On adoption activism (IV).

In a blog post by Rebecca Hawkes at “Sea Glass and Other Fragments” [link], I have been referred to as a “burnt-out activist adoptee”, seemingly by virtue of my own words. I think this discussion of those who speak as compared to those who remain silent is a great one. Nonetheless, I felt the need to post a response (as I often do), and it has grown into a much longer reply (as it often does), and so I am posting it here with the hope that it might raise discussion, and I thank Rebecca for acknowledging my statement, and for bringing up the issue. I also apologize for straying a bit from the original topic, again, as I am wont to do, but I think there are tangential points which need be brought forward.

There seems to be an assumption being made that adoptees are on one side of a “battle”, and there is another side to that battle, and for various reasons adoptees either silence themselves, or go silent after engaging for a certain amount of time. I agree that the reasons for our silence are complex, and I agree that it often takes a particular event or circumstance for us to become “vocal” about the topic, and that there are different weights ascribed to all of this. All the same there is a slight misunderstanding in what I said and what it implies, and I also think there is a great deal missing from this premise, and so I will hope to show what is going “unsaid” and “unspoken”, as I often try to do.

What I fear is not being considered is that those struggling with their own adoptions or with adoption as a subject of study or debate are not on equal foothold. Not for reasons having to do with “stages” or “journeys”, but for the “other side” (which I would more refer to as the “bigger picture” we are a subset of, or the “dominant mode” of things to take a more academic approach) that we are engaged with. Some on this side have a vantage point afforded to them by class, or privilege, or education, etc.; some don’t; some have found sites that afford protection; some have not; some are unaware that this is a field of engagement; some are attempting to tread quicksand; some have stepped down from their vantage point, but are still judged according to that former place; etc.

It is a complicated picture, done no justice by reductive imaginings. It seems to me that one of our “activist” goals might be to give everyone an equal starting point, or aid everyone in finding an equal footing, instead of describing “where they are” as if this is simply a function of them in and of themselves. The problem here is two-fold: first in even referring to “them” instead of “us”, and also in thinking that achieving such an even playing field involves an elevation of all to these top vantage points, in effect the very same thing. I would like to argue the opposite. I would argue that coupled with our engagement must also be a disengagement with this dominant mode.

By this I mean to say we need be aware of our own luxuries and privileges, and how this has an impact on how we address our given situation, and that of others. Everything about adoption as a subject for activism—whether one is reform-minded or abolitionist or pro or somewhere else along this spectrum—needs to be examined in the way that such activism mimics or doesn’t mimic the dominant modes of adoption (and thus of the status quo generally speaking ) and how these modes categorize us, diagnose us, splinter us, and set us up in hierarchies above and beyond our own self-descriptions, self-imaginings, and self-aspirations.

Because it isn’t adoption activism that gets to me per se, it is this razor’s edge between realms, and the growing lack of understanding from fellow adoptees that brings me down. To note is that I said “writing about” adoption was getting to me. The truth is, I get much more positive feedback from adopters than from adoptees at times; I have more fruitful discussions with those we might consider on the other end of the spectrum. Not that I am looking for positive feedback only; quite the opposite. All I ask is acknowledgment that the discussion need take into account all points of view, as uncomfortable as they might be; that this is not a static and thus definable state of affairs; and also that the sheer emotion of it is going to require that we reconfigure our comfortable ideas of what makes for “proper” discourse.

I feel the need to explain further that it isn’t my actions locally speaking as an adoptee that get to me, it is the willful desire of adoptees to maintain a sense of self afforded to them via their adoption, and which runs counter to if not undermines such actions on the ground, that depresses me no end. I don’t say this as an accusation but as a lament as I am often fond of saying; a warning from those of us who have been there in terms of other activisms. This of course runs counter to the given therapeutic notion within the adoption realm that we will all “come to terms” with this in our own time, as well as the idea that we all have “control” over our own narratives and as such cannot impose our views on others.

I find this to be problematic for three reasons: One, in the solipsism and narcissism (I don’t know how else to describe it) that mirrors many of the class of our adoption; two, in the individualism and centered-on-self scope that counters the more communal classes and places we often originate from; three, in the denial of the history of the institution of adoption and the narratives that came before us. I used to hope that such “self-awareness” would eventually move into an expanded empathy for those who are similarly displaced and dispossessed, or who have suffered for such displacements and dispossessions; this seems rarely to be the case. As such, I don’t think we can any longer avoid this discussion of status quo, class, and hegemonic state of being that defines our existence in this world we share.

At the same time, I want to explicitly make clear that I disavow completely any attempt to label us, categorize us, diagnose us, from the outside or from within. What does it gain us to refer to one another as “burnt out”? Or to assume that such a definition is static or permanent? In this reflection of how the dominant mode itself might like to define us, it ends up almost bordering on wishful thinking, especially when in no way does it reach out to such a one so defined. I am reminded of photographers who win awards for their pictures of starving children in the deserts of Africa, and the ethical question which is raised: “Why didn’t you intervene?” Furthermore, how is this photographer unaware of, say, their country’s foreign policy as a role in this child’s plight? This is a staggering indictment of ourselves, if we think about it: We, as Others, “Othering” ourselves; we, as adoptees limiting ourselves to a small part of the historical record.

The problem is, such an intervention and reaching out requires a different mindset from that of our acculturation, which is by its dominant nature competitive, exclusive, categorizing, and “Calvinist” (as I often say) in the sense that it maintains that things are “just the way they are” and there is nothing we can do about it. I don’t live in such a world anymore, and so I feel more and more compelled to address it, to testify about it, as much as I admit to having lived it, and to have regretted living it. And I ask: Is this the world we wish to live in? If so, let’s state it out in the open; I have no problem with honesty in this regard. If not, then let’s make efforts to look at ourselves and our current state of affairs.

