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Identity’s Place in International Adoption: The Consequences of an ‘Enabling Violation’

By: Jasmin Griggs


2 Throughout my childhood I viewed my mother as the modern-day, little orphan Annie. In the way that children sometimes oversimplify those things that they don’t really understand, I had imagined that life as an orphan was exactly like Hollywood portrayed it to be. At first, my mother must have been emotionally abused by the cruel matrons that ruled her orphanage. In quiet protest against how she was being treated, she definitely must have sung songs that detailed the “hard knock life” of orphan-hood and her hope for a better day tomorrow. And, eventually, she would have run away, causing a great deal of conflict that inexplicably dissipated by the time that she found a kindhearted couple who professed to love her and want to raise her. Of course, this situation was far from accurate. My mother had lived in an orphanage in Seoul, South Korea, and she was adopted by a nice American couple, but real life was still less theatrical than it might have appeared to my 5-year old self. Seeing that her “new parents” lived in the United States, my mother had to adjust to living in a different country. And, while being an outsider in South Korea definitely was not easy, being an outsider in American society proved to be even tougher. As a result of growing up in the Deep South at the time that she did, she was unable to address her full ethnic identity. Instead, at a time and place where anyone who even looked like they might be of African descent was confronted by prejudice, my mother gradually lost touch with her Korean ancestry and came to identify solely as an African-American (despite being both black and Korean). To the fullest extent, my mother’s identity was shaped by how people perceived her versus what she actually was. If trying to understand my mother’s adoption – which, apparently, bore little resemblance to that of orphan Annie’s – was hard for me, then comprehending that my


3 mother’s ethnic identity had changed was tenfold as hard. According to what I had been taught outside of my home life, it was not okay to act as if you were anything other than what you truly were. And to this day, I wish that my mother was still in-touch with her Korean roots. It is my opinion that – even though there is a greater appreciation for diversity and unity – people still like the idea of categorizing each other and highlighting the differences between themselves and the rest of the world. In that way, parochialism and an inherent need to be with people who share one’s race, culture, and/or value system still exist. Of course, that is not to say that people cannot or should not get along with people who are different from them. Rather, my point is that ethnicity still determines so much – and perhaps too much: it’s not enough for people to be Hispanic, Caucasian, Middle– Eastern, etc. We, as Americans, still live in a society where one’s culture and behavior is somehow linked to one’s race. Thus, I believe that it is essential for adoptees to maintain their sense of who they are and where they came from. Interestingly, nowadays, it would be harder for parents to repress their adopted child’s culture than for them to expose their child to it. Beyond just providing the obvious service of adoption, now adoption agencies offer – and sometimes require – classes that encourage families to embrace the child’s heritage. Advertising such classes to families, an adoption agency in Orinda called Heartsent Adoptions includes the following statement on its website: “It is our commitment to the children that the parents are exposed to information, education [,] culture and customs of their child's homeland.”[1] Moreover, there are support groups, books, classes through other


4 organizations besides these adoption agencies, and other means through which families can connect their children to their birth country. Beyond just being more logistically feasible, raising children from other countries and making sure that they are still aware of their heritage is pressured by public opinion. While parents might fully intend to raise their children as if they shared a cultural or racial background – or to raise their children as if race did not matter – these parents would surely be reluctant to admit this publicly. At worst, these parents might be criticized for “cultural genocide,” a term used by the National Association of Black Social Workers several decades ago to denounce the adoption of black children by white parents.[2] At best, they would be ridiculed by people for being unaware of the possible ways that this might affect their child. For, as stated in a National Public Radio segment about this topic, “As those kids [whose parents had raised them as if racial differences do not matter] have grown up, research shows they’ve emerged more confused about identity and that colorblindness created discordance rather than unity.” [3] As if she was fully aware of this finding, Kirstin Dwelley has taken nearly every step available to her to avoid any confusion or discordance within her family. In preparation for adopting her two Ethiopian children, she took approximately 50 hours of classes for prospective parents, in order to answer every question that she had about the adoption process. And, as one would expect, she had a lot of questions. A few of these questions, in her own words, were, “What are the issues that [my husband and I are] eventually going to face? And how are we going to be able to do that? And how are we going to address the tragedy that was in our children’s lives before they came to us? And how are we – for us a big thing was – how are we going to address the trans-racial issue?


5 How are we going to make sure that we can provide for our children the life lessons that they need to function in a country – in a world – where there still is racism and stuff that we hadn’t experienced ourselves and lessons that we hadn’t needed to learn? How can we make sure that there are people in our family that can help provide that for our children?” Of course, most of the aforementioned parenting challenges that Dwelley brings up would naturally be ones that any adoptive parent would grapple with even after having taken classes that addressed these issues. However, as explained by Spencer Larson, the father of a young boy named Mateo who was adopted from Guatemala, there is a fine line between belaboring the significance of Mateo's adoption and sufficiently exposing him to Guatemala: “I think you can sometimes, with good intentions, encourage or maybe even over-encourage something like this. But I know that when you’re growing up...you just want to be a kid, and not necessarily get in touch with your roots. He may or may not. But, I believe that it is our obligation and it’s our privilege to expose him to where he came from. And what he does with that is up to him.” In a sense, Larson’s attitude is similar to Kelly Shafsky’s feelings on his own daughter’s adoption. Yet, of the three adults, Shafsky is the most capable of integrating aspects of his daughter’s culture into their lives without his efforts being too forced. Having lived in Mexico and Honduras for several years, Shafsky, a man who adopted a Mexican baby at birth, says that he would have still incorporated aspects of Mexican culture into Marcela's life, even if she had not been born in Mexico. Furthermore, the family lives in an area of the country with both a significant Latino and adoptee population. Not only can Marcela easily interact with other Mexican-American children,


