This post is taken from one that originally went up at Transracial Eyes; at the time I promised to expand on it publicly, so finally this is seeing the light of day. The question there from a fellow adoptee asks what we hope to accomplish with our activism; “What do you support?” I’m glad it came from another adoptee, although I answered it as if it came from someone from the adoptive class. In that vein, it usually is expressed as: “And what are you doing to change things?” Yet again, an accusation of ingratitude, and a reminder of our “place” and “role”.
Hidden in this accusation though is the snide sentiment of “you are all talk and no action”; “you talk the talk but don’t walk the walk”—it further implies that there is no equivalent in this regard to the actual act of adoption itself. This in turn masks a reminder of the class level we often leapfrogged to via our adoption. In other words, we are being told “do not be a class traitor”. What follows is my answer—how, in fact, to be a class traitor—greatly expanded, which focuses on the attempt to move from such “talking to walking”. I think this rounds out nicely the previous two posts on activism. I hope they are helpful in some way.
By means of background, there are two “real-life” sources for what follows: the artists’ collective that formed the focus of my research during my years at the American University here, along with my simultaneous research into the economics and politics of adoption and child trafficking. In terms of the collective, the template (for bylaws and charter) we were handed by our lawyer was outside the local language and cultural norms, and revealed in various ways the systemic nature of our disempowerment. We ended up writing our own bylaws and charter from scratch, in an effort to avoid hierarchy, fifty-percent-plus-one inequality in voting, internal splintering, etc.
This “going against the grain” easily took a thousand times as much effort (and two years of time) to accomplish, but the alternative was not acceptable to us. We based our tenets in a variety of consensus-based societies and faiths from around the world; we tried to reverse our lawyers’ pressure concerning the focus on the negative (preparing for worst-case scenarios) to instead lean toward the positive (assuming a communal mindset). We received our governmental approval in record time; our lawyer started referring to me with the honorific “Mr. Consensus” which still makes me laugh today, given his original doubts as to our success.
This process revealed in no small way the “water we swim in” and the direction it pushes us with or without our awareness (referred to often as hegemony, implying our complicity); it became the basis of our work, but also led to a kind of “manifesto” that I turned into a seminar class that examines a variety of systems in an effort to suss out how they move, evolve, disempower, displace, and dispossess. Based in a program in graphic design, this leaned heavily toward the creative realm, but the systems/concepts we examined in the class entitled “Voice Manifest” included: Land, Craft, Language, Art, Museums, Cities, Agriculture, Libraries, Piracy, [Education].
Each week saw the students in groups tackle a list of readings related to their topic, present their work collectively, and write up analyses of their research. For their midterm they presented someone from the creative realm that they felt avoided the disempowerment we were discussing; for their final they presented a proposal for a project (the praxis to their theory) that was designed to avoid the systemic pitfalls that usually go ignored. I was really proud of their work, but also distressed by how much time it took to get “up and running” with a new vocabulary, with new concepts, with new ways of expressing themselves. This “water we swim in” is deep, dark, and exerts an infinite amount of pressure at all times; we serve as our own “case study” in this regard.
Much of what we focused on, as the title expresses, was “Voice”, and whom we consider to “exist” in terms of said Voice. This simple change of focus—expansively away from ourselves—changed our paradigm in a radical way. In terms of the adoption argument, it requires us to see beyond the quite limiting notion of “triad” to all of those connected to a child so displaced. This shift is reflected in my original reply to the above question at Transracial Eyes, where I stated that first and foremost, I wanted to see a basic degree of human dignity ascribed to the great majority of the world’s population currently without this acknowledgment from the minority who owns all and controls all. I further stated that this isn’t even a call for equality yet, we don’t even get to start deliberating yet, because we’ve shifted into a situation where the majority of the planet is dismissed from the get-go. After their acknowledgment of equivalence as human beings, then comes the battle for equality.
