Australia), and Reuters being notable investigative ventures into the untoward aspects of adoption practice. But the decades of activism have started to change things. One notable exception has been the Dissident Voice web site, which had the guts to publish articles on adoption that were seemingly “not ready for prime time”. I further had the honor of participating in the 2012 Adoption Initiative Conference at St. John’s University in New York which examined the role of religion in adoption, and I was ecstatic to see so many younger adoptees actively researching the economic and political aspects of adoption within their particular academic fields of study. I will hopefully be attending this year’s conference (I am working on its planning committee in the meantime), and am very proud of this year’s theme which is: “Sleeping Giants in Adoption: Power, Privilege, Politics, and Class”.
This brings me to the recent debacle concerning NPR, and the publishing of an editorial on the subject at Counter Punch. No one was more surprised than I was when this most recent article went up. Furthermore, the response to the article was not the backlash I was expecting, and I feel that the “common cause” focus on displacement and dispossession, coupled with the historical overview of the class/power differential of those adopting versus those adopted is a particularly potent argument when it comes to discussing adoption as a practice and an industry.
Which brings me to some more news along these lines, the How Class Works: 2014 Conference sponsored by the Center for Study of Working Class Life in the Department of Economics at SUNY Stony Brook. I saw a call for papers, and submitted a proposal entitled: “The Class-Based Roots of Adoption and Adoption Mythology”. I am happy to say that it has been accepted. I am looking forward to presenting, and hope that those reading here might find it interesting to attend such a conference. My abstract reads as follows:
The dominant cultural mode paints adoption as an act of charity and beneficence, despite the growing elaboration to the contrary by adoptees come of age as well as their mothers, families, and communities from whom they go missing. This runs counter to the popular cultural representation of adoption, in which the implied absence of filiation is still a mark and a stain on the one so branded. This disparity makes sense when the historical roots of modern-day adoption are seen as stemming from indentured servitude, the emptying of poorhouses, the eradication of Indigenous populations, the population of foreign colonies, and the procurement of cheap labor from abroad. Such roots are premised on classist concepts of the nuclear family and the exaltation of the individual over the community. It was the rapid rise of a suburbanized middle class post–World War II that necessitated the mythology of adoption as one primarily concerning family creation, making of adoption a class-based manifestation of colonial and imperial power. The origins of the institution—its derivations listed above—are nonetheless carried forward as manifestations of current adoption industry practice, and targeted nations as well as domestic populations continue to reflect the class disparity that has always been at the core of this transfer of children and rupture of filiation, even in so-called “open” adoptions. This transfer maps readily onto other practices of dispossession and displacement, namely: slavery, trafficking, gentrification, immigration, land occupation, apartheid, and enforced statelessness, similarly based in economic/political class disparities.
I apologize for the heavy academic-speak! The point I want to make here is a re-iteration of what I wrote about those seeking to have their voices “heard” at NPR. Much of the argument about getting on the air was that “they control much in the way of media; this is an important place to get our voices heard”. I would still argue the contrary. I believe that the various civil rights movements, historically speaking, have shown the folly (for want of a better term) of such an approach in which appeals are made that run counter to the class positioning of those appealed to. By this I mean to say that those who control the media output of NPR, as well as those who form its listening audience, in terms of the status quo that defines their economic and political existence (in the sense of their status in society), will not do anything, or listen to anything that directly challenges this. To pursue such a “hearing” as it were is to scream into the abyss. Quite on the contrary, we have ready “allies”, who are predisposed to understand our point of view.
I find it more challenging and also more rewarding when we cross into this territory that is not inherently adoption-centric. To reframe adoption as an issue of displacement and dispossession finds us in common cause with many who share similar feelings of being lost, or not having “place”, or looking for roots. Often, it is our own sense of “class position”—itself stemming from our very adoption and adoptive acculturation—that prevents us from this “crossing over”. But I think more and more that this is an essential step. I believe we are seeing the fruits of such labor on all fronts. I am not naive enough to think that this will not be without backlash, as well as efforts of co-optation and incorporation. Just wait for the NPR stories meant to “assuage” our feelings, coming soon, I guarantee it. I, for one, won’t consider this a victory, and I won’t be listening, or speaking to them. I would argue instead for a boycott, and for the establishment of our own pirate radio stations—but this is a whole other discussion. We’ve recently seen aspects of this backlash in the distancing of adoption agencies from the practice of re-homing after the Reuters expose, for example; an attempt to redefine a “proper” adoption practice which only seems valid when compared to its informal competition.
