Resisting Extirpation: Revolutionary Adoption Activism

This is the full text of the presentation I delivered at the ASAC/AI Conference that took place in Oakland in October, 2018.


I. Introduction


In October of 2017, the Korea Herald headlined a story revealing that 26,000 of Korean adoptees in the United States were stateless due to parental oversight. A demand went out for legislation universally naturalizing all such adoptees retroactively, and to make automatic naturalization a definitive part of future adoption processes. This response revealed stark contradictions. First, the embedding of adoption, putatively concerned with family creation, in a framework of legal/illegal immigration.

Second, the “awakening” of a particular social class touched by the shadow of displacement and dispossession long cast by such practices. Ignored were both this long history, as well as concurrent and subjectively similar stories and histories: deported adoptees, immigrant parents pressing legal cases to regain custody of their children, actions of immigrant sanctuary, the stockpiling of deportees in jails country-wide, as well as immigration detention centers acting as child care facilities, among many others.

In this presentation I will expand further on how this story is, from the perspective of those denied agency, political embodiment, civil validity, and base humanity, the “rule” and not an exception. I will argue that adoptees have historically been faced with the existential contradiction of adoption into a class and nation-state bent on their very destruction.

I will elaborate on how this annihilation is not staunched by the adoptive act, but continues apace, contrary to mythologies of salvation and chosen status. Finally, I will posit antidotal solutions to challenge and correct adoptive actions that have ever correlated with extirpation, social death, intentional genocide, and structural eugenics, presenting a radical alternative to this presaged “final exit”.

II. Context


I was adopted from Lebanon in 1963 and grew up in Northern New Jersey. As much as the latter provided a diverse background that “allowed” for my presence, socio-political incentives and economic currents of assimilation, as well as notions of what made for “all-American existence” governed my life and body as well as the lives and bodies of the large immigrant communities that defined our experiences growing up there.

School and work brought me to places where I further dealt with the racism and xenophobia imposed on those deemed Other. The inability to fall back on supportive community weighed heavily, and in 2004 I returned to Beirut, resolved to find a sense of identity, community, and family. There, to my surprise, many in my working/nether-class neighborhood empathized with my story. This reaction contrasted sharply with the negative response from those I had deemed class similar, and thus imagined would be most welcoming.

This welcome structured my existence in definitive ways. My work, research, and life found me spending time with people not ascribed political embodiment: marginalized populations, refugees, bedouin, foreign slave laborers, etc. Their life stories, as well as their reactions to my own narrative, challenged my upbringing and worldview: suburban, bourgeois-aspiring, generationally immigrant working class. This worldview was nuclear family–based; determinant of identity as affected as well as individually centered; dependent on private property as a defining aspect of social engagement; and depictive of adoption as the status quo and uniquely tied to family creation.

III. Reframing adoption


My Beirut-based research grew from this life experience, and examined the economic and political causes and effects of adoption, as well as their bases in liberal concepts of property and citizenship. The revealed distances of separation between adoptees and their origins exemplified a vivid accrued tension between polis and zoë. These two essential terms define those who are ascribed political embodiment, contrasted with those who merely evoke bare life; a meager existence. I imagined adoptees walking a “razor’s edge” between realms, and evoked the adoptee as citizen, denizen, and alien.

In terms of “Western” philosophies, from Aristotle to Agamben, the existence of the polis and zoë is taken for granted. More rigorous frameworks reveal adoptive nation-states as driving forces of global inequality that result in a surplus and seen-as rootless population, some of which is deemed adoptable. A focus on beneficence and the shift of adoption mythology to exalt family creation define this inherent contradiction found in liberal thought. Such precepts proclaim equality for all, base the validity of their political and economic social structures on this proclamation, yet are belied by the very inequality these structures engender.

Resultant adoption mythologies shift and morph based on prevailing dominant discourses and mindsets, as well as resistance to the practice. For example, the current evangelical push for adoption maps onto the social reformers at the turn of the last century. They viewed adoption (in truth, indentured servitude) as a means to accomplish on the domestic front racist and eugenicist social policies. These mapped seamlessly with imperialist and colonialist foreign ventures. Adoption was defined as charitable and humanitarian, as preached and marketed to bourgeois-aspiring classes.

Adoption’s societal formalization has thus ever provided a cover for destructive and genocidal actions against those deemed politically invalid. It further paved the way for the privatization of social safety nets, and the marketing of beneficent action as undertaken by corporate charities. These remain the precursors to non-profit and non-governmental organizations denotive globally of humanitarian imperialism, as well as today’s adoption agencies. For another example, and in a crucible of class-exultant racism and misogyny, performative or perceived-as white bourgeois heteronormative parents have been exalted anew as perfected and idealized caregivers of transracially and transnationally adopted children.

