Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption at the JCICS-NCFA 2015 Conference

Yesterday I attended the “Putting Families First” conference held by the Joint Council on International Children’s Services (JCICS) and the National Council For Adoption (NCFA). My workshop proposal for the conference, “Finding Common Ground in Policies and Practice, which included three adult adoptee panelists, had been rejected, but I was invited to participate on a panel titled “Predicting the Future of Intercountry Adoption.”

The audience was standing room only. I’d guess about 100 people attended.

Adoption professionals cite the Hague Convention, the Council on Accreditation, and the Department of State as reasons for the decline in the number of international adoptions. I argued that adoptions have declined because of the following:

  • Fraud and corruption.
  • Reports of maltreatment and abuse of international adoptees.
  • The role of money in adoption: high costs to adopt; the economic imbalance between adoptive parents and first families; the adoption tax credit; online fundraisers for adoption; adoptive parents’ financial contributions to first families after adoption; and more.
  • Religion: complications and misunderstandings of Christianity, Biblical interpretations, “savior complexes,” and more.
  • Social media: bloggers and twitter campaigns, especially by adult adoptees.
  • Increasing awareness of the need for family preservation: the economics suggest far more children could be helped that way (and kept out of orphanages) than through intercountry adoption.

I argued that if you are responsible for policies that involve children of color and immigrants, you must welcome, instigate, and engage in the complicated conversations around race, racism, systemic oppression, and white privilege.

All of these issues should be the subject by themselves of future conferences and workshops by JCICS and NCFA.

I asked these questions:

Given that there are hundreds of thousands of adult international adoptees, why are so few adoptees involved in adoption advocacy?

Please pause over that question.

Why do adoption conferences and policy meetings have almost exclusively western white people, many of whom are adoptive parents?

I believe that historic marginalization of adult adoptees is the reason. I’d argue that it’s because their voices and experiences have been marginalized in the past. From my speech: “The traditional narrative has been gratitude and integration. The adoption community, dominated by adoptive parents, has not always wanted to hear the struggles and the grief of many adoptees and first families.

Many adult adoptees do not want to express any unhappiness for fear of hurting their adoptive parents, or of being dismissed as ungrateful. That said, many adult adoptees are speaking out publicly now, creating new organizations, criticizing agencies, using social media, and publishing books. It makes no sense to ignore them. If international adoption is going to continue, adoptees—the activists, the academics, the writers, the therapists, the bloggers, the researchers, the playwrights, the poets, the artists–need to be robustly invited into development of policies and practices. They are not going away. Until they have a place at the table, international adoption will continue to decline.”

Adoptions will also decline unless the voices and experiences of international first families are documented, preserved, and shared in a meaningful way, anytime that there are policy or practice discussions. Their absence at those discussions speaks volumes about whose perspective is most valued in international adoption.

Would we be okay with a conference on Christianity that had only a few Christians attending? A conference on social work that had no social workers? Why are we okay with adoption conferences and policy meetings that are missing significant segments of the adoption community?

In terms of predictions, here are my thoughts:

  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless adult adoptees and first families are included in conferences and policy discussions in advocacy groups, Congress, the Hague, and around the world.
  • Adoptions will continue to decline unless fraud and corruption are overtly acknowledged, not just discussed among agency workers.
  • Openness will be the norm in international adoption, and needs to be promoted by agencies as a positive development. That said, openness is complicated.
  • DNA technologies and social media will expand connections between adoptees and their birth families.
  • Most international adoptions will be for special needs children, another reason that pre- and post-adoption and resources must be strengthened.

While the conference goes on for three more days, I attended only yesterday. In a follow-up post, I will write about the topics explicitly missing from the conference workshops (i.e., assisted reproductive technologies, “re-homing”), and about an exchange regarding  adoption activists ( a term which apparently functions as a code word for “angry adoptees”) in Korea.

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New England winter. Photo © Maureen McCauley Evans

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interview With Korean Adoptee Soojung Jo, Author of “Ghost of Sangju”

“When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.”

Soojung Jo was three years old when she was adopted from Korea by a Kentucky family, and 37 years old when she learned the truth of her history and identity. Along the way she graduated from West Point and served in Korea. She became a mother to four children. And she has now written this powerful, evocative book. “Ghost of Sangju: A Memoir of Reconciliation” is important for the adoption community. It’s bigger than that, though, because it’s a fascinating story, with powerful emotions, hard decisions, warmth, confusion, candor, love, discernment, and hope.

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More information is available at Gazillion Strong, including purchase information and Book Club questions. A new review by Mila Konomos at Lost Daughters is available here.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Soojung about “Ghost of Sangju,” about writing, and about adoption.

Soojung, what writers inspire you? What books are you reading now? 

I’m borderline obnoxious about my passion for reading! As a writer, I’ve been powerfully influenced by some particular books that I think everyone must read: John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn,” Adam Johnson’s “The Orphan Master’s Son,” Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Poisonwood Bible,” and Alexandre Dumas’s “The Count of Monte Cristo.” Also I love Hemingway’s voice, and I’m a shameless Stephen King junkie!

As for what I’m reading now, I always have a book on Audible, one or two on Kindle, and a hard copy in work. I’m listening to “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (Betty Smith), just finished “Americanah” (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), and just started “The Secret Wisdom of the Earth” (Christopher Scotton).

What was the writing process like for you? What motivated you to write, and to finish, your book?

There was this accumulation of all the experiences and my primal but unexpressed emotional responses to them: being taken from my Korean family and country at age 3, my Kentucky childhood, the West Point experience, returning to Korea in the Army, becoming a mother biologically and then through adoption. When I reunited with my Korean family, and finally learned the whole truth from Omma’s letter, it was like an implosion for me. There wasn’t so much a motivation as a need greater than breathing. It was like bleeding. Writing wasn’t something I wanted to do, it was something I could not stop myself from doing. Finishing wasn’t a goal, it was a necessity.