I ask more pointedly and again, in a way which questions our “silence” as purely a given: What does it mean when adoptees in their treatment of each other, their descriptions of each other, their discourse with each other, take on the trappings of their acculturation in such a way that they themselves do the work of those who wish them silent? This is by no means limited to us; I’ve seen it a million times. What does it mean when activist groups splinter along lines that mimic the class differences, or privileges of the society that they are activated toward, within, or against? How is it expected that those who may have suffered this within their adoptive culture also must face it coming from those on the “same battlefield”?

Why is there little or no critique of these “theories”, these “diagnoses”, these “labels” that the pillars of the dominant and hegemonic mode wish to pin on us, and which have been used historically speaking to keep us down? Shall we return to the days when women were diagnosed with “hysteria”? When bumps on our heads “defined” who we are? When Orientalism, racism, colonialism, etc. allowed the powers that be to dominate other parts of the planet? In accepting the given status quo of those who define that status quo—and whose station within society is determined by such a definition—we dig our own graves. Is there no one in the various realms of social work, therapy, psychological evaluation, etc.—domains which require that adoption continue in order to justify their very existence—who will stand up to this, criticize this state of affairs?

Why is there no acknowledgment by fellow adoptees of other ways of viewing things? Of other ways of speaking? Of what we might learn from those of our origins, and not those of our adoptive class and acculturation, with whom we tend to class-identify? Of attempting to step out of the picture frame, of the box as it were? All of this has disturbing historic precedence in every civil rights battle ever fought, and certainly every activism I have been involved with in my short lifespan. To such a degree that it became the center for my research at university in terms of: What are the internal and external factors that destroy such activism; what are the modes of consensus that might be availed of to counter this; how do we avoid the “slippery slope” that is the designed entranceway to the slaughterhouse; what does it mean to live such an activism instead of just speak about it theoretically or otherwise?

I’m not saying I have answers; I’m still asking these questions myself. I ask them as an admittedly imperfect member of the subset of those on this planet dispossessed and displaced via adoption. As stated, I am only burnt out here, at this, the razor’s edge between realms. The truth of the matter is that similar to how I preferred the in-my-face racism of the French to the more sinister “Where’re you from? No, where’re you really from?” smiling-American version, I’d much rather face the death threats of the Lebanese mafias trying to keep us from stirring up problems locally than this kind of benign targeting and destruction; of throwing up the “Painted Bird” and then watching her get pecked to death by her very flock [link]. I’d much rather the loud and garrulous street arguments I get into which assume resolution as a final phase than the clipped, structured, and never-finding-resolution “debates” found online going back decades. And thus my “battle fatigue”.

For the record, it’s not a question of going into “self-care” (I’m not sure what that means, though I think I appreciate the implication) because I don’t have such a luxury and privilege here. It means stepping away from what is toxic, whether others acknowledge this toxicity or, sadly, revel in it, which is often the case. More disturbingly, for the most part, they don’t realize it, and this only exacerbates its poison nature. But by no stretch of the imagination should it be inferred that I am somehow “retiring”. Yes, it is “brutal out here”. But such brutality has a source, if we dare look to find it. It also has very particular tools, and for these there are alternatives. I ask that we simply question the use of our tools and our discourse for their sources and reasons for being; a minimum of transparency.

For you’ll forgive me when I say there is a slightly arrogant assumption in this post and those it makes clinical reference to, which is that there is some kind of “norm”, that there are those outside of this norm, that there is some kind of pre-ordained trajectory through static phases of that norm, and that we can do nothing but watch each other go through these phases. To me, this is passivist, self-defeating, and the equivalent of observing test rats in mazes without questioning why we are observing them in the first place, or understanding that we, in turn, are being observed.

An aside: There is a famous (and horrifying) lab test of electrifying the path that a dog must traverse to get to his food. He learns the correct path by gently making his way across the floor of his cage. He assumes this mode and all is well. Then the testers change the electrical pattern, and the dog is forced to relearn everything. This is repeated endlessly until eventually, the dog just lies down and takes the electric shocks. Why are adoptees silent we ask? Maybe they’ve been shocked into it by any and all of those who prefer to “structure”, “restructure”, and “observe” rather than to step in and intervene; to help out.

There is another assumption made here which is that we “disappear”. We disappear from a given class realm and scope assumed to be the norm, but we are not gone. And our activism does not stop. I have a dozen projects going on locally; anyone is more than welcome to visit me here and see how little I am retreating into a “cocoon” to “salve myself”. That such local action is sustaining on a personal and spiritual level only points out what is missing from the realm of so-called adoption activism. The binary idea of “on the scene/out of the picture” is an invention and presumption of my former place of acculturation, and few here have this luxury. We are not “out of the picture” as much as we have simply tired of the tableau set up for us to fit into; the theater lines we are meant to recite. There is a big difference.

Because the fact of the matter is that despite the day-to-day of the place I find myself in, we still manage to get by because we attempt to share each others’ burdens in no small way; in our daily interaction, in a million minor turns of phrase and gestures of mutual assistance that we don’t even think about consciously. Note I didn’t say by “agreeing with each other”. I’ve come to be enamored of the way in which problems great and small are handled in my neighborhood, in a way that allows for various levels of voice in a full spectrum of voice, as well as a full scope of public engagement. The sun does not set on a problem here, and this is of great value to me as a life lesson. Yes, this often means long, drawn-out, seemingly endless debates. But what is acknowledged is the needed “clearing of the air” in order to get to what is important for all concerned.

Comparatively speaking, the online realm and its “violent reduction”, as well as the ability to define a “removed space” is the exact opposite of this. The problem is not the place, but the claim of support therefrom when in fact there is little. You’ll forgive me when I point out that this mirrors the very specific and notable ways in which the dominant mode of things aims at targeting those destined for dismissal or destruction. I would also point out that the reduction of the spectrum of frameworks for dealing with adoption to a slim sliver of the full range of such frameworks, along with the reduction of the ability to speak to a given “band” of allowed discourse is, again, in and of itself, a function of our dominant system. We ignore this at our own peril.

