Dear adoptive parent

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.

And they create STUFF to represent that culture and the adoptive culture.    (See examples here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.)

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?

15 thoughts on “Dear adoptive parent

  1. It’s not just adoptive parents. I see people with multiracial children who seem to have way too much interest in the other half of the child’s heritage. It even gets to the point that the white (I feel weird generalizing, but it always seem to be the white parent) parent is wringing her (argh! Another generalization! Maybe dads do this, too. I’ve yet to meet one) hands and complaining about how her husband doesn’t realize how important it is to celebrate their child’s heritage, go to the [insert ethnicity] parades and centers, and speak the native language (Dad grew up not speaking the language? He should learn now! Their child is missing out on part of their heritage!)

    I did hear one mom say that she didn’t have any cultural ties like this, so it was important that her child “know who he is.” That didn’t make me feel any better about things.

  2. I was just recently reading about this at Asian Nation, here is a excerpt.
    http://www.asian-nation.org/adopted.shtml

    “Sociologists Jiannbin Lee Shiao and Mia Tuan recently completed a study about various aspects of this issue and in particular, on the parenting styles of parents who adopted from Korea. They found that parents dealt with the racial differences between themselves and their children by using one of three approaches:

    Emphasizing the Exotic: objectifying their children or showing them off as if they were an exotic pet
    Active Acknowledgement: recognizing the importance of race and racism in America, encouraging discussion, and careful observation if their children encountered any racially based problems
    Colorblind: overlooking, ignoring, or pretending racial differences did not exist

    This third approach was the most commonly used one”
    _____

    “Culture does not exist in the absence of its people.” Wow, perfectly put..

  3. (Disclaimer: I’m a white AP mom to an Asian TRA.) Can anyone tell me how, in the day of jet travel, the internet, global telecommunication, and large-scale immigration all over the world, some white (and even some black) people see Asian/Asian-American people as mysterious or exotic? I’ve gone to school with, been friends with, and worked with people of Asian descent for almost my entire life (46 years). Asian people are about as mysterious and exotic as I am—NOT at all! I don’t understand why this really weird view persists…

    I would hope that APs would not wear something/have their child wear something that non-APs wouldn’t wear. (Or what members who share your child’s racial/ethnic heritage wouldn’t wear.) This is a child, not a Labrador Retriever, for goodness sake!

    As for “culture,” well we are learning Korean because the language is so important in the Korean-American community and if our son wants to/is able to find his first/natural/bio family, there’s a good chance they won’t speak English. And he may choose to live in Korea once he reaches adulthood so I think learning the language from childhood is a good idea. I am grateful to the church-run Korean school we attend for the amazing effort they have made to help us. (Most of the other parents are obviously fluent Korean speakers so I sometimes need some help understanding newsletters, teaching material, etc.) They are doing us a HUGE favor and I’m quite aware of that.

    We discuss the realities of racism straight-on. Only white people can afford to be colorblind. If white parents raise their Asian/Black/Latino children as if they were white, those children are going to be in for the shock of their lives. Racism is alive and well and is traumatic enough without having to endure “colorblind” APs.

    I really love your blog even though I know white APs are not exactly your favorite type of person.

  4. What my wife and I try to project to our adopted Korean sons is that we know that who they are and what their story is matters. Life seems to tend to cause everything else to fall into place.

    I don’t see our attention given Korean culture as fake or disrespectful. I can see their pain and I care about it. I once found my ten year old up very late watching a show on the history channel about the Korean war. He sat there crying and when I sat next to him he said that he felt so sad about what happened to his people. I have to be there for him and he knows that I don’t own that.

    I see my job now as teaching them to be their own person. To find a path that makes their life what they choose. Not what fate and and ill motivated decisions by adults, agencies and governments have forced on them.

    Segregation sucks in my opinion, but how can we address that other than finding the points where we come together? Mutual respect is the only way and I don’t see how that comes without a common ground.

  5. @Heike

    “Asian people are about as mysterious and exotic as I am—NOT at all! I don’t understand why this really weird view persists…”

    The answer(s) to your ignorance are as accessible as a Google search. I suggest doing so very soon.

    @Ed

    “Segregation sucks in my opinion, but how can we address that other than finding the points where we come together? Mutual respect is the only way and I don’t see how that comes without a common ground.”

    Asking for mutual respect when you belong to the dominant group that benefits from a white supremacist structure is a helluva lot to ask of marginalized groups. Instead of asking for that from them, you have to offer it first by doing your own legwork when it comes to being an anti-racism ally. Apologies if I’m misconstruing this, but that’s what I glean from your comment.

