This series of posts is based on an interview conducted with Romy Lynn Attieh. The interview was conducted for a paper that Romy wrote entitled: “Exploring Kinship and Gender in the Return Narratives of Transnational Adoptees Born in Lebanon” for a class with Dr. Rosemary Sayegh called “Oral History and Gender”, in the Anthropology department at AUB. The first entry to the series can be found here: [link to entry].
This postscript to the previous post is based on a dialogue with Snow Leopard, who had written a thought-provoking treatise on transcultural adoption, asking for a discussion on this subject. I agree with much of what was said in the original post, and the points brought up are well taken. I think I might only differ in terms of framework, and so add this to perhaps finetune and clarify things from a shifted viewpoint, in the hope of contributing to and advancing the requested dialogue.
In terms of culture, what we are referring to is the stinted by-product of the “Great Devil’s Bargain” of assimilation into Empire, seen as a normalizing process and a requirement for entry into First World societies currently defined as nation-states with definitive borders, the globalizing project of which requires an undoing of the local on the physical level as well as its representation in terms of memory and history. For many of our adoptive parents, this often meant giving up language and cultural markers to a degree that, if forcefully enacted on other human beings and not voluntarily on oneself, would be referred to as ethnic cleansing and/or reverse colonization. This is telling especially in terms of those you refer to as “White pholk” who, in many cases, were previously thought of as “Outsider/Other”—the Irish come readily to mind, along with your Welsh forebears—especially at the height of and in terms of their resistance to a rising or dominant yet globally speaking minority Anglo-Saxon mode/model.
Seen in this way, our own cultural “erasure” as adoptees has no import or validity; it is part of this bigger project and comparatively speaking beneficial to the adopters, in that it corroborates their own experience and also legitimizes their new-found status. Further, the class identification (often different from actual class position) that formulated their sense of self-value and thus propelled them to consider adoption is likewise based on singularly Anglo-Saxon notions of the nuclear family and its use as a primary marker of class arrival, as opposed to the base and pointless procreation of the nether classes. This leads, countervailingly, to the willful downplaying of racial/ethnic/identity markers of the adopted child (in my case, to “explain away”; in your case, to “trade up”), often in strikingly oppositional terms to the racisms or biases within the family itself, which are expressed differently when dialogued internally.
The givens of this Bargain that must be abided by include: acquisition of English, change in modes of dress, manner of discourse, family structure, cultural consumption and creation, etc. It also comes with limits of tolerance within the society—how such-and-such a group behaves or retains any sense of itself—with the former eventually suppressing and supplanting this latter. Thus, any group is welcome to move toward the ideal, even if only in form or style, but, it need be stated, will never truly reach it in terms of full inclusion, and then if and only if this group is willing to give up its claims of resistance to this ideal in exchange for economic and political privilege, usually at the expense of other upwardly mobile groups, in an endless and unsustainable cascade of inequality.
The dominant mode is thus primed to co-opt the form and style of cultural expression in such a way that their continued pursuance essentially subverts their original resistant meaning, as seen in the examples of punk music, ethnic cultural manifestations appropriated by the dominant mode, graffiti, zines, so-called subversive art, etc. Groups that refuse to give up their language and/or culture—currently, Hispanics, Arabs and Muslims, etc.—are treated with a more pro-active expulsion from the society. In either case, this subsumption/expulsion/extermination is the desired end goal, even as it takes forms which seem to be positive, such as our cultural examples above, but also ethnic studies departments, minority presence in the mediated realm, adoption, etc.
That adoption be added to this list in terms of its function should not surprise us. The institution of adoption—with its roots in indentured servitude, its role in providing cheap labor, its use in cleaning out poorhouses, populating foreign colonies, eradicating indigenous populations, as well as hiding the shame of out-of-wedlock births—has been shifted by the bourgeois class to be a tool for nuclear-family creation by exploiting similarly targeted underclasses, and its definition morphs as these nether groups rise or fall within the approval and disapproval of the dominant structure. In no less insidious a manner, adoption is used as an entry point for the upward mobility of the children of these classes, by going directly to the source (“empty slate” babies), and bypassing the presumably “failed” middling generation.
