We will not be silenced

I’m hosting a space for those adoptees (or allies) who wanted to respond to the New York Times series, "Relative Choices" but were censored. Unfortunately, I did not save my comment, as I assumed it would be published. Note to self: Next time when dealing with any traditional paper with a history of squelching adult adoptee voices, save EVERYthing.

Basically, here is what I mentioned: That despite the "humor" and "glibness" of TJ’s piece, I found it insensitive. I mentioned that dismissing the real feelings and opinions of transracial adoptees as a choice comparable to being a vegetarian was demeaning. I also sent a shout out to her daughter, stating that the more than 140,000 Asian adoptees in the US would be there for her some day and welcome her. Then, I sealed my fate. I stated that using the term "Mongolian" to describe Asian features went out of fashion the year her book was published (yes, that was perhaps what the NYT calls "mean" and fyi, that date is 1989. I know my late 80’s pop culture and I remember what a big deal her book was back then too.)

So Monday night, around 9 pm. I see that a new post is up on the Relative Choices blog. Not even 5 minutes after I’d sent my response, several friends online are talking about this piece. Three of us have sent responses. You know what happened next – none of them made it on line.

I’d offered to post the other responses here. These folks are actually smart enough to save their work.

First up, is Sarah. This is the comment she sent:

“Well, you know, if you were still in China you would be working in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited bathroom breaks!”

This is the type of emotional blackmail that so many transnational adoptees have to deal with, and it is the source of a lot of pain and guilt. Parents who make this kind of statement do two things: 1) reinforce the “savior” myth by showing how bad & dirty the Third World is and how lucky the adoptee is to not live there and 2) guilt the adoptee into being “grateful” for being adopted.

Another thing that transnational and transracial adoptees often have to deal with is being perpetually characterized and dismissed as petulant adolescents, forever “bitter” and “complaining” as this blogger characterizes a recent anthology by some “Midwestern Asian Adoptees.” Being critical of our experiences as adoptees and also being critical of the systems that make up adoption does not necessarily mean that one hates one’s parents. There is tremendous loss (as well as gain) in any adoption, and acknowledging this loss does not mean that all of these adult adoptees resent their adoptive parents. Many of us wonder about our biological parents–who even though we may not have met them (or may never meet them), are very much real in that they exist, or at one time existed, on this planet.

But Sarah took it one step further. She writes a really wonderful post here. Many of the sentiments in this letter to "Willow" were similar to the ones I outlined in my comment (only Sarah was a lot nicer). My favorite part is this:

So yes, Willow, I agree with your mother in that I do think you should write everything down.  Girl, write all of this shit down. So not only can you tell your therapist (there is no shame in therapy!!!), you can tell the other adult adoptees that I hope you will one day meet. Because there are a lot of us. In fact, there is a global community of us. We are out there (even though by reading the NYT one wouldn’t think so), and we have voices, and we support one another. And we would support you. The whole “biological” vs. “real” competition is a farce. Our birth mothers were and are real. I wrote that they were real because they existed on the planet—and I meant to also add that they’re real because they exist in our hearts. And no matter what kind of sarcastic trumpeting your adoptive mother writes about how she is so for real, it’s ok for you to know that our first mothers loved us, too. My Korean mother died six months before my first trip back to Seoul. But I know–I KNOW–that she loved me. Our first mothers loved us, and it’s ok for us to love them back. It has absolutely nothing to do with the love you have for your adoptive mom. It doesn’t make that love any less, even if she worries it will. Because it is different, and being an adopted child is different than not being an adopted child.

So write it all down, because it’s not about holding onto grudges, it’s about processing. Catharsis. We can laugh together at the misplaced humor, at the bullshit. Because this is some bullshit. And you can one day forgive (or not forgive) your mother, as I have come to terms with and forgiven my parents, for their unintentional ignorance, and be happy in yourself and your life as a whole person.

But I do not forget.  Forgive, yes.  Forget, no.  Because if we forget, then we are silenced.

Can’t wait to hear what you have to say one day, Willow.

And next, is Shannon Gibney’s piece.

Relative Choices: Whose Choices Are They?
By Shannon Gibney

I used to get excited when I learned of a new book, story, or series on adoption – particularly transracial adoption. The desire to see ourselves, and our stories, reflected back to us is fundamentally a human one, which might be why so many transracial adoptees (or TRAs, as we call ourselves) never quite get used to this narrative void.

