September 10, 2007

Doing Some Unpacking

A very tactful comment left here this weekend reminded me anew of how much I am still learning about what it can be like to live as an adopted person in our society. For me, part of settling into my role as an adoptive parent was simply acknowledging that my son's experience growing up will be different than my own. Not necessarily better nor worse, but different. Partly because he is his own unique person, of course, but also because of the simple fact that he will grow up adopted and I did not.

As I was thinking about those differences this weekend, I was struck by the parallels I could draw with discussions about how things like race and gender influence our social experience. Whether I like it or not, our society has firmly-held myths and attitudes about being adopted. Although we might counter those within our own family, we still live and move in that larger social context. I have no first-hand knowledge of what it is like to be adopted, just as I do not know first-hand what it is like to not be white or heterosexual or a woman. But I can listen to and live life with those who do have first-hand knowledge and begin to analyze my own experience in the light of what I learn. And I am wondering if the notion of privilege can be applied to a person's adopted/non-adopted status in the same way it can to race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. If so, then an important piece of my development as an adoptive parent is to become aware of my own experience as a non-adoptee.

So, with sincere apologies to Peggy McIntosh, here is a list I came up with of the privileges I carry as a non-adopted person. ("Family" here refers to my own immediate family growing up, not the family I've created with T and Puppy.)
  1. I can easily obtain accurate and complete information about my birth, including a copy of the official birth certificate issued.
  2. I have never been expected to have an opinion about my parents' choice to birth and raise me.
  3. I can criticize, critique, or express frustration about my childhood or my relationship with my parents without it being assumed that I am questioning our familial connection.
  4. I am never asked to speak on behalf of all non-adopted people.
  5. It is generally not assumed that my views on abortion or adoption have anything to do with my status as a non-adoptee.
  6. I have access to at least two generations of my family's medical history.
  7. I can be fairly confident that people will not praise or condemn my parents' act of bringing me into their family on moral grounds.
  8. I can be fairly certain that unethical choices or illegal activity were not involved in my parents' creation of their family.
  9. I can be fairly certain that monetary amounts were never directly or indirectly assigned to my gender, race, age or healthiness.
  10. I can remain fairly oblivious to the experiences of first families and adoptees without feeling penalty in general society for such oblivion.
  11. I have access to accurate and complete information about my life prior to my conscious memory, including my time in utero.
  12. If I am struggling in relationships with my immediate family, I do not need to ask whether it is related to adoption.
  13. If I am generally struggling emotionally, relationally or psychologically, I do not need to ask whether it is related to adoption.
  14. Should my parents die, I do not worry that pension benefits or inheritance rights will not be assigned to me.
  15. I do not see the process which created my family being used to promote such things as highway clean-ups or pet ownership (i.e. adopt-a-street programs).
  16. I am usually in the company of other people who are not adopted.
  17. I can expect that people will not have negative expectations about my behavior or potential based on my non-adopted status.
  18. I have never had someone question the authenticity of my family.
  19. The various relationships in my extended family are reflected in greeting cards, books, television programs, movies and other forms of media.
  20. I have never had my name changed without my knowledge and consent.
  21. I have never had access to information about my genetic relatives limited or denied by state law or a private group's policies.
I am sure there are some things on that list which I do not have quite right and others which are missing. I am still trying on the idea of privilege as it relates to adoption, and it is not a perfectly polished list in any respect. But it has been useful for me to write it out it in this way. It reminds me of ways I can be more proactive in addressing some of the more blatant inequities (like #1 and #15). But it also reminds me of the more subtle messages Puppy will encounter about what it means to be adopted in our society, the ways he is seen by some as "other" regardless of how we have framed adoption within our household. Hopefully thinking about my own privilege will enable me to better help him navigate that society as he is growing up, and help me see the blind spots in my own thinking.


Ungrateful Little Bastard said...

I want to link to this later when I have more time to write.

And maybe it's the wine cooler and my low alcohol tolerance, but the concept of #4 had me giggling hysterically. I mean it's not funny in the inverse. But, the absurdity of the recoiling fascination some people have for adoptees, and how they do want them to speak for *all* adoptees, if only to remind them later that not *all* adoptees feel the same way... sometimes I just have to laugh.

Anonymous said...

Very powerful, Heather. The Invisible Knapsack is quite an eye-opener, isn't it? Your parallel "unpacking" here is quite intriguing.

It's also quite powerful to see, written in a point-by-point manner, many of the thoughts working their way around the nooks and crannies in my mind -- especially with a husband and daughter who are adoptees and me being a non-adoptee. I feel the differences in my own experiences and frames of reference.