IV. Adoption as negation and annihilation


The destruction of adoptee bodies, their families, and communities is thus masked by supposed societal manifestations of care for the poor, indigent, and needy. Contrarily, schools of Indigenous indoctrination, the Orphan Trains, the foundling hospitals, as well as post-war babylifts are viewed by those who experienced them as worthy of condemnation and execration. They remain a cause for lamentation; a commemoration of communal anguish and sorrow. Their voices are not included in dominant mythologies or histories.

Likewise ignored are community activists and scholars who have defined transracial adoption and foster care of subaltern communities internal to so-called liberal democratic societies as genocide. Extending this further within a framework of class difference, the “Butterbox Babies” of Nova Scotia and the mass graves in Tuam, Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes further reveal the rule of adoption practice, not exceptions to it. The orphanage, the poorhouse, the residence school, the prison, etc. are rightly defined as sites of eugenics and euthanasia, not charity.

To theorize further: the conception of survival of such places is not rendered finite by an adoptee’s departure therefrom. Survival is, in fact, lifelong, infinite, a constant battle. The destruction of adoptees and the social classes they source from does not ebb or fade into the past. Further to the point, adoptees, in the face of such a death sentence in the very place of their dispossession and extirpation, unnaturally and yet unsurprisingly align with their perceived-as sole option: that of maintaining a vague leapfrogged class status, and imputing to it permanence and stability.

This primal and defining paradox has brought me to my current research focus on extirpation, social death, intentional genocide, and structural eugenics. These areas of study provide an expansive and corrective lens through which to examine adoption practices. Given equal importance is research concerning the challenges and resistance of our sources against the base and untoward philosophizing undergirding adoption, as well as current trends in reformism, and its injurious mimicry as well as tacit support of the dominant discourse.

V. No demarcation pre- and post-adoption


This research challenges the chronological notions of “pre-” and “post-adoption”. Such an individualistic ahistorical view maintains adoptees as main benefactors of their adoption, which is represented as a positive fulcrum in their life narratives. The opposite is quite the case. Bourgeois liberal classes of adopting populations remain the prime beneficiary of adoption practice wholly unconcerned with family creation. These Marshallian liberal parameters of class arrival and citizenship include: validated procreation, or providing children for the state; validated labor, or providing a workforce for the state; and validated soldiering, or providing defense of the state.

In terms of bourgeois-aspiring class ascendance, the category of procreation remains the palatable option, an opting out of the dirty work of capitalism, empire, and imperialism. This burden transmits to adoptees. Subsequent to their recategorization as indirect objects of their parents’ class ascension, adoptees further find their own arrival blocked for preconceived notions of impoverished origins, lowly and regressive DNA, racial purity, and competing nationalisms.

Adoption is thus categorized economically and politically with extirpative practices: slavery, indentured servitude, land occupation, apartheid, settler colonialism, enforced statelessness, etc. This definition acknowledges the analogues of adoption that trade similarly in human flesh and genetic material: gamete donation, surrogacy, organ and human trafficking, etc. Adoption is also tangential to and functional of other divisive migrations, most notably “white flight” and resultant suburbanization, segregation, gentrification, as well as post-disaster population scattering.

The paternalistic nation-state is thereby echoed in the misogynist patriarchy maintained by the adoptive class. Enforced on an individual level are state-based attempts that target communities for, euphemistically speaking, “reform, re-education, and rehabilitation”. The espousal of these “societal values” has been undermined in recent times due to the ongoing crisis of global capitalism. The cracks in this facade, as seen in the news stories listed previously, reveal the true intent implied in these defining precepts. The dubious nature of citizenship derived from such nation-states has long been known to the populations who suffer its vagaries. It is made news only when it touches those who see such citizenship in terms of outdated and ever-meaningless liberal pretenses, namely equality, liberty, and human rights.

VI. Strategies for decolonizing adoption


The concept of secondary genocidal intent has a long history. In 1948 the United Nations defined an aspect of genocide to include “forcibly transferring children of [one] group to another group”. In current academic discourse, “genocide” incorporates such intent that might not be overtly homicidal, but which is designed to lead to the same end. Adoption practices historically fit these notions and definitions. Simultaneously, the hegemonic ideological detritus of capitalism, liberalism, colonialism, and imperialism taint, or maintain incentive, in current Euro- and Anglo-centric philosophical and academic discourses, again, from Aristotle to Agamben.

