Culture camps and more...
In an online adoption forum, an adoptive mom wrote about the effect participating in heritage camps has had on her two, young sons who are 3 and 5. She shared about how they remember camp throughout the year and yearn to go back again next year. I decided to write an article, based on how I responded to her because I think that as I wrote, I finally put together why all of the efforts to focus on our children's cultural heritage concerns me alongside of making me feel hopeful:
I thought I would write and share some of my thoughts regarding culture camps and more. I have presented at a number of the culture camps that are offered around the United States. I like them very much, just as I am thrilled to see adoptive families, generally, making efforts to educate their children and themselves about their youngsters' cultures-of-origin. I DO see wonderful connections made for youngsters. I DO see young children develop pride in their origins. I DO see the potential for ongoing relationships with ethnic communities.
However, I also want to share some of my concerns about the various ways adoptive parents have been attempting to provide cultural connections-- to raise questions about whether we are truly accomplishing what we think that we are. While I am going to focus in on discussing culture camps, there is carry-over to thinking about whether language classes and other efforts may or may not accomplish what we think that they are, as well. Also, to provide some food for thought about what the long-term goal ought to be for raising our children who have come to us through international/transracial adoption and whether participating in culture camps, once-a-week language classes, occasional celebrations of holidays that occur in our children's original homelands masks what they truly need and merely helps us, as adoptive parents, to feel good about ourselves and our adequacy for raising our youngsters.
The idea that transracially/internationally adopted youngsters need a connection with their culture-of-origin came out of the adult adoptees in the international adoption community complaining about how they feel a lack of fit in Society, overall, and in the ethnic community they are a part of, as well. That they know nothing about their culture or how to behave appropriately so that they CAN participate if they want to. Also, that they stick out like a sore thumb when they visit their original homelands and are much criticized and scoffed at over this. So that they return, feeling like true aliens who are isolated, alone, and misfits everywhere that they go. I was around almost thirty years ago now, when questions began to be asked about whether these youngsters who'd been transracially and internationally adopted could REALLY thrive if all we offered was unconditional love, and the trend towards introducing them to their culture-of-origin got its start. Frankly, it both puzzles and shocks me that today, we collectively (and somewhat arrogantly) believe that its the current population of adoptive parents who have developed ways of introducing adopted youngsters to their culture-of-origin and that we are doing it so well that our children are not going to have any of the problems the adult adoptees have. hmmm...
We, adoptive parents, jumped on the idea that if we could dose our kids with their culture-of-origin, it would fix all of the problems the adult adoptees were reporting. We also began to imagine and behave as though cultural bytes could not only eradicate the sense of disconnection from their culture, but providing cultural education could fix the hole in the heart (left by the loss of birth parents) AND could be an easy fix for racial identity building and those feelings of difference due to race that our kids struggle with. Further, for those adoptive families who live in nearly all-white communities, we began to imagine and tell one another that going to culture camp once a year would be enough to arm our kids against the racism, discrimination, and sense of being alone that afflicts them throughout the rest of the year. We also began to believe that we could do this on our own-- that we could provide cultural education opportunities as white parents-- if we could learn enough about how the ethnic communities provide this to their own children and imitate that.
Unfortunately, none of that is true! Culture camps are wonderful. They help youngsters and their parents develop a sense of community within the broader adoption community and provide opportunities for kids to see other families like their own. At culture camp, children get an opportunity to meet teens who share their ethnicity (if it is a camp program that successfully provides this)--important role modeling since children do NOT get a positive sense of self from interacting with other adopted children who look like themselves. They get a taste of some of the interesting things that are a part of their original culture-- and this helps them build pride in where they originated from. Those are ALL wonderful, constructive things.
What culture camp does NOT yield is accurate healthy racial identity for youngsters-- especially when this is the only opportunity they have during the year to be with adults of color who look anything like themselves. It does not shield them from racism nor does it arm them to deal with it 24-7, 365 days a week if they live in racially-isolated places. An analogy I would offer is that we can't feed children once a year when they need daily sustenance if they are to survive and be healthy. It may well help youngsters recognize that that is the ONLY place and time during the entire year that they feel as sense of fit-- and exacerbates their sense of LACK of fit during the rest of the year.
