Helping Adoptees Through Assimilation

Are we helping children by assimilating them to another culture through adoption? And, when we adopt, how do we help counter the impact of assimilation on their life, and maybe go so far as to help them regain pieces of their heritage culture that are lost through adoption?

And even deeper, should we try to change other cultures? Should we allow them to change us?

How does adoption fit into that relationship?

Before we get too far, what is assimilation? In this context (distinguished from Piaget’s “assimilation”), assimilation is the process through which an individual relinquishes their heritage identity and practices in order to survive and be accepted by the dominant culture of the U.S.

Some say forced assimilation is a relic of the past. Parts of that claim could be true. For example, what name did you give your child when you adopted them? How did you come to that decision?

Side note: There are nuances in those decisions that are important of course, regarding the name. For example, the “fresh start” model helps children disconnect from previous circumstances that could have been harmful to them. New name. New life. And there’s also protection from the race-based hatred that fuels white Americans to discriminate against children and adults based on names they struggle to pronounce. Easy name. Easier life. Those are just two that come to mind.

Beyond those two examples (and there are more of course) I wonder if the assumption that an adoptee would want to exchange their culture, with its image-bearing capacity, for white middle class domesticity, was/is a risky form of ethnocentrism? (i.e., evaluating other people’s cultures according to the standards of one’s own culture).

And into whose kingdom are children being adopted? What does it say about God and who gets to be his people when our being “adopted” means we need to relinquish our racial and ethnic heritage?

Friends, I’m walking with you as work this out together, about what it means not make an “idol” out of culture but see how our faith can point to a multicultural Redeemer whose very nature includes a trinity of being; in which some would see the perfect display of a multicultural relational community.

Yes the Trinity may be “Jesus-centered” *and* white American culture isn’t purely Jesus centered so why is it still the default when children of color are adopted into white American families?

Not to turn this into a theology debate! Just a prompt to help us imagine a world where cultural assimilation wasn’t the default, where professionals and parents would give adoptees the support and freedom to experience Joy in and through the cultures from which they were adopted.

Not that we need it to be “saved” but what sweet life-giving layers of Love have we missed simply because the narrative of adoption erases our origin story and the people it represents?

Are there places where we need to work aspects of assimilation out of the way we practice adoption? Are there areas where it can’t be avoided, and so we develop practices to support the children who end up navigating those aspects of assimilation throughout their lives?

Here are 4 considerations to help adoptees navigate assimilation through adoption:

  1. Look for ways where the default choice leads to assimilation, and consider meaningful ways to implement a new choice. For example, language acquisition. Some adoptees must relinquish their language upon being adopted. Instead, consider how you might preserve their language through lessons, learning some yourself, using it at home, and finding ways to consume and celebrate it through every day life. I offer this example with caution as one of the major concerns with bilingual experiences in early childhood is that it could lead to the child’s confusion about letters and sounds. Because it’s part of the adoptee’s reculturation process in adolescence, though, it’s important for adoptive parents to discern how and when they will offer language as an occasion to cultivate their child’s sense of curiosity, comfort and mastery regarding their birth culture. We’re moving from “Kill the Indian, save the man.” to “Honor the Indian as a significant part of the person.”
  2. From the way the child experiences your home and lifestyle, do they get the sense you respect, value and can have access to their birth culture, beyond it being just part of the decor and aesthetic on your wall? Consider 40 Ways to Increase Bi-culturalism in Your Family as a launchpad. Children aren’t always aware of the depth of meaning behind why they were adopted, and so they might begin internalizing layers of commodification if they associate the way their culture has been accessorized in your household with the way they’ve been adopted into it. Look for meaningful, sustainable expressions of recognition of and non-performative participation in their birth culture.
  3. Find ways to demonstrate for your adoptee that their culture is not the default rescue mission and yours is not the default rescuer. For example, in a local church context, be mindful of stereotypical depictions of the “needy Black child” paired with the “benevolent white parent.” Adoptee activist and scholar Dr. JaeRan Kim has a wonderful article that helps flesh that out for us.
  4. Support your adoptee, affirm them, when they express interest in pursuing elements of their birth culture. Resist the temptation to behave defensively, to appeal for their sense of loyalty to your family, or to shrug it off as an insignificant “phase.” When children, teen, and adult adoptees see they have your support about this dimension of their journey, it becomes a protective factor in their mental health and frees their mind and heart up to press into this part of their story, as you cheer for them each step of the way.

This post itself is merely a prompt for discussion in your family, it’s really just a beginning! Think of ways you might apply some of these principles practically as we recognize the micro and macro layers of adoption and how assimilation impacts adoptees throughout all the stages of their life. Not just that many would be kept alive, but also that those God-given aspects of our character would receive that promise, too.

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