Saturday, August 21, 2010

Scott Simon, "Meant to Be," & Ethnicity

Did you catch Scott Simon's in-house interview at NPR?  I've always liked him as a host at NPR -- clever, low-key humor, good with the human interest story.  I didn't much like his story about how he talks to his daughters about their adoptions, and said so here:

I wish it could leave it as just a cute story, but I have to mention that the story he tells Elise -- we wanted a family, so we went to China -- is woefully incomplete. He is telling HIS story, not hers.
And when I first heard of his soon-to-be released book, Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other, and announced it here, I had to mention that I didn't much like the title, given my feeling about the whole "meant to be" thing. To me, "we were meant to be parent and child," is saying that a child was meant to lose their first parents with all the pain and grief that comes with it, that the birth parents were to suffer life-long grief and loss and pain, so that the child could join its adoptive family.  I don't believe that all of that happened so that my children could be mine as it was "meant to be" from the beginning.  But from his choice of book title and the interview, it sure seems that Simon is pretty sanguine about a birth parent's losses.  As Margie of Third Mom commented at the NPR site:

Expressing love and rationalizing differences are the easy part of the intercountry adoption story. Adoptive parents must also speak on behalf of the marginalized women who gave birth to our children and see no other future for themselves or their children than permanent separation.
"Meant to be" is such a dismissive way of talking and thinking about birth parts -- it's Rosie O'Donnell saying her adopted children just grew in the wrong tummy before becoming hers and hers alone.

And then there's the ethnicity part. Several of you saw the connection between yesterday's post about Zoe's lesson on ethnic groups and Simon's completely dismissive view of ethnicity for transracial/transethnic adoptees.  My favorite was kantmakm's comment:  "I'm guessing his oldest has not yet gotten to the Social Studies assignment that Zoe was working on. . . ."  As a commenter at Margie's post noted, "And starting the title with "Baby" to me shows that he is really not thinking about his children's experiences as older adoptees as they grow out of their cute, innocent babyhood."  Indeed.

I guess I should have expected, for one thing, his preference for "ethnicity" over "race" as the focus.  I posted before about a piece that Simon wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "How to Say Thanksgiving in Mandarin."  Here's his take-away about transracial adoption:

When my parents—a Jewish man and an Irish woman—married in the 1950s, they were warned, as transracial adoption families often are, that their children would face bigotry and hostility. But today, our 6-year-old niece Juliette, a California blond, slips her arm around the shoulders of our daughters and says, "We're cousins for life, right?"

Our Chinese children sit at the Passover table and scrounge for Easter eggs. They wear "South Side Irish" green scarves around their necks on St. Patrick's Day. It's all in the family.

My wife came home one day from our daughters' Chinese culture class to announce there would be no class next week. "Because of the Jewish holidays," she explained, straight-faced. Only in America. Our girls speak French, like their mother. My wife and I join our girls to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" in Mandarin. We've learned that families mixed by marriage or adoption don't shrink or starve a heritage. They nourish it with newcomers.
First, think about how facile his explanation compared to how Zoe is working on issues with her ethnic identity.  (How do you think he'd answer Zoe's question -- to him, is she Chinese, French, Irish, English, Scottish?) And second, look at the emphasis on culture over race.  Sure, cover the culture/heritage end;  I think that's important in transracial, international adoption.  But it is only a starting point, as the title and the substance of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute report on racial identity formation focusing on transracial adoptees from Korea, BEYOND CULTURE CAMP: Promoting Healthy Identity Formation in Adoption., suggests

But in the "Thanksgiving" piece, he was talking about being all-inclusive -- that doesn't make him dismissive of ethnicity, does it?  Well, how about this from his interview:

For Simon and Caroline, that instinct was so strong that it drowned out any concern they may have had about there being an ethnic barrier between them and their adopted children.

"That baby is so much more to you than its ethnicity," he says. "First of all, they're hungry, they're thirsty, they're crying, they need sleep — all of these kinds of things that have nothing to do, certainly, with ethnicity."

And while Simon and Caroline are determined to expose their daughters to Chinese culture through history and travel, he says their ethnicity is still only a feature of their personality, not a defining trait.

But not everyone sees it that way. Simon says he was shocked when a friend asked Caroline if she felt guilty for taking her daughters away from their native culture: "My wife just answered, 'No, not really.' I think I would have had a tougher time holding my tongue."

Simon says it's best not to invest too much of one's identity in ethnicity.

Best not to invest too much of one's identity in ethnicity?!  Yikes!  This is what I had to say in the comments to the NPR piece, after identifying myself as an adoptive parent of Chinese children:

How easy it is for white adoptive parents to say that our transracially adopted children's ethnicity/race doesn't matter to us. However, it is very likely to matter to our children. When my 3-year-old said, "I wish my skin was light," I could have said "it doesn't matter, I love you and your skin isn't what you're all about." But the fact that she asked the question showed that IT MATTERED TO HER. And as she's gotten older it has mattered more & more. She's extremely proud of her Chinese heritage, but it hasn't protected her from racial teasing - the "Chinese eyes" taunt, being told her skin looks dirty & covered with mud.

