How to fix adoption: First, respect adult adoptees

For me, adoption is all about power imbalances, based on the tricky intersections of factors like gender, class, race, and privilege. Adoption is made more complicated, thanks to the legacy of colonialism and imperialism, and the relations between “sending” nations and “receiving” nations, in the case of transnational adoption, and the troubled histories between dominated and dominating communities when talking about domestic transracial adoption. For this reason, I tend to view adoption through the lens of social justice. As an adoptive parent and adoptee who tries to live by the values of social justice, I feel that I have a duty to not remain silent when I see what looks like children being harmed by the institutional practices of our society.

Ever since I starting speaking out about transracial adoption as a teenager in the 1970s, I have never presumed to speak for all transracial adoptees. I recognize that my experience does not represent some quintessential adoptee experience. I am well aware that my perspective makes some people uncomfortable. I know that I have detractors. I know that some of my detractors are even fellow transracial adoptees. But from talking to many, many adoptees over the years, and from the feedback I get from increasing numbers of appreciative parents, I know that my message resonates with a growing sector within the adoption community.

I have spent quite a bit of time during the past week listening in on conversations in the wake of little Artyom’s rejection by his American adoptive mother. Mostly this has been done through cyberspace. Naturally, I’ve been curious to hear what kind of buzz my recent blog posts have generated. It’s gratifying to see my blog hits skyrocket to their highest number since I posted Same Story, Different Decade a year ago. I have to say that I was amused to see one subject line that trumpeted a great article by a “difficult adoptee who adopted difficult children.” Is being called difficult the same as being labeled angry? I’m not sure. But at least this person liked my article.

Watching my blog statistics has been eye-opening, too. Word Press keeps track of the search terms that readers use to find my blog. Some of my favorites: pro adoption, white allies against racism, and Pact Camp.

With these search terms in mind, I Googled my own name to see what I’d come up with. One particularly enlightening search was pairing John Raible + angry. I’ll talk about those disturbing findings shortly. Overall, I was excited to find a wealth of advanced thinking and sharp analysis among experienced adoptive parents. Still, it is troubling to find a dearth of voices from adult adoptees.

It seems that adoptees and APs move in two separate camps. I have been aware of the vast network of adult adoptee blogs out there, and in case you haven’t read their blogs, there are some PISSED OFF adoptees out there who make my message sound like Mahatma Gandhi or someone. You think I come off as angry? I’m talking about people—adoptees, birth family members, disgruntled adoptive parents, and others—who want to shut down the adoption industry completely, and who see adoption as kidnapping and as a form of family destruction and child abuse.

Even though I’m also a parent, I tend to shy away from adoptive parent blogs and forums, and not only because my kids are grown, so my days of active parenting are over. Of course, there are quite a few of us adoptees who have gone on to adopt children ourselves. If that’s not a testament to adoption, I don’t know what is. You would think that more of us would be welcomed into the AP community as experts, and seen as bridges between the two camps, but unfortunately, too often that is not the case.

Although I have gotten used to hearing from my detractors who bash my message as too negative (after all, I do read evaluation comments from my conference presentations, which are overwhelmingly positive), I was nevertheless offended recently to find myself being talked about online rather paternalistically in the third person, as in statements like the following:

While John is still a little militant and angry, he has come to accept certain realities about adoption, especially after becoming an adoptive parent himself.

The next section may ruffle a few feathers, because I am going to expose this AP who publicly criticized my work online. I won’t use her name, but I will use her writing as an example of the way some APs continue to deride the voices and experience of adult adoptees, whom they criticize for being too negative or angry, rather than appreciating our insights and unique perspectives as gifts we are willing to share. I think you will see that her use of her online bully pulpit is an example of “adoptive parent privilege” in action, as it attempts to obviate an adult adoptee perspective that she doesn’t like. As the director of an agency that is in the business of placing children, because (as far as I know) she is not an adoptee but only an AP and I am both, and because we are of different racial backgrounds, it makes sense that she and I would look at adoption through very different lenses. I will use her writing not to try to embarrass her, but to illustrate the ways AP privilege works to disempower adult adoptees.

