Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Saviour or Seeking to be Saved?

As adoptive families of internationally born children, we see our world through the eyes of our unique perspective. We often fail to realize that others may see us differently. Are we seen as noble families that have provided a home to a needy child, or are we seen as members of a group that is taking advantage of the financial inequalities around the world to feed our own interests in raising a child we often can't obtain otherwise. In other words, are we seen as a Savior, or as needing to be saved.

The following essay, written by an adoptive parent of a Chinese daughter, addresses this question by drawing on the extreme example of Vanessa Beecroft. Her insight helps explain the looks we all receive from those around us, and may explain some of the questions we all receive.


The lines to adopt a child from developing countries, especially China, have lengthened beyond what anyone could have predicted. People are spending a lot of time, energy and money to become parents to a child from another country. Many outside the adoption community ponder what this lure could be about. As an adoptive parent, I understand many of the intentions behind the decision to adopt internationally. I have heard many different motives on why people have chosen to adopt trans-racially: some seem quite valid, and some are incomprehensible.

The issue of white privilege is one that many in the adoption community repeatedly refuse to accept. We just can’t see it in ourselves. And what is white privilege anyway? Could it be that we have lived a life free from exploitation and oppression and we fail to understand why it is that others reject our acts of goodwill? But we should accept the possibility that by trying to help another person, we can actually create even more harm than good.

I do feel this is often the case. People want to feel better about their own identity. They want to open up their hearts and welcome more love into their life. People are overwhelmed by images of starving, homeless and orphaned children and an inner feeling emerges -- a feeling that seems so well intentioned yet can cause people to act in the most impulsive and irrational ways.

Our society teaches us that we need to help others. We are taught to care for all people on earth and it is our duty to take care of those who are without. I do feel that there are times when people are torn between wanting to share and help, and also wanting a payoff in the end. It isn’t enough to just give anonymously. Many crave that recognition and use it to fill the void that is within.

There is a line that is crossed when a simple act of good nature turns into exploitation for personal gain.

Vanessa Beecroft is one person who has chosen to exploit children from Sudan for her financial and personal gains. Overcome by engorged breasts and her swollen ego, she spilled her white privileged breast milk into the mouths of two innocent children. As if this was not bad enough, she then decides to strip them of their clothing and stages them for a picture that sells for $50,000 per print.

Overcome by the lovely feeling that giving offers, Vanessa allowed her white privilege to go a bit further and rather than just breastfeeding these orphaned children and going home empty handed, she decides she will “save” them and bring them home with her. She spends months pursuing an adoption of the Sudanese twins without her husband’s knowledge, assuming he will feel the same urge to save as she has.

Her husband, Greg Durkin, is a social anthropologist and was horrified when he heard of her actions. He states: “Is adopting these two children from this village helping them? Saving them? Is that the best we can do as a family? I don’t know. I think that’s kind of almost like a short-cut, it’s almost too selfish. I can fill my needs by bringing them into my world because it’s far easier for me to deal with things in my world.”

Vanessa explained her feelings: “I want them, but do I deserve them? I’m afraid of the judgement of the people. The Bishop, the Dinkas, the world. ‘Ah here she is’ - not that I’m important – ‘another white woman wanting something exotic.’”

Vanessa returns home to New York, still trying to convince her husband that they should adopt these children. Greg’s position is clear: “Just because they don’t know the certain things we call luxuries it doesn’t mean that we’re better than them. I don’t see that dimension at all.”

This story is actually not all that unusual. Many couples do not agree on the issue of adoption and especially the issue of transracial adoption. In a developed country, many feel compelled or perhaps drawn towards offering help to those who they deem as less fortunate. Yet one must wonder whether those who are hungry or orphaned need us or is it our need to feel validated that drives us to want to adopt? Are there not better ways we can help others without having to get such a huge payback in the end?

Vanessa’s story actually paints an amazing picture of what international adoption may look like on many levels to many people. Is she the “white Madonna Saviour” or the desperate and depressed wife with a void to fill? Which are we? Or are we neither? And why did we adopt? Can any of us be honest about our motives and can we admit it if they were less than admirable?

When I see this picture, I can only see exploitation. It is hard to look at, yet equally as hard to look away. Does that make me a voyeur? Intrusive? I am not sure. One thing I am sure about is that Vanessa shows the side of international adoption that reinforces a dangerous stereotype. She evokes a feeling within not only the adoptive parents but also those who were adopted internationally. She represents so much about what is wrong in this system and the many reasons why we all need to look internally on why it is we chose to adopt and the consequence it may cause on our children.

Will Vanessa or others in the adoption community ever recognize that all of their well-meaning behaviours were actually self-driven to some extent? Driven to fulfill a personal desire for more -- More love, more life, more of whatever it is people crave. Sometimes it seems that the void is endless and can never be filled.

Or as Greg puts it “Just because they don’t know the certain things we call luxuries doesn’t mean that we’re better than them.”