We should note that the so-called “progressive” realm is also guilty of this dismissal; I often describe this to my students as “Facebook reality”, meaning, we acknowledge only those who are “class similar” to us. I’ve described this elsewhere as the urban or “cosmopolitan” class which thinks that racial diversity (within the same class) means the end of racism. It seeks a very particular and particularly self-serving kind of “enlightened”, “modern”, “civilized”, “secular” urban existence; former mayor Bloomberg in New York City referred to this when he described Manhattan as a place where much of the population serves a minority thereof. These words imply (without stating) the terms that are used to define those who form the binary backdrop (and thus the opposite) of this elite: backwards, regressive, barbaric, ignorant. I was made aware of the numbering of my days at university, for example, when colleagues starting referring to me (behind my back as well as to my face) as “az3ar” from a neighborhood of “za3raan“: “yob(s)”; “working-class thug(s)”. A former colleague joked that my dismissal “proved my thesis”—yet another case study, and a difficult lesson to learn.
And so as stated above, adoption activists often get this question as an accusation, and it’s difficult to respond to in a “pro-active” way. This is mostly due to the fact that putting forth one’s “activism” maps too closely onto those who profess their own beneficence and charity which in fact accomplishes not much of anything. I think most of us would prefer to avoid being compared in this way, especially if our personal notion of ethics and morality demands we eschew such hypocrisies. I often recommend to those asking/accusing thus to come witness; spend a day with us, a week; enough time to see that the decisions to “do something” come at every split second of the day, not as a separate body of work, or NGO-like business, or bullet-points on a resume. We know what we do, and we need not justify such deeds. What this basically comes down to is theory in practice; thought in deed; words in action.
The original post, and the question asked by Laura Dennis which prompted the second post, bring us to a summary in this third post: for those who have dedicated time in their lives to a struggle, or who wish to do so, in a world which increasingly makes such action difficult to manifest much less persevere with, how do we “activate”? It requires us to challenge a status quo that frankly it would be easier to slide into and accept; to “play the game”; this is what is offered as a tempting alternative. What we are talking about as mentioned in the previous post is an attempted “stepping down” from one’s class position, and a truthful evaluation of what living on the “razor’s edges” of race and class means. This is no small feat, especially given the “rules of the game”. Quoting Frantz Fanon from Black Skin, White Masks:
From the moment the Negro accepts the separation imposed by the European he has no further respite, and “is it not understandable that henceforth he will try to elevate himself to the white man’s level? To elevate himself in the range of colors to which he attributes a kind of hierarchy?” We shall see that another solution is possible. It implies a restructuring of the world.
Given the destiny of those who fight the system as it were, how obviously logical the behavior of those who attempt to fit in instead? Fanon’s “restructuring” implies that working within the system is not an option; it means a reversal of this described hierarchy, and the undoing of the competition internal to it, imposed on us as a “given” of our quotidian. For those of us on this razor’s edge this “competition” often means attempting to maintain aspects of our adoptive class status which otherwise might not be afforded to us; a feeling that we can “jump the line” as it were. For those of us not comfortable with these societally-imposed distinctions, the question becomes how to deny one’s own luxury and privilege? For those of the adoptive class, it might be posed as how to make up for having taken advantage of such a positioning within society? I point this out not accusingly, but as a statement of historical, political, and economic fact. To move forward means to move past such accusations. When I examine my own life previous to my return, I realize how “passivist” I truly was, without really being aware of it. “Drinking the Kool-Aid” barely begins to describe it.
I likewise don’t mean to preach, but I will also note that this “cosmopolitan class” denigrates those of faith, even though this exhortation to “put one’s money where one’s mouth is” can be seen to be universal in terms of various faiths, as well as secular activist worldviews. On the contrary, there is much to learn from all of them, and much to be said for quoting principles of faith back at those who work mostly in “preach” mode. The inverse of this, meaning, in the case of adoption, its perception as a beneficent or charitable act in and of itself, often within a reductive singular religious or racial worldview, remains a source of cognitive dissonance. We need to disarm those who wield it in this way. This is done by pointing it out as the empty mythologized gesture it truly is. It also requires a putting forth of alternatives.