You've included some I've definitely not thought about, and even one seemingly "less weighty" item that I've been frustrated about for years and often wondered whether I'm just "too sensitive" -- the adopt-a-road/pet programs. I've had people raise their eyebrows or roll their eyes at me for discussing this one.(What's so bad about using the word "Sponsor" anyway?) I've had something kicking around in my drafts forever on this.

Thanks for compiling this list -- yet another eye-opener. I know you mentioned it could grow and change in time, but right now, it's pretty darn good.

Possum said...

I like the list.
Great post.
(Aussie adoptee)

abebech said...

This is really fantastic -- and to see it all together in one place. gah.

Heather said...

I'm so glad you all found some worthwhile things here. I wasn't sure how it would be received.

ULB, it is absurd, isn't it? But we do that to you adoptees all the time!

Gretchen, just last Sunday my church asked families to volunteer for an Adopt-a-College-Student program. Sigh. I used to think I was overly sensitive, but I really think those programs devalue the permanent bonds of adoption. Not to mention equate adopted people with streets and animals.

atlasien said...

Great post! You put some serious work into this.

As a non-adopted person I went down the list and found the majority of the items fit me... though there were just a few interesting exceptions.

6. I have access to at least two generations of my family's medical history.

(Not on both sides, because my father is adopted.)

7. I can be fairly confident that people will not praise or condemn my parents' act of bringing me into their family on moral grounds.

(Only somewhat confident, because some racial supremacists will condemn multiracial birth whereas other people have unrealistic positive stereotypes about it e.g. having "the best of both worlds")

14. Should my parents die, I do not worry that pension benefits or inheritance rights will not be assigned to me.

(A bit iffy, since my father is a citizen of another country.)

18. I have never had someone question the authenticity of my family.

(This has happened fairly frequently, again due to being multiracial.)

Anonymous said...


Third Mom said...

This is terrific, thank you!

And here's from the intercountry adoption perspective:

People I don't know will not control my citizenship.

Of course, war and civil strife may take one's citizenship, too, but in normal circumstances, people who are not adopted to a different country don't have to worry about losing their citizenship without their knowledge.

Anonymous said...

This is a thoughtful list -- it kinda exhausts me! Thanks for sharing it.

Mollie said...

A friend of mine raised a question about non-adopted privilege during a gathering of adoptive parents last night. I started scribbling my personal list before reading yours. Thankfully she sent a link. I am grateful to find your list and the thought-provoking question. Here are some of mine:

When filling out applications & enrollment forms for school, sports, etc I don't have to give it a second thought when filling in parent information. I don't need special approval from a judge or social worker to get a copy of my original birth certificate. When completing health questionaires, I can usually answer most of the information about my ancestors. Many school assignments are desigened for people like me and they affirm my biological family structure. I am frequently affirmed for my resemblance to immediate members of my family. When I want to buy books about family life the vast majority faeature biological family structures. When I talk with coworkers about growing up, I feel like I fit in because usually their families are biological like mine. I know important stories about my birth family going back several generations, include tales of their emigration to the USA. I can readily get information & help other biological relatives get info about traits needed to successfully complete high school biology class. When tragedies or horrific circumstances are featured on television, birth families are not blamed just for being birth families. When my parents reminisce about annoying things that I did as a kid, how I joined my family is not blamed. My sense of self is not negatively impacted by how I joined my family. How I joined my family is not considered relevant to political discussions about abortion. I don't have to decide whether or not to disclose my status as a person born to my family because it is considered normal. If I want to talk to my birth sister, I can call her up. There are no impediments. I don't have to search. I don't need the permission from others (eg. social workers, foster parents, adoptive parents). When I feel furious or sad, my emotions are not dissected through the lens of my birth family status. I don't have to make up words to describe relationships with people who raised me. There are commonly accepted, well known English words to identy each individual. (In contrast, R's status as "foster undle" to refer to the biological son of the young man who used to be his foster brother.) Medical insurance was immediately provided through my father's employer. There was no waiting period. (Unlike when D&R moved in with me, called me "Mom" and were not covered for many months because their adoptions were not finaled yet.) I have only called one woman "Mom" and one man "Dad" in my life. I grew up feeling like I
"fit" in my family. When I imagined life in a different family I knew that I was being raised in the family I was born into. It was a simply family, not a complicated reality. The name I have now is the same one that I had since birth.

I noticed as I was writing this list that it became increasingly more personal. I also realized that not all these privileges apply to every non-adopted person. Nevertheless, they are all true for me.

E said...

Re 19. The various relationships...

All family members have designations that are lasting, unambiguous & widely accepted/understood across my culture. Grandmother, father, uncle, cousin etc.

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