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home :: abduction politics :: birthmarks - feminist racism in contemporary america

BirthMarks: Feminist Racism in Contemporary America

There are lots of books out there about transracial abduction. They're usually called something like "Inside Transracial Abduction" or "Love Makes A Family." I thought I should try to read one all the way through, so I checked out this book called Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America. It's by Sandra Patton, who at the time she turned her dissertation into this book was a visiting professor of women's studies at the University of Minnesota.

Straight off I have to mention that Patton capitalizes "white," which I find extremely annoying. She doesn't, however, capitalize "children of color." In her notes she says she capitalizes "all the racial classifications--including White--both to show respect for the cultural groups these terms represent and to highlight the constructed and falsely unified character of these racial designations" (193). All things being equal, I guess this would be okay, but all things being equal, we probably wouldn't have racial classifications, would we? Yeah, so I think I'll start capitalizing People Of Color, and put "white" in much smaller font. Whatever.

So I know the whole being in women's studies thing should have made me way more automatically suspicious of this Patton person, but I thought since she identifies herself in the acknowledgments as an "adoptee" that she wouldn't be totally fucked up. Of course it turns out that she's this white, oh excuse me, "White," adopted, typical women's studies scholar steadily building her career on the backs of people of color. She wrote this whole stupid book based on her "ethnographic" study of transracial abductees, and she herself is a white person adopted by white people. Call me hypersensitive but I think the whole premise of Patton's book is racist, and it pisses me off that people are buying and reading her book and believing her as some big White authority on transracial abductees' experiences.

In her introduction called "Narratives of Adoption, Roots, and Identity," Patton says that her book is about "individual, familial, cultural, political, and institutional narratives about the births, lives, and identities of African American and multiracial adults who were adopted and raised by White parents" (2). Patton is much like the fucked up abduction agencies in that she likes the word "multiracial" and she uses it to mean, like, "African American and something else." While Patton objects to drawing a line between "White" and Black, she conveniently overlooks the fact that, um, a lot of people aren't either, not to mention the fact that it probably isn't the right of some white person to tell People Of Color what the better alternative is.

One of the reasons I chose to read Patton's book is that she includes a discussion of race, gender, class, and so-called welfare reform. And like many good white feminists, Patton knows how to write stuff that sounds semi-okay, like "In the shifting political alliances and commitments of the 1990s and beyond, adoption has become a curious battleground on which the social meanings of race and identity, gender and family, work and poverty, culture and nation are being constructed, contested, and enforced" (4). But beyond the women's studies soundbites (which Patton could have copied from any white feminist writings on, well, anything), her analysis of transracial abduction is weak, often incoherent, and based on a fundamentally flawed picture of "race" in the United States.

In typical white feminist fashion, Patton slips easily between an analysis which is race-conscious and one which assumes whiteness as universal. Whenever Patton wants to indulge in creating uncritical connections between her white-on-white adoption experience and the experiences of the transracial abductees she studies, she speaks on behalf of all adoptees and abductees. "We don't so much belong to one family or the other," she writes, "as to both our 'native' and our 'foreign' cultures . . . Which family and culture are native? Which are foreign--birth or adoptive?" (7). It's obvious that Patton is just talking to other white people here. For transracial, transnational abductees the terms "native" and "foreign" often have concrete, historically specific meanings that Patton ignores in her love affair with native/ethnographer wordplay.

One of Patton's most annoying assumptions is that transracial abduction is some sort of subset of general adoption. She likes to ignore her White responsibilities by making evasive, appropriative statements like "Our lives--particularly those of transracial adoptees--deconstruct and denaturalize the category 'native,'" and "We are our outward, apparent selves, while carrying within us the shadow selves we might have been, often feeling we aren't 'authentically' anyone. I have often felt that I've spent my life 'passing'--as a real member of my family, as a real person, in a sense" (8). Patton seriously needs to adjust her thought patterns and figure out a way to address her own adoption issues without stretching her experience to be the umbrella experience for all abductees and adoptees.

Patton's desire to connect and be one with the transracial abductees she studies is transparent to the point of being embarrassing. About the experience of interviewing transracial abductees she writes, "While I was an outsider with regard to racial identity, the commonalities we discovered as adoptees gave me an insight into and understanding of my informants' experiences that a nonadopted person would probably not have had" (9). Patton has clearly decided that the difference between "adoptee" and "nonadopted person" outweighs the difference between "White" and African American, and this paradoxical desire to make racial difference subordinate in her research on transracial abductees shapes Patton's participation in and interpretation of the interviews.

In one conversation with a "self-defined Afro-Latina and 'out' bisexual woman" abductee, Patton's main contributions are as follows: "I know what you're saying!" "I feel the same way. You said you move through circles pretty easily. That really strikes a chord with me. Can you say more about that?" (9). It's clear that Patton just needs to deal with her own shit rather than projecting a bunch of stuff onto the transracial abductees she studies. In a classic example of guilty white feminism, Patton even argues that transracial abductees "are not alone in needing to learn survival skills." She says, "In my view, learning to untangle ideological narratives of 'difference' from the actual diverse range of identities we embody and encounter in others is a necessary survival skill for all of us living in the United States. Whites need to learn how to decenter Whiteness as normal, as generically human, and above all, as innocent. Indeed, the acquisition of such deconstructive skills would likely contribute to the survival of our society and to all of us living in it" (75). Gross. Like a lot of white feminists, Patton doesn't seem to get that preaching to other whites about the need to scrutinize and decenter whiteness doesn't mean jackshit when she's a white person whose "scholarship" consists of studying, writing books about, and teaching classes on African Americans.

Of course, Patton may truly believe that she knows what it feels like to be a transracial abductee, having spent so much of her time studying us. Maybe she's abducted inside.

Patton, Sandra. Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America. New York: NYU Press, 2000.