I have echoed the wisdom of activists past and present (meaning, this isn’t me inventing something out of whole cloth or taking credit for anything) many times when I state that we cannot change, alter, reform, or undo a system using the tools thereof, whatever form they might take, or, at the very least, understanding their negative side. I’ll likely go to the grave stating this, but I will not let it go unstated, either as a trope or as a way of living. In a post at Mothermade’s blog [link], I summed it up this way:

My engaging in a super-mediated environment which caters to a particular audience requires a particular “voice”. I am saying the exact same thing here in my reply that I have said in conference proposals as well as academic papers and book proposals. To ignore that I “speak” in all of these different voices is to paint me as the “one-note angry adoptee” that has become something of a stereotype at this point. [Edits in square brackets: Meaning, I could speak in Shakespearean soliloquy and it wouldn’t make a difference; this is a false target. The assumption that we only have one “rational, logical, middle-tone” voice is to deny our own humanity; our own desires to work out physically or viscerally what has taken a toll mentally or psychologically.]

I also think that the op-ed piece speaks “violently”, and much more than my reply. That it be formalized and proper doesn’t hide its negative side. I am horrified by the lack of focus on the history of adoption, and the lack of forthrightness from people in the industry. There is no other way to respond to this, if you ask me. Her words are the greater “violence”: what is left unsaid by proponents of the industry is in a league by itself in this regard.

If there is a “fight”, then it is historically related to every fight for civil rights and human rights ever waged. All radical fights for change have required a forcing of hand. Moving back to a “colonized” place has taught me most of all the danger in “respectful engagement”. Because frankly I’m surrounded by those without voice, without hope, and with no choice in the matter. I am no longer speaking from my former class status, and I do not feel beholden to its “rules” of order, engagement, or discussion. Because these are tactically designed to keep down those on the wrong side of the uneven playing field. And thus my screaming into the hurricane as it were.

I’m not looking to change people by fighting them. I’m looking to change injustice in our society. And this is a battle, not just a fight. Only 10 percent of the planet thinks this way, yet the mediation, as seen here, [is considered] total. How is this fair? I’ve decided that I’m working with and for the other 90%. They don’t have the time or patience for such niceties. And when they stand up and speak out, there won’t be much for anyone else to say. And there certainly won’t be any correcting their “form”.

I absolutely understand where she is coming from with her request of me, but I also know first-hand what it means in a different context to be told “know your role”, “act civilized”. I’m not trying to be belligerent with this post, I wish simply to point out that to be “burnt out” implies an active agent of “burning out”, which is this constant echo of something I have tried physically and psychologically to distance myself from. If I disappear from this “realm” it is only because I sense that engaging with those most comfortable with their class status is no longer a valid means to an end. It doesn’t mean I’ve stopped engaging; quite on the contrary. To summarize the points here: There is no value in trying to define “adoptee mythologies” simply as a replacement for “adoption mythologies”. This is a recipe for self-abnegation.

It is the “mythologizing” which is the problem—mimicking the actions and discourse of the dominant mode—not the resultant mythologies we use to affect a sense of reality. The world is much messier, much more dynamic, much more fluid, mutable, less affected, and ever-changing than this can ever allow for, and hence the apparent need to steer, corral, and yes, shock others into quiescence; into not rocking the boat. We accept our “Facebook reality”—meaning, only dealing with the subset of humanity which is class-similar to us—to our own downfall. And the boat in the bigger picture, for what it is worth, is sinking.

My advice—or plea might be a better word—would be to try and get past this desire to rigidly define and structure the discourse, or the situation, and go with the mess of it. We are not so much “adoptees”, rigidly defined, as we are “displaced and dispossessed persons”. I can call myself an “adoptee” all I want, but this only has value among the class of our adopters if I give it any thought. This is to accept myself as the “direct object” of another’s subjective action. As such, the battle is immediately lost; we define ourselves into non-existence this way.

In a similar vein, I can call someone else “angry”, or accuse him of “mansplaining”, or “bad behavior”, or whatever anyone wants to say about form and not content, but this only as long as his “anger” is a fixed and static aspect of his being, or if it is a permanent condition, or if it is not in and of itself a function of those labeling him in this way. This also puts forward another binary that doesn’t hold water. I’m straying from the original post, I know; but I’m trying to wrap up a lot of peripheral goings-on as well. My apologies for any implication that this is of the original post which sparked this reply.

Returning to the point, we can decide that someone is “burnt out”, but this only if they share the definition and acknowledge the act of defining. I do neither of these things, not for myself, my personal sense of self, but for our sense of self, as much as English barely allows me to say such a thing. We can no longer afford to ignore the political and economic circumstances of our adoptions, or even to simply put them on a “back burner”; for in these circumstances is to be found a much greater “common cause” than if we simply all “act nice” and “speak nicely”.

And if there is a rebuttal to this, it certainly is not found in anything which upholds the political and economic realities that led to our adoption in the first place, or which forefronts the individual over the communal, or which attempts to rigidly define the parameters for the discussion of the situation. I would welcome rebuttal to these arguments put forward as arguments, and not as simple “differences of opinion”. On that note I would welcome anything which reveals to me a valid aspect to my adoption, to our adoptions. Anything at all. I wait for it, but it doesn’t come.

A friend of mine in New York, a stand-up comedian, once said that her family communicates “by putting Ann Landers columns on the refrigerator”. In a recent article posted at Land of a Gazillion Adoptees, “Of Nine Minds” refers to this rather fear of direct confrontation as “Minnesota Nice” [link]. I enjoyed the article, and I had to laugh at this a little, because my own New Jersey-New York acculturation was so exactly the opposite of this, and it recalled for me those days when states and regions had acknowledged (and respected) differences along such lines of culture, linguistics, dialect, etc.

The dominant mode that wishes to change this for very specific reasons (still seen in the televised minstrelsy concerning Italian-Americans from this part of the country) reminds me on the other hand of signs I used to see in New York City which advertised: “LOSE YOUR NEW YORK ACCENT!”; or more personally, my adoptive father of Irish descent spending his life looking for an acceptance of him that was not even an option. This hegemonic demand for change is, in this analysis, asking too much of those who have already given up if not lost everything that might have defined them. And I’ve lived this too many times in one lifetime to live it any more. This is what I meant by “pulling back”.