But of course, human beings are nothing if not adaptable, and I have quickly learned to adapt my expectations, even in the face of overwhelming desire. What else is one to do when faced with the absolute onslaught of stories on transracial adoption and adoptees, but not of us, and certainly not by us? What to make of this tome of literature that paints a face that none of us would recognize even in the most pristine of mirrors? At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it feels to me something like the peculiar phenomenon of  “Black Literature,” pre-1960s, which was almost entirely penned by White people. It is a very odd thing to be described by people who do not occupy your subject position, especially since this tactic has been used throughout U.S. history to alienate and undercut various minority groups’ sense of pride, respect, and dignity in their own stories.

And of course, I do not mean to suggest that we adult adoptees are alone in this – birth parents are always conspicuously absent from the adoption debate as well. I have grown used to seeing story after story penned by White adoptive parents, expert after expert speaking as a White adoptive parent, editor after editor acting as a white adoptive parent, comment after comment dominated by the White adoptive parent. This is quite disconcerting on many levels, not the least of which is this: To seek the voice of just one part of any community, and to then amplify it to the exclusion of others can cause the worst kind of dissension and ill-feeling, because it creates an uneven power dynamic that can take a generation or many times, more, to undo.

And that brings us full-circle to exactly where we are. A new generation of politicized, adult adoptees are writing our own stories, speaking for ourselves, and stepping outside of the narrow “pro-adoption,” “anti-adoption,” “pro-White people,” “anti-White people,” system of false binaries that has dominated the adoption debate for years. We are writers, researchers, professors, bloggers, scientists, and professors, and we bring a unique perspective to TRA that really has not been heard (loudly at least) until now. And though I can feel the ground moving under us, though I can see the work of Jae Ran Kim, Lisa Marie Rollins, Tobias Hubinette, Bryan Thoa Worra, Ji In, Jane Jeong Trenka, Sandy White Hawk, Sun Yung Shin, Kim Park Nelson, and so many others shifting the terms of engagement – in fact, issuing in a massive paradigm shift – I am still struck, every time, when I come across narratives of the old order, such as the New York Times new “Relative Choices” series.

It isn’t just that the Times killed a series that featured a wide range of adult adoptee voices last year, and it isn’t just that the comments section are screened in such a way that strong dissenting voices are omitted. No, it is something far more nuanced, and therefore more insidious: The entire frame of the series is set up to reinforce fossilized notions of adoption, exchange, race, culture, gender, class, East/West, North/South, and many other binaries.

If this really is a series on “Adoption and the American Family,” as the tagline states, then why are there no adoptees of African descent listed as contributors? Why are there no Native or Latino adoptee contributors? There are certainly enough of us to impact “the American Family.” I am very unclear about if this series is just focusing on international adoption, or transracial adoption, or just adoption in general. Since the editor has offered no clarification on this point for the reader, the effect is to reinscribe the problematic notion that the only adoptees who are “real,” or at least those whose voices are worth hearing are those of Asian descent. (Just to clarify: I am in no way suggesting that my Asian American adoptee counterparts don’t have valuable and important things to say in this forum, but rather pointing out the problems that the current frame in which they are presented can cause.)

Furthermore, we must ask once again: Where are the birth parents in the “Adoption and the American Family” equation? Unless there are more contributors lined up that I am not privy to, none of the voices we are hearing will present this vital perspective.

Then there is the issue of the credibility of the adoptive parent contributors, versus that of the adoptee contributors. If you read the contributor bios, you will note that all five of the AP contributors are all older, and highly accomplished in their chosen fields – whether it be medicine, journalism, or creative writing. Three of the six adoptee contributors, on the other hand, are under 18, and only one has a list of credentials that can hold a candle to those of the AP contributors. This is dangerous for two reasons: 1) It reinforces the notion that adoptees are “always on the cusp of adulthood,” and therefore unable to think critically and deeply about our experiences; and 2) There are plenty of adult adoptees who are just as accomplished as any of the AP, and would have been happy to participate in the series; one wonders why the editor did not contact them.

Finally, I would like to suggest that the personal adoption narrative is dead. What do I mean by that, exactly? Simply that this genre has taken us as far as it can on shedding new light on any aspect of the adoption experience, and the adoption triad. It is not that personal narrative is not important – as a creative writer I know its power quite well, and find it essential to tell many stories. However, in order to move our understanding of any social issue forward, we must have both personal and critical knowledge. It is not enough to hear lone voices over and over again – we need to place them into a larger, global narrative so that we can begin to apprehend their origins, development and possibilities – in a word, their power. And the problem is, thus far, discussions around adoption have been inundated by personal narratives and testimonies. There has been little to no discussion about the very real structural and global politics of transracial and transnational adoption. This is the vanguard of the discourse – this is where we need to push ourselves to engage if we are going to make any progress in understanding. And this is precisely what the Times series is not interested in exploring.