It reminds me of the difference in perception—here I’m badly paraphrasing Imam ’Ali (peace be upon him)—between “heart and eye”. This implies that what the eye perceives as reality on the ground must match up with the sentiment and empathy one feels in one’s heart for that reality—not for oneself, one’s pride, one’s ego, etc. This means that our actions need reflect reality as it is lived by all, and not a mythologized version that is our individual experience forced on others. In a similar vein, Jesus (pbuh) was defined as a Prophet “mighty in work and word”; His life matched his preaching, it was not something separate from it. Again, I bring up these two examples not to preach, but to focus on the basic premise that they exemplify, which is that our actions should not, in and of themselves, exacerbate the ills of society that they would wish to solve. I have often described this as a syndrome of “pyromaniac firefighters”, attempting to extinguish with gasoline a fire of their own creation.
How can we make this shift? How can we further define this living out in deed what one proposes in word? I can’t speak for others; perhaps in the comments we can add to this list of “action points” that can be applied as guides to living/teaching/working. I am opening this up to expansive discussion; I know I still have a lot to learn in this regard. Much of what I am listing below is based on what I remember from growing up that I see resonating still in Lebanon; it wasn’t so long ago that we lived much differently: closer to the land; more as a community; communally as neighbors. The month of October saw a daily meditation on this subject. Perhaps it is not too late to ironically “turn back the clock”, in the name of “true progress” and progressive action.
In no particular order, then, are the gleanings from many years of attempting to “re-activate”. Many will be obvious, and again, they should not be seen as a strict list of “dos”, nor as commands, nor as assumptions of absent action, but more as a distillation of a particular view of the world; some food for thought; an expansion of what we already are aware of; and, hopefully, a plan for further action.
Maintain public space
Forego the private for the public (in terms of space, transportation, leisure, etc.); limit the public to the lowest common denominator socially speaking. For example, in Beirut, only go where everyone in the city (including the slave labor domestic workers, migrant workers, etc.) can also go. This is the only way to avoid a situation in which these urban inequalities lead to a self-segregation from those excluded from such spaces. In the United States I think the most drastic change that might take place along these lines would involve universal support of public education, as opposed to local taxes funding school districts, with the ensuing disparities in living conditions as well as education. Vermont stands out in this regard. Also, the Silicon Valley jitneys have to go.
Engage in public/popular consumption
For restaurants, eateries, and the like, if the worker in the kitchen cannot walk in and get a table, do not enter. I tried to live this as much as possible while in New York City; it became increasingly more difficult as the city “upscaled” itself into something unrecognizable. Nonetheless, this used to be much easier to accomplish in certain environments; growing up in the “diner culture” of New Jersey/New York perhaps predisposed me to see the restaurant as a popular venue, as opposed to a bourgeois conceit. The elevation of “street food” to such a conceit reveals the “tide” running in the other direction here; the global south manifests such ideas more readily, from the Brazilian popular cafeteria to the foul vendors of Egypt.
Support Mom-’n’-Pop businesses
For shops, stores, and businesses, if the owner is not knowable, if he or she cannot be personally addressed, do not frequent them. I know this one is pretty much impossible now that everything is strip-malled and brand-named. In local vernacular here in Beirut, I don’t even mention store names; I will ask, “Do you need anything from Wissam’s place?” for example. Attempts at brand-naming things in Lebanon fail outside of a certain bourgeois class level; to me this is a sign of a valid popular social structure, as put to the test as it might be. This might simply involve a switch from the corporate monolith of Amazon to the consortium of small booksellers Alibris, for one small example. To be aware of as well is the predatory real estate practices of the major chains which, if they were forced to rely on income from a given store (instead of the corporate coffers), would not survive economically speaking, similar to those they put out of business.
