Recently, a story about a white adoptive mother of two Chinese-American adoptees and the art project she did highlighting 37 awful things said to them, has been making the rounds. The art project consists of her taking photos of the daughters holding a small whiteboard with one question/statement written on it. Supposedly, the photo series was her eldest daughters idea. I have some thoughts.
Yet again, the voices of adult adoptees are ignored and adoptees that are still minors are used as cover for a shitty parenting decision. The adoptive mother, Kim Kelley-Wagner, says that members of the adoptee community objected to the project on grounds that it exploits her children. This criticism is more than fair. I’d go further and say it’s a completely misguided affair that serves no actual purpose other than to gain fleeting internet fame on the backs of her children’s real-life and life-long trauma. Instead of thoughtfully considering the feedback, Mrs. Kelley-Wagner doubles down with the addition of using her children as a shield, saying it was the eldest daughter’s idea all along and that her youngest was included as well after she insisted.
Adult adoptees are very familiar with this story. Being ignored by adoptive parents, apparently the only important leg of the adoption triad (Adoptee, Adoptive Parents, Birth Parents), is an all too common occurrence. Any even slightly negative comment made at the adoptive parents’ “expense” is met with a defensiveness that NFL head coaches would kill for. Adoptees look mean, adoptive parents look like victims, and the dynamic is cemented in the minds of the public, if they even think about adoption at all.
A friend of mine, expressed to me that it’s a shame that the dialogue about adoptees is limited to “but which side do they belong to?” I’d say it’s much worse. It’s stuck at the level of:
“Any negative talk is hurtful, so please stop!”
— Signed, Adoptive Parents
Until the adoptive parents leg of the adoption triad can let go of their fear and the defensiveness that it leads to, the dialogue can only be pushed so far by adult adoptees themselves.
As for the art project itself. Here’s the simple truth. It won’t change anything. The most effective way to affect change happens at the interpersonal, intimate relationship level. The aggressors, the people who say things like this to adoptees and their adoptive parents, are not moved by public stunts. It’s probably counterproductive at that. Quick outrage, a snarky tweet, a “woke” art project are the easy way out. Genuine outreach and compassion in the face of hatred, vitriol and violence are the hard, real work.
The concrete advice I’d give to Kim Kelley-Wagner’s kids is this: Live your life and live it well. Don’t dwell on people like this in life. If someone in your life exhibits similar behaviors or attitudes and you believe there is a chance for a genuine dialogue than have the courage to engage. Talk, listen, think, listen, think, talk, listen, etc. THAT is a real impact, the real work.
Finally, for all my adoptees out there. There is a world of support out there for you, that is waiting to welcome you with open arms, when you’re ready to join us. We’ll get down to the hard work, but above all else, forge connections and live with joy.