The writing process was evolutionary. Although I had this story fighting its way out of me, I forced myself to be patient and learn a little about writing a full-length book. I read “Bird By Bird” (Lamott), “On Writing Well” (Zinsser), “On Writing” (King). I read interviews with memoirists I admired: Jeannette Walls, Frank McCourt, Cheryl Strayed. I reflected on what elements made the most powerful memoirs work. All these pointed to the same themes: Write without inhibitions, and then edit ruthlessly. Truth is the goal; nothing less will do. These rules sound basic, but they are far from easy. Do you know how hard it is to make one sentence flow into the next? To remove half the flowery words you’ve crafted into something that felt like a masterpiece but reads like a legal document? Even this interview should probably be edited at least five times just to make it readable.

But the most difficult aspect of good writing is achieving truth. Being honest. Sifting through the difficult layers and offering the ugliest parts of yourself to the story. Everything has already been thought and said in this world, so why should anyone care what I have to say? The answer is this: the truth is always compelling. A true, open story from a real and vulnerable storyteller always resonates.

Absolutely. What’s your next/current writing project?

Actually, I’m not writing at the moment. This book seared its way out of me, and I think I’m recovering a bit from it. I would hope everyone could experience something so consuming yet cathartic in their lives as this book was for me.

I said in my review of your book that I took breaks while reading it, given the poignancy of your search for your Korean family. International adoption is at a volatile, critical juncture right now, in South Korea and around the world. How does “Ghost of Sangju” fit into the complexity?

You are right—international adoption is having a pivotal moment, and this is largely due to the fact that a critical mass of international adoptees have grown up and spoken our truths. We have voices and we won’t be ignored. We are varied, complex, and our experiences and opinions range across a full spectrum. Mine is only one story, but it’s a challenging one that needs to be told because it shatters many traditionally held views. I hope that, without having to over-explain these complexities, readers will experience them as I did through my writing.

If readers come away from this book with an expanded view of what is really happening in international adoption, and an appreciation for the complexity of having lived through international adoption, then I’ve done my job as a writer.

How have your family members reacted to the book, as well as to your search and reunion?

Maureen, I don’t really know. I know what they tell me, but I don’t believe their words really touch on their true reactions. In words, they show support and love. But I’m not the only one in this crazy life going through complex, dissonant emotions about this. I can only imagine how my parents have worried, have regretted, have feared, and have wished that my story had been as straightforward as the agency had promised them almost 40 years ago. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to what they’re going through, but it’s not easy.

No, it’s not. Adoption can be complicated  If you could change policies and practices in international adoption, what would you do?

This is such a difficult question. I have many adoptee friends who are activists, but honestly I am not cut out to talk policies and practices. I know many others who are. I know things need to change, because so many elements of my own story still happen today and that’s unacceptable. I can’t say with authority what should be changed in policy. That’s not what my voice contributes. Instead, my voice speaks of little known truths and buried secrets, and I hope to use this voice to change hearts. Maybe those changed hearts can contribute to changed policies and practices.

I hope that too. What have you learned about yourself, about life, in the process of writing the book? Not so much the factual information as the perspectives, awareness, priorities.

Maureen, I learned so much in writing this book. This was no intellectual exercise! The first few revisions, I stuck to a story that I thought was acceptable. It was a bland, diluted version of my truth and it was terrible. My early pre-readers, my counselors and cheerleaders, asked, “Soojung, this is beautiful, but it isn’t you. Where are YOU in this story?” They asked me this question gently and often enough that I began to wonder myself, where am I in this story? That’s when the real work began, the work of digging into the most real parts of myself, my life, and my emotions. I had to let go of so much fear of showing this awful, beautiful story in all its grittiness. I learned that I, too, am gritty. I’m raw. I have so much strength and weakness and they terrify me, but they are real and therefore they are worthy.

The bland version of my memoir was okay, people liked it well enough, but the real version was amazing and people have responded so deeply to it. Likewise, the bland, pleasing version of myself is okay, but the real version is so much better. Does this mean I’m capable of being this true in real life? No, but at least I know it’s possible. It’s aspirational.

What would you like readers to take away from reading “Ghost of Sangju”?

Although the story is rooted in international adoption, there are universal themes of family, identity, and parenthood that I think all readers can connect to. I want readers to gain an understanding of a life that most probably haven’t lived. I also want readers to appreciate and respect the complexities of being an adoptee, especially international and transracial. I want readers to learn, and to feel less alone.

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Many thanks to Soojung Jo for this conversation. Congratulations on the publication of “Ghost of Sangju.”

Resources Around Trauma and Suicide in Adoption

It’s a balancing act to discuss adoption as trauma. The idea of adoption as trauma is relatively new, and I understand that it’s disconcerting for many people. Separation from one’s mother as baby or child is traumatizing; we are hardwired to connect with our mothers. Adoptees often undergo additional separation from caregivers in a foster home or orphanage. Those losses can be traumatic as well, and the trauma can manifest over time or later in life. Depression is also disconcerting, to the 19 million Americans who struggle with it and to those who love the people who are struggling. Many adoptees struggle as children, as teens, and as adults with anxiety and depression. Talking about these medical conditions can be hard. Still, as anyone involved in adoption or in life knows, not talking about difficult, uncomfortable things rarely ends well.

It’s also a balancing act to encourage discussion about suicide without encouraging suicide. Same with remembering those who have died by suicide without inadvertently glamorizing suicide. High schools, for example, face this dilemma when a student has died by suicide, not wanting to trigger any sort of imitation, or “suicide cluster.”

Suicide is the third top cause of death among 10 to 14 year olds, and the second top cause among 15 to 24 year olds.

My post Suicide and Adoption: We Need to Stop Whispering has been shared on Facebook about 800 times since I published it last Monday. There have been several thousand views and visitors, and I have heard personally from many people. Clearly, it struck a chord, and we need to keep this conversation going, even if it is complicated and difficult to balance.

For anyone in crisis, call this number: 1-800-273-8255. You can call the number if you are considering suicide or if someone you know is. Available anytime, day or night. 24/7/365.

Two significant resources are the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Both have huge amounts of information, research, and more. I’ve reached out to both organizations above, asking if they would consider providing adoptee-specific information on their websites.  I’ve offered to draft material and network with them about this, and I hope I hear back soon. Please reach out to them as well.

Here are suggestions for talking with someone who may be suicidal. I share this because there are many resources available for this tough stuff.

