When I was in late high school and applying to colleges, people would often ask me what I wanted to study or what I thought I might do professionally. As a somewhat indecisive person, I answered vaguely that I had three goals for my life – I wanted to travel, I wanted to help people, and I wanted to be happy. This seemed to satisfy most people, and they would often ruminate possible career tracks for me or give me suggestions of organizations doing interesting work locally and globally. I feel grateful that I have always had an abundance of people who supported me and deeply believed that I would do good in the world.
By the time I was in high school, I had already received a number of awards and recognitions for my work. I served two terms as president of a student organization that fundraised for international nonprofits, was vice president of the international club, secretary of a group that raised awareness about sexual assault, and co-founder of another club. I was a lifetime Girl Scout member, a regular volunteer at a local animal shelter, and an avid churchgoer. From my parents, school, church, and community, I learned early on that helping others was one of the biggest characteristics that made someone a good person. And I was determined to help others and be a good person.
While I was in college, I started to identify more strongly as a person of color and see my identities as an Asian American woman and as an adoptee as political entities, not just cultural ones. As I learned about hate crimes against Asian Americans, disparities, fetishes, stereotypes, and systems issues in adoption, I made concentrated efforts to become engaged with these topics because they so personally affected me. But something peculiar happened; I felt really guilty. To research and discuss issues specific to the Asian American population or advocate for adoptee rights felt selfish and felt like I was no longer selflessly doing good for others. Instead of educating peers on pressing issues like the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and child labor abuses on cocoa farms in Latin America, I was educating others on my own identity and experiences.
It took me a long time in college to feel settled in the thought that advocating for issues that affected me was not a selfish thing to do. I could work for change that benefitted me personally but also attempted to lift up a whole community of which I was a part. I realized that I had been taught White feminism and do-gooding, which is synonymous with helping by doing for others. While many fields suggest that doing for others doesn’t work, but rather we need to do with others, there are still plenty of people whose philosophy is a top-down “doing for.” White people have the highest privilege in the United States, and so, of course, those who want to make a positive impact on society help others. I deeply believe in the value of gratitude, and gratitude is the basis on which a lot of people cite for volunteering for nonprofits, donating to charities, and advocating for causes. White folks who have lived relatively carefree lives recognize that others have lived with less fortune, which starts the train of thought that doing for others is good and doing for oneself is unnecessary at best and selfish at worst.
Through subtle and unconscious messages, this mindset is what was passed on to me and what I had to work to unlearn in order to feel confident in my new self-motivated passions. After reflecting on my learning and unlearning processes, I see how this particular viewpoint permeates Western thought on adoption and lends itself to adoption positive rhetoric. Thinking in simple terms of doing for others as good and doing for oneself as bad places struggling mothers in two radically different camps, both of which are dangerous caricatures: the selfless hero and the undeserving ne’er-do-well.
The language of selflessness allows first mothers who relinquish their children for adoption to be overly praised as courageous and making “the ultimate sacrifice.” Adoptive parents often tell their children that “your birth mother loved you so much, she gave you up,” which is a confusing message to adoptees that equates love with leaving. But these mothers are idolized for thinking of their child before themselves, even in cases where social policies and outside coercion were the determinants in the decision making process, if she even had the choice. Birth mothers who have placed a child for adoption are seen in a positive light because their actions have done for others twice. The first is for their child, for whom it is assumed was granted a better life in a more stable/two-parent/financially-secure/Western household. And the second person they have benefitted is the new adoptive parent(s). Young mothers considering an adoption plan are often told to think of the beautiful gift of parenthood they are able to give this other couple and that they are doing something really wonderful for people who otherwise might not be able to be parents. Selflessly putting their child as well as another couple over their own desires is encouraged and subsequently commended.
If the mother who does for others is deemed good, then the mother who does for herself must be bad. On the other side of the spectrum, struggling mothers who want to keep their children are demonized as selfish and unfit to parent. They are told to consider their child’s future and all of the things they will not be able to provide. When low-income mothers seek welfare or other subsidies in hopes of being able to provide more, the labels greedy, money-hungry, and “Welfare-Queen” are added to them as others retort that they are simply having children to collect money from the government.