First of all, since this self-appointed critic does not know me personally, it feels condescending for her to refer to me continually by my first name, rather than using my professional title. Perhaps she fears that it would be harder for her to convince readers to dismiss what she calls my “militant and angry” message if she referred to me respectfully and professionally as Dr. Raible. Calling me “John” repeatedly reinforces for readers my identity as an adopted perpetual child. This is the kind of infantilizing discourse of which many adoptees have grown tired. This disrespectful behavior reminds me that there exists a thankfully dwindling number of AP leaders who still do not want adult adoptees to be seen or heard as competent adults. Apparently they have a hard time accepting us as their peers and equals.

Secondly, why does this author try so hard to mediate her readers’ encounter with my message? Why does she try to frame it as “militant and angry?” Here is how the author opened her online review of my workshop session at a NACAC conference:

John Raible, a bi-racial African American transracial adoptee and a professor at the University of Nebraska, provided discussion on the films. John was part of the original cast of the first documentary as well as the follow-up film. John has been an outspoken opponent of transracial adoption. He has shared his frustrations openly in the first film and through speaking engagements in the past, but for the last several years has toned down his approach due in part that his outspokenness has caused his adoptive parents pain.

In a more accurate, supportive, and sympathetic light, one that furthermore sees me as an ally, here’s how she could have written it:

John Raible, a bi-racial African American transracial adoptee and experienced adoptive parent who is currently a professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Nebraska, provided discussion on the films. Dr. Raible was part of the original cast of the first documentary as well as the follow-up film that has won numerous awards. John has been an outspoken critic of transracial adoption as it is often practiced. He has shared his insights openly in the first film and through speaking engagements in the past, but for the last two decades, he has shifted his approach. Dr. Raible has said publicly that he regrets that his past  outspokenness has caused his adoptive parents pain. Yet thankfully for our children, this still has not prevented him from continuing to speak out on behalf of adoption reform and for better education and support for transracial families.

By comparing the two versions, do you see how one influential AP gets to shape opinion among other APs searching for crucial information online? See how this AP leader effectively sets the parameters for how the message of another AP leader with which she disagrees (your truly) is translated? In addition, she could have provided a real service by conveying my main point from the workshop, which she at least alluded to:

One of his comments to (us) the audience was, “Why aren’t you mad about all of this?” I think the silence did nothing but confirm that many adoptive parents have not thought that far ahead. Audience discussion further revealed that what families hoped for was much more simplistic than the future reality.

Precisely. Now we are coming to the heart of my workshop. Instead of spending so much time setting me up to be read as just another “angry adoptee,” she should have spent more time elaborating on the content of the main point of my workshop, namely: preparing families to start thinking about the challenges of transracial parenting BEFORE they become looming issues during adolescence. I was making the argument that part of taking up that responsibility is becoming an advocate on behalf of adoptees—domestic and transnational—who are victims of a deeply flawed system. I invoke anger to make the case as a sort of call to action for allies, by asking audiences why they aren’t more outraged at what’s happening to our children.

To her credit, this author did list the following discussion points from my workshop:

* Families need in-depth preparation when considering adopting a child from a different race.

* Families need to live in communities where there is access to diverse populations of people, most importantly those of their child’s race.

* Families need to surround themselves with friends of their child’s race who are not just once a year visitors, but frequent in-house guests.

* Families need to understand “White Privilege” and how it relates to their child.

* Families need to prepare their child for adulthood in a society that will not associate them with their family but their race.

While this practical advice is pretty close to the crux of what I share with families these days, this writer chose to frame my message as “angry” and “militant.” As if to trivialize my insistence on the primacy of race, and dismissing completely my theory of transracialization that offers hope for families who are trying conscientiously to incorporate anti-racism into their parenting strategies (which I shared at the session), it was precisely at this point in her review that the writer began her condescending trivialization of my message:

While John is still a little militant and angry, he has come to accept certain realities about adoption, especially after becoming an adoptive parent himself.

By setting herself up as the judge  (“John is still a little militant and angry”), she makes what sounds like an authoritative assessment of my emotional or psychological state to suggest that I was living in a fantasy world obsessed with race—but after adopting my kids, I came back to the “realities about adoption.” Here’s how she further trivialized my message about parents’ responsibility to pay attention to race:

John has since also adopted two older African American boys from the foster care system, and now has a better understanding of the challenges of adoptive parenthood. By his own account, he thought that race was the only issue for him in adoption (because he was so incensed by it), but has come to discover that the “adoption piece” has its own powerful influences. His own boys have helped him understand that race is only a part of the puzzle piece for adoptees.