Most suicide attempts are rooted in some sort of trauma and/or depression. Many people who have considered or died by suicide have also been diagnosed with depression and/or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. President Obama in February signed a suicide prevention law to make it easier for U.S. military veterans to access mental health resources. The law also provides funding to recruit and retain professionals to help veterans struggling with PTSD and other challenges.

Here’s an eye-opener: Former foster care children are almost twice as likely as US war veterans to suffer from PTSD. You can read more in this Casey Foundation report.

I’ve cited, several times, the American Academy of Pediatric’s report that adoptees are 4 times as likely to commit suicide as non-adopted people but it bears sharing again. Read the report here.

We can recognize that trauma is a part of adoption, without claiming that all adopted people are affected the same way. Many do just fine, handling challenges with resilience and strength. Many struggle, and those are the ones I want to recognize, acknowledge, and assist, if possible.

Here are some strategies and resources:

  • Learn about trauma in adoption. “Assume that all children who have been adopted or fostered have experienced trauma.” That is a central quote from the American Academy of Pediatrics guide for pediatricians, “Helping Foster and Adoptive Families Cope With Trauma.” Share this resource with your pediatrician.
  • Make suicide awareness a component of pre-adoptive parent training classes. Suicide awareness should be part of information provided to prospective parents about trauma, depression, and anxiety disorders, and their frequent appearance in adoptees.
  • Insist on speakers in pre- and post-adoption workshops who have struggled with depression and trauma. Agencies: Improve networking with adult adoptees and adoptees who are therapists, so that adoption agencies have several speakers to provide for families.
  • Understand why access to medical histories for adoptees is essential. Denial of that information (which could be lifesaving), in regard to mental illness and other medical conditions, is unconscionable. The American Adoption Congress has focused its legislative advocacy efforts on opening access to original birth certificates. Information is available here.
  • Advocate for adoption competency among therapists. Suggest that families also look for therapists trained in childhood trauma, as well as in adoption-related issues.
  • Advocate for strong post-adoption mental health services for everyone: the adoptee, the adoptive parents, and the first/birth parents.
  • Suggest, promote, and provide workshops with titles like “Depression Among Teenage Adoptees: What It Looks Like, What Can Help,” or “The Presence of Suicide in Adoption,” or “PTSD and Adoptees: The Realities and the Treatments,” and “Adult Adoptees Speak Out About Depression, Anxiety, and Suicide Prevention.”
  • Learn about the impact of bullying and cyberbullying on children and teens. According to the site stopbullying.gov, “Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.”
  • Adoption agencies and adoption-related organizations: Provide current, substantial lists of resources to families about therapists, therapies, articles, podcasts, videos, and more related to adoption, depression, and suicide prevention.
  • Learn about psychotherapies that can benefit people struggling with depression and trauma. The National Institute of Mental Health has clear information: Psychotherapies. One therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is for chronically suicidal people diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, and is also used for substance dependence, PTSD, and depression.
  • Learn about the role of addiction in adoption, and how addiction and substance abuse intersect with trauma and depression. One resource is a YouTube video by Paul Sunderland, titled Adoption and Addiction.

Fill yourself and your loved ones with accurate information, with hope, and with attention to deep listening. Let go of shame and fear about mental illness, and encourage others to do so as well. All of us in the adoption community can work together in a powerful way to increase awareness of suicide, and to promote suicide prevention.

 

Reflections on the American Adoption Congress Conference: Educate, Advocate, Legislate

I was in Cambridge, MA, recently for the national conference of the American Adoption Congress. Most of the people at the AAC conference looked like me, a white woman. I could easily have been mistaken for an adoptee from the Baby Scoop Era, or for a mother who placed a child during that time. Those two descriptions would fit most of the people there: adoptees or first/birth mothers. As an adoptive parent, I was in the minority. As a middle-aged white woman, I was in the majority.

The AAC has been around since the late 1970’s. Its legislative advocacy has been focused on open records/access to original birth certificates for adoptees. Some AAC members have been working on that goal for decades, and I am in awe of their dedication and determination. Certainly there has been major progress (see Ohio, most recently), though work remains to be done.

I first attended an AAC conference some 20 years ago, in Virginia, when Bill Pierce of the National Council For Adoption was still alive and intensely fighting open records. (This link is to all Bill’s NCFA files on closed records and more, papers which reside now at the University of Minnesota.) Bastard Nation was emerging. Activism then did not have the current (and relative) ease of social media.

Social media has of course changed everything in terms of advocacy, for open records and for many other important causes. One takeaway for me from the AAC conference was this: While opening adoption records and increasing access to original birth certificates remains a priority for AAC, the fight in state legislatures is slowly becoming moot. That’s not because more people are understanding the need for open records. It’s because Facebook is connecting adoptees and birth parents, and because old opponents of open records are retiring or dying. Also, technology around DNA is reducing the need for legislative access–people are finding their previously unknown family members via  databases (genetic genealogy) such as Family Tree DNA, 23andme, and ancestry.com.

Well.

That changes the landscape in a very big way, and suggests that the AAC conference slogan of “Educate, Advocate, Legislate” must open to new possibilities. The fight for open records on the state level remains, and is incredibly important. However, other issues in adoption are vital as well, though I heard about them mostly in conversations between sessions:

  • Rehoming of adopted children (US and international)
  • Retroactive citizenship for international adoptees
  • The adoption tax credit
  • Overhaul of the home study evaluation process
  • Support and resources for transracial adoptees, whether from the US or elsewhere
  • Support and resources for first/birth/original mothers and fathers
  • Support and resources for late discovery adoptees (I met three at the AAC conference, who had found out they were adopted at 18, 35, and 43 years of age.)

All of these are important, and deserve the time and attention of organizations like AAC and others. For what it’s worth, I don’t see these issues explicitly on the schedule for the June conference of the National Council For Adoption and the Joint Council on International Children’s Services. Hmm.

Beyond the policy and legislative actions, there are at least two additional related and complex issues must be addressed, openly and boldly, by all adoption-related organizations: racial realities in adoption and suicide in adoption.