Mr. Simon makes light of a subject -- racial identity formation -- that is far more complex than he acknowledges. Easy for him to ignore race/ethnicity, not so easy for his children.
One of my favorite things -- white people telling people of color how to feel about their color.  Sigh. It's  so disturbing when a well-known adoptive parent forwards this "race/ethnicity doesn't matter" meme, contrary to what adoption experts, and most importantly, adult adoptees of color, are saying.  All Simon is doing is giving explicit permission to other white adoptive parents of non-white kids to ignore race and ethnicity.  I have to admit, my life would be easier if I did.  But my kids' lives wouldn't be.

17 comments:

Von said...

Great post!Hope it gives pause for thought.

Lorraine Dusky said...

I am so relieved and gratified that several moms of kids from elsewhere (you and Margie) are taking Scott Simon to task. The title of the book--Baby We were Meant for Each Other--is so off putting to me as a woman who lost a child to adoption that I simply want to throw up.

Over the Simons, I must admit. Him and her. And the editors and the folks who published the book.

Beyond the title, there is almost nothing I could read that would soften the blow of what the title means. The man is clueless and obviously so is his wife. And over at the NPR website, he's stunned that some of the comments are harsh?

lorraine from

First Mother Forum

joy said...

Thanks for posting this. I also want to point out that his comparison of him having some kind of sympathy for what adoptees go through via his ancesters is so offensive.

It is so mimizing and dismissive. I has nothing to do with the confusion or void that not being allowed to know your own mother leaves.

Anonymous said...

Once again you have given me hope that not all adoptive parents are as insenstive as Scott Simon. Great post ... always love coming here for good brain food! Thanks.
Bernice

Haley Ballast said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. I really appreciate the intelligence, perspective and insight you bring to all your writing, but especially when you are offering criticism about adoption rhetoric like Simon's. I'm thankful to have found this site!

Kris said...

I caught his interview by chance in the car and as I commented on Margie's blog, all I could think was "ridiculous". He just sounded ridiculous because he missed the bigger picture completely. I also think the title of the book is off-putting and clearly indicates the whole thing will be from HIS perspective. I am glad to see so many bloggers mentioning this interview. I am an AP but don't blog much about adoption (mostly blog about special needs) because I find it hard to put my feelings into words but your post gave voice to what I was thinking.

kyburg said...

He's on Twitter. Yes, I let him have it. ^^

Lesley said...

I actually stopped following him on twitter after his rude and condescending article about director Kevin Smith (Smith was asked to leave a plane due to his size, despite falling within the airlines protocols of fitting in the seat and being able to buckle the belt without an extender). Sounds like Simon is a real peach.

Also, I just want to thank you for your blog, and for so often putting my thoughts into words when I can usually only sputter indignantly. :)

JBH said...

I've been on vacation...so you beat me to the "post":-)

But I'll probably have my own (similar) commentary on what you've already addressed - Scott Simon's interview made me uncomfortable.

My mom (adoptive) and I have a chat over his interview...quite interesting - as we came from different camps.

Again, I'll post about it later (better late than never, yes?)

pat said...

I take "meant to be " like this ( & this is what I tell my 11 yr old daughter) I don't know why you were available for adoption in China, but since you were, I do believe you were ' meant to be' in our family ( as opposed to another family) We also speculate on the reasons she may have been in the orphanage. And the hard, hard truth is that yes, it may simply be because she was a girl - not THE girl that she is, but A girl. Try explaining that to a child. Tough stuff.

clare said...

I am shocked also, I usually like Scott Simon and it seems that he is using his daughters to sell a book? His comment on ethnicity is so "out of it" and the title of the book so simplistic. He's getting way too close to Rosie O'Donnell land for me.
But after the eye-opening experience of watching PBS last Tues. night, "I love you Mommy, I realized that children are adopted by loving people who are all sooo different. Clare Timoney in NYC

Anonymous said...

I came to this website because I am an NPR Fan.
But I have to say I think Simon has blinders on with this one. I am married to a Chinese and have three kids.

When I am out with our kids without my wife, White/black America seems to assume they are adopted. I have been aproached by well-intentioned people who asked various questions about adoption etc. I have to tell them I dont really know about adoption as I made these myself :).

But it resulted in a family discussion when after one such inquiry my 8-yr old asked "Dad, are we adopted?"

Anonymous said...

I doubt that there’s much I can say to assuage the enmity expressed towards me in postings on this blog. Let me simply state that my wife and I understand that it’s important for our daughters to know and be proud of their culture, and will have our unstinting support to do so.