From where I sit, writing this article, the series title “Relative Choices” says it all: Some of us get to choose who our relatives are, and some of us don’t. Some of us get to choose to adopt our children, and some of us have no other choice but to give them away. Choice is relative. Before we comprehend anything about adoption, family and power, we must comprehend that some of us have more choices than others.

Shannon Gibney is a 32-year-old mixed Black adult adoptee. She is a creative writer, teacher, journalist and activist, and is deeply indebted to all her TRA colleagues for challenging her thinking on this matter – particularly Jane Jeong Trenka, Sun Yung Shin, Jae Ran Kim and Kim Park Nelson. To learn more about Shannon, or to read her work, visit shannongibney.net.

Here is another comment that wasn’t published:

When I first saw the word “Mongolian”, I thought to myself, “Janowitz can’t seriously be using that word
to describe her daughter’s features!” It’s just as demeaning as the word “Oriental”.

As I read further, Janowitz managed to be even more extreme with her steamrolling attempt to flatten the
differences between her and her adopted daughter. It’s one thing to acknowledge universal experiences in
parenting, but it’s another to belittle and disqualify her daughter’s birthparents in order to assert maternal supremacy over her child. Janowitz shows recklessness with this attitude.

Having been adopted myself, I know firsthand the pitfalls of unconditional gratitude toward decisions my adoptive parents made without my knowledge or consent. So, when I read Janowitz’s insinuation that her daughter should express gratitude for not being left in China to work “in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited bathroom breaks”, I literally cringed. It’s bad enough to feel, as an adoptee, that you continually have to seek others’ approval in order not to be rejected or abandoned, but to shift the responsibility of emotional and physical survival squarely onto an adopted child’s shoulders is inexcusable.

As Willow grows older and perhaps comes across this post by her mother, I hope she sits her mother down and has a long, serious talk about how dismissive she was of her daughter’s unique history as a transracial adoptee.

This was the censored comment from Ji In

Hmm. I’m getting a strange sense of deja vu. It’s too bad that in order
to validate their own relationships with their adoptive children,
parents often seem to feel a need to invalidate the importance of
ethnic heritage and birth culture or birth family ties. I realize that
it’s usually unintentional, but those who are reading this series with
a sincere interest in learning more about perspectives in adoption
should bear in mind that good intentions aren’t enough.

"Like I say to Willow: ‘Well, you know, if you were still in China you
would be working in a factory for 14 hours a day with only limited
bathroom breaks!’"

Tama, I’m guessing you were going for some kind of sarcasm here, but I
think it’s unfortunate that it had to be at the expense of your
daughter’s heritage. What does this accomplish? Do you point out groups
of Chinese people on the street and remind her how lucky she is that
she is not one of them?

I’m floored when I read things like this. Is it supposed to instill
gratitude, or make the adoptive family bond somehow more important than
an adoptee’s connection to his or her birth culture? Is it supposed to
goad her into swearing a blood oath loyalty to her adoptive family over

I also wonder if you have read the adoptee-authored book that
you mention, and in what way you feel that your dismissal of the experiences of the
authors, who are transracially, transnationally adopted people (like
your daughter), helps to further your own point.

You tossed around the word "privileges." Please consider stepping
outside of your own sense of privilege, and taking some time to think
about what these kinds of statements reveal about your own ingrained
attitudes about your daughter’s birth heritage. These messages make
lasting impressions.

Author: JaeRan

Assistant professor at UW Tacoma, writer, and researcher.

13 thoughts

  1. Thanks Jae Ran for opening up your blog. These are illuminating and while it is sad that the readers of the NWT won’t see them on their site, it’s very helpful to see them here.

  2. They didn’t publish my comment either. I really thought it was very mild….I merely criticized Janowitz because she verbalized (to her daughter) her assumptions about what her fate would have been had she stayed in China. I wish I had saved my comment as well. I was very terse and all I said was that those particular words were cruel. That’s it!

  3. Thank you so much, JR, for being the superwoman that you are and maintaining your insightful, awesome blog while at the same time working, teaching, and being a wife and mother. And studying for the GRE! Whew! I’m so glad your blog is consistently here so that we can have a voice.

