A Tee Shirt Is Just a Tee Shirt, Right?

First of all, I want to acknowledge those parents who continue to be amazing advocates for their young adopted children. I know you love them, as my family loves me. That’s why I am writing this post.

Yesterday, on Facebook, there was a fundraising tee shirt posted for Ethiopian adoptions. There were a lot of comments about it, some in support of the shirt and many criticizing it. The post isn’t there any more. I don’t know why it was deleted.

I would have written my comment on the original post, but since it is gone now, I decided to speak out about it.

The shirt said “Adopt Ethiopia,” and  “Love makes a family…changes a life.”

I find a few things problematic about these tee shirts for Ethiopian adoptions. One is the perception that children need to be saved or rescued. This approach is often used for African adoptions and let me tell you: it sickens me. When white adoptive parents fundraise with these shirts, it unfortunately echoes and perpetuates the white savior complex. This shirt is meant for the adoptive parent to wear. It is difficult when seeing this shirt to avoid the immediate conclusion that prospective parents are romantically reaching out to the farthest corners of the globe to save a desperately lost and innocent child, and should be congratulated.

Adoption does change a lot of lives. Too often, people forget that this also means the first/birth families, who have to lose their child for adoption to happen. Too many “orphans” turn out not to be orphans.

As an adoptee who has been in reunion for seven years with my birth family, I consider my perspective to be representative of my first family. I find this shirt offensive because it dismisses the losses that first families go through when a child is placed for adoption.

Although adoption is a gain for adoptive families, it’s a loss both for the first families and the children. We need to do a better job of acknowledging that. Believe me, I understand there are children who still need homes, and there is no question that all children deserve safe and loving families. But with all the fraud and corruption that’s going on in Ethiopia, why are parents still willing to do fundraisers for adoption? We actually need to be fundraising for more resources that work to make adoption more transparent and ethical. We also need fundraisers that promote family reunification and preservation, because that would help many more children at a lot less cost.

Last, but not least, the quote on the shirt suggests that love conquers all, which is a huge misconception that far too many families believe, or at least want to believe. It also suggests that first families didn’t love their children enough. It dismisses the rejection many adoptees feel, from their first families and from their country of origin. I also believe this shirt supports the profitable industry of adoption (I’m sure many agencies would love it,).

I’ve been critical in my comment here, and some of you might view it as anti-adoption, or dismiss me as an unhappy, even angry adoptee. I hope you will view it as pro-ethical standards. I love my adoptive family, and I love my Ethiopian family. The adoption community needs to be more compassionate about first families, which include not just birth parents but also grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and more. Please educate yourselves. Talk to other adult adoptees, especially those who have searched and/or reunited with their first families. Many adoptive parents active in Facebook groups have young children, but I hope you reach out to adult adoptees that have walked the walk—and lived the talk.

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Back Home to Ethiopia, and a Movie in the Future

For many years, I’ve openly discussed my adoption journey. It has been both therapeutic and liberating. In August of 2014, I returned to Ethiopia for my second reunion since my adoption in 1994. With the permission of my (Ethiopian) first family, I captured some powerful moments. The trip was incredible. I learned so much about my mother, my late father, my siblings, and also myself.

One of the amazing results of the trip is a partnership with Gazillion Strong to create a film about my journey. I’m thrilled to be working with them (and with loads of still photos and video clips, thanks to the talented Jemal Countess) to share my story of being adopted from Ethiopia, and my reunion with my Ethiopian family.

My partners at Gazillion Strong have already created this short clip, a glimpse into the story which I hope to tell that honors both my birth and adoptive families. Thank you!

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My mother and I, in Ethiopia August 2014