So we might acknowledge that our acculturation is rather loathe to get into the messy, muddy, nasty, down-and-dirty of adoption and of a discussion thereof. And we might also see that we can describe this state of “fear and loathing” rather statically or passively, as simple observers, or we might hold it up as an action point, something to work on. The point I would like to make is that it is too soon to parcel up adoption as simply another “topic of discussion”. We have not plumbed its abysmal depths, nor heard from all who have been affected by it.

When our artists’ collective here in Beirut wrote out bylaws on consensus during my research, some of the places we pulled concepts from included the Iroquois and the Quakers. It should not surprise us that such groups were targeted by the dominant cultural mode for silencing. Understanding that there is historical precedence for all of this will get us much further than will the given of much of this discussion, which seems to require constantly putting people into check for their “tone”, or labeling ourselves or others, or defining ourselves based on dubious pseudo-medical or static-identity categories.

I do not deny that these have a place in terms of our own understandings; nor do I deny that healing requires time and patience. But it also requires removing the source of injury—dealing with the dis-ease, not just the symptoms—and yet we seem to focus on removing the one healing from the injurious, which is not asked to change its ways; or else we condemn the injured to die in the desert while we take photographs of them. Worse, the injured often simply seeks a role-reversal, without calling into question those roles to begin with. I feel that our discussions must be willing to invert the tableau as it were; to expand out to points of view which challenge the dominant mode of things; which make us ill at ease perhaps.

For anything else is simply a cover and a mask for the fact that we are dealing with rather uncomfortable truths, both in terms of adoption as well as the society that gave us adoption. Anything other than this focus just leads to further misunderstanding, and in the meantime, the machine keeps churning forward, grinding us up with it. A friend in the States said to me recently: “This country is going down the toilet”. I replied: “Well, I’m down the sewer, so I can tell you where you are headed….” I imagine it might be possible for me to say: “He’ll find out for himself eventually”, if the direction we are headed were a healthy one. And this is why I think there is no time to waste. It’s time to get everything on the table; it’s time to even out our own playing field; it’s time to be honest with ourselves; it’s time to get uncomfortable. If you don’t like me yelling, yell back! I guarantee I can take it, and I will appreciate this honesty.

In all seriousness, it is as a function of my immersion with others similarly displaced and dispossessed that has been most therapeutic for me; it is the time I spend with them that is most fruitful and engaging in terms of this discussion; it is with them that I find a sense of peace, a realm without affectation, and to them to whom I retreat when I need to escape. Not “to myself”. To assume that by the statements I made that I might imply that I was losing myself in the “individual” is to deny everything I’ve written which implies that there is only hope for us if we lose ourselves in the “communal”. It also reveals itself to be making an “assumption” which is of the status quo, and which I reject wholesale. I state this not as an accusation, but as a request to acknowledge and respect this difference in points of view. For both our sakes; for all our sakes. Peace and blessings.

About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
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27 Responses to On adoption activism (IV).

  1. Thank you, Daniel. Confession: I have read this through with morning brain and have not quite managed to take it all in, but I will try to reread later with more attentiveness. A couple points from my first reading. 1) I appreciate what you have written here AND admit that it stretches and challenges me, in a good way. Not saying that to play nice but because it is true. It includes a somewhat uncomfortable awareness of my limitations, but I’m not uncomfortable with uncomfortableness, if that makes any sense. 2) I didn’t mean to imply that you are “burned out,” so much as that your words struck me as indicating potential for burnout, even in one so engaged. But I can see now that I took your word out of context and used them as a illustration of something that they are not, simultaneously placing them within a framework that you want no part of.

    • I appreciate that Rebecca. Please know I am less concerned about what such an illustration means for me personally speaking, as much as what it means for us. All of us. I hope that that at least is clear. If there is anything in turn you take issue with here, please bring it forward. I want to actually get one of these conversations to move through to something new….that would do more to charge my tired old batteries than anything else….

  2. JaeRan says:

    I thought this was so spot on in so many ways – I appreciate this piece beyond words and I think you’ve given people so much to think about.

  3. Daniel, this is a lovely, complex and important piece. And interestingly, I just sent off my own piece for the next issue of Gazillion Voices – talking about these same razors edges, the fragmentation, polarization in the “community” and negotiating that as an adoptive parent – using some of the same language – so it also felt like a synchronicity to read it.

    Thank you.

  4. I feel stirred by your words, and by the powerful analogies with the rats and the dog. I do believe that some people simply give up and are tired: no, are exhausted to the point of giving up by the conflicting messages and punishments, verbal and otherwise.

    I think your point about not simply tacking on new sets of order or categorization is useful. Of course, most people like to know that they’re “normal” within a given realm: providing signposts is something that the media does ad nauseam. “What kind of person are you?” “5 Types of This and That,” emblazoned all over magazine covers and elsewhere. I have learned with age, however, to question the labels and the labeling, and why these particular labels are put out there, and by whom. Why *is* it so important to categorize? Are adoptees just another subset of humanity to have a taxonomy? I get it. It’s wonderful to have an intellectual scaffolding upon which to pin one’s understanding of one’s experiences. But I believe too few people question their own, basic scaffolding, the one upon which *everything* they do is pinned. Do they ask, “Why am I doing this?” “How did I end up in this situation?” “Who are the players, invisible and visible?” “What agency do I have?”

    In other words, I don’t have to be that dog, being shocked. If I lick my handlers, will they stop the shocks? If I look at them with soulful eyes? What will it take? Do I have to bark and bite? Do I try to escape? What are my *other choices*? And how can we be supportive, other than just say, “Oh, she must really just like the shocks.” Change is brought about by looking beyond the personal; I’ve been thinking about what you said about the damage of the post-modern minute focus on the self, and it’s immense.

    I truly believe in the power of collective action, but that collective has to be defined from outside the power that is calling the game. Those entities offer treats and power to those within our groups, they do. They do their best to splinter us. It’s up to us to recognize those ploys and resist them: we have power together, and we don’t all have to speak with the same voice, despite insistence on politesse.