The adopter, in performing this societal function, is rewarded by being rendered “white(er)” either by adopting a darker baby and thus providing racial comparison and echoing the national Savior complex, or else by adopting a “whiter” baby and thus receiving a racially based stamp of approval, and a white future to the family name. The fact that for true/original families this maps onto foreign Calvinist notions of living one’s punishment on earth, or for the adopted is redolent of a salvation that comes at the expense of those not saved, is only that much more condemnatory of a practice which mirrors on the personal identity level what it performs on the global societal level, and which has always ever had this one goal in mind, as manifested historically by, among others, colonists, slave owners, missionaries, and eugenicists.
The therapist/speaker that you preface your treatise with serves as a focal point for your observations on culture, class, and sexuality, and these points, as stated, are well taken; I would only say that I don’t feel completely comfortable discussing him in his absence for reasons that I hope will become clearer as I move forward. Nonetheless, for us to understand is that anyone hoping to be liberated from the dominant paradigm cannot do so by engaging with the oppressor on his grounds, nor by using his tools, systems, languages, discourses, methods, or modes. There is no escaping this noisome Catch-22 (see also: Antonio Gramsci, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, Arundhati Roy, Albert Memmi, Vandana Shiva, Ali Shari’ati, Kwame Ture, Malcolm X, etc.) except via an attempt at extreme localization using an internal dialogue, and hoping for the eventual (per Fanon especially) liberatory radicalization of self-awareness and thus expansion from within one’s lived experience, as complicated as that might be, and contrary to anything arrived at via an imposed foreign theoretical framework, or from within extant systems of oppression. The great failure of those who would advocate for adoption can therefore be described as the paradox of the pyromaniac firefighter when adoption is viewed as a beneficent or charitable act, with enabling reformists only conflagrating the inferno with their Sisyphean efforts to extinguish this fire by dousing it with gasoline.
What I am saying here is strikingly similar to the speaker you preface your treatise with. To recapitulate, the speaker you mention is critical of a same-sex couple adopting children from Africa, and he posits homosexuality as an import from the West. This has also been heard within various populations of the global South as well as historically among various political groups, some considered quite radical and progressive, and so it is worth some attention above and beyond its prima facie illiberalism. The trope that the invading White Man brought homosexuality (as an identity and/or institution) is, as we know, a completely different proposition than saying that homosexual behavior exists in a given society, and this latter behavior, in ways that I am alluding to more than elucidating, need remain and has often remained unstated and unspoken of. Nonetheless, I think it fair to say that the ossified and (in terms of spectra of time and experience) uni-directional bourgeois construct of homosexual identity that currently predominates our conception of such a thing and which suffers little in the way of valid critique—with accusations of homophobia to it being what anti-Semitism is to criticism of Israel, or support of Palestinians—molds readily onto the above listed attempts at class mobility and assimilation into the dominant norm—thus explaining its pre-eminence—especially when if ethnically speaking the partners wishing to adopt already match what is ignobly described as being “All-American” or there-toward.
The fact that this trope gets much attention in subaltern populations has a lot to do with this kind of “stealth” attribution of one aspect of identity onto others that reflect an economic and political intrusion into the local lived reality. And so despite following in the footsteps of various oppressed minority groups historically speaking, same-sex couples seeking to adopt children are thus a furtherance of an assimilationist “bargain” that is no less Satanic, and with the legal underpinnings of their “equality” just as shaky in terms of cultural and societal acceptance, and this despite super-mediation to the contrary, or, for that matter, all of their previous efforts to “fit in” via normalization, marriage, etc. This has precedence in the mediated Disney-esque perfect multicultural society that is readily denied by reality on the street, except in certain “cosmopolitan” unified-by-class-interest neighborhoods that are in and of themselves a function of what has already been discussed.
To further elaborate, a difference need be made in terms of expression between what is and isn’t allowed—spoken vs. unspoken—and the practice thereof; whether such expression jibes with practice or contradicts it; how closely these match up; whether this is considered internally hypocritical and/or dissonant (or not); and what frictions this disparity or lack thereof causes in that society as viewed from within. It is, in terms of this discussion, like a Venn diagram of overlapping allowances of expression of gender or ethnicity, with the outset portions forming the base for the tending-toward-binary expressed description thereof, shaped by internal and external pressures/incentives/invocations, while the overlapping section reveals the much more gray and muddled actual lived experience. In the spectrum of what might range from the ideal (completely overlapping) to the dystopian (completely binary) we can fairly place most variations of the lived condition, but more importantly we can see that there may be extreme contradictions between the expression of gender/ethnicity and its lived experience, along with fluctuations over time that do not allow for pinpointed and finite anthropological definitions.