  6. @K-Rage “The answer(s) to your ignorance are as accessible as a Google search. I suggest doing so very soon.” I can see on the internet that the “exotic” and “mysterious” stereotypes exist, but I haven’t found an explanation as to WHY they still exist. Is it just Hollywood and Madison Avenue? It would seem that too many non-Asians (whites and blacks) know too many Asians/Asian-Americans for those stereotypes to still be accepted.

  7. Seriously? You see them, but you “haven’t found an explanation as to WHY they still exist’?

    Again, I stand by my original answer, but this may be a bit more helpful: Google: asian stereotype history, anti-asian racism, white privilege, derailing for dummies, read up on those. Then read all of the the posts on this blog, then read all of links on the blogroll, then go to the library and find some books and documentaries that have been recommended via this and other blogs, then read books and blogs written by TRAs, and then, and then, and then…you’re probably starting to get the picture, right?

    In short, educate yourself. Use that brain. You’ve got a kid who will benefit from you knowing more about racism’s ugly history and current practice.

    For adoptive parents to TRA kids, not knowing isn’t a viable excuse anymore (it never should’ve been) considering all of the information and first hand accounts from POC and TRAs that are available online.

    So step it up, AP. NOW.

  8. I think what I’m asking is why Asians still get tagged with “mysterious” and “exotic” stereotypes in addition to being on the receiving end of white supremacist racism. I know that anti-Asian racism exists. I’ve seen it, my son has experienced it, my friends have experienced it. Race hatred is alive and thriving in the U.S. Other POC–especially African-Americans–don’t have this “exotic” crap to deal with. I wonder why Asians still get tagged with this; that’s really all I was asking. (Of course African-Americans and other POC have a whole load of racism to deal with on a daily basis. Some of my friends have been pulled over so many times for DWB they’ve lost count. I’ve only been pulled over by cops 3 times in my life.)

    I actually have read many books and watched quite a few documentaries about the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S. (Truckee, CA, anyone? Not exactly one of America’s finest moments…) Almost all the blogs I read are by TRA adoptees, usually from Asia. (And most are deeply dritical of IA.) I read books by Asian TRAs about their experiences growing up in white families. I am not some naive “colorblind” AP who is just clueless about the challenges her son will face. I’m just trying to prepare my son for life in a racialized world.

  9. “I think what I’m asking is why Asians still get tagged with “mysterious” and “exotic” stereotypes in addition to being on the receiving end of white supremacist racism.”

    The Asian Mystique by Sheridan Prasso might answer your question. The book isn’t perfect by any means, but it does detail the West’s history of exotifying East and Southeast Asia, givng the origins of some stereotypes. So if that is what you’re getting at, then that book isn’t a bad start.

    If not, the only answer I can give as to why Asians are still seen as “exotic”/”mysterious” is because racism still exists. You can’t really separate the two and have one exist without the other. The stereotypes are there to Other us, which furthers the idea that we are foreign, not all the way human, and worthy of exploitation. That itself, is racist.

    Apologies if I’ve sounded harsh, but your question just sounded incredibly naïve even for someone who claims to understand racial issues. Those stereotypes still exist because they’re another way to dehimanize a group of people and maintain the white norm.

    Congrats on not being as cluless as most AP. Keep it up.

  10. @K-Rage, thanks for the book recommendation. That’s really the question that I was trying to ask and I’m sorry if I was unclear. (The late Edward Said wrote a book about orientalism mainly as it applies to the people in the Middle East which was really informative. I think Prasso’s book may help me understand the origins of East and Southeast Asian “exoticism.”) I know that racial minorities have to somehow be tagged as “other” in order to maintain the white supremacist status quo. (The “savage Red Man,” the “natural slave” African, etc.) The way that Asian-Americans have been portrayed as “perpetual foreigners” in their own countries is shockingly disgraceful. Thank you for your replies to my posts.

  11. Oops, meant to write: “The way that Asian-Americans have been portrayed as “perpetual foreigners” in their own country is shockingly disgraceful.”

  12. @K-Rage

    “Asking for mutual respect when you belong to the dominant group that benefits from a white supremacist structure is a helluva lot to ask of marginalized groups. Instead of asking for that from them, you have to offer it first by doing your own legwork when it comes to being an anti-racism ally. Apologies if I’m misconstruing this, but that’s what I glean from your comment.”

    I wouldn’t say I am asking for mutual respect so much as I believe that is the only way.

    If anything, I would have expected someone concerned up in my position in the “dominant group” to have taken issue with my wanting my children to make their own life rather than being caught up in the injustices inherent in their situation. But all that is represents my teaching them how I went about handling my own painful history.

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