Racial Realities in Adoption

The AAC appears to be making a solid effort at acknowledging transracial adoptees and interracial adoptive families. They have two transracial adoptees on their Board of Directors, Susan Harris O’Connor and Krista Woods. Two of the four keynote speakers were people of color: Rhonda Roorda and Rev. Dr. Nicholas Cooper-Lewter. One of the documentaries shown was You Have His Eyes, the story of transracial adoptee Chris Wilson. April Dinwoodie of the Donaldson Institute on Adoption presented a workshop called “What My White Parents Didn’t Know and Why I Turned Out Okay Anyway.” Mi Ok Bruining, a Korean adoptee, presented a workshop on “The Poetry of International Adoption.” Katherine Kim and Noel Cross facilitated a workshop on “Mixed Race Adoptees;” both are mixed race Korean adoptees. The Adoption Roundtable” featured 4 transracial adoptees. (The audience for this group was unfortunately quite small, though I get it. The potential audience might have been transracial adoptees and white adoptive parents. Neither group was significant in the conference attendees.)

The panel that got a large audience and generated a lot of conversation was “Lost Daughters: Diverse Narratives Within the Collective Adoptee Voice.” This panel included 10 of the women from the online writing collective Lost Daughters, and included same race and transracial infant adoptees, a Korean adoptee, an Ethiopian adoptee raised in Canada, a foster care transracial adoptee, and a Native American adoptee. Given that most of the AAC conference attendees are female adoptees and first mothers, it’s not surprising that the Lost Daughters panel was well-attended.

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The Lost Daughters panel at the 2015 American Adoption Congress conference

 

One of the panelists, Amira Rose, wrote a powerful article on the Lost Daughters site reflecting on her experience at the AAC conference. Her post, “Sight Unseen: Navigating Adoption Spaces as an Adoptee of Color,” is insightful, and invites thoughtful reflection.

My sense is that AAC is moving toward inclusion of adoptees and first mothers of color, and I hope they do so. The challenge is bringing people of color into a group with few people of color: who wants to be the “other,” the “only,” the token? (See Amira’s article above.) I recognize that it is my white privilege that suggests this be done, and that it could be. As the white adoptive parent of 4 black adoptees, I know there is much to be learned from adoptees and birth/first parents of color. We all need to be talking together about realities of race and racism.

Suicide in Adoption

This was not a topic of a panel or keynote, but it needs to be, and at every adoption-related conference. At the AAC conference, an adult adoptee from India talked about having been a mentor to a 16-year-old Indian adoptee who had recently committed suicide. Wrenching and heartbreaking. It’s so tempting to pause, provide sympathy, and then move on. And we can’t do that anymore. Trauma is part of adoption; depression is a reality for many people. Genetics can provide some clues, but too often adoptees do not know their own medical history. Adolescence for adoptees can be difficult in the best circumstances; add the intensity of current climate of bullying and racism, and it’s a dangerous world. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a report saying that adoptees are more likely to commit suicide than non-adoptees. I have known and heard of far too many adoptees, especially in their teens, who have considered, attempted, and committed suicide.

Educate, Advocate, Legislate. The AAC conference provided me with much food for thought (this is just a morsel), plus the joy of meeting old and new friends. I have little doubt that young adopted adults will lead the way in changing adoption policy, and I am heartened that first/birth parents are less marginalized as well. We adoptive parents need to be involved and engaged as well. And we all have to be unafraid of the hard conversations.

Mothers of Loss: Noting the Privilege of Grief and Support

The adoptive mother of an adoptee killed in a car accident has written several powerful, sorrowful posts on Facebook. She has received the support of dozens, in some cases hundreds, of people, and has shared the funeral service, photos, anecdotes, and memories. She has been supported in her grief by her family, her friends, her church, and  her community, both local and online.

How do people recover from the death of a child? Slowly, painstakingly, and maybe never.

How do mothers recover from the more ambiguous loss of a child through adoption? One day the child is here. The next day the child is gone, alive but perhaps never to be seen again.

When someone loses a child to death, we rally. We prepare meals, we pray, we attend services, we send cards, we read Facebook posts, and we type comments of gratitude and support. The parents often receive counseling, medications, and group therapies.

What do we do for the mothers who lose their children to adoption, even when the decision is one of transparency and integrity? How do we as a community support them, through rituals and time? How do we acknowledge their loss?

What about when the loss is one of coercion, or fraud, or shame? Do we show compassion, or do we push their grief and loss out of our minds?

Surely it is yet another manifestation of our privilege that adoptive parents, as citizens in a wealthy society, that grief is shared. In the event of the death of a child, the parents can mourn and share and grieve in both private and public. They can get–as is right–heartfelt support from family, friends, and strangers. People inquire how they are doing, and pray for them, and embrace them in a time of deep, unfathomable loss.

I have never experienced the loss of a child. When my beloved granddaughter turned 6, I couldn’t help thinking that was the age at which her mother had been placed for adoption with our family. I was stopped in my tracks at the idea of losing this child forever, at 6 years old, never knowing where in the world she was. The grief would be overwhelming. I can’t begin to imagine the pain of the loss.

Surely it is yet another manifestation of the inequity in adoption that a first/birth mother placing her children forever does not get the resources and platform of an adoptive mother who loses her child to death. Don’t both experience what we acknowledge is an enormous loss–a child gone forever?

How many first mothers, after placement, never learn if their children are dead or alive?

To lose a child is to lose a part of one’s heart and soul. We in the adoption community must acknowledge the grief and loss of the mothers whose children are placed for adoption, because they have lost a child. To the impoverished Ethiopian and other international mothers walking back to their villages alone and never hearing again about their beloved children–mothers who experience depression, scorn, loneliness, and worse–we must offer recognition and compassion, and provide ongoing services to them. To the mothers who were coerced as teens into relinquishing their children, we must partner with them in their grief, not shame or dismiss them, suggesting they “Get over it. It was a long time ago.” To any mother who has lost a child, we must reach out, acknowledge the loss, and help with the healing. All mothers deserve this. All of them.

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International Adoption in 2030: Predicting the Future

Although my workshop proposal for the Joint Council on International Children’s Services and the National Council For Adoption conference was rejected (read about it here), I was invited to participate on a conference panel called “Predicting the Future in Intercountry Adoption.” This post is a starting point for my remarks. I would welcome the thoughts of others, especially adult adoptees, on their predictions.