Returning to our speaker, it should be noted that in stressful times, emphasis goes to the expression true to description and not experience; a defensive strategy, leaving us to ponder what might happen should this outside pressure be relieved. Here is revealed the false progressive nature of those who denigrate others as lacking modernity, or civilization, or enlightenment, since in many respects the criticizing culture is far and away more binary, static, literal, and reductive, and thus more similar to the image it self-righteously fabricates of those seen as fascistic, reactionary, and/or backwards. From this strict binary perspective Anglo-Saxon Calvinist Capitalism and Saudi-Arabian Wahhabist Capitalism actually have much more in common and should be seen as competing variations of the same basic concept, similar to those of Anglo-American, German, and Japanese empires in the 1930s, which likewise resulted in a war of supremacy among them.
One example of this forfeiting of solidarity for class reasons within a supposedly activist group was witnessed during the last meeting of ACTUP New York, which saw a split along racial lines. The white male contingent, after finally getting their funding and meds based on the privilege that their race gave them in terms of political inroads, effectively dropped support of (predominantly heterosexual and female) minority populations no less in need. This split also reflected the difference in class identification—the luxury and privilege of stating in the first person “I am gay” vs. the third-person accusation “he is on the down-low”—that likewise maps onto power differentials of race and gender in American society, and from there, onto the classist bases of those who find marriage and other aspects of patriarchal hetero-normative behavior to be an important goal, as opposed to a dystopian mode to escape from.
For another, a march in memory of Sakia Gunn, a Newark, New Jersey teenager murdered for defending her sense of identity, saw a horrified reaction to this activism from bar patrons along Christopher Street. To explain this reaction and further non-action on their part, we need notice that the center of New York’s gay community had, similar to other “now-white” minorities, experienced its own intra-urban “white flight” that resulted in the gentrification of the neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton (a.k.a. Hell’s Kitchen), and had now started activating against the presence of minority youth from outlying boroughs hanging out at the piers where this particular memorial took place. By contrast, half a country away, Matthew Shepard received completely different treatment, most appallingly in New York’s paper of record which saw fit to bury Ms. Gunn’s story on inner city pages, while attributing hundreds of national-level front-page headlines to Mr. Shepard.
And so any affected identity defined from within the imperial project, exalted to a static, fixed, essential truth, cleaved from any previous spectral, mutable, fluid, or fluctuating ideas of affinity, predilection, tendency, inclination, or predisposition, is thus transformed by our aforementioned Bargain into a reductive crucible for the worst aspects of hyper-individualism, consumerism, and racism (and by extension, Orientalism and exoticism of race difference) reflective of the dominant culture, and manifested, ultimately and unfortunately, in the adoption of ethnic children as a way of finding an approved outlet within said Bargain for such prurient interest.
This untrustworthy desire to assimilate at the expense of others in the long run does more to undermine one’s place in society as well as society as a whole, not in terms of those outside the status quo being seen in a negative light, nor in the falsely expressed fear of the Other in our midst, but in attempting to be too much like the segregating and homogenizing norm, and for this reason simply being a continuation if not a pointed and targeted distillation of the destructive force that is thus mimicked, and this despite any trappings of radical activism or outsider status that might be taken on by those attempting such assimilation.
This hypocritical claim to a kind of variegated oppression—denied by class status and ethnic inclusiveness—is then reflected out to the world at large in an Orwellian justification of self that marches in lockstep with the hypocritical directives of foreign policies and departments of state that completely ignore their own depredations, also witnessed by the humanitarian imperialism of NGOs, which requires the imposition in the foreign locale of a binary breakdown of the dominant culture’s view of sexuality/gender/ethnicity/sect which has no relevance locally speaking. More specifically in terms of gender, it results in a reduction of all levels of agape, philia, storge to one of eros; an objectification of the native as a desired “slummed” entity with no agency and no ability to overcome this positioning from without; as well as a denial of what might be described as homophilia which is not considered valid unless it be superficially commodified and sexualized.
