Leveraging Our Voices

Earlier in June my news feed on various social media sites (okay, let’s be honest, Twitter and Facebook) was abuzz with coverage of Rachel Dolezal. Yet unlike many of feeds, folks discussing Dolezal were concerned about the misuse and misappropriation of the term transracial. One of the earliest adoptees discussing this in a public forum was Lisa Marie Rollins, founder of Adopted & Fostered Adults of the African Diaspora.

Within my circle of Facebook friends, I shared my concerns:

June 13 FB post

It was after this post that a friend, colleague, and adoptee scholar/writer alerted me to the Rollins in piece on The Lost Daughters on Sunday, June 14. By Monday, June 15 adoptees were buzzing as more information concerning Dolezal was reported in news media. I turned to my Facebook friends that include fierce adult adoptee academics, activist, performers, and writers as well as our allies. In less than six hours over twenty adoptees, adoptive parents, and allies began collaborating in a Google document to co-author the statement, “An Open Letter: Why Co-opting “Transracial” in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”

The statement demonstrates the power of adoption coalitions between transracial, international, domestic adoptees and the allies we have formed with adoptive parents and non-adoptees alike. Since I joined the Adoption Studies community in 2007 as I finished my MSc Gender and Social Policy degree, I have witnessed the friendships and communities forged between these various populations. From the work in Gazillion Voices to the women writing for The Lost Daughters, the diversity within the adoption community is at our fingertips.

Most recently, I saw the power of what it means to build coalitions within the adoption community at the annual KAAN conference in St. Louis, MO. (Please note that I am a member of the organization’s Advisory Council and Assistant Director.) This year’s conference featured the voices of a range of adoptees – internationally adopted (Korean, Chinese) and domestically adopted (transracial and same-race placements). I had the pleasure to moderate our breakfast plenary,[1] #BlackLivesMatter and its Significance to Adoptive Families, featuring:

  • Honorable Judge Judy Preddy Draper, who was appointed Associate Circuit Judge on April 13, 2004 by Governor Bob Holden[2]
  • Shannon Gibney, educator, activist, and author of SEE NO COLOR (Release date: November 2015 by Carolrhoda Lab). She was adopted by a white family in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1975 and currently lives with her husband and children in Minneapolis.
  • Robert O’Connor, founder and principle trainer at TransracialAdoptionTraining.com. Robert is an adult transracial adoptee of African-American descent.  He and his older brother experienced multiple failed adoptions and foster care prior to being transracially adopted at the age of four.  He grew up as part of one of the first generations of transracial adoptive families.
  • Susan Harris O’Connor, a nationally known solo performance artist and author of The Harris Narratives: An Introspective Study of a Transracial Adoptee. She is also a professional coach/consultant and director of quality assurance and adoption services at Children’s Services of Roxbury.  In 2014 Ms. O’Connor received the Outstanding Practitioner in Adoption Award from St. John’s University.

To help prepare the participants for the breakfast plenary, I asked them to reflect on the following questions:

  • Based on your experiences, why should adoptive parents recognize how racism against communities of color impact their transracially adopted children?
  • How can non-Black people of color, adoptees show solidarity in these movements? How can their white adoptive parents?
  • What do you wish your adoptive parents had known about the racism you encountered in your childhood or adulthood?

Below is an excerpt of my opening remarks prior to the plenary session:

Given our location in St. Louis, MO for this year’s KAAN, we would be remiss if we did not discuss the grand jury decisions in the deaths of Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO) and Eric Garner (Staten Island, NY), #BlackLivesMatter activism, and the police deaths of other people of color. To this end I’m thinking about the senseless deaths of young boys like Jordan Davis and Tamir Rice, who would have been thirteen yesterday. I’m also thinking of the violence enacted on the bodies of trans women of color including Michelle Vash, Lamia Beard, Tiffany Edwards, Betty Skinner, and countless others. 

We recognize the importance of discussing issues such as white privilege, racial profiling in policing, and the impact of implicit bias within our families. We also realize that transracial and international adoptive families cannot overlook the role racism and race have in the lives of adoptees.

Transracial adoptees of color are ensconced in white privilege and simultaneously exist in black and brown bodies capable of experience the violence that has taken the lives of countless Americans as a result of racism. They may live in families where extended family are complicit in racism against people of color and view them as exceptions.

We need to have real, honest conversations about the role of race and white privilege in transracially adoptive families. Adoptees of color regardless of origin share many parallel memories of dissonance and racism. The positive reactions of the audience (primarily Korean adoptees and adoptive parents of Korean children) reflected these similarities.