    Like you, I would much rather have an enemy snarling at me openly than a “friend” whispering and planning behind my back, but smiling to my face. I know what they’re doing; they’re just more insidious because they don’t openly speak and defend their truths.

  5. As always, your thoughts give me much to think about and expand my own thinking. I have been working on a post about the label “in the fog adoptees” after witnessing someone being silenced recently because they were afraid of being labeled as such by wanting their voice included. It is very difficult, and silencing. It is tiring to be a part of broader discourse that, as you said, seems to be moving away from understanding each other.

  6. I am sitting with “we are ‘displaced and dispossessed persons,’” which sort of “pops” for me but also somewhat eludes my grasp. Is it harder for me to wrap my head around this because I was less displaced (in terms of geography, ethnicity, class, etc.) by my adoption? Is there a place for me in this discussion or am I the camel who has no hope of fitting through the eye of the needle (to use a reference from my upbringing)? Asking these questions of myself as much as of you.

    Appreciating also the distinction between online writing/engagement and the life lived offline, which is true for me also though in different ways than for you, and the point that withdrawal from one kind of engagement is not a withdrawal from all engagement but often a choice to engage more effectively.

    Anyway, among my takeaways is “there is only hope for us if we lose ourselves in the ‘communal.’” Also hearing your call to “move into an expanded empathy” with others displaced.

    Question: Can there be silencing within class as well as silencing because of class? Is writing about one a negation of the other?

    My afternoon brain may not be much sharper than my morning brain. If I am missing your points entirely please let me know.

    • My effort here is I think to transfer the “transitive verb” action in terms of the object. To say I am “adopted” is to focus on those who adopted me. To say I am “displaced or dispossessed” is to speak about whom I was with previously, but also where; both of these remain missing in current discourse. Your point is well taken though, and I imagine there might be better terms, or a better term, or an additional term. I am all ears on this one.

      It also brings up for me though the fact that our ideas of “geography”, “ethnicity” and “class” have shifted underneath our feet. All of those who are considered “white” in terms of American census standards were, at one time, considered outsiders and denigrated as such. The book The American Language has a whole chapter devoted to the epithets used against them, and it’s pretty enlightening…I turned to it because of my adoptive father’s stories of what the Irish lived in New York. But we are no longer so much aware of this.

      And then there is another realm of adoption that I really think we need to make up a new nomenclature for, which is in-family adoption, or foster care which strives to re-unite family; meaning, anything that is protective of original family as well as is expansive outside of the nuclear family. Adoption to me, for historical, political, and economic reasons, now has only negative connotations.

      So maybe I should qualify my point by defining adoption as “leveraging children from those who have in order to provide them to those who don’t, based on differences either political, economic, or both.” I don’t know if this changes your perception of “not fitting”, but in any case, I don’t think it valid to exclude points of view purely based on an inability to “claim” a splintered identity marker.

      Amanda, to your point, I think a lot of what takes place assumes the desired goal of silencing. By that I mean to say, yes, of course, if there is an argument, this is often the case of one person trying to silence the other; we understand these power differentials. But what if that same argument takes place, and this presupposition is faulty? Because we know what we are dealing with is so emotional! For us especially, for our mothers, original families, and communities. That anyone might expect us to bring this down to a “rational debate”—when I often describe it as “the best I can do in light of wanting to scream at the top of my lungs for all eternity”—defies human endurance and capacity, if you ask me.

  7. carolahand says:

    Thank you for an important discussion, Daniel. In my own research on the “removal” of Native American children, I see so many parallels. In exploring the topic of adoption, I discovered a resource that you might find useful: “The baby thief: The untold story of Georgia Tann, the baby seller who corrupted adoption” by Barbara Bisantz Raymond (2007). It wasn’t an easy book for me to read after listening to too many stories from Ojibwe people who had grown up in adoptive homes.

    • Thank you for the reference. For those who don’t know the book, here’s a link: The Baby Thief.

      My only caution here is similar to the discussion at Mothermade’s blog, which is that often these types of exposés are turned around as “bad eggs” which justify “normal” adoption practice. If you ask me, the corruption did not stem from Georgia Tann, but from the industry itself.

  8. “Leveraging children from those who have in order to provide them to those who don’t, based on differences either political, economic, or both” <– This phrasing works for me. I'm stepping away from the Internet for a while now, but I will continue to chew on various points raised in this conversation. Thank you.

  9. Above comment from “loveisnotapie” is from me, btw.

  10. What a rich rich piece of writing. Thank you.

    One of the things that really resonates for me (on this first of what will be many readings) is how you address the adoptee as ““direct object” of another’s subjective action”. One thing I frequently bristle at is using the term adopted child, or adoptee, or even AP, because it serves to attend to the process by which status changes rather than the more important cause and effects of those processes. And the idea of adoption has grown to take on a life of its own, further distancing the reality from the myth.

    And to what Rebecca said about not feeling as displaced due to the geography/class/ethnicity relative to the first mother. I felt that too as a BSE child..but then considered that my displacement came because of my first mother’s displacement/dispossesion – as a single pregnant woman in a strict social environment, her pregnancy forced her out of her civilized society and she could only gain reentry by coming back redeemed either by getting married or getting rid of the baby.

    I increasingly see adoption as community issue – something way beyond my personal story. I learned this through being in reunion, and through becoming a parent by adoption. It is just not about me anymore.

  11. JaeRan says:

    This has been an engaging discussion and I’ve appreciated all the thoughtful responses. I want to echo Rebecca’s comment, “Appreciating also the distinction between online writing/engagement and the life lived offline, which is true for me also though in different ways than for you, and the point that withdrawal from one kind of engagement is not a withdrawal from all engagement but often a choice to engage more effectively.” As someone who has blogged and/or engaged in the community online and offline adoption over the past 14 years, I’ve had many “lives” and have withdrawn from online and offline adoption communities at different times and for different reasons. Yesterday in a meeting, one of my colleagues described using the term “working toward sustainability” instead of “working to prevent burnout.” That was a paradigm shift that resonated with me in thinking about the work I’m doing. I’m mulling over a blog post on this to tease it out further.