It is in this fulcrum point between the exalted and the wretched that the validity of a given entity in this world is condemned to be based purely on the dominant culture’s projection thereon of a sense of existence that is entirely contingent upon the very acceptance of this fractured sense of self by the one so objectified. We cannot expect the oppressed to call into question any aspect of their minimally eked out dignity by forcing them to bestow upon their oppressors an acknowledgment of what is inherently alien to their world in this static reduced form, and which requires a luxury and privilege that is unknown in their realm.
Framed this way, I take sides with your psychiatrist and his worries concerning adopted children purely on behalf of oppressed local populations and wholly ignoring the claimed sexual identity of the adopters, for it is disturbing how much this reduction describes economically and politically the incentives of adoption as well. From this viewpoint, it is fair to state that it is not within the right of adopters to dispossess and displace children to perpetrate on others what they have done to themselves in the desperate hope of finding some sense of societal inclusion. The Global South is hard-pressed to fight back against such intrusions, and finds itself overwhelmed by these smiling hyenas of dubious foreign policies and agendas, reinforcing as they do imbalances of power figuratively and literally. As you allude, most of the local laws that criminalize homosexual behavior are reflections of colonial and missionary interference in the countries concerned in the first place.
More to the point, many African, Asian, and other Nether-World local LGBTQ activist groups have gone so far as to write letters to their First World counterparts begging them to not interfere with local politics, as they do more harm than good; this kind of local resistance of course goes unreported in the Western press. Joseph Massad, in his book Desiring Arabs, debunks the “Gay International” along these lines; for this he was excoriated by those who choose this foreign identity/class marker over any ethnic/national/local marker they might share with the author, or the local populations they claim to represent.
This is troubling on many levels, primarily though because it reflects not only the desired aim of the dominant class to divide and conquer such activism on the local scene, but also because it reveals the duplicity of certain groups who might rise to this bait and who naively (or not so) aid and abet the dissolution of local community in order to be recognized by such destructive economic and political forces. Second, because it points out how, similarly, advocates of post-modernism, ethnic studies, etc., can wear their “outsider” and “marginal” status on their sleeves in direct opposition to those studies’ liberatory potential; they are effectively very much a part of the systems of dominance that they pretend to denounce, and they are employed as a very successful tool thereof.
For the fact remains that local lived reality for the majority of the planet is based primarily in familial/community relations, and as such reacts within its scope and means to what is perceived as aiming to break such community down. The individualizing, self-centered mode of globalizing Capital, however it is represented, being out of balance with local mores, is therefore targeted in terms of its manifested representation, even when this might seem to be at odds with notions of human rights, or of liberation politics. In this perspective, the idea of what might happen were Empire to lose such an all-encompassing economic grip of the local space reveals for us the true goal of the liberatory project to focus on, as opposed to where such focus is currently misplaced: the failed effort that is the protection of fleeting “rights” for a small upper stratum of society within a barely tolerant deleterious Anglo-Saxon realm, with these so-called freedoms never making it—and never designed nor destined to make it—to the lower strata of society. Seen in this way, the recent push by Egypt to evict foreign NGOs makes perfect progressive sense, contrary to its description as being reactionary or extremist.
To expand on your framing of it, these local factors of community breakdown thus often weigh more ponderously and more oppressively than the First-World focus on what you refer to (yet rightly question) as “homophobia“, which requires permutations and gymnastics of language just to cross the class/cultural divide from the Northern regions of the planet. By this I mean to say that the perceived reaction of homophobia exists as a function of and a resistance to globalizing dominant norms, and the inarguable violence of which nonetheless greatly pales in comparison to other lived violences which don’t receive equal focus for the outright dismissal of the class of people suffering them. In many places, where no one has the class privilege or luxury to “escape” to a constructed or virtual “community”, there are quite obviously men and women who are somewhere else within the spectrum of gender expression and sexual behavior. I will not refer to them as free, but they are even less free for many other reasons which locally speaking carry much more weight in terms of preservation of self, family, and community: poverty, illiteracy, hunger, lack of medical care, unemployment, and warfare. In this way, the supposed liberator narcissistically and perniciously projects homophobia onto an abject intermediary who stands in purely as a foil to the exalted one: a disposable means to a selfish end.