Resistance and even reform thus become impossible given the categorization of adoption away from the above litany of economic and political crimes against humanity. The “quick fix” of retroactive citizenship written up in our Korea Herald article is thus functional to the psychological and economic needs of adopter as well as adoptee striving to climb and further maintain class ladders. In maintaining this theoretical distance from similar tools of oppression when speaking of adoption, adopters and adoptees coextensively uphold foundationless ideologies premised in class warfare and ignoble differentiations concerning base embodiment of humanity.


Revolutionary praxis and decolonization
In separate research in terms of art practice and pedagogy, I have worked out some guidelines for decolonization. Gleaned from experience spent with marginalized communities in Greater Syria and the founding of an artists’ collective in Beirut, they allowed for the return to my source and integration into most-local and acculturative spaces/places. They are premised on theory and praxis as being one, and on the inseparability of life realms. They are self-critical and based in self-awareness, instead of policing outwards. They are listed here in no particular order. I am highlighting five of them which pertain most obviously to adoption:

Avoid Euro- and Anglo-centric conceptions of nation-state/legality/humanity How has my use of Euro- and Anglo-centric conceptions of nation-state, legality, and humanity denied, abridged, or erased knowledge bases of my most-local as well as originating space/place? How do I justify the use of such frameworks premised within classist, misogynist, and racist precepts?

Reject bourgeois norms (the dominant discourse) In what ways do I expect dominant bourgeois norms to recognize one existence over another? My existence over others? How may I have fallen into the trap of minstrelsy, or performing ethnicity for a dominant mode? What terms stemming from neo-liberal discourses (hybrid, nomad, border-crosser, etc.) thus do dishonor to myself and negate others?

Deny the siting of psychological illness in the individual In what ways do I abide by, suffer, or allow the siting of psychological illness in an individual as opposed to society at large? What communal and collaborative responses to the alienation from capitalist society have I explored that do not rely on third parties or the state, but on a supportive community?

Sidestep psychological/anthropological/sociological traps In what ways do I allow discursive lenses, established as means to negatively and genocidally categorize populations within the zoë, to form my worldview, as opposed to active social engagement, continuously engaged praxis and interaction with such communities on their terms?

Refuse to argue adoption in terms of family creation How have I allowed hegemonic discourses to drive me into defensive or explanatory modes in terms of adoption and notions of family?

Isolate adoption as a term; bring forward terms of communal care When do I use the term “adoption” as a stand-in for references to communal care? For example: kinship care, foster care (that doesn’t segue into adoption), familias de criação, kafala, ad‘iya’a, valid institutional care, etc.

Acquire the limitations of the zoë (unraveling privilege) What steps can I take to limit my luxury, privilege, and public space to those of the most confined/limited within society?

Acknowledge power differentials of engagement How am I aware of the power differentials that manifest themselves with every engagement I make during a given day? How do I navigate them? How do I even out playing fields through silence, patience, advocacy, assistance?

Rematriate1 (Indigenous notion of spiritual/bodily return to land) How might I use and affirm this term which refers to a valid relationship to land and place? How do I avoid conceptions of “owning” property or private property in general? What is my role in planetary destruction?

Favor the communal over the individual (avoidance of bourgeois liberalism) How has my focus on the individual undone the possibility of the communal?How have my notions of individual identity, themselves based on reductive external categorizations, failed me and others? In what way does my promotion of individual identity markers (preferred pronouns, for example) cause rupture with other communally minded groups (using terms of endearment such as “brother” and “sister”, continuing this example)?

Localize: elevate the “most-local” (rejection of nationalism) How have I denigrated the most local by admitting or allowing the concept of borders, separations, walls, differences, “visible minorities” (in Canada), “proper” dialects and language use, and other markers of nation-state power dynamics?

Bridge/find common cause (escape from identity politics) Does my conception of intersectionality include class, thus avoiding the pitfalls based in ideas of a “post-race”, multicultural, diverse society? How does my focus on intersectionality disallow valid discussions of differences of class and “aspired-to” class postures?

Seek/suss out historic exceptions and resistance ignored by dominant myths Have I explored alternatives to dominant mythologies and bourgeois hegemony, including resistant and revolutionary praxis?

Equalize zoë/polis (step down from one’s class position) How have I managed to equalize the zoë and the polis by stepping down from my class position? How do I position myself such that waiting for the elevation of the zoë is understood to be an invalid political stance?

VII. Conclusion


Despite a century of propaganda and efforts to reframe adoption, the world’s popular imaginary does not see adoption as a given, but rather as a “peculiar institution” of a global minority. Adoption has failed in its pretense as a means of social welfare, and its deleterious effects constitute the sign of terminally ailing societies. The world at large demands entry into the conversation for having so long suffered the consequences of its very absence from it. Not just in terms of adoption, but in the areas where adoption intersects with other anti-human injustices.

