Identity, Race, and
Culture in Adoption
Ethical Values in the Power of Language
JANET FARRELL SMITH
The most sensitive approach to adoption is grounded in ethical values. Language and communication are powerful vehicles conveying ethical values (both explicit and implicit), social norms, and cultural frames.1 This is true for explicit values and for implicit ones as well. For example, some adoption experts have counseled against using certain language. Give up for adoption implies abandonment by birth parents, and natural or real parents imply that only a deficient or secondary bond can form in adoptive child-parent relations. Adopt-a-highway is insensitive because it assumes a parallel between adopted children and physical objects. These are insensitive, psychologically damaging, because they are ethically denigrating. Questions such as “Where did you get her?” or “What did you have to pay for her?” posed to adoptive parents imply that adopted children are passed around like property. In contrast, human beings, as persons, deserve respect for intrinsic dignity and equal worth.2
In this paper, the case of a cross-racially adopted adolescent exploring her identity in an educational context hopefully will stimulate self-reflection on the part of educators, counselors, parents, and anyone in a position to guide youth. My goal is to investigate how unexamined assumptions may unintentionally infiltrate communication and undermine the healthy development of adopted persons’ self-worth and identity.
The history of professionalized discourses in adoption also needs to be examined. Various frames, interpretations, and labels, for example, psychologies of pathology, have filtered down into popular attitudes among educators, counselors, mentors, and influential others in adopted persons’ lives. For example, the presumption that the parentage of adopted children has a fault or problem probably derives in part from the early-twentieth-century eugenic philosophy, which sorted children into categories of “fit” children matched to “fit” families. This tendency to question the parentage of adopted children may show up in