All the same, these men and women are not necessarily subjected to the classifying violences in terms of identity nor the extreme sexualization in terms of gender specificity that are suffered by those growing up in a society where binary expression and lived behavior must be the same, which might therefore be seen as a channeling of them into such affected identities in the first place, like electrically prodded bovines to the abattoir. By way of contrast, those living in this gray area are extended protection like anyone else within the community, despite any overt expression of their locale that might condemn their behavior, until they remove themselves from the local and move to this outsider “universal”, at which point they are focused on as betrayers of the communal contract, bought out by Capital’s call. On a societal level, this would seem to be much more valid and validating holistically speaking than efforts within the Anglo-Saxon realm to brand children as early in their lives as possible, whether in terms of ethnic or gender identity, with the entire weight of academia, medical research, and therapeutic behavioral reconstruction behind it, and with little possibility for egress from any verdict thus passed down.
Unfortunately, we cannot reach this audience via our privileged discourse here, nor via anthropological intrusion, and so the seemingly reactionary speech as expressed by your guest speaker is to be studied only in terms of how it is reserved for the oppressor who incites it, but is instead directed to a community that experiences and understands it, and is targeted by default at the local conduit(s) of its anger. In terms of its negative reception by the compradors, kowtowers, hybrids, house servants, native informants, Uncle Toms, minstrels, slummers—i.e., those who walked out on his speech—this is hugely unfortunate since they are most in need of listening and yet, at the same time, their response is quite inconsequential. The violence that might be expressed or reprehensibly manifested against them is, nonetheless, in and of itself, simply a furthered function of the much greater violence of domination, colonialism, and globalization coming from without: There can be no separation here between valid and invalid violence, or validated and invalidated human beings.
Examining this violence at the source reveals that the answer lies in a refound and revived united resistance of Empire along all fronts, thus bringing liberation to all, and not simply changing things internal to the hegemonic systems of dominance using the very tools thereof until one personally and individually feels “free”, and this within a safe static subset of the greater population. The bourgeois “freedom” (as it currently manifests itself) of expressing one’s sexual or ethnic identity is thus only allowed as it serves class interests, and is at odds with that bourgeoisie’s oppression of 99% of society. This is not tenable, theoretically speaking, nor in terms of practice/local activism. It bears repeating: We cannot consider ourselves to be free until all are free.
I am leaving out what I think are similarities between this discussion and that which targets the Islamic veil as a symbol of domination (as opposed to its description as “resistant inertia”), which is also based on a notion of false freedom, calls for liberation of local populations as a function of foreign policy, and which likewise maintains a hypocritical universalist stance. This is also seen in the corrections taking place among various Occupy movements with not an avoidance of, but a focus on issues of race, gender, and class. The basic premise here might also be applied to so-called RAD adoptees, in which the illnesses of society are projected onto a child destined (despite “treatments”) to be expelled from the greater corpus like a splinter from one’s finger.
I am also leaving out of this thesis how any/all of this fits into a discussion of the emasculation and sexualization of male and female adoptees, respectively, and how this in turn maps onto studies of the colonial subject, and where such studies mesh into those of sexuality as expressed by those adoptees once they reach adulthood. An expansion here would go far to explain the fears your speaker has for the transracial adoptees thus facing a double jeopardy of emasculation as it were. Finally, there is an extensive discussion to be had about the methods of creating “family”—surrogacy, donated gametes, as well as adoption, etc.—which can now be seen as not in fact redefining family in any progressive fashion, but which are instead further restricting the concept of family to a destructive nuclear-based norm which quite hypocritically and shamefully has no ethical or moral issue with the valuation, sale, transference, trafficking, and purchase of such genetic material. For in the end analysis, that is what we, adoptees, essentially are.
Much of what your psychiatrist is speaking of has to do with the “what might have been” of the lives of the boys he describes, as you have pointed out. I will say that I think it is normal (though debilitating) to imagine what life “might have been like” had we not been trafficked from our originating place, yet in this attempted conception is perhaps a solution. Personally speaking, I have gone through the painful exercise of trying to drop the affected identity markers that I took on as a function of being acculturated American/Anglo-Saxon. That these are easily jettisoned (as a de-affectation of class position) is, ultimately, very disturbing, bordering on the traumatic, and almost impossible to put into words, as witnessed by this thesis. Worse, this letting-go also comes with serious repercussions from the dominant mode so slighted (ostracism, marginalization in the workplace (especially academia), character assassination), in a distressing mirroring of our initial expulsion from place by this same class.
