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Getting Rid of "You Should Be Grateful"
Angela Tucker on what adoptee centrism actually looks like
There’s a way we’ve been conditioned to talk about adoption in the United States. The main strain is one of gratitude — as in, the adoptee is so lucky, so fortunate, to have found a family that wanted them. The other strains are often deeply inflected with the language of evangelical Christianity, whose organizations fill the contemporary adoption space: this was all part of God’s plan, or the parents have been called to adopt.
Who does this language center? The adopters. Not the adoptees, who are figured as passive vessels through which an endless stream of goodness and gratitude must flow. Any conversation that pushes against this understanding — that asks, for example, what systemic or oppressive conditions made it necessary for a parent to give up a child in the first place — makes a lot of people clam up. It complicates things, and complication might make us rethink this pretty pat story of adoption as an unquestioned good.
Bring transracial adoption into the equation, and people — particularly white people — get even weirder, more defensive, more centered on the goodness of the adoptive family. In recent years, memoirs by transracial adoptees (including Nicole Chung’s All You Can Ever Know and Rebecca Carroll’s Surviving the White Gaze) have questioned and complicated this narrative, at once re-centering the experience of adoptee and forcing readers to grapple with the trauma, no matter the “good intentions,” of so many trans-racial adoptions.
I wanted to interview Angela Tucker about her new book, You Should Be Grateful, not just because it takes place against the backdrop of nearby Bellingham, Washington (more on that below) but also because I think all of us have to be thinking a lot more about the stakes of adoption. The Christian Nationalists who are successfully waging war against reproductive freedom say that they are fighting for the future of “the unborn,” pledging that all children will find their way to good Christian homes.
Instead of actually creating structural conditions for people to make their own decisions about whether or not they want to be parents — or making it possible for those birthing parents to thrive — they would rather all children be assimilated into (majority white) Christian homes and culture. There are so many reasons we should push back against this vision. But the negligence of the realities, complications, and contradictions of trans-racial and even trans-cultural or trans-religious adoption is foremost amongst them.
Regardless of your relationship or experience with adoption, I hope you’ll let Angela’s perspective push you — and allow us to think about a different way forward.
AHP: You begin the book with a Adoptee Manifesto, which reads:
We can love more than one set of parents.
Relationships with our birth parents, foster parents, and our adoptive parents are not mutually exclusive.
We have the right to own our original birth certificate.
Curiosity about our roots is innate.
We need access to our family medical history.
The pre-verbal memories you have with your first family are real.
Post-natal Culture Shock exists.
It’s okay to feel a mixture of gratitude and loss.
We are not alone.
We have each other.
I’ve seen other books culminate in a manifesto — bringing together the arguments that have preceded it. I’d love to hear about making this manifesto the very first thing that readers encounter (and how that connects to adoptee centrism) and how you thought of writing the manifesto itself. Did it emerge, as is? (I’ve found this to be true when I’ve talked to others’ about their manifestos — it’s almost like it’s knowledge that’s been there and you’ve been editing it for so long that when you sit down to write it, it comes out fully formed).
ANGELA TUCKER: I wrote this manifesto on a flight home after a spate of speaking engagements. I realized I’d accumulated a series of short mantras I would recite to myself before going out on stage. At one event, I’d be doing my makeup, looking at myself in the mirror and thinking “curiosity about my roots is innate!” It was as though I thought I was walking out to hundreds of people who didn’t believe this and I’d need to convince them of these truths.
After writing out the ten statements, I began reading them altogether before I began an event and truly began to live out each statement as though the legitimacy could not be questioned. That morphed into my desire for other adoptees to have access to these statements, too, so I enlisted the artistic creativity of a friend, who designed the manifesto. I love seeing this artwork as an adoptee’s anthem of sorts. It’s powerful and pleasing.
Now, I encourage adoptive families to hang it on their wall, too, in an effort to spur on conversations to normalize these truths. I chose to start the book off with the manifesto to give each statement immediate legitimacy. It opened up an avenue for me to simply write, instead of feeling the need to prove each point first.
I was thinking a lot about adoptee centrism as I read about your childhood growing up in Bellingham, Washington — a college town with an ethos that is very common in both the Pacific Northwest and parts of the Midwest and New England (I live on Lummi Island and have previously lived in Eugene, Seattle, and Missoula, so this not unfamiliar!). Liberal, ostensibly welcoming, but very, very white (often because of the legacy of redlining or, like Bellingham, because it was a sundown town), maybe mildly embarrassed about that fact, generally well-intentioned and warm but often very clumsy in their handling of race.