Here’s a glimpse into the future of international adoption, even as soon as 15 years from now: Adult adoptees hold the microphone in terms of adoption policies and practices. Part of their involvement will be insistence on improved post-adoption services. Transracial adoptees continue to deal with racism in a world where too often racism is dismissed. Thousands of adult adoptees, many raised by white parents, return to visit and to live in the countries where they were born. Many find out that the information their adoptive parents were given is wrong. Many who were told they would never find their first/birth family do, in fact, find them. The unadopted siblings (those who stayed with the birth/first family) of international adoptees search and find their adopted sibs via Facebook or vk.com or other Internet connections. Birth/first/natural mothers and fathers will begin speaking out and sharing their truths, and their stories will be translated, preserved, and honored.

How prepared is the adoption community for these changes? How well are agencies and others addressing the realities of racism, identity, and grief after adoption?

A glimpse at the past, from which we are supposed to learn: “Adversity, Adoption,and Afterwards,” a longitudinal report by the British Association for Adoption and Fostering, looked at the lives of about 70 women adopted from Hong Kong to Britain in the 1960’s. The average age of the women in the study was 48. Most did well. Still, “The majority of the women encountered racism not just in childhood and adolescence, but also as adults in current day Britain. Some said that they were able to seek support from their adoptive families, or others close to them, in coping and managing racist incidents, while others described feeling isolated and not able to share this with anyone. For some it was not easy living with the fact of being from a different ethnic background and visibly different from their adoptive families. This could result for some having a sense of not belonging or not feeling able to identify with either white British or Chinese communities. By mid-life most of the women who experienced this had found ways to adequately deal with such feelings, which is not to minimise how difficult this had been for some.”

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While it’s good that by mid-life (!) most of the adoptees had found ways to adequately deal with feelings of not belonging and not identifying with their communities, that’s a long time to endure those feelings.

Recently, the global adoption community has been rattled by two mainstream media articles about adult adoptees. One was Shaaren Pine’s article in the Washington Post, “Please Don’t Tell Me I was Lucky To Be Adopted.” Another was the New York Times magazine cover story, “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea.”

There are some 250,000 Korean adoptees all around the globe. They are the oldest ones, in their 50’s and 40’s, many in their 20’s and 30’s. They are the bellwether activist adoptees in many ways. Fifteen years ago, in 2000, the Donaldson Adoption Institute published an insightful report based on the first Gathering of Korean adoptees in 1999. In the section on Experiences with Discrimination,”The majority of respondents reported that they had experienced some form of discrimination while they were growing up.” Race (70%) was cited more often as problematic than was adoption (28%). As we continue to struggle with race in the US and around the world, helping transracial adoptees negotiate the world as people of color is vital. When will we learn?

International adoption numbers have declined in recent years. While that may likely continue, there were about 250,000 international adoptions between 1999 and 2013; many were under a year old. We would do well to look at adoptees who will be young adults in the next decade or so. One example: Between 1999 and 2013, about 14,000 Ethiopian children were adopted to the US. Between 2007 and 2012, some 11,000 Ethiopian children arrived here from the US, about 80% of the total number between 1999-2013. (Statistics from the US Department of State) They will be entering adolescence and early adulthood around 2030. Those high volume years (2007 to 2012) have been cited as having a high degree of fraud and corruption.

Many Ethiopian adoptees here in the US and around the globe are still young children, and many of the families have already found inaccuracies in their child’s stories: Ethiopian mothers are still alive, children were not orphans, documents were falsified. Blame can go all around, but the point is: How will the adoption community best help these thousands of now-children who will be adults in the next 15-20 years?

My hopes for the future include these:

  • Adoption agencies will actively reach out to and welcome adult adoptees from around the globe to share their experiences, so as to better prepare for the upcoming wave of young adult adoptees in the next decades.
  • Adult adoptees who choose to do so will continue to speak out about their good and bad experiences. Adoptive parents and all others in the community will listen, without dismissing or marginalizing them as “angry,” “ungrateful,” or any other pejorative terms.
  • Appropriate, equitable services will be provided to birth/first parents around the globe, including provision of short-term and long-term resources and communication.
  • The adoption community will acknowledge and proactively address the realities of racism. This is complex and vitally important work, and we haven’t done a good job so far.
  • Here is a vision of past and future: the Adoption Museum Project, a physical space that explores the story of adoption, and a website and off-site programs that expand the work. How exciting is this. The Grand Opening event on April 16 in San Francisco will be “Operation Babylift: Adoptee Voices,” about the 1975 airlift (40 years ago!) of 2,000 Vietnamese children. The panel discussion will be moderated by the poet Lee Herrick, an adoptee from Korea.

IMG_8517Please join me in predicting the future. More importantly, please join me in creating a future  of international adoption that honors the realities of all those involved, and insists that no voices are marginalized. I welcome your thoughts and ideas.

 

RIP CHIFF. Hello CAPP? (Part 2)

CHIFF focused heavily on international adoption, and not so much on family preservation and empowerment. CAPP focuses heavily on improving outcomes for vulnerable children and families around the globe. Adoption, both domestic and international, will always be part of child welfare policy. As a community concerned with children, can those of us involved with adoption find common ground that both strengthens families and includes ethical, transparent adoptions? This post looks at one angle of the legislative conversations. There’s so much to say.

The information in RIP CHIFF. Hello CAPP? (Part 1) is not exhaustive regarding all that is happening with the implementation of the Children in Adversity report (APCA). So many agencies and acronyms. Public and private partnerships. Lofty goals with complex implementation. Millions of dollars. An enormous undertaking. I cannot disagree with the goals: vulnerable children and families deserve support and resources all around the globe.

CHIFF and CAPP Proponents: Overlap?

International adoption was a huge part of the failed Children in Families First (CHIFF) bill. It seems to be a tiny part of CAPP, the Children in Adversity Policy Partnership. What overlap is there between the proponents of the two?

The Joint Council on International Children’s Services is at the forefront of CAPP, as it was of CHIFF. JCICS, however, has been moving steadily away in the last 10 years or so from focusing on adoption agency services, and moving steadily toward a much broader mission of international child welfare. It still has adoption agencies as members, but fewer than was once the case (far fewer than when I worked at JCICS, from 1995-2000, certainly).