On the flip side, I currently make no claim to any identity markers that I might have had if I had grown up in my land of birth, although these are graciously bestowed upon me by those I spend most of my time with these days, who, it should be pointed out, would likely be nodding their heads in affirmative rhythm to your speaker’s “pulpit” oration, and thus would condemn themselves (in terms of the outside world looking in), like your speaker, to the current stasis they find themselves in societally speaking. Yet it is here that I feel we need expand out from if there is to be a true balancing of these sides. For this razor’s edge, tremulously walked, leaves the adoptee who wishes for “return” in a similarly excruciating limbo, yet it is a necessary starting point perhaps for any kind of deliverance therefrom.
The letting go of this baggage and ballast that is the result of an attempted return to place thus reveals a knowledge gained retrospectively speaking that can only reinforce the abhorrence felt concerning the promise of individual assimilation and ascension into society that hypocritically allows us to be mere tools of that society’s dominant mode, yet which previously could not be questioned for soaking if not swimming in it. I say this fully aware of periods in my life that I rather regret these days; I will spend the rest of my life actively apologizing and making up for much of this in one way or another. So I am not pointing fingers; I would like to imagine the ability to join in solidarity on the liberatory project of resisting and overcoming Empire as we know it and live it today, by first engaging in true dialectic and not binary debate. Such an effort asks us, among other things, to step down from our class position, which is much more easily said than accomplished; it also asks us to re-evaluate our role in our own oppression, and to re-examine and foreground the historically speaking resistant roles inherent to our originating cultures and ethnicities.
At the same time, I sense that there is a greater potential for liberation and a greater space to maneuver within to be found in the places we are educated to feel uncomfortable with, such as the less-mediated realm of your speaker, seen as confining and restrictive in terms of culture, religion, family, and non-modernity, yet which reveals itself to be much more fluid and overlapping than at first glance, and providing of great insight when humbly enjoined. This is where I find myself now, and honestly I have no answers; just an inkling that there is the likelihood of an answer to be found here, and not at all in the cynical and consumptive place and culture I grew up in which, after hundreds of years of dominance, has much more to answer for than to be proud of.
This missive is a first attempt at expressing a lot of what I’m thinking about these days along these lines; I recognize the danger that such expression represents, in terms of the fundamental undoing via logicizing, literalizing, and rationalizing of that which inherently relies on much unsaid and unspoken. It will likely be argued that what I am stating offers no solution to currently lived lives and on-the-ground reality. On the contrary; I’m trying to point out that much of the world’s humanity that does not register as a collection of valid souls has had to set aside its own hopes for itself both individually and collectively and barely lives within the constraints of human continuance and existence, and no notion of bourgeois self-fulfillment along particular lines of identity for any minority of the world’s population can precede that of the communal family and world community if we are even to survive as individual entities thereof. Such a shift in focus is required if we are to create an ennobling, uplifted concept of one’s individual role in society, in direct contrast to the dystopian, destructive notion of the term that currently defines our human condition.
And so the questions become: when, whence, and of and by whom intifada and insurrection in the “First World”, no less necessary than in the so-called developed world? Even if one does not believe that a radical shift in living is possible, radically shifting the utopian ideal we maintain in our heads is then perhaps the first step, which I find resonates within your initiating thesis. Such a shift is a long time coming, and is a long time overdue. It seems to me that adoptees perhaps have a particular place in this equation and an interesting role to play, in terms of these two worlds they live between and try to make sense of, with a solution found not in attempting to further engrave identities in a fractured individual reflection of similar global and communal disintegrations but in disassembling and transmuting them, leading dialectically to our more egalitarian realm if we are able to manage, all of us, to maneuver these transitional times as well as our straddling of cultures and classes positively, hopefully, justly, and communally.
The series entries:
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (I)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (II)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (III)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (IV)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V-postscript)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VI)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VII)