For food, know its provenance. Eat with the seasons. Consume locally as much as possible, and as low on the scale of branding as possible. Join a co-op; support CSA (community supported agriculture); frequent farmers’ markets. Support efforts to bring such markets to low-income communities. I know this is an expensive proposition, given the control of industrialized agriculture in American food production. But I also remember Cream-O-Land dairy of New Brunswick, and the apple orchards near my home with a dozen varieties of apples, Four-H fairs, etc. In Lebanon, the foodways of the country just “work” this way; though mega-stores are making headway and the IMF and the World Bank are restructuring agriculture, such that farmers are ripping out local apple varietals to replace them with Granny Smith, or worse, mangoes and kiwi.
Which brings us to the power of those on the consumer side of things. Boycott as need be as an informed consumer and stick to those limitations. This is a difficult one, since corporations have successfully co-opted such sentiment with their bogus “fair trade”, “organic”, “non-sweatshop”, and other marketed “feel-good” replacement campaigns. Despite this increasing difficulty, it is still ingrained in me to “buy union” and only sport “made in USA” clothing and shoes. This is likewise reflected in local Lebanese campaigns which stress the baladi or locally made/grown. It wasn’t so long ago that there were still fabric mills in Brooklyn, and the schmata trade took up all of downtown Broadway; we’re not talking a distant past. In all purchases made, “follow the money” and decide whether you would readily support such an organization. For just one example, Dunkin’ Donuts is now owned by the Carlyle Group.
Avoid class projection
Never lean on your real or perceived class status to gain short-term advantage for yourself.
Project class if need be
Exception is made here if it means helping someone else (for one local example, intervening in a police checkpoint that is targeting migrant workers). For adoption activists, it means equal focus on Guatemalan immigrants such as Encarnacion Romero, as much as “class-similar” Dusten Brown and Baby Veronica.
Re-establish the common
Engage with every human being you come in contact with in a way that truly preserves their dignity, no matter their station; think “inclusion” and not “exclusion”.
Avoid the virtual for real community
Do not forego the real world and your real community for the ephemeral ones online. The virtual starts to take on false qualities that are more and more missing from the real, and will eventually supplant it. This is another path of least resistance, and a question of balance. I think this is what I most miss about the “old days” of New York: the constant conversation with everyone all the time. There was no bourgeois need for introductions (formalized in Facebook “friending”). This still exists in Lebanon in certain communities, and it is what I most miss when I return Stateside.
Engage as a member of your community, not as a spectator
Be prepared to challenge the daily assaults against those who do not have Voice enough to respond. For one current example, I am more and more disturbed by video footage of events where a majority of people are videotaping the aggressions against their fellow citizens as opposed to stepping in and helping out. I can’t fathom such a thing; it expresses in no small way our current dis-ease.
Always renegotiate your perception of things so that you are looking up with others, and not looking down on others.
I’ll leave off here, before I start sounding like a self-help guru (or perhaps it is already too late for that).
One last point: I define this paradigm to my students in a way that allows us to determine what we are permitted to say and do based on a list of parameters that limit us or empower us; I’ve written more on this previously, most notably on an article on the “adoptee voice“.
To summarize, in any given interaction, we can define for ourselves the following:
- Ability (we all have this, though we don’t always act on it);
- Audience (to whom we address ourselves, not always obvious in terms of direction);
- Right (in terms of the state and its law, and not as freeing as we like to assume);
- Luxury (bounds of locality, often subliminally imposed, such as social, religious, or cultural curbs);
- Privilege (ability to surmount the above due to class status).
This is a “negotiation” that is ever-changing and evolving, in a spectrum of time broken down into sheer moments. To “resist” is thus to persistently and consistently think about extending ability; expanding audience but also breaking down the hierarchy of audience; regaining and maintaining right; being considerate of luxury; and attempting to forego privilege.
Three overly long posts summarized in one paragraph! Please contribute to this, challenge this, expand upon this as you see fit in the comments below.
A (perhaps) final proverb:
أمل بلا عمل شجرة بلا ثمر
“Hope without action [is like a] tree without dates [i.e., a tree that bears no fruit]”.
Peace and blessings.