The fact that KAAN brings together various members of the adoption constellation and bridging the imagined divides between domestic and internationally adopted communities is what keeps me coming back to the organization. The organization continues to evolve and reflect the changing face of the adoption community. This is particularly evidenced in the creation of my position and the implementation of the Advisory Council in 2010 as well as the various keynote speakers, performers, and speakers. To give you a better understanding of the conference content, check out the Storify of tweets and Instagram photos. Please note that by mid-July, photos from #KAAN2015 should be available on Facebook.

The activism surrounding Dolezal and the misuse of the term transracial alongside my continued involvement with KAAN and its annual conference reminded me the importance of coalitions and community building. Working together to forge deep connections between us yields great change. This is why I’m excited to be working with adoptees as we turn the corner and #FlipTheScript on how popular culture discusses adoption.

[1] Lisa Marie Rollins was unable to join us due to unforeseen circumstances.

[2] Honorable Judge Draper’s remarks reflected her experiences as a bi-racial Korean-African American and in many ways echoed themes discussed by Gibney, Harris-O’Connor, and O’Connor.

Advice to my Younger Self #4theNextGen #FliptheScript

A few weeks ago two undergraduates working on assignments at institutions on the respective coasts interviewed me. Their questions centered on my lived experiences as an adopted person who grew up in a predominately white environment. They also sought to better understand how I locate my civic engagement within the broader adoption community. But more importantly, their questions prompted my interest concerning the advice I would give to my younger self.

This desire to provide guidance also was shaped by participating in the inaugural video in new series from the An-Ya Project, the Lost Daughters, and KAAN (the Korean American Adoptee Adoptive Family Network) in my capacity as KAAN’s Assistant Director. The series aims to engage with adopted and fostered youth as well as members of the wider adoption constellation. In many ways it serves to complement the edited volume Dear Wonderful You (2014) published by the An-Ya Project. Please see the press release for more information.

Below is what I would say to the younger me:

  • Be fierce. Feed your hunger for knowledge. If it was not for my personal passion to learn more about Asian American history and American militarism in Asia, I would never have gained knowledge about the No Gun Ri and My Lai massacres in Korea and Vietnam, respectively. My knowledge of internment would have been limited to the high school curriculum. My passion for history and increasing my comprehension of the Korean War would have been stifled. At the same time, I would never have stumbled across websites like ModelMinority.com or Monolid To fourteen-year-old girl in the suburbs of Western New York these sites quenched my thirst for Asian American community.
  • Your birth search is your search; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As I noted in my interview, be assertive and tell individuals that while you appreciate their help, this is not their search. To this end, be clear that comments such as “don’t you know your birth parents could die” are hostile aggressions that make assumptions that all adoptees search at the same time. This is not to minimize the loss experienced by adoptees or birth parents that discover that their birth parents or children, respectively, have passed on. Rather, this aggressive comment illustrates the emotional manipulation that occurs in conversations between adoptees and non-adopted persons. To threaten the potential death of a parent positions the adoptee as somehow deficient for not searching immediately. It also does not recognize that birth search is a complex journey for all parties involved. But more importantly, what we fail to realize is that not all adoptees elect to search. Instead we have come to see search as a natural part of the adopted person’s experience. The assumption that one searches implicitly renders those who do not search as pathological. At the same time, we cannot make assumptions concerning why adoptees decide to embark on a birth search.

This advice is what I told my younger self as I spoke alongside fabulous, strong women affiliated with the An-Ya Project and the Lost Daughters – Diane Rene Christian, Mei-Mei Ellerman and Amanda Transue Woolston. Yet, there’s two other pieces of advice I wish I could have told my eighteen-year-old self:

  • Anyone who tells you that they “feel bad that your parents are white” undermines your lived reality. This microaggression assumes that there is only a singular Asian American experience. But don’t be surprised if you encounter this comment. Do feel empowered to stand up for yourself.
  • There is not a single authentic Asian American experience. I entered my undergraduate institution with the hopes that I would “find my Asian self.” I joined the Asian Student Association. I chartered the first Asian-interest sorority in the District of Columbia. And yet, what I realized during my final semester of undergrad is that Asian Americans represent a multiplicity of experiences. Rather we’re part of a broader constellation of histories woven together as a result of a legacy of anti-Asian sentiment in the US, American imperialism, and Asian American activism.

As I witness generations of adoptees coming together across space, place, and time on deterritorialized and asynchronous platforms (e.g. blogs and Facebook) as well as through synchronous medium such as Twitter, I remain hopeful. Adoptees are seeing themselves part of a broader community. They are witnessing adult adoptee voices being centered and honored as legitimate experiences in adoption-related debates, research, and conversations.