Reversing the gaze

Culture keepingDespite the stacks of "regular" books on my nightstand, it is rare that I make time to read a book that is not a required text for one of my courses. I made an exception, however, with Culture Keeping: White Mothers, International Adoption and the Negotiation of Family Difference by Heather Jacobson.

I was contacted by the publisher and asked if I would read and review the book. I'm so glad I made the time. In light of a lot of the discussions I've been part of (as subject, link, or participant) lately in the blog-o'sphere, especially with the young teen starlet who likes to make "goofy faces," this book is all the more relevant in the whole context of international and transracial adoption discourse.

Although I'm not personally mentioned (she mentions adult adoptee blogs and forums), Jacobson does mention the huge influence that adult Korean adoptees have made on the way in which adoption agencies now think of "culture keeping" and the encouragement they give adoptive parents to engage in incorporating their internationally adopted child's ethnic culture into the family. Jacobson writes,

"These cautionary tales from the past have had a profound effect on how the adoption community (and industry) approaches the ethnic socialization of internationally adopted children. Contemporary adoption practices, policy, and international adoption discourse now emphasize the importance of culture keeping."

I thought it was interesting that in this study Jacobson compares the culture-keeping of White adoptive parents who adopt from Russia with those who adopted children from China. The practices and extent of culture keeping vary quite a lot between these two families. A big part of why this is has to do with race; the visible differences for the Chinese adoptive families compared to the Russian adoptive families, who can choose whether or not to disclose the adoption, means that for the Russian adoptive families the lack of racial differences (although the cultural differences are huge) could be a reason to not engage in culture keeping.

I liked that Jacobson ties in the responsibilites of culture keeping as an expectation placed on the mother, and that definitely is what I've seen in my own practice experiences. Whether it is in the contexts of adoption or in parenting in general, there exists a noticeable silence about fatherhood and fathering. Jacobson writes that she did not specify in her call for participants that she was looking only for mothers and in fact, shares that often times adoptive fathers who were contacted "handed over" the project to their wives almost as if there was an acknowledgment that it was their wive's job to do the culture keeping (Jacobson's sample had 46 participants – six were fathers. Single parents and GLBT parents were also in her sample).

One of the findings from this study (and although it is no real surprise to me, it is still somewhat shocking) is how much the adoptive parents of Chinese children did not consider having a racially and ethnically Asian child to be problematic in the same ways as if they had adopted a Black or African child.  Those who chose not to adopt a Black child often did so because of racist family members who would not accept a Black child but didn't object to an Asian child; often the "model minority" stereotype was a factor, and some seemed to encourage that stereotype. To me, this reinforced the perception that there is little or no racism towards Asians, which is false. This is also worrisome to me because it seems to suggest that adoptive parents actively encourage stereotyping and promotes a racial hierarchy.

I was also interested to read Jacobson's critique that although parents of Chinese children often participated in culture and language schools and camps, FCC, and participated in what I call the "tourist" version of cultures (that which can be purchased), that

"the China-adoptive mothers I interviewed did not look to Chinese or Asian American mothers as role models for how to raise their children, nor did they see themselves as connected to earlier international-adoptive mothers (with children from Korea, for example) or interracial (biological) families. Rather, they…considered themselves "pioneers" when it came to raising their daughters."

Jacobson also finds in her study is that despite the heartfelt attempts to recognize the importance of keeping their child connected in some way to their ethnic cultures, many of these adoptive parents struggled with how much and in what ways to do so. Some, it seems, felt pressured by other FCC families they know who seemed to be doing "more" in terms of culture keeping. However, as Jacobson recognizes, these attempts towards "authentic" Chinese culture that many of the adoptive parents wanted reflected only a certain kind of "Chinese" culture – that is China as in the country of China (far away) or Chinese immigrant communities. Jacobson found that China-adoptive parents determined that Chinese immigrants practiced a "more genuine Chinese culture" and not a "watered-down version of Chinese-ness" and furthermore, these adoptive parents were disinterested in current modern, Chinese American history or politics.

Overall, I thought this book was definitely thought-provoking and highly recommend it. One thing I was thinking about as I read this, was the idea of "reversing the gaze."* Reversing the gaze here in this context is about how the adoptive parents construct ideas and activities around culture and race rather than looking at how the adopted children construct their identiies in terms of culture and race. Frankly, I'm getting kind of tired reading about how we adoptees are doing; I'm interested in how adoptive parents are doing too.

*thanks to Indi for the information on "reversing the gaze."

* ETA 3/2 – Although this book is based on a research study, I wanted to let people know it's a very accessible and easy to read book!