During the adoptee reading segment of this conference last night, I read from a memoir in the making, describing my research into my orphanage, and the registration notebooks I was privy to only after five long years of visits. 
I read as follows:

And these gunmetal-grey cabinets contain other stories, other dossiers, children who came back, who were sent back, perhaps too sick, or perhaps not wanted after all, returned; and here superscripted in red, “deceased soon thereafter”, and here, “child succumbed to illness”—an insufferable double rejection, an abjectly suicided reaction.

It recalls for me a passage I came across during my research much later from the book Saltwater Slavery, by Stephanie Smallwood. She writes:

Blake entered numbers and words in his account of mortality in language adequate to the needs and tasks of a slaving captain. The numeral stood for the property now lost, and succinct phrases reducing death to a simple statement of cause and effect were sufficient to explain the event: “departed this Life suddenly,” [and] “…very thin & wasted to Nothing & soe dyed.” Blake’s language not only explained the circumstances of death, but also identified the agent of death. The captives themselves bore the responsibility and had the agency—it was they who “departed this life.”

Despairingly, it also echoes an article in the Korea Times which, on May 24, 2017, reported that Phillip Clay, a deported Korean-American adoptee, had also “departed this life”. He was found dead from an apparent suicide in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, Korea.

For many adoptees faced with the paradox of their adoption, this is often the only agentive action allowed them. The article cites other adoptees who speak of Phillip’s “psychological issues” and “lack of support”. In siting illness in the individual adoptee and abandoning him to third parties, they unwittingly fulfill his excruciatingly slow lifelong death sentence, the intentional genocide premised on and presaged by his adoption.

Furthermore, his self-abnegation, resulting from the inherent lived contradiction of social death set in motion via the adoptive act, is compounded by adoptees, now inadvertent accomplices, in a secondary act of extirpative adoption. This time, quite sadly, it succeeded in its goal. To further belabor the point: The name of the law used to deport immigrants such as Phillip is: “The Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act”.

In Lebanon, I currently have two potential “citizenships”. The first, created by my lawyer, is a fiction based in the false names and lineage written down on a birth certificate that was filed to provide my adoptive parents with a passport to expedite my exit from the country. Despite these documents, the state reneged on renewal of my “courtesy visa” derived therefrom. As was stated to me: “Professor, how can we know you are truly Lebanese?” Implied here is an accusation of bastardy, and the importance of patrilineal heritage. This decision forced me to leave Beirut in 2016.

The other potential citizenship is related to having found my original family. My father’s family, caught up in state-derived notions of paternal line purity, refuses to meet with me, much less recognize me by inscribing me in the family register. They are fearful I have returned as a usurper, to claim inheritance. I am trying to track down maternal cousins, but this route is blocked as nationality cannot be passed down maternally, a function of preventing Palestinian refugees from marrying into the population.

In the so-called West, I have, over the years, witnessed the whittling away of my claims to citizenship as revealed only most recently by the questions and accusations put to me when crossing international borders. The Patriot Act, which redefined naturalization into a negotiable levying of right, will be surpassed by the very questioning of jus soli, or right to citizenship by birth. Working in Canada based on a NAFTA visa, I am currently required to pursue permanent residency, with the first step of that process being a test of English proficiency. I envy those who ascribe stability to their belonging. I dream of return. I find comfort in this as a shared condition of much of the planet, and those depicted in my slide presentation.

Being forced to define our very beings in such false premises of “existence” is a great and totalizing violence. The only response imaginable to such violence is a revolutionary one, premised upon “radical popular consciousness”. Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, defines the radical as one who “is not afraid to confront, to listen, to see the world unveiled”. Angela Davis, author of Women, Race, and Class states that radical “means ‘grasping things at the root’” and “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change; I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

In this light, in the face of the willful logical conclusion of our extirpation, our very uprooting, the idea of “radicalization”—a revived rootedness—becomes the obvious antidote. The final, most radical statement we can make in reaction to the destructive slow-motion violence inherent in adoption practices is as follows: Adoption is not acceptable; I no longer accept adoption. Everything that is the basis for hope unfolds from this bold remark; from this stark truth; from this first step forward.
1. Term coined by Steven Newcomb, Executive Director, Indigenous Law Institute

Link to PDF file:



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About Daniel Drennan ElAwar

Adoptee, rematriated.
This entry was posted in Adoption activism, Adoption resistance and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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