  4. Jae Ran,
    I was glad to see that you got through today in the comments to Hollee’s essay. But some of the other comments made me want to bang my head on the table.

  5. Regardless of how smug or self-assured TJ might be, or how unresponsive the NYT might seem, I think we can be confident that the buzz and dissent that we have all helped create is more than enough to rattle them into at least doing *some* examination of what went down. I also encourage people to keep making noise about this, because what they would really want at this point would be for all of us to just go away. We won’t!!
    Thanks, Jae Ran, for hosting this!

  6. NYT Adoption Blog Salts Wounds In International Adoption Community

    The New York Times recently launched a blog about adoption which so far focuses quite a bit about international adoption issues. As any adoptive parent could have predicted, its been a rough ride already.
    I think that people who are not themse…

  7. Dear All,
    Censoring articles and views regarding work of (critical) Adoptees happens worldwide. We have seen this in South-Korea for many years but also in Europe, and the States. Especially those media which has been by influenced by adopters and adoption parents directly or indirectly.
    Unfortunally it’s an international phenomenon which is hard to counter as long policymakers and politics are closer to adopters as Adoptees. That’s why we – United Adoptees International Netherlands – launched a campaign last year to make the public aware of the ‘downside’ of (Intercountry) adoption (ICA).
    We started to debate and discuss on all levels of media and institutes to get our message and opinion published and heard. With the on going adoption scandals globally we had the chance to become from underdog to serious partner in media regarding ICA and adoption in general within the Netherlands.
    It’s possible to gain this position but alone and by organizing ourselves and to be present on different levels of the topic. This urges us to understand our personal adoptions first to oversee the necessary ‘helicopter view’ which is needed to get on the table of programmers and editors. This will solve the problem that our announcements will be seen as ‘personal’ memoirs of unresolved problems and traumas to a development on international scale and impact.
    This necessary development is needed to encounter remarks like; ‘not sexy’, ‘no direct news value’, ‘badly written’ ‘till to complex and difficult. The need is there to get in the center court of the game and the only possibility to get there is to join efforts to create the necessary pressure and power worldwide. This blog is one of the very good initiatives but we have to want reach further.
    Warm regards,
    Hilbrand W.S. Westra a.k.a Jung Woon Seok
    Chairman – United Adoptees International – The Netherlands

  8. I too never had my comment posted. As an adoptive Mom, I was sick to see that comment. I actually re-read it several times thinking I MUST be reading it wrong. It’s hard enough when our kids get this stuff from stupid strangers, but from a parent…I can’t even imagine saying that to my daughter. In reality isn’t everyone who doesn’t have to work in those factories fortunate, and those who do, victims of their circumstances? I think about my daughter’s birth Mom every day. Hoping she is well, knowing my joy came at the price of her loss.

  9. Thank you for posting these. I winced several times reading TJ’s article. It was a pretty useless and narcissistic article in my estimation. I certainly learn more from adult adoptees about how to parent my daughter than from many other adults, including “adoption experts”. I want you all to know that, and thank you again for giving back to your younger brothers and sisters who were also transracially adopted. I am not opposed to transracial or international adoptions, I believe having parents is invaluable over almost anything else for a child. But there are many many issues which need to be addressed with adoptions, even to the extent that children are sometimes taken from their birth parents simply for a “better” (so called) Western style life, (as SG said above “we must comprehend that some of us have more choices than others”)and those problems need to be brought forward and addressed, as well as the childrearing issues themselves. My daughter is not quite at a point to comprehend what many of you say, but I know I appreciate it and keep it all in mind to keep myself from making similar mistakes as TJ made in my comments and understanding.
    Ann, IrishGermanFallenCatholicWhiteAmericanMom
    of a lovely young woman (12) from China.

  10. PS: just a note on my general comment about supporting them, that one of my concerns about international and transracial adoptions include
    the determined continuance of some cultures which are so small their survival is at stake.

  11. Thank you, for posting these responses and opening up your thoughts for commentary. The article you are responding to was a small-minded piece of work, but it’s inspired me to start a folder full of clippings for my own daughter adopted from China to see when she gets old enough to begin her quest for self-identity.
    I know I can’t protect her forever from people’s opinions, but a great way to help her to understand that she has a right for her voice to be heard is to read all the thoughts expressed here by so many caring, thoughtful individuals.

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