I find it incongruous, in this month in which we celebrate the Rev. Martin Luther King for hoping his children “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” that we are assailed for trying to do just that for our daughters. I am keenly aware of America’s racist history and bigoted tendencies. Not a week goes by that I don’t receive anti-Semitic or gay-bashing emails. But as I note in my book, “(I)n China, our daughters might have faced bigotry for being Hui, Miao, Manchu, Yi, Mongol, or any of the other of China's 55 other nationalities that they could be.” They have already been stung by prejudice toward women in the land of their birth, and if someone looks a little funny at our family, or makes some boorish remark, I do not assume that the Klan rides again. We receive about a thousand times more consideration.
I reject the idea that my wife and I should feel guilt for taking our daughters out of their native culture because we remember that our daughters had been relinquished and left to languish in orphanages. Those orphanages, not the China of the Qing dynasty, Chen Rong, or modern adventure capitalists, were their culture. Our daughters will stand a better chance of appreciating the majesty of Chinese culture by growing up and learning about it in our American and French family, than if they’d been left in those orphanages, and slotted into factory or farm work by their teens.

Our daughters are hardly the only Asian kids in their respective classes. I suspect, as they grow older, and kids being kids, someone will kid them about being Chinese. And they, delightful as they are, may kid other kids about being chubby, or red-haired, or big-nosed, Puerto Rican or Russian. Ordinary adolescent obnoxiousness need not be regarded as a trauma. Kids of all ethnicities worry about their identities, even Bushes and Kennedys. It’s a stage of development, for goodness sake, not a crisis.
We can’t predict how interested our daughters will be in their heritage at various times of their lives. They learn the language, songs, dance and food now, but as my wife and I say, “You can drag the girls to Mandarin class, but you can’t make them speak.” They also dance ballet, play with Thomas the Tank Engine, and learn music. If they get interested in African art, French cuisine, Tuva throat-singing, and South African literature, that’s fine, too. They are our daughters. We want to see into their hearts and minds, not just their blood and skin color.

Will they identify themselves as American (and French), as well as Chinese? Of course. We have become a nation of hyphenated identities, and scores of millions of Americans, myself included, have more than one ethnic, national, or religious identity. It’s one the great strengths of both our country and our family. I doubt that Chinese culture, or our daughters, will be diminished by that.

We cannot rewrite their lives, or the laws of China, that would restore them to their birth mothers and the culture into which they were born. But we can give them a loving family to grow strong in, and the background to make their own choices.

Scott Simon

Anonymous said...

Simon's comment here illustrates exactly how ignorant he is about racial issues. People always bring up a few lines from MLK's speech without having read or understood the entire thing. King did not ignore the differences in people; he did not preach this "colorblind" nonsense that white people (especially white parents of transracial adoptees) seem so fond if. He specifically mentions Black people and people of color throughout the speech. When he said that line about being judged by the content of your character, he was talking about HIS FOUR CHILDREN, who were all black children - because in 1963 when he gave the speech. black people were judged by their race.

I find it appalling that he writes that his Chinese daughters will better appreciate Chinese culture by being raised in his white American home than by being raised in China, however poor they would've been there. Really? So middle-class white Americans can teach Chinese culture better than poor Chinese people can now?

But the most telling part about his little screed is comparing racial bigotry to "adolescent obnoxiousness," comparing being teased about race to being teased about your nose, and writing that even the Bushes and Kennedys have problems. The ignorance and lack of perspective is so galling here it's downright PAINFUL, and it's truly only a statement that a white American man could make with a straight face. It's 2011 and King's dream still hasn't come true - I'm certainly not judged solely on the content of my character. Ignoring that and pretending that it doesn't happen isn't not going to make it happen. The truth is, any visually identifiable ethnic minority group member is going to have to deal with that crisis of identity - and not just during the awkward teenage years but through their WHOLE LIFE. It's not something that you can just brush away by saying a few nice words about how we're all the same and even rich white people have problems.

I pray that his daughters - and others who espouse this kind of ridiculousness - are graced with strength and conviction of character so they can deal with the inevitable obstacles that are going to come their way. Lord knows their parents are equipped to deal with them, if this is the attitude he takes.

Anonymous said...

Also...we don't celebrate King in February. His birthday, and his holiday, are in JANUARY. February is Black History Month, and it's about far more than King - although with the way it's taught in this country, you wouldn't know.

Anonymous said...

Is Scott Simon gay?
Why does he get so much gay bashing email?

LilySea said...

In case Scott ever shows up here again, dude, we respect you on so many fronts, we are on your team. Don't call reasonable criticism "enmity." Your kids and our kids are all in need of the best, most informed, thoughtful parents they can get. Building parents like that requires debate sometimes. There are other ways to think about race than the ones you've expressed. Please give them a chance without just setting your heels defensively.