  12. I suppose that I don’t get hung up on “displaced and dispossessed” because we, by the nature of losing our families and our histories with our original families, are displaced and dispossessed. If White people want to search out parallels in history, as Daniel says, there are those families who have Italian or Irish or Polish or myriad other roots that made them equally Other a hundred years ago. In my studies I learned that the Irish were demeaned just as much as Africans at the time of their great bout of immigration in the 19th and early 20th centuries; they were marginalized by their class and their religion. As were many other groups. It’s not that deeply set a polarity, although mainstream media would like to present it that way. Of course some belong to the Mayflower Society, and I cannot speak to that from experience; that is a different set of privilege that comes with its own heaviness.

    I have always felt like an exile. It just is. Today, oddly, I was reading an essay about a Brit living in self-imposed exile in the United States; he quoted Edward Said’s “Reflections on Exile,” to which I return again and again: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.”

    No, I am not an international adoptee, and no, I have not suffered in terms of my class and race. And yet I chafed at the persona my aparents wished to create for me. I cannot be the person my original mother wishes I were. I cannot be the reincarnation of my dead original father that his family wishes I were. I live in a nowhere land that I’ve worked to find peace within. My exile is an essential sadness, to be sure. That said, I have found many compatriots in my exile. Not so much with people who want to elide it as a “phase.”

    I work in a field that brings me intimately into the lives of people; most of my patients are markedly different from me in class and race. I don’t feel that I have to say “I am different from you.” We talk about our differences, yes, but we work together and usually create experiences that are meaningful for all of us. We can talk as humans and respect each other; we meet as partners.

    I much prefer my current job to my previous position, catering to the whims of an entitled few, with an oppressive administration that cared most about money. Not that my current managers are kinder at all, but they are at least obvious with their capitalist intentions. As a nurse I do, however, have the power of a great collective unit behind me. We work together to support each other, in practical and legal ways. I will say that I have noticed similar attempts to silence the outspoken, even within that largely female group. Shaming and guilting on behalf of management: “Call the temporary workers travelers, not scabs,” for example, even when they cross the line and take money to make things easier for the corporation. “Don’t blame *them*,” blame the corporation. No. I will blame a person who knowing participates in politically violent acts such as crossing a line; does changing what we call them change the nature of their action?

    Telling people to “be kind and polite” is just another form of shaming. It reifies the existing power structure, plays upon female stereotypes (outspoken women are “bad” or “wrong” and must be silenced), and is part of misogyny and othering (think about ethnic groups who are dismissed for being too “emotional”) as much as it is “politeness.”

    We need to think about what suppositions we bring to discussions, and why they need to be a certain way for our own comfort. And then challenge those suppositions. Adoption is an intensely emotional subject for many of us; having the nature of discussions circumscribed to a tiny postage stamp of acceptable language, terminology, etc. is not helpful. I am not saying that people should not be compassionate towards those holding different positions, but each should be aware of her own privilege and roles in maintaining the status quo.

    Thanks, Daniel, for this forum.

  13. Perfect JaeRan. I am currently “working toward sustainability.”

  14. kym says:

    Thanks again, Daniel, for your thought-provoking and refreshing writing!
    Just when I think that you have written exactly what needs to be said, you come up with more that’s spot on! Recently, I’ve come to think of my “creation” as an interface of socioeconomic, geopolitical, cultural, lingual inequalities, or simply disparities, with some sinister deception added. So different from the “real” parent debate.

    And I agree, this is more about us – societies, humanity – not any one individual.

  15. One thought still kicking around in my brain is that one thing that (sometimes) distinguishes adoptees from other displaced peoples is lack of acknowledgement of the displacement, from both within and without. Is it at all useful to reframe the original discussion of phases as “growing awareness of displacement”? Much of my original post was rooted in the frustration of having younger versions of myself (that other adoptee, the good and happy one) thrown in my face, as if such a creature exists in a frozen, final state, rather than a point in time. Is there language more effective at making this point without positioning myself in the camp of those only interested in the personal growth of the individual? I am thinking also of the sense of peace you (Daniel) spoke of experiencing in the company of other displaced people. Contrasting this with an experience of my own. Watching a movie with a friend years ago. We both had similar strong emotional reactions to the content. She understood her own response as rooted in her personal experience of displacement (from family and homeland), but when I connected my response to adoption, she was dismissive. Could not see the connection at all. I do actually find the language of displacement useful. Wish I’d had it then.

    Anyway, I keep trying to stay away from this post because I actually do have other things I “should” be doing, but you really have given me some good things to think about.

    Appreciating the comments from others as well.

    • Rebecca: This is the crux of it. When a dominant culture does [x, y, z] using tools [a, b, c,] and I try to break away from this by doing [x, y, z] and using tools [a, b, c] I haven’t changed anything about my condition. This although it might seem empowering (I think here of the anti-racism hashtags on Twitter which currently rage) to simply “reverse the roles”.

      There are a few aspects of this to discuss; I tried to bring a lot of this up during the “30 Answers….” writing. But our situation as adoptees maps so readily on others disempowered in face of the dominant mode of doing/thinking. And so much within resistant literature speaks of this; for one example, Malcolm X speaking of the moment he decided to stop conking his hair; Frantz Fanon referring to the “colonized mind”; Elizabeth Catlett leaving the US to work in Mexico and for the revolution there; more locally, Zeina Zaatari working with the Lebanese women of the South; etc. This is where such figures, their books and writings, have been a great solace for me.

      Part of the problem is that the tools of discussion—these formerly quite activist discourses (sorry for the academic jargon)—have been de-activated, and replaced with seemingly empowering replacements. I referred to this in a previous post on corporate media when referring to currently fashionable post-modern theory, the current incarnation of “most-fashionable” being intersectionality.

