Updated: The Stunning Ignorance of White Adoptive Parents in Ethiopia

Note: This is an updated version of my post from March 31, 2017.

My original post under this title included an adoptive mother’s recent experience in taking her son back to visit his Ethiopian family, and encountering other US adoptive families in Ethiopia. This mom, not citing anyone by name, described an evening at a cultural restaurant (a place where there is Ethiopian food and often a show of traditional Ethiopian dancing) where another American family’s Ethiopian child was sobbing, where an Ethiopian adoptee did not recognize injera, and where an Ethiopian child’s unkempt hair was chatted about.

Here’s one excerpt:

Don’t drag your kid to an Ethiopian restaurant on your first night in Addis, allow him to sob on your lap, sit there and continue to eat and then give him a video game to play while you dance for the amusement of the crowd. Your child has to process what is happening. He’s back in his country for the first time in many years. The sights, sounds, and smells are likely triggering deep emotions. Also, his deep embarrassment at you dancing is legit. You are not Ethiopian. Imagine how exposed he feels being an adoptee in that crowd.

 Here’s another:

It’s not OK to be ignorant to the issues of raising Black boys in the US. It is not OK!
First of all, do your child’s hair!!!!!!!!!!!! For the love that is all things holy, no your child’s unkempt 6 inch curls are not ‘the best hair in our town.’ ” They are a disaster. If you are going to allow your child to have long hair, you need to be prepared to pick it out. Messy is not acceptable. Both boys had hair that might be cool in the white adoptive community, but is cool nowhere else.

In other words, my original post was about a few things: how adoptive families should handle the homeland visit, as well as about the sensitivity (or lack thereof) of white parents around issues of raising black children, especially in predominately white communities and states, where racism flourishes and racial mirrors are rare.

My blog post touched a nerve for many readers. A few days after the post was published, one of the previously unnamed subjects of the post commented, identifying herself, and disputing the details of the incident in Ethiopia. Many of her friends commented as well, defending her as a mother and criticizing both me and the original poster for what we wrote.

Because the mom identified herself, she and her son are no longer anonymous. This means that her son (and friends, neighbors, teachers, strangers) could be identified as well. Thus, I decided, for the sake of the son’s privacy, to take down the original post.

The issue of bringing adopted Ethiopian children back to visit Ethiopia (sometimes specifically to visit their Ethiopian family) is more complex than many people realize. Here are just a few admittedly controversial, argument-inducing points:

  • Adoptive parents should not adopt from Ethiopia if they do not have the financial means to take the children back at least once, maybe more. When they do take the trip, it should be organized thoughtfully and flexibly, allowing a lot of space for children’s emotional, physical, developmental, and psychological needs.
  • Adoptive parents should do all they can to search for their children’s Ethiopian families, since many (perhaps most?) of the back stories provided by adoption agencies have proven false.
  • Many (if not most) Ethiopian families placed their children with the belief that they would see their children again. Many did not fully understand (or were not told) that adoption meant a permanent severing of legal ties with their children.
  • The visits with Ethiopian families are far more complex than many people realize. The visits often attract dozens of neighbors and onlookers, even in remote areas. Translators are often the people who drive the families around, good people but not experts in adoption reunion issues. A lot of nuance and actual statements are lost in the emotions of the moment and the limitations (linguistic and cultural) of the translators.
  • While Ethiopia is a polite culture, slow to criticize others, Ethiopians and others watch the way that adopted children are treated in Ethiopia. In the US, black people sometimes keep an eye on how black children are cared for by their white adoptive parents, including the children’s hair. To say that hair care is an important issue in the black community is to provide a remarkable example of understatement.
  • Some adopted children, when visiting Ethiopia, find it healing and helpful. Lots of adoptive parents post on social media about the success of their visits. Other children are affected differently, sometimes traumatically. Their parents tend not to post.
  • The impact of the trips is felt immediately and long after the actual visits, as children grow up and process the realities of loss and gains in adoption.

Many of the commenters on the original post scolded me for being negative, even citing the chestnut, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” That approach would have us all saying nothing about racism. It would have us never sharing information and resources about what experience we have gained through making mistakes, or through witnessing naiveté, insensitivity, abuse, or even cruelty.

The incident related in the original post was, unfortunately, not one-of-a-kind. Many of us, whether adoptive parents, adopted persons, or Ethiopian parents, could cite many examples of the stunning ignorance of white adoptive parents in Ethiopia. We are increasingly hearing the perspective of adult Ethiopian adoptees, and far too rarely, that of Ethiopian birth parents, who are the most marginalized of all in this triad.

My decision to leave the subjects of the initial post unnamed was purposeful, and, I would argue, valuable. Once one of them was no longer unknown, the scale tipped. I appreciate all those who weighed in on this post. I hope that everyone continues to give thought to the complexity of international adoption, especially transracial adoption, not only in childhood but well into adulthood.

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