Sunday, March 16, 2014

Race and culture

When we started down the path to adoption, I discovered that we had to attend parenting class.  I braced myself for blocks of instruction on how to care for a small child including (shudder) how to change a diaper.  Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I found that the focus of the classes was on the psychological challenges faced by adoptees and their parents, including issues and questions and problems regarding race and culture.  We were taught that it is important to honor our daughter's birth culture, and we plan to do that as well as we can.  But, as I've thought more about it and read what other adoptees have written on the subject, I am increasingly wondering just what all of it means.

According to wiki:
Even though there is a broad scientific agreement that essentialist and typological conceptualizations of race are untenable, scientists around the world continue to conceptualize race in widely differing ways, some of which have essentialist implications. While some researchers sometimes use the concept of race to make distinctions among fuzzy sets of traits, others in the scientific community suggest that the idea of race often is used in a naive or simplistic way, and argue that, among humans, race has no taxonomic significance by pointing out that all living humans belong to the same species, Homo sapiens, and subspecies, Homo sapiens sapiens.(1)
In other words, there is not very good agreement among scientists about exactly what the word "race" means and, to the extent that there is any agreement, it is not of especially lengthy pedigree.  In short, "race" is a fuzzy human construct created to differentiate - usually for discreditable or downright wicked reasons - between people based on some observable physical traits like skin color or eye shape.  What many (most?) people mean when they talk about "race" is racial stereotypes.

This is not to say that "race" isn't a real thing on some level.  When my daughter and I (one day soon!) are face to face, or look at ourselves in the mirror or in a photograph, we will see that we have some pretty marked differences in appearance.  Her eyes are almond-shaped and nearly black; mine are more round and hazel green.  My nose is somewhat longer; her skin is of a rather different tone (I think that I may be forgiven for thinking that she looks pretty perfect).  How we shall deal with these differences - more accurately, how we shall deal with what other people make of them - is a question that I ponder a great deal.  Because, once we get past the gross physical differences, I expect that she will be much like any other North Carolina girl.  This leads to questions of culture.  Again, wiki:
In the 20th century, "culture" emerged as a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of human phenomena that cannot be directly attributed to genetic inheritance. Specifically, the term "culture" in American anthropology had two meanings:
    1. the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and
    2. the distinct ways that people, who live differently, classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively.(2)
Once again, we see a concept that hasn't got a universally-accepted meaning and has really not been in use for very long.  Again, "culture" is often used to describe stereotypes, and usually invidious stereotypes at that (do NOT get me started on how we Southerners are portrayed in most films and TV shows!).

ARE there differences between the "cultures" of one group or country and another?  Certainly.  But how far up or down does this go?  To what extent can we say that there is an "American" culture or a "Chinese" culture without almost immediately reverting to stereotypes that can quickly be showed to be so full of exceptions and caveats as to be nearly meaningless?  And, more to the point, is this "culture" something that can be taught to a child in the way that we teach them ABC's or the multiplication tables?

Let's assume that I try to honor my daughter's Chinese culture, or even teach it to her.  How can I possibly do this in any meaningful way?  I will have spent perhaps three weeks there.  I have been acquainted with only a tiny number of Chinese people (and are Chinese and Chinese-Americans the same?  I think not).  I speak a very limited amount of Mandarin.  How can I try to teach ANYBODY "Chinese culture"?  For that matter, can I teach anybody "American culture"?  What is that, exactly?

And would I be doing her some disservice by trying?  She will, at least until she is old enough to make her own decisions about such things, live in America as an American.  She will learn to navigate in the "American culture".  If I try to teach her anything different, it seems to me that I will be handicapping her.  If I may indulge in a simplistic simile, it's like teaching a child to eat with chopsticks, then taking him to eat where everybody uses a fork.

What I think is really going on with "honoring" or "celebrating" the birth culture is an attempt to cope with a feeling that international adoptees seem often to have: they are not (because of how they look) merely a stranger in a strange land, but a stranger in their own families.  They look in the mirror and see that they are different.  Other people will hardly hesitate to point this out on a regular basis.  They are constantly told, implicitly if not explicitly, that, "You don't belong here." Well, if they don't belong HERE, then is it not unreasonable for them to think that they belong THERE?  But... do they?  In the invaluable documentary "Adopted: The Movie", Frank Wu talks about being a Chinese-American going to Taiwan:
"Nothing brings it home quite as much as taking a trip back to Asia because you realize, 'Gee, that's funny: I look like people here.  I have the same hair, the same shape of eyes, the same tone and texture of skin.' But as soon as I open my mouth, people think I'm really stupid or uncouth.  Or, as soon as I walk down the street, they immediately know there's something wrong with me."(3)
They know because Wu is an AMERICAN.  He walks, talks, thinks, even stands like an American.  As my daughter will.

There are many potential problems that will face us as a transracial family.  My daughter, a person whom I am to protect and care for and nurture above all other people, will be subject to various pressures because she isn't white, because she doesn't look like me or her mother or anybody else in her family.  The very idea that this will happen hurts me.  How can I teach her to cope with it?  How can I armor her against the thoughtless people who will tell her how "lucky" she is or against the jerks who will call her a "chink"?

I don't know.  Somewhere in the mix of race and culture and adoption and her individuality lies an answer.  We will have to find it together.




(3) "Adopted: Chinese vs. Adopted Chinese" [video file]  Retrieved 2014, March 16

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