      I don’t mean to denigrate these theories, and I don’t at all deny their helpfulness in allowing us to understand who we are in the scheme of things. But they don’t often carry through to any applicable praxis, meaning, they don’t give us a gameplan for activating ourselves. It seems to be enough to “discuss” the situation. Endlessly.

      Which brings me back to our cultural predisposition toward Calvinist thinking along these lines (doing [x] using tool [a]). Again, I’m not trying to state anything other than historical fact when I point to such thinking as the basis for Anglo-American society and the capitalism that comes from it, as well as the resulting strictures that are placed on our thinking because of it.

      It took me 40 years of sensing this and knowing this to finally come out of my fog, or decolonize my mind! This is powerful stuff we are talking about; hegemony means exactly that, and carries the added burden of our tacit approval of its workings. But we are fish trying to describe the water we swim in.

      With my university students/advisees, I taught a seminar class in this. It was mind-boggling the amount of work needed to be done and the amount of time needed to be spent before they were comfortable using a new vocabulary, so much their education “pointed” them in a particular direction. I would also add it got them in trouble in other classes; it got me fired from the university. We are no different, especially for swimming in it.

      When we look at the “community-minded” groups within American history targeted for destruction, from the Amish to the socialist craft-based communes, to the black Mississippians attempting to establish self-governing councils, we can understand perhaps what it is we are up against. “Individualism” is a supreme virtue in this culture; to go against that is a mortal sin in no small way.

      And so in recent years the fatigue of listening to people trying to “correct my tone”—”do y by using tool b!”—had the added insult of asking me to “recolonize my mind”; to “refog”; to drink a different flavor Kool-Aid. I think it was with Laura Dennis we were discussing the idea of “second fogs”; maybe that is what we are discussing here.

      In terms of your dismissive friend, we have to be aware of one of the “actions” we are allowed—claiming an identity/oppression/etc.—is balanced by another action that refuses the same action in someone we don’t see as in the group (again, mimicking the categorization of the dominant mode). So Malcolm X would conk his hair, and then would make fun of men with their hair natural. You crossed a line with the attempt to claim a similar status.

      This is why I often state (and why I’m often taken to task) that I don’t claim to “be” Lebanese; I don’t claim to “be” Arab. This is what got me so upset at the Olympian claiming to “be” Paraguayan. It’s like driving a steamroller over those who “are” these things, but don’t begin to have the Voice to say so, or express what that means.

      My “peace” within my friends in my neighborhood and beyond I think I can ascribe to the fact that for the first years I (painfully) tried to shed identity markers, I was not able to speak the language so well, and so could only listen. They often put me through the wringer! I’m not saying it was all roses; it was excrutiating. They are hyper-aware of the economic and political reasons for their dispossession and displacement, and so it is easier on some level than, say, with your friend watching that movie.

      Which brings us back to the fact that speaking of “economics” and “history” and the spectrum of time and getting away from strict binaries goes against the dominant mode in no small way. To speak in an “essentialist” manner is almost a requirement for discussions of identity in this environment, on both sides of the political spectrum.

      There’s a lot of education/re-education I think that needs to take place. In such situations I try not to let the “personal” sneak in; this is what has allowed me to live here and survive, so close to what I’m looking for but so far away. I don’t know how else to explain it.

      I promised myself I wouldn’t overwhelm the responses with my posts! So apologies; but I hope this helps clarify a bit what you were asking about?

  16. No apologies necessary. Appreciate your response.

  17. JaeRan: I look forward to your post on the topic. I feel compelled to ask those who have been at this much longer than I, in retrospect, what might you have done differently? Any words of advice? And also: What is it that ties us to this realm of our acculturation, given its problematic nature? Other than the sheer familiarity of it….

    Many times I’ve thought, “I’ll head to the South; start a farm; make a complete break”. I know adoptees formerly active in the field who’ve done similar to this (but by returning Stateside). And there’s something enticing (and petrifying) in the idea for me that I might “complete” my return in such a way. I admit readily this is easier for me as a man than such a return I know is for women. This is one of many reasons I don’t really give carrying through with such an idea validity as an option, getting back to the discussion of first finding an even foothold for all. I know just as many who’ve left Lebanon for the country of their adoption, and I am likewise guilty of thinking this “permanent” (I saw one adoptee I used to know here and who I heard had left riding down the Damascus Highway on her motorbike the other day, and felt immediately bad that I had “written her off” in this way)….

    How de we “ebb and flow” like you have described, without worrying about the dominant mode of things defining us as “left the scene”, “burnt out”, etc.? How do we break out of the ingrained tools, modes, and methods that our adoptive acculturation inscribed us with? How do we avoid creating class-based ghettos, for want of a better term?

  18. jmarie says:

    Thank you Daniel for taking some time away from your Beirut Beach Resort and Cabana Club to write another piece of literary brilliance for everyone to savor.

    I am one of those white domestics who have felt excluded from the conversations about race and ethnicity because of a silencing I felt imposed on me due to the tone of my complexion. I appreciate your suggestions that we work together to find a common cause, such as displacement and dispossession.

    I feel that in the case of the trans-racial adoptees the displacement is more apparent and maybe recognized whereas in the case of the domestic the displacement goes largely unnoticed.

    So when I, the domestic, say hey, I’ve been displaced! I am usually met with “how dare you say YOU are displaced when there are Korean adoptees who don’t look anything like their adoptive families!” And this is the logic that I meet up with, from within and from without. Silencing.


    Now I would like to comment on your remarks about reductions and interventions and I’m getting personal and going back to the topic of a certain forum for adoptees that set me off recently in another post here. I had thought the members were being supportive of me, in real life, until I questioned something that was going on at the forum, an apparent shift in the main focus of the forum.

    I also questioned some administrators. “Doesn’t anyone ever get concerned when people just vanish? Does anyone keep up with them? Does anyone know what happened to so and so and so and so?”

    “The forum is for support for newbies who are beginning to come to terms with their adoption -mostly a bunch of psychos. We take comfort when people leave because we believe they become more evolved and go on to live more healthy lives.” – or something to that effect. My point is that they looked upon their members as being in various stages of psycho to evolved. Reductions.

