I have come to hate the phrase “honoring her culture.”
You often hear this expression bandied about when white parents talk about their internationally adopted children. But what does it really mean?
How does “honoring her culture” play out in the adoption community?
Filmmaker Jay Rosenstein called his documentary about native opposition to an “Indian” sports mascot “In whose honor?” The title refers to the “debate” over “Chief Illiniwek,” a war-painted, headdress wearing caricature that jumps around during University of Illinois sports events. Supporters of the “Chief” argue that this representation is meant to honor First Nations people.
Whether they like it or not.
Rosenstein raises a point that has long bothered me about the “honoring” of an adoptive child’s culture: The “honor” is often acted out in ways that are at direct odds with the desires of the people of that culture.
What would it mean for me to honor my own culture? What would it mean for me to honor the culture of another? Ultimately I think it is about respect. And respect would mean equality.
International adoption has never been about respect, however. And it has never been about equality. Current adoption practices depend on the inherent inequality among countries, among families and among individuals. This underlying inequality contributes to a faulty, skewed viewpoint about sending countries, adoption and the children themselves.
In a well-meaning attempt to counter negative images of their child’s country and culture and develop positive self-esteem within their children, adoptive parents often latch onto the beautiful things of a culture. They buy tons and tons of STUFF. As if STUFF will ever fill in the gaps created by yanking a child from her homeland.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Culture does not exist in the absence of its people.
So what does that mean, dear white adoptive parent who recently moved into my neighborhood with a kid my same color? It means it would sure be nice if you responded when I said hello.
What does it mean, dear white adoptive parent who is definitely not Asian American? That maybe you shouldn’t insistently tell me that Asian Americans don’t suffer from discrimination or racism. Hell, we’re the model minority.
What does it mean, dear white adoptive parent who comes to my cultural center? Why, it means that you don’t get any brownie points for the time you have spent dragging your kid to language classes. While somehow managing not to develop any relationships with people who aren’t white. And while loudly criticizing the volunteers who thanklessly (I now really, really understand the meaning of this word) give of their time and energy so you can brag about how long you’ve brought your kid because you think it is important to “honor her culture.”
Because you’ve already told me what it means. And I ask, In whose honor?