6 but she also has the ability to meet other kids who were also involved in cross-cultural or international adoptions. Of course, there are people who point out a central detail: “The important thing is to find loving parents and a stable family…in so many other ways we say colour doesn’t matter anymore, so why should it matter in bringing up a child?”[4] Obviously, Americans are not adopting children from around the world so that they can learn more about various cultures. First and foremost, every parent who adopts does so because they want a child. And by taking in a child who either has no family or an unstable one, these parents are performing the ultimate act of kindness for another human being. Like Michael Gerson of The Washington Post remarks, “It is a particularly generous kind of parental love that embraces a life one did not give.”[5] Even though I believe that parents should try their hardest to encourage their child to take an interest in where they came from, I can understand the concession that not doing this would be a small price to pay for a child to have an improved quality of life. For example, in the case of Spencer Larson’s son Mateo, the boy was placed up for adoption by his birth parents, who – as Mayans – were indigenous Guatemalans. I could never fathom what life must have been like and continue to be for indigenous families in Guatemala, but knowing some basic facts about Guatemala definitely paints a picture of the far from privileged life that existed for Mateo at one point. As recently as in 2011, 54% of the Guatemalan population was below the poverty line, with 51% of the population living on less than $2 every day.[6] Moreover, according to the CIA’s World Factbook, “Poverty among indigenous groups, which make up 38% of the population, averages 73% and extreme poverty rises to 28%. Nearly one-half of Guatemala's


7 children under age five are chronically malnourished, one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world.”[7] According to Mateo’s adoptive father Spencer Larson, the primary reason listed on Mateo’s adoption documents for his parents’ inability to raise him was that his parents already had multiple children and they could not afford to feed him. Thus, a sense of belonging and identity is a luxury that can be forfeited in a way that a need for food, shelter, and stability cannot. So, again, why should it matter if parents decide that they want to raise their adopted kids as if they gave birth to them? First, on an individual level, people feel better about themselves when they have free will to determine what sort of identity they will embrace. Then, on a societal level, not acknowledging a culture, race, value system, belief system, etc. is akin to undermining its importance. And, it would be so unfortunate for such amazing, rare narratives of these adopted children to be undervalued and ignored. Take Marcela, for instance, who was born in Mexico and would have led a drastically different life if she still lived there. Or, Dwelley’s kids who were born in Ethiopia and are Amharic. Or, take Mateo, who is of Mayan descent, meaning that he belongs to a select group of about seven million people.[8] To put this into perspective, the population of the San Francisco Bay Area has more people at 7.15 million.[9] The bottom line is that all of these children, on account of their parents who will teach them about their heritage, will have a better sense of self and self–respect. Unlike my mother who was not given the chance to fully explore what it meant to be in her unique position as an international adoptee, they will all be comfortable with their parents’ culture, as well as their own. In the end, Kirstin Dwelley put it best when asked to reflect on her how her children might come to reflect on their adoption: “They may be resentful that we [as


8 Caucasians] chose to raise black children. They may have some resentment that we made that choice for them, as opposed to them being raised by Ethiopian people in an orphanage. And I have to understand that there is ground for that kind of resentment. And I have to do the best that I can do.� For Dwelley, the biggest hope that she has for her children is that they will comprehend how much they are loved. And then, a close– second hope is that her children will express an interest in Ethiopian culture when they are older.


9 Bibliography 1. “Heartsent Classes.” Heartsent Adoptions, Inc. N.p., 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.heartsent.org/>. 2. Clemetson, Lynette, and Ron Nixon. “Overcoming Adoption’s Racial Barriers.” The New York Times. N.p., 17 Aug. 2006. Web. 28 May 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/‌2006/‌08/‌17/‌us/‌17adopt.html?pagewanted=all>. 3. “The Parenting Dilemmas Of Transracial Adoption.” National Public Radio. N.p., 11 May 2011. Web. 28 May 2012. <http://www.npr.org/‌2011/‌05/‌11/‌136208967/‌transracial-adoptions-raiseparenting-dilemmas>. 4. Muir, Hugh, and Joanna Moorhead. “The Truth About Inter-racial Adoption.” The Guardian. N.p., 2 Nov. 2010. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/‌society/‌2010/‌nov/‌03/‌inter-racial-adoption>. 5. Gerson, Michael. “International adoption: From a broken bond to an instant bond.” The Washington Post. N.p., 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/‌wpdyn/‌content/‌article/‌2010/‌08/‌26/‌AR2010082605232.html>. 6. “Background Note: Guatemala.” U.S. Department of State. N.p., 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.state.gov/‌r/‌pa/‌ei/‌bgn/‌2045.htm#people>. 7. “Guatemala.” CIA The World Factbook. N.p., 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 29 May 2012. <https://www.cia.gov/‌library/‌publications/‌the-world-factbook/‌geos/‌gt.html>. 8.

“Background Note: Guatemala.” U.S. Department of State. N.p., 19 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.state.gov/‌r/‌pa/‌ei/‌bgn/‌2045.htm#people>.


10 9. Bay Area Census. N.p., 2010. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/‌bayarea.htm>. Cornell, Drucilla. “The ‘Enabling Violation’ of International Adoption.” The New York Times. N.p., 23 Oct. 2011. Web. 29 May 2012. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/‌2011/‌10/‌23/‌the-dilemmas-of-internationaladoption/>.

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