She is wrong: I adopted both my sons long before appearing in the movie. I was actively parenting black teenage boys during the filming. Through the filter of true paternalistic condescension, here’s how I’m guessing she hoped her readers would interpret her words:

John knows better now than he did when he was a young and immature hot-head how hard we adoptive parents work to raise our kids. In fact, he now gets that race isn’t as big a deal as he once foolishly thought it was. Because he was so incensed, he misguidedly assumed race was important. He was so stupid and obsessed that he had to be taught by his own children that race is but a small piece of the puzzle for adoptees. So take heart, parents, even angry black militants, once they become parents, finally realize that you don’t have to talk about race so much with your kids. Forget what John says about having to live among black people or send your kid to an integrated school. Adoption trumps race, after all!

I’m almost done; bear with me. Remember, my point in using this disrespectful representation of my message is to illustrate how many of us as adult adoptee writers, thinkers, and activists are positioned in dismissive ways by some adoptive parent leaders.

My “favorite” way for APs to dismiss the critical voices of adult adoptees—many of whom, might I remind you, are selflessly trying to improve adoption so that fewer kids have to suffer—comes up time and time again at conferences and online. It’s the AP argument that asks adoptees to say if we would have preferred to be left to languish away in foster care or an orphanage rather than be adopted. This writer couldn’t resist inserting this old argument into her review:

My question again was, if not adoption, then what?

Which I (and many of my adoptee friends) hear as, “Stop your whining and be grateful. You’re lucky you got a family. Quit complaining. Adoption is the best thing that ever happened to you, and you should honor your parents and thank the agencies and social workers who made it possible. Celebrate adoption—don’t question it!”

I (and other adoptees) have responded to this question in creative ways. I won’t take time to analyze the problems with this question here. Please see Mock Interview #2 if you want to read how I answered this question when I was in a more playful, if somewhat sarcastic, mood.

I will end this post by “gratefully” acknowledging the support and camaraderie from growing numbers of adoptive parents who do respect–and hear as equals—the voices and experience of adult adoptees. It is to these allies, especially those who occupy positions of influence and leadership within agencies and organizations in the adoption community, that I look to share power with us. For me, all the talk lately about “privilege” among adoptive parents can be boiled down to this: sharing power.

I believe that for real transformation to take place in the way we think about and practice adoption—especially the flawed practice of transracial and transnational adoption—adult adoptees literally have to be at the table, for instance, in the boardrooms at agencies, on the keynote podiums at conferences, at the helm of parent groups, and on the editorial boards of adoption magazines. That’s just for starters.

For that to happen more widely, that is, for adoptees to feel comfortable stepping into positions of institutional leadership, APs have got to stop trying to control the conversation. They’ve got to recognize that they alone can no longer set the agenda for the entire adoption community. Just as husbands have had to figure out, since the feminist movement of the 1960s, how to move over and rethink their relationships with their wives on more equal terms (not to mention making space for LGBT visibility), AP leaders must now figure out more ethical ways to interact with adult adoptees as equals.

In my view, before we can move forward in rethinking and revitalizing transracial and transnational adoption practice, a significant realignment must take place in the relationship between adult adoptees and adoptive parents. If AP leaders need further incentive, consider self-interest: Do you want to exclude adoptees to the extent that our only recourse for making change is tearing down what you’ve worked so hard to build? Can you see that most of us are really on your side? APs must start accepting the fact that we are no longer children, and that we think for ourselves and have our own unique experiences of adoption that may differ significantly from the way they prefer to view it. Furthermore, although we are still and always will be adoptees, many of us are also parents, scholars, authors, film makers, performance artists, social workers, therapists, etc., with unique contributions and insights to bring to the conversation.

