Bugs under a microscope

I’ve always had some reservation about about “diversity panels” in which people of color sit in the front of a room full of white people and take questions. The object, of course, is the education of white people. Which in itself is not a bad thing. But it comes at the expense of people of color.

Sometimes I have the feeling we’re bugs under a microscope, open to scrutiny at any time. Want to know what a person of color thinks? Ask me, even if we’ve just met! Of course I would love to share all my personal feelings with you. Go ahead and grill me about anything and everything–who knows when you might next get such a wonderful opportunity to inspect a person of color up close.


Recently such a panel was hosted for the purpose of educating adoptive parents. Called “Raising a Chinese American,” the prepared questions seemed to reflect more about the questioners than the panelists. For example, one question asked about the panelists’ identity, but provided all potential answers: “Do you self-identify most as Chinese American, Taiwanese American, Singaporean American or Asian American?”

What if the panelists identify as Chinese? Is that even an option?  And what about multiple identities?

And nowhere in the questions was the word “racism” mentioned. “Racial discrimination,” yes. Racism, no.

I think that often white people can’t imagine the kind of damage caused by racism to people of color. Heck, they can barely say the word. Why would anybody think people of color might want to share painful experiences in a public venue? Especially when you consider that people often experience denial of racism as racism. For the most part, I don’t discuss incidents of racism with white people any more. But I worry that if I don’t speak about it, it leads people to believe that it doesn’t exist.

Similarly, I have reservations about transracial adoptee panels used for the purpose of educating (primarily white) adoptive parents. Persons who were adopted transracially share two “othered” statuses–as a person of color and as an adoptee. Putting them on display seems wrong. It reminds me of “Celestials” and other groups being displayed in the circus. I also think that it is unethical for adoption agencies and parent groups to provide this sort of “education” without having any kind of services in place for adoptees. Such intensive probing and questioning comes at a cost. If I experience denial of racism as another form of racism, how do adoptees experience a-parents who discount their experiences?

Recently I had the opportunity to speak with a (white) moderator of an adult adoptee panel. This person (an agency employee) was talking about an adoptee who was scheduled to participate. Ever have the feeling that you know the race of the person being spoken about without it ever being mentioned? That was the feeling I got from the moderator, and it wasn’t a good one. And I was right, by the way. The agency employee was both patronizing and condescending. How could the adoptee not sense this as well?

I worry that my concern about these types of seminars will be seen as patronizing, however. And I’m not sure how to express my reservations–to adoption support groups, to adoptive parents and to persons who were adopted. Adoptive parents don’t seem to see the ethical problems. And obviously adult adoptees can make their own decisions. How do I express my desire for them not to be used? Is my experience even valid in this context?

I do feel strongly that the voice of people of color and adoptees should be directly heard, instead of through distorted ventriloquy. But the question would be, how do we do this without increasing objectification?

4 thoughts on “Bugs under a microscope

  1. You bring up such very valid points here. I am an adult adoptee of color and have spoken on such panels on more than one occasion. I also work for an adoption organization and have helped to organize such panels. But recently we have begun to feel that these panels are not really the best venues for educating adoptive or preadoptive parents. And yes, they often DO feel that they are at the expense of the panelists. It has taken a while to figure this out. What we have moved to is offering adult adoptee professionals, now researchers in areas of race and adoption, a venue to speak as experts, true experts, in the field. They are now our keynote speakers, presenting their professional findings (although many choose to also interweave their own personal experiences to some degree or another) in a way that gives THEM control over what they say and share.

  2. Susan, thanks for your input. I wonder if you could share some of the process you experienced while moving away from the idea of panels? Are there any arguments you feel would be persuasive to adoptive parents and agencies? One of the problems I have encountered is that these types of panels are tremendously popular with adoptive parents and pre-adoptive parents.

  3. resistance – my coworker and I attended a transracial adoption conference at St. John’s University in New York in October and we were both really struck by the quality and quantity of adult adoptees who were now social workers, professors, researchers, doctors, etc. For so long adoptees have been seen as eternal CHILDREN and were to be spoken about by others, or passively sitting on panels speaking about their CHILDhoods. But many of them spoke of the pride and empowerment they felt at finally taking the reins, and being able to direct and analyse their own research and their own work about adoption and race. John Raible, Amanda Baden and Susan Harris O’Connor all gave very powerful presentations, weaving small bits of their own history along with their professional work. It was really the beginning of a huge shift for me. They spoke about having been glad to speak on those panels in the past, but they have moved well beyond that now. Now THEY are the professionals, the experts, and it is great to be able to put them in the spotlight and give them the kudos and respect they have well earned.

    The argument I would give is: adoptees have grown up.

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