One of the biggest proponents of CHIFF, Both Ends Burning, does not seem to be involved with the CAPP. Peter Leppanen, BEB’s Strategic Advisor, is listed as a member of CAPP in a July 2014 Child Policy University Consortium document. His affiliation with BEB is not noted there. Many adoption agencies (and CHIFF supporters) are also listed as members of CAPP. The membership list may well have changed in subsequent months, and current CAPP information does not include BEB, as far as I can tell.

How much should we read into the fact that one of CHIFF’s biggest proponents is not involved significantly with CAPP? BEB has always been first and foremost an international adoption advocacy group. In November, they hosted a Global Symposium on permanency options for children. Looking from the outside, my impression is that BEB is intent on following its international adoption goals, and not committed, as least explicitly, to partnership with the Children in Adversity crowd. I hope, as BEB forges on, they will include the significant, genuine involvement of adult adoptees and first/birth parents.

The National Council for Adoption does not figure in CAPP either. NCFA supported CHIFF: “Chuck Johnson President and CEO of the National Council For Adoption said: “Children all over the world are languishing outside of family care…CHIFF re-aligns existing resources and re-prioritize how the U.S. Government serves this population of vulnerable children. NCFA enthusiastically supports CHIFF.” NCFA’s endorsement of CHIFF, as well as that of JCICS, Both Ends Burning, Christian Alliance For Orphans (CAFO), and others, is here.

In its January 2105 listing of legislative priorities, NCFA does not mention the CAPP, though they refer to CHIFF. This is not surprising: their primary focus is on US and international adoption issues.

CAFO posted its own support for CHIFF here. Jedd Medefind of CAFO has also endorsed the goals of the Children in Adversity report per this USAID press release.

Intercountry adoption is a much smaller part of CAPP than it was in CHIFF. There is minimal mention of the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption in the APCA. Clearly CAPP has a broader goal. And a cast of thousands, if not millions. It is an astonishing configuration of government, public, and private organizations. It makes my head spin.

I have no doubts that CAPP, the Global Alliance, and the attendant organizations, policies, and proposals have their fair share of challenging problems: the role of US AID, the failure of the US to approve the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the abilities of countries receiving assistance to have a role in that assistance, and so on.

Still, given the laudable goals of CAPP to improve early childhood outcomes, to preserve families, and to protect children from exploitation, will the need for international adoption be diminished?  Given the huge decline in the number of children being internationally adopted, for whatever combination of reasons, perhaps an approach that looks to achieve those laudable goals is timely.

Implications

So who doesn’t benefit from CAPP? Many of the same people who didn’t benefit from CHIFF.

CAPP does not, as far as I can tell and I would be happy to be incorrect about this, prioritize funding for pre- or post-adopt resources for internationally adopted children, nor for the birth/first parents of internationally adopted children. NCFA includes Post-Adoption Services on its list of legislative priorities. I have to wonder, as international adoption declines and agencies close, who will be responsible for providing post-adoption services to adoptees and their families, here and around the world. JCICS member agencies placed many of those international children, and they are rapidly changing their focus away from adoption services. Will NCFA step up?

Further, like CHIFF, CAPP does not address retroactive citizenship for all international adoptees. To its credit, NCFA does list “Citizenship Equality Intercountry Adoption” as one of its legislative priorities.

The issue of re-homing here in the US is not a part of CAPP, and nor was it part of CHIFF.

Retroactive citizenship and re-homing are admittedly complicated issues. They require a lot of collaboration and consensus to move at the federal level. The citizenship issue means tangling with immigration foes in Congress. On re-homing, some states have begun to look into and pass legislation on re-homing, but many international adoption advocates would like to see a uniform federal law.

Collaboration and consensus will be needed to move legislation and policies around improvement of pre- and post-adoption matters such as improvement of home studies, increased funding for adoption competent therapists/social workers, and better access to effective post-adoption resources. Providing pre- and post-adoption support to first/birth parents is especially complicated, because those parents are geographically and linguistically far removed; most cannot pay for services. None of this means we should advocate any less for them.

CAPP, it seems to me, is moving ahead with the support of far-reaching US government agencies, big name foundations, child welfare experts, and a variety of advocates. CAPP will probably have little impact on specific adoption policies in the US; certainly it appears not to have CHIFF’s intense focus.

I hope that CAPP will do or has done what CHIFF did not: Include the experiences and insights of those vulnerable children who have grown up, including adoptees and orphans. Include at the table the voices and realities, if not the actual presence, of first/birth parents who lost their children unfairly to adoption, due to poverty, corruption, fraud, social stigma, or other reasons, and prevent such tragedies from happening again.

So many important issues are hanging in the balance for internationally adopted children, and for those who are now international adult adoptees, and their families. Perhaps it will be those adult adoptees who will lead the way. Recent high level media news articles such as the New York Times “Why a Generation of Adoptees Is Returning to South Korea” and the Washington Post’s “Please Don’t Tell Me I Am Lucky” give anyone connected with adoption plenty to consider.

Will future advancements and policy decisions regarding adoption be the result of genuine collaboration and consensus, acknowledging the spectrum of experiences among adoptees, birth/first parents, and adoptive parents, and moving ahead to effectively help vulnerable children and families? I hope so. Let’s keep talking–and listening.

CHIFF Is Dead: A Post-Mortem

The Children in Families First (CHIFF) bill emerged in autumn 2013, during the 113th session of the US Congress. Its supporters and sponsors surely saw its chances for success as a no-brainer: Who doesn’t agree that all children deserve families, and especially children in impoverished nations?

The Little Engine That Could unfortunately began wheezing and sputtering in the spring of 2014, and by summer 2014 was ominously quiet. The CHIFF website stopped posting News in June. Their Twitter feed stopped chirping in July. No action was taken on CHIFF by the US Congress, so CHIFF died when the 113th session ended in December 2014.

Thousands of hours must have been devoted to this bill by dozens of staff people, such as those on CHIFF’s Executive Committee, including the Congressional  Coalition on Adoption Institute, Both Ends Burning, the Joint Council on International Children’s Services, and the National Council on Adoption.

In the world of adoption, those are some heavy hitters. What happened?

