What leading my first racial justice workshop taught me about adoption

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

They say you learn best by doing. As a voluntary board member for the Association of Korean Adoptees San Francisco, I had the opportunity to lead a different kind of virtual meeting I’d never done before. It wasn’t perfect by any means but this year perhaps we’re all trying new things a little more imperfectly than before. I developed this workshop as part of our first step in taking our allyship for “Black Lives Matter” beyond a statement. We did not want to be performative in our commitment with an understanding that real change requires action, even though none of us had done anything like this before.

“In the poetics of struggle and lived experience, in the utterances of ordinary folk, in the cultural products of social movements, in the reflections of activists, we discover the many different cognitive maps of the future, of the world not yet born.” — Robin D. G. Kelley, Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination

Talking about race isn’t comfortable but growing up in a world feeling like it’s not made for you is far more uncomfortable. Before I go further I think it’s important to establish a mutually understood perspective on the definition of racism, which I feel is thoughtfully shared from John McWhorter, stating that “dictionaries can lag behind societal developments, and the idea that a “word” indisputably “means” what dictionaries say is simply sloppy.” Merriam-Webster’s 1.0 definition of racism is “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

He goes on to state that “since the 1960s, racism has often been used in terms such as societal racism and institutional racism, referring to structures of society that disadvantage people of subordinated races because of the collective effect of bigoted attitudes which has created a 2.0 definition which now includes “a political or social system founded on racism.” I couldn’t agree more that language can evolve with society, especially after having immersed myself in linguistics and language learning last year teaching English in South Korea. What was defined as racist many years ago can most certainly be opened to new interpretation.

So I began to research for anti-racism resources that we could learn from and use as tools to help our Korean adoptee community support the Black community. It wasn’t until I discovered the Asian American racial justice toolkit that I began to learn more about the structural roots of racism as they exist today in America. It states “acknowledgement for inclusion from non-Black people to say that racial justice movement must “move beyond the black-white binary,” disregards the everyday violence against Black life that the binary has wrought, unabated for centuries. This toolkit highlights that reality, while presenting the black-white binary not as a narrow container for the experiences of Black people, but as a central schema of life in the United States. America’s founding fathers created blackness and whiteness to distinguish those who were deserving of freedom and democratic rights from those who were not.”

This toolkit represents the work and thinking of 15 grassroots organizations with Asian American bases living in the most precarious margins of power: low-income tenants, youth, undocumented immigrants, low-wage workers, refugees, women and girls, and queer and trans people. Its lessons are designed to begin with people’s lived experiences, and to build structural awareness of why those experiences are happening, and how they are tied to the oppression of others.

But there’s another layer not part of this toolkit applicable to the subset of Korean adoptees, which is our proximity to the White community and how that plays a role in what are often difficult yet necessary reflections of our own identity.

Eleana Kim shares from The Origins of Korean Adoption: Cold War Geopolitics and Intimate Diplomacy, “since the end of the Korean War, an estimated 200,000 children from South Korea have been adopted into predominantly white families in North America, Europe, and Australia.” Her perspective shares that “Korean orphans” linked the U.S. biopolitical order, ideologies of family and childhood, and Cold War geopolitical interests with South Korea’s own biopolitical, nation-building and diplomatic exigencies.

As Maija Brown writes in her dissertation Marking Loss , Memory, and Absence in the Korean Adoptee DiasporaChristina Klein mentions, the adoption of Asian children in white middlebrow families allowed families to contribute to the national project of expanding American influence in the Asian region, in alignment with US foreign policy and cold war containment. At the same time it coincided with the US military expansion into the Asian region, which led to the first wave of bi-racial children fathered by the US military. Framed as a humanitarian endeavor, US adoption of Korean children helped to establish a paternal attitude between Korea and the US where white Americans rescued Asian orphans, while concealing the US responsibility in the Korean War.” This does not negate good intentions or love and support from adoptive families such as my own but further demonstrates the often disregarded part of the international adoption narrative, which is that of social justice and human rights.

This was very hard for me to write because I had to explore the dark history of Korean adoption, the parts that don’t fit the “save the orphans” narrative that so many refer to because it’s all they know, including my own family. Someone once told me that because I was a “poster child for adoption gone right,” (which isn’t true) I really didn’t have much of place to speak about the injustices within the international adoption system for Korean adoptees, but I disagree. I realize that my unique situation gives me the opportunity to use my own personal proximity to the White community to speak up for racial justice. I believe it takes people sharing their voices, speaking their truths for any of us to really understand people’s lived experiences. Those experiences that don’t neatly fit into a statistic because they’ve been buried deep down inside us as humans because of the burden it is for them to remain visible, so we don’t speak up.

But I hope we can all find it in ourselves to share our voices, so that others can see that we’re capable of accepting each other’s lived experiences as lessons. As I begin to learn my own history as a Korean adoptee within the constructs of America, I realize just how important it is for me to learn about systems of power and oppression, as well as unlearn parts of my own identity that need to escape the uncomfortable feeling of being “other” through assimilation, so that I can be a better ally and advocate for racial justice in hopes to create a better world for us all.

Product Manager, Marketer and Korean adoptee who is passionate about storytelling and writing. http://www.jennharbin.com/

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