Still, I think a lot of white, middle-class people look at a place like Bellingham and think: what a great place for a kid, any kid, to grow up.
Within a paradigm that centers the adoptee, how does the thinking about what makes for a “great place for a kid to grow up” change?
Growing up in racial homogeneity isn’t ideal for anyone. I certainly had a happy childhood filled with brain-expanding opportunities, for which I am grateful. I fit in well with my peers, but didn’t feel a true sense of belonging. Brene Brown aptly describes the difference between fitting in and belonging. She says, “Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.” In order to fit in, I had to spend my childhood code-switching and fending off microaggressions, which continuously reminded me that I didn’t really belong in Bellingham. This means that I — along with many other transracial adoptees who grew up in white environments — have to come to embrace our identity at a later age. This skews the natural order of child and adolescent development.
For the health of transracial adoptees, a great place to grow up includes an expansive family network. It means white parents outsource some of the parenting duties for a black or brown child. It means that the child’s doctor is Black or brown. Their teachers, their coaches. They need to be able to see people who look like them in the community in order to develop a strong and healthy identity.
I’m eager to talk about the concept of gratitude. I cannot shake the image of audience members going up to your parents after the screening of your documentary to comfort them and decry your lack of gratitude for being adopted. It’s wild to describe, but as you emphasize in the book, that understanding is implicit and explicit throughout adoptees lives. Can you talk about how you felt that message in your life, how it persists in the lives of the adoptees you mentor, and the intrinsic harm of that message?
It was tough to always hear people praise my parents for adopting me and my siblings. It certainly made me question my worth. With my mom’s name being Teresa, it didn’t take a lot of imagination to begin calling her Mother Teresa. Although my mom handily turned down these “compliments,” the inference was still felt. Hidden within these comments is the expectation that I shouldn’t question my life as an adoptee. I should just be grateful and thankful. What’s more, is that for some adoptees this meanders into feeling a sense of having to prove our gratitude. For this reason, many adoptees become people pleasers. In my book I write about how some adoptees feel like they have to ensure their parents get a good return on their investment.
In the book, I strive to communicate that my gratitude for the lovely childhood and upbringing that I had does not negate the difficulties of growing up without roots or knowing about my biological family.
In her review of my book, Misty Shock Rule wrote that “[t]he common conception of adoption valorizes adoptive parents for accepting a child into their home. They are praised for loving an adopted child as their own, as if it’s expected they might not.” I thought that was spot on.
You describe how being an adoptee means, in many cases, becoming deeply familiar with contradiction. In your case: your own truth that you love your adopted parents, but you also wish you were not adopted. Why do you think that sort of contradiction is so unsettling for others?
Adoption is supposed to be a beautiful thing. The antidote to abandonment. You were chosen! But in actuality, adoption can only happen if a tragedy occurs — natural disaster, man made tragedy, societal oppression. Every adoption begins with loss. And for folks who want to debate with me about this, I ask, if the adoption doesn’t begin with a tragedy or trauma, why did the adoption need to happen?
Within the American paradigm, we find it to be deeply unsettling to not have a hero on the other end of a sad story, so within the framework of child-welfare, adoption becomes the hero, birth parents become the villain. Adoption becomes the answer, even though there are plenty of examples about why this practice is harmful: the high suicide rate for adoptees, the fact that 400,000+ children are in foster care awaiting a family, our difficulty thinking about how many black incarcerated men have children on the outside, whom they love…there are plenty more examples I could give.
Since we are a society that prizes the nuclear family, it’s deeply unsettling for us to entertain the way we may bear responsibility for the plight of others. We are conditioned to seek binaries - good/bad, right/wrong, guilty/innocent etc., so when I say I love my adoptive parents and I wish I wasn’t adopted, it doesn’t fit nicely into the binary.
You write about your mom, Deborah, with such palpable love — trying to understand her trauma, but never infantilizing or diminishing her. Can you describe the process of writing and editing those sections, and the sort of portrait you hoped to paint of both her and your relationship?
Thank you. For so many years, Deborah was one-dimensional, unreachable, unknowable and almost a figment of my imagination. In the absence of facts, we are forced to make things up. I had all sorts of questions about who Deborah was and why she couldn’t keep me. I’d built her up in my mind so much that when I first met her, I must’ve been in such disbelief that she had to say at one point “...I put my pants on one leg at a time just like you.” When I finally began a relationship with her, I learned the truth and no longer held her up as superhuman and/or subhuman. The truth was that she is a complex human, just like we all are.