The selfless hero and undeserving ne’er-do-well labels must be considered when examining the role of fundraising in the adoption system. Because of the high cost of adoption, many prospective adoptive parents resort to fundraising to supplement some of the fees for international and domestic adoption, which I wrote about: here. In order to gain audience appeal for the fundraisers, many times these children’s stories are shared publicly through a tear-jerker story of “saving a third-world child” in a humanitarian-aid project like manner, as well as the adoptive parents’ heartbreaking journey through their own infertility struggles. Whether the money is collected through direct donations on blogs or raised from goods for sale in Etsy shops and garage sales, people support these fundraising efforts because they can now be a part of the “doing good for others” train — they have helped a couple who is adopting, which is helping a child — which ultimately makes them feel like a good person.
But using flip-thinking, what would it look like if a struggling single mother set up a GoFundMe page, Esty shop, or another common method used for adoption fundraising, explicitly advertised and designed to help her with basic living costs that would allow her to keep her child? What kind of media attention would she draw, and how many people would support her cause to support herself? I believe she would be considered a scam artist and a crook, trying to further game the system. It would be asked of her if she should really be raising a child if she needed to ask for help from others, when no one asks if adoptive families should be adopting if they can’t afford the cost of adoption. This mother would be deemed undeserving and unloving because rather than furthering a “pay-it-forward” chain, her priority is first to help herself and her family.
In addition to mothers, the idea that doing for others is good and doing for oneself is selfish also affects how adoptees are perceived. As adults, adoptees are often placed in two categories that are pitted against each other: the “well-adjusted adoptee” and the “angry adoptee.” The “well-adjusted adoptee” doesn’t think about their adoption and its affect on their life. They’re assimilated into the dominant culture and content with that. Adoptees who challenge the system and decry the corruption and trafficking that propel adoptions are oftentimes characterized by adoptive parents and onlookers as “angry” and maladjusted. While I would argue that this anger is justified, it is also important to note that this label is inaccurate because adoption produces a range of contradictory emotions that can all exist simultaneously, not just anger.
The angry and ungrateful labels are given to adoptees who become activists not only because these adoptees criticize the system that brought them to their adoptive families, but also because their acknowledgement of issues related to adoption critiques the very notion that doing for others creates a positive outcome – which is the philosophy that led many to adopt in the first place. Vocal adoptees get questioned, “Shouldn’t you just be grateful that someone did something for you?” and told, “If your parents hadn’t done this for you, you could be dead.” They are seen as selfish because they are working towards change that affects themselves and also because they are placing their need of self-advocacy above their adoptive parents’ need of reassurance that adopting was a righteous decision. Placing adoptees in the unfair position of having to be extra grateful for their life circumstances, even the devastating ones, creates a skewed relationship between parent and child that can never be normalized. Further, these statements and critiques of adult adoptee activists contribute to the feelings of guilt that other adoptees and I had to work so hard to unlearn in order to feel comfortable becoming advocates for ourselves.
The conclusion I want to make from this piece is not that volunteering for organizations and living out a charitable heart are bad things. There will always be cases where helping or standing up for someone else is absolutely the right thing to do. And in a world filled with depressing news of hate crimes and increasing disparities, we need more people who want to live a life with others in mind. But, we must not be blinded by the good intentions of do-gooding, and we have to be willing to examine the language that surrounds our choices. In terms of adoption, there is a two-pronged explanation for this type of rhetoric used. The first is race, because White people with privilege have been taught to do for others as a means of doing good. The second connection that cannot be ignored is the relationship between religion to selflessness and adoption. While this language may seem harmless, upon further exploration we see that the only person in the adoption triad it benefits is the adoptive parent.
I am now at a place in my life where I do not decry all of religion, but I no longer believe in the value of selflessness. Doing with others for their benefit and doing for self shouldn’t be pitted against each other, because people can and oftentimes do both simultaneously. Self advocacy must not be seen as selfish, rather a legitimate choice, because those who hold marginalized identities have no certainty that others will advocate for their concerns. More importantly, if any change is going to happen, it is not going to be instigated from those benefiting from the status quo. Instead, challenges to common beliefs, attitudes, and rhetoric has to come from those with lived experiences of the consequences of “benevolent actions.”