At the risk of speaking for fellow transracial adoptees, I will say that some of us are really quite tired of being studied and talked about in the third person. Some of us are tired of being psychoanalyzed publicly. Some of us are no longer willing to be treated as perpetual dependents. We are no longer willing to cry and bleed on stage at your conferences while we tell you of our pain as adoptee panelists, year after year, only to find, three decades later, that transracially adopted kids like us are still suffering. (Again, I refer you to  Same Story, Different Decade.) Many of us are now mature enough and healed enough to be able to speak for ourselves. We can tell you what is wrong and where it hurts. We can even recommend what to do to make things better, fairer, less painful, and more just. But you need to approach us with respect, and be prepared to listen to some truths that may be hard for you to hear.

With the graying of the Baby Boomers, and as more leaders approach retirement age or take a well-deserved rest, the out-of-balance days of AP dominance in the adoption community may soon come to an end. I hope that members throughout the  community see this rebalancing as a welcome change, as I do, rather than perceive it as some sort of threat to life as we know it.

I do salute the leadership exerted by the courageous APs (not forgetting earlier generations of adult adoptee activists) who pioneered in educating adoptive parents and changing outmoded adoption policies. I salute the leaders who built from scratch the important adoption conference circuit and the nationwide network of parent groups. I want to be sure to acknowledge the pioneers among the adult adoptee movement, without whose advocacy and insights APs could not have built their own institutions. I especially honor the leaders who recognized from the start that birth family members and adoptees need always to be included.

That generation of leaders has left a strong foundation of supports and emerging post-adoption services upon which to build 21st century solutions for families and children. Now, with the input and leadership of adult adoptees who have lived with and struggled to master the experience of transracial and transnational adoption firsthand, the transformation of adoption that we so direly need may be closer than we think. Together, we can overcome immobilizing patterns of paternalism and conquer discourses of condescension; but not unless adoptive parents learn to listen to—and share power with—adult adoptees on a basis of equality and respect.

9 thoughts on “How to fix adoption: First, respect adult adoptees

  1. I, too heard you speak at the NACAC conference and have to say this women wasn’t hearing what I was hearing. Thank you for enlightening us and opening our minds.

  2. I’m the one who used the phrase “difficult adoptee who adopted difficult children” to call Jae Ran’s attention (though I suspect she already read your blog) to a particular post. Anger can be part of my personal definition of “difficult,” though I also meant to include many other issues, in particular, FASD (because two of my five adopted daughters came to me with both RAD and FAE–the RAD we worked on, the FAE, we worked around.) Three of my daughters with RAD were overtly angry, but one turned everything inward–she presented more as depressed than angry. It didn’t make her any less “difficult.”

    As an adoptive parent, I tend to veiw everything through the parental lens–it is so helpful and educationaL, even if uncomfortable, to read adoptee blogs.

  3. I think you are being pretty darned restrained. If that hatchet job had been done on me, I’d be naming names, and some of them would be ones I try not to use around my kids, as in rhymes with “witch”.
    As an AP I don’t agree with everything I read from adult adoptees, because I’m old enough to know that there is a difference between opinion based on personal experience and a fact based on a wide demographic, and the ability to split out emotional family issues from adoption issues is not easy. But I try and respect the person and understand where they are coming from, because I don’t know what or how my daughters are going to think and react as they grow and more actively experience their racial/family differences. I’m trying NOT to be the AP of a “pissed off” adopted adult, and there is plenty to learn from other’s mistakes, and the only real source of that experience is the adult adopted community. So even if I’m gritting my teeth, I’m reading. And to be completely honest, sometimes I’m gritting my teeth because it’s something painful for me to examine.
    Keep on writing!

  4. “At the risk of speaking for fellow transracial adoptees, I will say that some of us are really quite tired of being studied and talked about in the third person. Some of us are tired of being psychoanalyzed publicly. Some of us are no longer willing to be treated as perpetual dependents. We are no longer willing to cry and bleed on stage at your conferences while we tell you of our pain as adoptee panelists, year after year, only to find, three decades later, that transracially adopted kids like us are still suffering. (Again, I refer you to Same Story, Different Decade.) Many of us are now mature enough and healed enough to be able to speak for ourselves. We can tell you what is wrong and where it hurts. We can even recommend what to do to make things better, fairer, less painful, and more just. But you need to approach us with respect, and be prepared to listen to some truths that may be hard for you to hear.”

    No, thank you for speaking for us.