Writing about Deborah was tricky, because You Should Be Grateful is part memoir, part case-study and part call-to-action. I had to ensure that when I wrote about Deborah I wasn’t doing so in a tokenizing way or exploitative. The oppression she has experienced in her life is directly correlated to my existence, so it wasn’t possible for me to omit all of that. Her response to meeting me — at first denying that I was her daughter — was also directly tied to the shame birth parents feel, and that is also relevant for my exploration of the adoption industry.
It was still very important to me that I model respect and demonstrate that she could trust me, so I worked hard to involve her in my writing process and only share stories that I had her permission to share. Whenever I wrote about Deborah, I’d ask myself: why are you telling this story and does it need to include Deborah?
In the closing of the book, you describe something called a “sondersphere” that has become central to your counseling with adoptive families. I’m going to copy the section from the book here, because I think it’s really worth taking in:
Over time, I began shifting my educational strategy away from the term “openness” and all the baggage that came with it. Instead, I sought to introduce adoptive parents to an entirely different idea of what family looks like. I offered an alternative to the nuclear family: something more expansive and far more complicated (and beautiful!) than will fit on your average Christmas card.
I call it the “sondersphere,” a word I made up based on a term coined by John Koenig in his Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. He defines the word “sonder” as “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed.”
The sondersphere is a realm where every person in an adoptee’s life has a place—where birth parents and adoptive parents and biological aunties and foster parents and adoptive cousins all exist together. They don’t necessarily share a home like some awkward reality TV show but instead share an orbit around the adoptee. The sondersphere is the real-life antidote to the adoptee’s Ghost Kingdom; a place where their questions can be answered in real time, where their identity can bounce around and try things on for size, where they always belong because all the parts of their story are visible and accessible to them. I chose to build on Koenig’s brilliant word because of the way it expresses a deep and intimate type of empathy that, I believe, could revolutionize the way adoptive parents see their child’s birth family.
Instead of giving in to our oldest and basest “us versus them” mentality, sonder calls us into our more advanced neurological expansiveness. It calls us to see the humans around us as complete, complex individuals with inner depths as vast and meaningful as our own. In the sondersphere, adoptees, their adoptive parents, and their biological parents build genuine relationships that embrace all the complexity. A birth parent is not judged by their worst moment; nor is an adoptive parent expected to be a perfect parent. The adoptee isn’t expected to be grateful for one or the other. In the sondersphere, we don’t allow others to be just an extra in the movie of our lives.
I love this for many reasons, including the way that it rejects the individualism, the intense self-preservation, even the competitive ethos inherent to the nuclear family. What do adoptive parents need to let go of in order to make this happen? And what can people outside of adoptive families learn from it when it comes to their own conception of family?
In order to create a Sondersphere, folks need to become aware of, dissect and remedy any fears they may have of others. Adoption brings folks together who likely would not have otherwise been in a relationship. It is very common for there to be a class and lifestyle difference between adoptive families and biological families. One example of a perceived fear that keeps an adoptive family from creating a Sondersphere is incarceration. They’ll say “The biological father was in jail for a time, so he is unsafe to come over to our house.” To me, this requires deeper excavation and a conversation about their beliefs about those who have been incarcerated. This is harmful, not just because a child may not get to form a relationship with their biological father, but because the adoptive parents are also sending a message to the child that their father is a bad person. Knowing the vast reasons why individuals are incarcerated, this is a unfounded fear.
Other examples are discomfort with people who look different than them, are of a different race than them, live in a certain neighborhood, listen to rap music, if they smoke or do drugs etc. The list of fears go on and on, and though some adoptive parents may have reasonable fears for their child, sometimes it’s simply a discomfort with the unfamiliar. The Sondersphere requires that there not be judgment on one family members’ lifestyle, but an embrace of all lifestyles with the recognition that all aspects are part of that child’s story.
Building a Sondersphere and embracing a more collectivist style of family also decreases the pressure felt on any one person to be all things to the child. ●
You can buy You Should Be Grateful here, and check out Angela’s website here. She’ll also be in conversation about transracial adoption TONIGHT (May 3rd) at Town Hall Seattle and at Politics & Prose in DC on May 17th (with Michele Noris and Steve Inskeep!)