This backlash, I’m sad to say, has been quick to come here in Lebanon. The organization we have been trying to start, Bada’el/Alternatives, initially well-received by various media outlets, has not been given recognition by the government; a statement of official disapproval. The media have backed off, and many adoptees have been “made aware” that their research is, shall we say, “not a good idea” in terms of their own personal safety. I think I have been lucky in this regard, because I have not been actively searching personally, but rather researching in general, economically and politically. I’m also a bit more integrated than “visiting” adoptees; less easily frighten-able. Such threats against us only reveal, once and for all, the inherent and intrinsic corruption of the “status quo” of adoption, a status quo that cannot be rendered palatable by the invented mythologies that have grown up around it, and which are endlessly forced upon us. More importantly, they reveal that we are on the right track, that of truth and justice.
An aside. One of my classes this semester is Senior Project in Design; as I work with students I emphasize their role not as designers so much as their role as members of their community. One of my students, in an attempt to deal with her own childhood fears, wanted to explore the concept of “fear” in children. She chose as a site of research and workshops some local orphanages. Today in class she showed video documentation of the children relating what they were scared of: The dark, thunder, cats, Abou Kiis (the “Bag Man”; the local version of the “Child Catcher”), war, under the bed, etc. The children drew pictures of what scared them, and the orphanage workers engaged them in a discussion as to how to battle their fears; to overcome them. The children were full of wisdom beyond their years, and I was quite speechless watching them, thinking of the very different orphanage experience that I am a product of, as well as of the “Li’l Orphan Annie” acculturation I was brought up to believe was a universal reality.
And so I, in turn, was forced to deal with one of the biggest adoption mythologies that persists, that of the orphanage as a place of abandonment, of neglect, of the absence of family, and of love. For these children were all smiles and laughter, rambunctious, eager to participate, speaking a level of Arabic that was the envy of my university students, well-dressed, well-fed—happy, dare I say it. I’ve come across many such orphanages locally, and I want to go on the record yet again to say that I was not “lucky” to have been adopted; I was unlucky first and foremost to not have a community that saw fit to care for me or my family, and second to have been adopted into a culture that in no small way fostered such thinking, economically and politically, and then exacerbated the problem by taking advantage of it. We should come up with names that differentiate these orphanages one from the other: those which are basically designed to deal with society’s ills by abandoning the “living byproduct” thereof, from those which see such children as members of the greater community, and which see the community as responsible for their well-being and upbringing.
I am drawn to work with such children, but it is, right now, emotionally overwhelming just to witness them; to be aware of them; to see that life that “might have been mine” but for the vagaries of circumstance. In a similar vein, I am equally attuned to those of my day-to-day who are likewise displaced, whether migrant workers, refugees (old and new), bedouin, marginalized communities. They relieve me of much in the way of self-absorbed anger, and they have taught me that it is possible to be steadfast and patient; that such anger can be put on a “low flame”; that as a community, we can take care of our own; that our lives are interconnected, and not subject to “individual failure”. I would like to express my gratitude to them, as they have taught me much.
I want to thank my family and friends who have patiently supported me being away for so long. I would like to say “thank you” to those who read my words here, and who respond positively (and not so); but who at least engage in an open discussion of what adoption means. Most of all I would like to thank all those who inspire my own words, including those role models who have been “pounding the pavement” for decades now, and most especially Korean adoptees who are actively engaged in that country’s coming to terms with its great and tragic diaspora, its generations dispersed, now looking homeward. To all of those whose footsteps I humbly walk in, thank you.
I want to believe we’ve reached a turning point, and that we might expand on this and continue to break down the artificial barriers that no less spring from our adoptive acculturation, and which manage to separate us. Adoptive parents from adoptees; international adoptees from different source countries; domestic versus transnational adoptees; adoptees from those who have also been displaced and dispossessed, and whom we have been taught to look down upon. It’s such a big tableau when it opens up like this, and it is maddening that we might for one more split second beg crumbs from the table of the likes of those who run NPR, or Congress, or adoption agencies, or anyone else who in any way profits socially, economically, or politically from the ignominious institution of adoption. They should, instead, be grateful for our patience; for holding out so long. They have much to answer for, and the time for them to start answering for it is no later than right now.
A local proverb:
دوا الدهر الصبر عليه
It is often translated as “The best medicine for life is patience with life”. But the word for “patience” is better translated as “patience in the face of adversity”; I heard it endlessly during the July war in 2006. The word for “time” here carries the meaning “eternity”; or “lifetime”, as opposed to fleeting moments of time; but it also carries the meaning of “fickle fate”; “vicissitudes of fate”; “changes in fortune”; inherent aspects of the long stretch of time we refer to as “life”, which require our collective patience and fortitude. I’ve often maintained that focusing on the collective aspect of adoption, the economic and the political, as opposed to the personal and individual, has perhaps saved my sanity. It’s not a prescription I can guarantee. And many might disagree with my “cure” diagnosis. But for what it’s worth, it’s a “medicine for life” that might be worth a try.