    Meanwhile the adoptees went off and killed themselves or got themselves committed to a psychiatric hospital or are being held hostage by an abusive or controlling partner or spouse and no one thinks twice. I see it as rationalizing away responsibility to intervene and I think it is WRONG to suck people into a forum, promote it as a “safe” place, encourage the members to get all worked up and not follow up with them when they disappear suddenly (maybe after they questioned the status quo).


    Yes, Daniel, thank you for this most excellent forum. You never silence anyone. I hope we can all work together and come up with a way to make our “eternal scream at infinite volume” heard over those who work so hard to tune out the dissonances they find offensive.

    • Full disclosure: There are two people whose posts I do not approve here ; they are threatening, off-topic, and I do not wish to engage with them. Call me paranoid, but after my dealings with a certain litigious “doctor”, I’m over-cautious in this regard.

      Yesterday I started going through to update links at Mediarama in the section called “Voices”. So many links were broken, or outdated, or had been taken over by spam sites that I got really upset and stopped. If the online realm is the place we turn to because this isn’t available in “real life”, where do we go from there?

      I’m starting to hear from many adoptees who are aiming for this kind of “breaking out” of binaries and constrictions we might impose on ourselves….mostly returned, or in Europe, where the identity politics are much more overtly disallowing of “claiming”. I’m also hearing from many adopters uncomfortable with their “place” and class status, as well as mothers looking to reclaim, to “rematriate”, if you will….

      It’s a long battle, but I have hope.

  19. jmarie says:

    Also thank you for making the distinction (somewhere in your comments but I’m too lazy to find where…) that you the man can go south and be a farmer but it is not an option for me although I don’t think that should stop you from doing it. You can be a southern farmer and still advocate for women. Can’t you? You don’t have to sacrifice everything. At least you are aware of your position as dominant male.

    Do I have to give up my place in the country, where I feel accepted for who I am (or do I since I am alone now?) and I feel a strong sense of community knowing that if I were in your shoes I may feel uneasy in that place? My neighbor may be able to appreciate you being a good guy with some skills to bring to the community but it’s the getting pulled over part scares me. It’s not fair.

    Lately I feel more comfortable in the city because there seems to be more tolerance of otherness I guess out of necessity.

    • I had put aside that comment to make minor edit changes and forgot about it! It’s back now. My ideas of “complete break” come and go. Honestly, the idea of making individual choices about my life when I’m surrounded by people who can’t do the same just seems wrong. But everyone need gauge this for him- or herself. I think we make community where we are, and accept that place for its shortfalls, knowing that often they are not a function of the place or the people of that place. We end up having an effect on that place if we are truly a part of it. In any case, the women I know who’ve returned here get major props from me. They don’t have the same “social” ease as I do; but they can make inroads in terms of the community’s cultural or socio-political life. I don’t want to feed into any stereotypes of Arab women! I meant simply the initial “shock” of re-entry is easier for a guy (on his own) to navigate.

  20. Mirren, your points are well taken. I refer to what we are discussing here as “talking white”, meaning, following particular rules for discussion that ignore completely the accepted register of a place or space, as well as the familiarity among those speaking. I mean to say that if two people are discussing something, and they know each other, and the platform or place they are speaking is informal, the expectation of “diplomatic” or “PC” language becomes a bludgeon. The one wielding it seeking to maintain power over a discussion.

    It’s interesting to me, because Robin Lakoff in her book Talking Power: The Politics of Language speaks of this belabored “correct” language as inherently masculine within an Anglo-Saxon context. That the “emotional” is seen as “how women speak”, and to avoid it is a male tactic of power mongering. Which brings us back to the horrid and ignoble epithets that women receive when they speak this way: “hysterical”, “PMS-ing”, the “b” word. So it is odd to me when such a “male” tactic is used by women.

    I started writing a blog post entitled “I Don’t Speak White”. It was based on a similarly entitled article appeared in Time magazine [link], which I find to be rather offensive, in the same way I find Bill Cosby to be rather offensive in his classism regarding language. What will go unremarked is Time‘s “pat on the head” of the author by publishing the article. Honestly, I’m tired of these “pats on the head” when I “speak white”. And I’m tired of being reprimanded for my active decision to no longer “speak white” which is what it comes down to.

    I don’t know that I’ll post the blog piece; I think I’ve made my point in the recent posts. But suffice it to say that the issue, to me, is not those who don’t “speak nice”. The issue is, in fact, those who demand that others “speak nice” as if this in and of itself is the recipe for valid discussion, and as if this is not, in and of itself, offensive to those on the other side of the power divide. The fact that inequalities, power differentials, and differences in desired outcome are all masked by “parliamentary discourse” only points out how much of a power trip such demands hide behind.

    I have to admit that I appreciate all the more basic honest talk, the more upfront the better. I remember a bulletin board in NYC that had as one rule “no personal attacks”; this worked much better I think. I used to apologize for my “behavior” because given such a perceived power differential, and given how this is interpreted in the dominant discourse, this was the easiest thing to do. But this is so reductive and facile as to be ridiculous. I think now I’ll preface any discussion with the phrase: “By the way, I don’t speak ‘white'”; and shift the burden of “dealing with it” to the other side.

  21. Mirren says:

    It is a clumsy bludgeon, I agree. One that often is not reflected upon, but one that seems to be used reflexively, as part of belonging to the dominant culture. I have stepped away from much online discussion related to adoption because I am not interested in thoughtless policing, being admonished to be kind and not to hurt other people’s feelings (especially when the same courtesy is not extended to me). Sometimes my views will be in opposition to those of others, but this is not a reason to enforce the status quo or insist on good manners as a means of shutting down conversation/protecting people. Let them stand up for themselves. You are so right about the gendering of power in discourse and how odd this inversion can be, along with the insulting pats on the head.

    The world is a complex place. It is hard to accept, perhaps, but a good lesson for all of us to learn. Recognizing one’s complicity in replicating existing power structures is hugely important, too.

    Thank you again for this stimulating conversation.

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