This photo set is one of the latest pieces of (Chinese) adoptee media to circulate the internet. It’s been widely shared via Facebook, Tumblr, Imgur, and through other news sites. With over 3,000 likes on Facebook and nearly 1,500 comments on the album, people have been shocked by the questions and comments children receive regarding their adoptions and have praised the project as being enlightening, heartbreaking, and beautiful all at the same time. I, however, have some serious problems the the very nature of the project.
Though I’ve heard nearly every one of these questions/comments, my first reaction was one of immediate discomfort. These whiteboard awareness campaigns have become popular recently, but as I scrolled through these images, I couldn’t help but feel that the mother was exploiting her children for her own creative art project. I don’t believe parents should use their children to make a political statement. I feel particularly queasy about the younger daughter’s presence in the project, wondering if she fully understands the controversial world she’s stepping into and the extremely public nature of the internet.
My next reaction was one of frustration. Many of the comments posted by bystanders were of shock and surprise to the ignorant comments adoptees receive on a regular basis. These statements, however, are nothing new. Adult adoptees have been trying to express this sentiment for a long time to closed ears. With matured faces and fully developed bodies, adult adoptees who describe painful comments targeted towards them as children are told to “let it go” or asked “how long are you going to let the past affect you?” When this adoptive mother stepped in and showed what adult adoptees have been trying to do for years, her words were met with a largely positive reception. And this is why I’m frustrated. I can recall conversations I’ve had with people where my status as an adoptee has led the other person to nitpick and battle with me over words, definitions, ideas. When my mother (a white adoptive parent) has presented similar perspectives to the same person, her ideas have been accepted or rejected with more respect than mine. How long are we going to let the adoption community be centered around prospective and current adoptive parents instead of adoptees?
Another idea this photo set ignores is the ignorance that can lie within adoptive families or extended family members. Sh*tty Things Adoptive Families Say to Adoptees is a compilation by adoptees of remarks made to them, not by strangers in the grocery store or passersby in the public park, but by their own family members. “If we didn’t adopt you you’d probably be a prostitute or working in the rice fields,” “We already did our charity when we got you,” and “I always wanted an Oriental daughter and I got one,” are some of the quotes submitted as of now. I know the feeling of questioning my place as a “real” [insert family name] in my larger, extended family and the uncomfortable heaviness in my stomach when occasional degrading comments about Asians or people of color, in general, are stated at some family gathering. While comments from strangers are infuriating, ignorance from family members is saddening on a different level.
In an interview given for Yahoo Shine, Kelley-Wagner said, “I wanted to turn this into a teachable moment, especially because I don’t want the girls to internalize this negativity.” I strongly feel it is not the duty of marginalized people to constantly educate the dominant class. My lived experience as an adoptee in an adoptive family shouldn’t make every potential incident a “teachable moment.” This puts the responsibility on people of color/adoptees/women/LGBT/low income people etc. to tell people what’s ignorant or offensive instead of holding people responsible for their own insensitive words when, in many cases, it should be pretty obvious that telling someone “You’re lucky you were adopted, otherwise you’d be dead on the street,” is offensive.
Additionally, Kelly-Wagner claims that she didn’t want the girls to internalize these remarks. I think the way in which this project was carried out could end up doing just that, compounding their hurt and feelings of isolation, instead of being empowering. Many of these whiteboard campaigns’ slogans such as, “I need feminism because…”, “I, too, am Harvard,” or “#IDefyStereotypes,” contain some element of fighting against the status quo. In this case, the girls are just listlessly holding these hate filled or ignorant words in their hands.
While I understand the mother’s intentions, this project would have been a lot less problematic if it was adoptee driven. I hope that this photo set does make onlookers rethink commenting on other people’s families, and I sincerely hope adoptive families/parents realize that they, too, need to be more sensitive to adoptees’ narratives and privacy.