    1. Oops. I accidentally hit “return” too soon.

      I just meant to say, thank you for speaking for transracial adoptees. I very much relate to what you wrote, in particular to the statement from your post that I quoted in my above comment.

  5. As an AP, I find that reading your blog (and writings of other adoptees) helps to keep me ‘honest’, for lack of a better word. Although it’s undoubtedly more comfortable not to consider the harsher, more painful aspects of my adopted sons’ experiences, I feel that I must do it. They came as a package; their pain and loss is included with all the wonderful things about them. And, while I would give anything to possess superpowers to remove that pain, I know from my own life experience that it doesn’t work that way. If I’m going to be the kind of parent they need, then I can’t shy away from this aspect of our family situation, because that creates distance between myself and the two people I love most in the world. I can’t come up with the insights that you can, because I wasn’t adopted and I’m not a person of color, as my sons are. But they’re still kids and not always able to express these thoughts and feelings. That’s why I need to hear them from you. I can really use the help. And, anyway, I figure that which makes me squirm a little is that to which I need to pay closer attention. (You’ve probably noticed that a lot of us white people have an automatic squirm factor when it comes to certain subjects…like white privilege, for example.)

    It’s not easy raising these boys, but it’s the life I chose. I can’t say that’s the case for them, because they were never given a choice. I figure that’s one reason that control is so important to them, and so I try to find ways for them to make choices and exert some control over their lives. So I struggle to let go in order to keep them closer.

  6. I think it is important for people to understand why Adult Adoptees can be so angry. It’s a cycle. People expect us all to be 100% in love with adoption and “grateful” and when we’re not, we’re labeled “angry” (even when we’re not angry), we’re told we must have bad DNA, mental illness, bad APs or some other rare personal experience, and with that APs (and others) give themselves a reason to write us off and not to listen.

    The 98% of the world that is non-adopted is unbelievably confident that they know more about adoption than the 2% of us who live it each and every single day.

    And that’s what makes us angry–or even angrier if we were “angry” to begin with.

    We’re tired of….
    -Being denied Original Birth Certificates based off of stereotypes.
    -Being compared to abortion–that’s a stereotype.
    -Being called “children.”
    -Having our Original Families insulted; we’re a part of them.
    -Having our Nature, Nurture, or mental health come into question when we’re not repeating what other people think we should be saying.
    -Seeing people acting entitled to the babies of others. We were once those babies and we want people to know we are not commodities.
    -Manipulation and unethical adoption practices; many of us are reunited and care what our mothers went through and want the manipulation to stop.
    -The assumption we all got “better lives.” It’s awfully dismissive to those adoptees who didn’t.

    I could go on for days.

    That would make any person “angry”–especially if they were then told they were wrong for being angry and then mandated be “grateful” for it.

  7. I participate in a group for APs and once these group of APs went about how I was anti-adoption and how I hated my adoptive parents, how I was ungrateful and the only thing I could ever state was how horrible adoption was. I laughed, pulled the posts I had done on Korean culture, Korean pop culture, and things that had nothing to do with adoption, the steadily posted things that had nothing to do with adoption or Korea that I recently posted.

    The Aps, the regulars, also went on to defend me, saying that they often didn’t agree, but I certainly wasn’t that way. Strong-minded, opinionated, and blunt, yes… not reserved, yes… but always angry, no.

    I think “angry” is an easy label. It means you don’t have to listen to the hard stuff. Because wasn’t Martin Luther King also called an “angry” black man? It’s easier to discount those with extreme emotions.

    I post soft and hard stuff to that group. Things like socialization of Korean children. (It’s Korean-based) to racial slurs that were used (some of the parents didn’t know the specific slurs and actions of children…) to pop culture. My Korean drama pick of the month is…. to where to get resources for Korean news. I range widely. So I found it amusing when I was called angry–I felt like I had finally made my title of social activist, even if it’s on a small scale.

  8. I am an adopted parent of a two year old boy. I read a lot about adoptees points of view on adoption as I know my little one will one day have his own issues to deal with and I want to be prepared for that. I have a few friends who have been adopted and talking to them have been very enlightening. I do think that there were many mistakes made on the past due to ignorance and that listening to adoptees point of view and feeling is VERY IMPORTANT. I hope and pray that when my son grows up we can always talk about how he feels freely and that I will always respect him and his views

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