Lately a number of my friends have been asking me about my opinion on this new video regarding questions and comments on adopted children. Most people assume these questions come not from malicious intent, but sheer ignorance. Recently, a father from Washington came up with what Huffington Post called an “Easy, Idiot-Proof Trick To Know What To Say To Adoptive Parents.” While the idea of “if you wouldn’t say it about a boob job…” may result in a few giggles, this advice is really quite problematic and maybe just as insulting as the questions aimed at adoptees.
The “if you wouldn’t say it about a boob job” rule connotes that questions about adoptive children are as uncomfortable as questions about breasts. It’s really an unfortunate comparison, further exotifying and objectifying both adoptive children of color and women with breast augmentations. I understand that it’s supposed to be a joke – a light hearted way to get this man’s message across. I, however, find nothing funny about the questions I have received because of my adoptee status or the way in which this video addresses the topic.
1. Original: Is she your real daughter? Corrected: Is she your biological daughter?
Why is this even a necessary question? Does it really matter to a stranger passing by that I am adopted? While Butterworth is correct that biological is preferable to real, I would argue that he probably doesn’t understand the ways in which constantly hearing the qualifying term “biological” is harmful. Does being a non-biological family member say something to the inquirer about my status in my family? If not, why wouldn’t “Is she your daughter?” suffice?
2. Original: Where’d you get her from? Corrected: Where is your daughter from?
The edited version of this question still makes a presumption that as a person of color, the adoptee is from somewhere else. This is still an assumption. This is still harmful.
3. Original: Did you get to, like, pick the kid out that you wanted? Corrected: How does the adoption process actually work?
Why is the inquirer interested in knowing whether or not the adoptive parent had a choice in this matter? Are they genuinely interested in adopting?
4. Original: Did you get those because you couldn’t have kids of your own? Corrected: Just don’t ask this one.
It’s interesting that Jesse Butterworth makes a point of saying “adoption isn’t always the result of infertility, and even if it was, it’s none of your business.” This video has an implied sensitivity to adoptive parents’ issues of infertility, but none at all for the adoptee who is still being intrusively questioned and exotified, despite his attempts at making these questions somewhat better. Constantly hearing about infertility issues connotes that adoption is a last resort option. Many adoptees already feel different; we don’t want to feel like a last choice as well. The difference between these critiques is what it means for the adoptive parents versus the adoptee. Adoption rhetoric should be adoptee focused, not adoptive parent centric.
5 Original: Do you mind if I touch those? Do you love them even though they’re not real? Weren’t you worried they weren’t going to, like, look right? How much did they cost? Corrected: Just Don’t….
“Just don’t” is right. However annoying these questions may be for adoptive parents, they are more hurtful to the adoptee. This video fails to acknowledge that, and that what I see as the main grievance.
This video is yet another piece of adoptive parent centered media. It’s a PSA written/acted/directed by adoptive parents on advice about how to make adoptive parents’ lives a little easier. The video completely disregards the fact that adoptees grow out of the cute, little infant stage and develop a voice of their own. Adoptees’ stories are theirs and theirs alone. This video does a little to critique the way in which curious onlookers ask questions, but it does not critique the current answerers at all, continuing a rhetoric of adoptive parents speaking on behalf of adoptees. The truth is that adoptees do grow up, and we must learn how to face these questions among others for our entire lives.
This video also doesn’t address at all why people feel compelled to ask these questions in the first place. Instead, it normalizes asking questions of transracial families by providing instructive language that directs people with “Don’t say this. Say this instead.” Transracial families should not be a walking display case for adoption just because they are more outwardly visible than families that have come together in other ways. There are many of these adoptive parents’ attempts to talk about questions they’ve received about their children. But where are the adoptee voices?
Kathryn Jin is a young adult Chinese adoptee who voices how she has answered questions about her adoption and growing up in a transracial family.
While I commend her for sharing her voice, I think there are two key messages that are still lacking. The first is to adoptees, and that is simply that you do not have to answer any questions about your adoption, and should not feel pressured to do so. “That’s personal” or “I don’t feel comfortable answering that” are perfectly fine answers. Sharing personal information is fine if that’s what the you choose to do, but adoptees don’t owe anyone an explanation or a narrative. The second message is to adoptive parents: please stop sharing so much of your children’s stories with the world. I understand the natural reaction is to respond to a question when asked, but parents, too, can say “that’s personal” or “I don’t feel comfortable answering that for my child.” I strongly believe parents should think about what information their child would want shared. Would they want the neighbor down the street to know their biological mother was a drug addict or that their biological father left their family in poverty? Would they want the person in the grocery store line to know that they threw temper tantrums and cried every night for the first year in America? Would they want their school teacher to know how much money was involved in their adoption? My guess is probably not. If adoptees share those pieces of their story with trusted individuals, that’s an entirely different situation.
Though Jesse Butterworth’s video, “If You Wouldn’t Say it About a Boob Job…”, attempts to raise awareness about a problem in the adoption community, it does so in a potentially equally harmful way. It objectifies adoptees and breasts by comparing the two, and it ignores the adoptee perspective by looking only at how the questions are uncomfortable for adoptive parents not the adoptees. The bottom line is that these stories, central to the adoptee narrative, are very personal. Outsiders looking in should not just reword, but instead refrain from asking such intrusive questions. Likewise parents should refrain from answering them. These are the adoptees’ stories to share or not share, and either choice is fine.