Monday, October 18, 2010

Where Do Our Children Fit In?

One of my favorite presentations was by Jungyun Gill: Where Do Our Children Fit In? White Mothering of Asian Children and the Construction of Racial and Ethnic Identities.  Dr. Gill presented her research about  white adoptive mothers' attitudes toward racial and ethnic identity formation in their adopted Asian children.  Her research is based on lengthy interviews with 38 women who have adopted from South Korea, China and the Philippines. The average age of the adopted children was 15, and the range was from 3 to 20 years. She shared some quotes from the interviews and explained two patterns in "fitting-in" strategies-- color-blind mothering and color-conscious mothering.

First quote from a mother with a 20-year-old daughter who was adopted from Korea:
I had people ask me, when she was six months old, "Does she speak Korean?" She doesn't speak.  She's a baby!  Um. "What do you feed her?" I feed her baby food, formula.  She's a baby! . . . But with our c hildren, their identity is much more complex.  While they may veel in some ways white, my daughter has said that, that it always surprised her that people perceived her strictly as Asian when she didn't feel any different from her Caucasian friends . . . so her identity would be that much more difficult to figure out.  Exactly how does she fit in? . . . They look around their dinner table, and their face doesn't resemble anyone else's . . . They go out into the world, particularly when they are not with their parents as they get older, and the world just all assumes that they have a little Korean mom at home making kimchi . . . So yeah, it's more, I think, sort of coming to terms with their own identity, how do they fit, you know, where does being Korean fit into their world, how important is it?
Dr. Gill defined "color blind mothering" as the rejection of the concept that race matters to the white adoptive parents themselves or to their Asian child.  The mothers in this group responded to issues of race with statements such as, "Every kid has issues.  I was teased about being tall;"  "I'm Irish, and it's not a big deal;"  "It's about who you are, not what you look like."

She said "color-blind mothering" used an "assimilative" fitting-in strategy, believing it best for the adopted Asian child to conform to the adoptive environment and try to fit in and be as  "American" as any white American child.

"Color-conscious mothering" accepted the concept that race does matter in the lives of both the white adoptive parents and their Asian children. These mothers used a "birth culture" fitting-in strategy, trying to connect their adopted Asian children with aspects of the culture of their country of origin.  Dr. Gill further divided this group into passive and active types.  She illustrated the passive type with this quote from the mother of an 11-year-old and 5-year-old adopted from Korea:
I do feel like I should make him do certain things and I do feel that I have to push him to learn a little bit about Korea and to go to something that is a connection with that heritage and a connection to being adopted. . . .  My feeling about being a mother of children from another country, I don't want to make them feel at this young age that they are so different than me, that they have to do things that are different than the rest of the family.  Like I don't want my children to feel outside of the family.  I don't want them to feel different within the family.
This passive color-conscious mothering distances the mother from the child's birth culture.  It is the child who should do things to connect to the birth culture;  there isn't a sense that the family should change in response to that birth culture. The active type color-conscious mother (14-year-old adopted from the Philippines, 3 year old adopted from Thailand)  said this:
I think that from starting at an early age just very subtly we have little Filipino traditions like at our Christmas celebration.  The Filipinos have this little tradition where the grandmother throws gold coins in the air, chocolate coins, and all the grandchildren gather around to do that with my mother.  So little things like that.  We have a tradition in our house where every month I make at least one Thai dish. . . . One of the neat things I think is that now my extended family is interested in the Philippines and Thailand. . . . It's part of who we are as a family now.  My husband is Irish and I'm Scottish.  We're not just who we were anymore.  We are a Thai, Filipino American family.  So it's part of who we are now as well, too, not just who our kids are.
Dr. Gill said that the "birth culture" fitting-in strategy was the mothering strategy of most women in the study.  How, then, did they come to choose this strategy?  She said that in most studies of mothering, it is learned from our own mothers and from our mothering friends.  But for adoptive mothering -- for the adoption and race and culture issues -- our own mothers and friends often have no experience.  So the agency and the social worker becomes the "reliable source" on this issues. She interviewed social workers about what fitting-in strategies to employ and heard this:
Well, we feel that it's in the best interests of children. . . . And we feel like it's important for the parents to help the children feel a sense of pride in their native culture, where they've come from so that they feel that they are both, you know, say Koreans and Americans. . . . And so we provide for their best, you know, adjustment and over-all self.
Given the power that agencies and social workers hold during the adoption process, there's now a "standardization" of the "birth-culture" fitting-in strategy.

She identified several implications of standardization of this model. First, it seems to rely on an ideology of cultural pluralism, where each culture is equally valuable -- the family is Irish, Scottish, Filipino, Thai.  But being Irish or Scottish isn't the same as being Filipino or Thai.  The racial component, the external expectations are different and not necessarily addressed in the model.  Second, standardized "birth-culture" fitting-in may over-emphasize culture as "product," rather than lived experience.  Third, the standardized "birth-culture" model is financially expensive and time intensive, and thus assumes an upper middle class adoptive family.  This might particularly harm single-parent families with less financial resources.
Her presentation was mostly descriptive, not prescriptive -- not saying what should or should not be done.  But I found the descriptions, and insights into adoptive mothering around the issue of culture, fascinating.
I also found this interesting article from Dr. Gill on line:  Towards a comprehensive understanding of motherhood: Insights from the experiences of adoptive mothers of Asian children.  (Skip to page 15 if you want to read the research findings, and skip the theoretical framework.) Enjoy!


Lisa said...

Thank you for these insights.

I looked for myself in those categories and didn't see one that fit me perfectly. Or at least not all the time.

I think I'm still a work in progress then and found this so helpful in the journey ahead.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that the beginning of this paper should be skipped at all! Here's what it says:

"If we shift the focus of research from biological mothers’ experiences to non-biological mothers’ experiences and find that the mothering of non-biological mothers and their bonds to their children are like those of biological mothers, the important feminist argument that motherhood is social rather than biological would become much stronger."

That's a pretty significant statement and I think that all of us involved in adoption should know that this is what she's setting out to prove. I'm not bothered by saying that motherhood is social and biological, but to say "rather" is completely deleting the idea of biological motherhood. That's pretty damn significant!!

I urge anyone who's reading this to read it all the way through to see what's at stake and if they agree.

Anonymous said...

The racial component, the external expectations are different and not necessarily addressed in the model. Second, standardized "birth-culture" fitting-in may over-emphasize culture as "product," rather than lived experience.

---> IMO--This paragraph is one of the most difficult hurdles for adoptive parents of different race children to overcome. It might require making genuine friendships w/ Asain Americans, sending their children to diverse schools,investing in language and living in diverse areas.

I suspect most would rather make paper lanterns at Chinese New Year and call it a day.