CHIFF proponents underestimated their opposition. It’s a brave new world in adoption policy these days, comprised of advocates who span a vocal, volatile spectrum.  The spectrum ranges from those who are vehemently anti-adoption to those who support adoption but not the way it’s being done now. The days of adoptive parents and adoption agencies leading the way are gone. Adult adopted persons are increasingly well-organized and, well, loud. Some are politically active. Some are wizards of social media. Some are telling their stories in public, compelling, and evocative ways.

CHIFF advocates failed to include a place for them at the table.

CHIFF proponents also hammered away publicly at the US State Department for various reasons, alienating them or at least, it seems to me, ensuring State’s lack of support for CHIFF. CHIFF also failed to garner the support of established, successful family preservation organizations around the world. Thus, the CHIFF proponents’ claims of working to preserve and reunite families–a big goal for many of us–lacked credibility.

A July Congressional hearing on Africa’s orphans was a chance for CHIFF proponents to insist that an adult adoptee (orphaned as a child) speak. They could have provided testimony from African birth parents on how to help with the orphan crisis. They did not do these things. I wrote about it here: Both Ends Burning and CHIFF: Losing Credibility, Spurning Opportunities.

Those of us on a grassroots level who criticized CHIFF were often dismissed as angry and bitter, as not caring about children, as not wanting to help orphans, and as not truly understanding what CHIFF wanted to do. That dismissal fundamentally led to the demise of CHIFF. CHIFF’s opponents–speaking for myself–do care about children, do want to help orphans, and did understand CHIFF. And many of us spoke out. Maybe we weren’t holding meetings on Capitol Hill, or spending organizational money and time to lobby Congress. Nonetheless, the insulated nature of CHIFF’s proponents plus the failure to include adopted adults and first/birth parents–and hence their concerns and realities–are enormous reasons as to why CHIFF is now dead.

CHIFF, when examined closely (beyond the photos and rhetoric), failed to meet current needs in adoption policy. These were CHIFF’s goals:

“CHIFF calls for the redirection of a modest portion of the $2 billion the United States currently spends on children living abroad toward ensuring that all children grow up in a family. What’s more, it calls for programs funded with US tax dollars to focus on reducing the number of children living without families and increasing the capacity of other governments to better protect their own children…CHIFF would streamline, simplify and consolidate responsibility for all processing of intercountry adoption cases.”

These may well seem reasonable if complicated goals, at least at first blush. But here are current, glaring needs that CHIFF did not include:

* Federal legislation to correct a grievous flaw in citizenship for adoptees. Read more here.

* Federal legislation on “re-homing” of internationally adopted children. Read more here.

* Much needed funding for improved pre-adoption and post-adoption resources, to prevent re-homing, to strengthen families, and to protect children.

* Equitable pre- and post-placement resources, counseling, and information for international first parents. All too often these families receive no support after placement. That is unconscionable.

* Emphasis on family reunification and family preservation. Yes, this was an ostensible part of CHIFF. The fact that the overwhelming percentage of endorsing organizations were adoption agencies undermined that claim.

So much money, time, and energy went into lobbying for CHIFF. Certainly the federal indictment and recent guilty pleas by international adoption agency staff for fraud and bribery didn’t help.

Where do we go from here?

There are rumblings in the adoption community–not just on Capitol Hill or in lobbyists’ offices–about pragmatic, meaningful ways to meet current needs in adoption.

We won’t see anything quite like CHIFF again. We will see ideas and collaborations that acknowledge the realities of adoption and of adopted persons, that are unafraid to address the huge gaps in services to birth and adoptive families, and that are inclusive and open to the voices of all those affected by adoption.

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So Much More Than Just A Shirt

Recently, a Facebook post about a tee shirt to be used as a fundraiser provoked a batch of comments. The original poster, having up front requested no negative comments, essentially ignored the pushback. Ultimately, she deleted the post entirely.

The tee shirt called into question had a heart drawn on it, the word “Adopt” followed by the name of a country that places children for adoption internationally, and this quote: “Love Makes a Family–Changes A Life.” Seems like a nice quote, doesn’t it? It’s a great example of something that actually has a far greater impact than it might seem at first blush.

One excellent perspective about the shirt is on the blog Ethioamericandaughter. The writer, Aselefech Evans, is my daughter. As an adult Ethiopian adoptee, her insights are valuable.

Several adoptive parents responded to the original tee shirt post on Facebook. They thought the quote was dismissive of first/birth families and their pain. Others thought it reeked of white privilege, of white savior complex.

When is a tee shirt not just a tee shirt? Does it become more than just a shirt when the message is seen by others as an example of white privilege? Or when it’s called hurtful, disrespectful, offensive by some of the person’s peers, in this case adoptive parents?

Are the tee shirt and message okay when it’s a fundraiser for a family who’s adopting, or for good works in an impoverished country? Does the end simply justify the means, and are the critics just being too damn sensitive? The sentiment of one comment was “If you don’t like it, don’t purchase it.”

Is everything justified if the original poster’s adopted children are okay with it? Does it matter if the children are all minors?

There are good reasons why children can’t give informed consent. And do children truly understand the far-reaching implications of the Internet?

So many questions.

There was a similar brouhaha during National Adoption Month over a tee shirt also used as a fundraiser, part of online sales for adopttogether.org. I wrote about it on my blog lightofdaystories.com: ” ‘Crowd Funded’ Children: The Disturbing Products of World Adoption Day.”  Many people, including adult adoptees, also wrote about it, and the offending tee shirt disappeared from the sales site, which has, I think, closed down.

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Part of the dilemma about all this is the linkage of the message with the money: the fundraising that is rampant in the world of adoption, the implicit notion that children are paid for, the exorbitant costs involved in international adoption, and the available multi-billion adoption tax credit, which many parents receive after all the fundraising. We are at best naive if we overlook these connections, and at worst complicit in a system that involves enormous amounts of money and an astonishing imbalance: US (and western European, Canadian, and Australian) adoption agencies and adoptive parents with huge economic power over indigent, impoverished countries and first/birth families.

Another reality is the linkage of child adoption with pet adoption. Many people who are deep within the adoption constellation (first/birth parents, adoptive parents, adopted persons) cringe at this, but outside that sphere, it’s a common thought. Some 30 years ago, when we were beginning the adoption process, I was telling an acquaintance about all the options and possibilities. He responded, “Wow, kind of like going to the pound and choosing the puppy that’s right for you.”

Wow. No.

That is, however, not an uncommon view. Take a look at this display of tee shirts for example, that places “Rescue Cats Rule!” next to “Seoul Sister” and “Peace Love Rescue Pet Adoption” next to “Love Knows No Borders–Africa” shirts.

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Am I over-sensitive to my children being compared to pets? No, I am not.

And hey: my adopted children–who are now thoughtful, independent, insightful adults, not cute little kids–aren’t okay with it either.

Words matter. Children matter. Lives matter. If we are ever going to have ethical, transparent adoption policies, we have to pay attention even to the little things. Like tee shirts.

 

 

 

 

 

“You Are Like The Whitest Black Person I Know!”

As the white adoptive mother of 4 transracially adopted children, I know so much more now about race and racism than I did some 30 years ago, when we started down the path of building a family through adoption. “Blinding ignorance does mislead us. O! Wretched mortals, open your eyes!,” wrote Leonardo da Vinci some 400 years ago. Living with and loving my children deeply, my eyes have been opened. Now young adults in their 20’s, they were raised in a diverse, predominately black Maryland county by a white mom and dad, were surrounded by various role models, and have lived with racist micro aggressions, as well as with overt, systemic racism. I live with white privilege. We all get up in the morning and go to work or school, do laundry, hang out with friends, travel, and buy groceries. And the world often (always?) sees us, and we see ourselves, through very different lenses, because of the color of our skin.

I continue to learn so much.

I first met Angela Tucker at the April 2013 premiere of the brilliant documentary Closure. The film is about Angela’s journey as an adopted person to find her birth parents. Whether you have any connection to adoption or not, you should see this award-winning documentary. It’s on Hulu, it’s on DVD: information is available here.

Angela Tucker and I after the April 2013 premiere of Closure

I am old enough to be Angela’s mom, and I can identify with some parts of her and her family’s journey of search and reunion. Angela and her husband Bryan Tucker, who filmed the documentary, have appeared at many screenings across the country and have been featured in many conferences. Closure is not their full-time work, though Angela has been a sought-after and insightful speaker at many venues. She is also a talented writer. Her blog The Adopted Life has provided much food for thought.

Her most recent post is eye-opening, and should be required reading for transracial adoptive parents–really, for anyone. Angela’s experience and her thoughts speak powerfully to the state of race relations in the US, maybe around the world–the fragility, the intensity, the confusion, the reality.

With her permission, I have reprinted Angela’s post here. Please read all of her posts at The Adopted Life.

 “You’re The Whitest Black Person I Know!”

By Angela Tucker

I recently led an audience consisting primarily of Caucasian folks through an exercise where we identified common racial micro-aggressions. We discussed what behaviors, language cues, social skills etc. hobbies etc. constitute receiving the label of an ethnicity as an adjective. Upon finishing the session I was greeted by an attendee who gushed; “I just love how you break down tough, controversial current topics on race relations. I was really challenged by your words, and was surprised by how comfortable I felt around you. You are like the Whitest Black person I know!”

I won’t spend time delving into the personhood and personality traits of the person behind these specific comments, because this is not a singular incident. I hear this sort of sentiment quite frequently, and after having conversations with others, I know that I am not alone. It is worth noting that the great majority of folks who have made statements like this are the type of “good white people” Brit Bennett describes in her article. I shall also frame this blog post around the truism which is that we all emit unconscious stereotypes via microagressive comments, and the great majority of us are certainly not seeking to offend others.

However, even when microagressions don’t consciously seek to offend, they still hold weight and have far reaching implications for those on the receiving end. The various ways I’ve been tagged as the Whitest Black Person has left an impression on me. For example, during my high school years, the comments actually prompted feelings of pride and relative success – I felt it to be a compliment to fit in with my predominantly Caucasian peers. During early college, comments alluding to my “articulate nature” encouraged a feeling of positivity around perceived academic success. Within the work force being told that I made my clients feel “surprisingly at ease” resulted in feelings of self-adulation as I took it to mean that my work ethic and professionalism was noted. A black friend with whom I’ve recently conversed about this very topic concurred in stating that some micro-aggressions made him feel a similar sense of haughtiness, even conceit as well.

I generally give people the benefit of the doubt and offer an understanding affirmation of their well-intended comments, rather than to address the qualms in suggesting a betrayal of my own culture. During times where I have felt clear headed and rational enough to push back (thus effectively speaking out against the effects of marginalization), I’ve found that there is no inverse. That when folks state that I am the Whitest Black person they know, that this does not also mean that they have interacted with someone and deemed them the “Blackest White person” ever. This discrepancy (and others) leave me wildly curious. I wonder which aspects, in addition to the obvious implicit racial biases, are at play during these moments.

My incessantly curious brain can’t help but to wonder about the antithesis of these statements. If I’m “surprisingly safe” and “put people at ease” then what wouldn’t be surprising? If others are shocked that they are able to have difficult conversations about race, this automatically implies that other black, young adult, female, transracial adoptees have shut them down in the past? Similarly if acting more professional equals acting White, wouldn’t that suggest that Whites are the status quo and the basis for which we measure white-collar jobs (no pun intended)? It seems that this could explain the sense of pride and conceit that I sometimes feel after receiving a comment like this. It makes sense to me that any compliment favoring the status quo may be initially perceived as a positive trait.

Inserting other ethnicities as adjectives have also helped me to put the pejorative sentence in to perspective. I’ve asked myself if a comment such as; “You’re the Asianist Latino I Know!” would be met with a rational understanding, or a sense of positive self regard? It’s unlikely. Most would feel a knee-jerk reaction to the overtly racist and offensive nature of the comment. Why then wouldn’t being the “Whitest Black Person” around come with the automatic visceral reaction of disgust?

Can I posit the idea that no one is born the stereotyped adjective that currently personifies their race? People are born with a certain amount of the melanin chemical that colors our skin, but we have learned how to act like our specific race within the social confines of the region in which we live. Herein lies the racial training that must occur for Whites raising Blacks, and vice versa. For transracial adoptees, learning with which adjective that we will align is a lifelong and formative process.

To some, I may be the Whitest Black person they know, but I know that having Black skin cannot equate to that specific person’s definition of what it means to act Black or White.

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