The cultural bytes offered at camp may well develop pride in the beauty and richness of the land of their birth, but the type of activities, cultural artifacts, and expressions of high culture do not help youngsters develop cultural competency. What's that, you ask? It is the way people who live that culture think, relate to others (what is the hierarchy within families, in schools, in society-- and how does one behave given their position in those hierarchies?), adopt the common values, hold work ethics, believe about the purpose of life, etc... that underlie the way people live. It does not help them to grasp the unspoken beliefs, values, practises that grease the skids of how people get along within ethnic communities-- those things so deeply embedded that people may not even be aware guide their interactions and ways of thinking and living. In order for youngsters to learn and aquire enough of that to comfortably participate in their ethnic community AND in the Pan-Asian American community, they need regular, ongoing, meaningful, direct opportunities to be with adults and families from their ethnic communities. In other words, the fruits of the culture camps are terrific, but not enough to sustain true cultural aquisition anymore than being immersed in a foreign language for a week could help one to be a fluent language speaker of that language.
The adoptive mother who posted to the adoption forum wrote of how her young sons remembered the camp experience all year and yearned to return. The experience she shared is one I think many adoptive families have with participating in heritage camp programs. While I can appreciate that her children did, indeed, gain something wonderful, there is something more we ought to think about. Observing our kids at these camps and listening to them afterward when they speak glowingly of them ought to inform us that our children crave and need opportunities to be with other people of color in their everyday lives-- not just on a very occasional basis, if they are to form healthy racial identity and a sense of connectedness and alliance with those others. We don't tend TO understand this and instead, we may delude ourselves that this is "enough" just as we sometimes think that getting a few adoptive families together for occasional opportunities is "enough."
Our society continues to be very racially polarized, racist, and racially aware-- so our kids live in that without even being aware of it like fish swim through water without necessarily being conscious of it. Only if we, their parents, recognize the potential threat it poses to our children's sense of self-worth and seek out multiracial/multicultural settings throughout the year can our children develop accurate racial identity, feel an affinity with others of color-- find and keep a sense of place within their ethnic community and the common shared community of all people of color in a society still white-dominated, and learn to stand up to stereotyping and racism. We also need to have in-depth, ongoing, frank discussions of what racism is in all of its subtle forms, as well as the blatant ones, and help them develop strategies for resisting it.
As white parents, we cannot achieve this on our own-- we MUST also be having these discussions with adults of color and helping our kids to receive input from adults of color who are facing this, just as they are. Part of this is facing up to why we NEED culture camps, Diversity Celebrations, affirmative action programs, African American (or Asian/Latino/Native American) Studies,etc...
In other words, we ought not, as adoptive parents, to say to ourselves that a once-a-year dose of what our kids need all of the time is enough, but instead use our observations of what happens for our children at camp to inform us of what they need more of on a consistent basis. It ought to get us going about how we CAN provide more of this-- make it a regular part of our lives. If a four day experience is enough to cause 3 and 5 year-old children to remember and crave what they were getting for a whole year, then we have to face that perhaps, we are not doing "enough."
Nor should we delude ourselves that taking our children to once-a-week language classes or occasional cultural celebrations or eating in ethnic restaraunts once in a while is an adequate substitute to developing long-lasting, meaningful, ongoing, personal relationships with adults and/or families who share our children's ethnic heritage AND with other people of color. More often, I observe that when this is all that parents offer, their children eventually reject interest in their cultural heritage, tend to see others of their racial/ethnic heritage as "other," and do not integrate a sustained sense of self worth from having been introduced to their heritage in these ways. Nothing about these types of opportunities prepares them to make and keep relationships with others who share their racial and cultural heritage unless adoptive parents utilize them as merely the first step with developing real relationships with members of their child's ethnic communities. i.e. Making friendships that offer reciprocity in bringing ethnic community members into our homes and sending our adopted youngsters into (ethnic) homes.
I do not mean to be a wet blanket-- dashing the hopes of adoptive parents-- when we want to think that we are "doing all that we can." However, I think its time we really asked ourselves whether we TRULY are doing all that we can.
As a parent of now-grown sons and daughters, I see the world that they have to live in now that they have emerged from living under our roof. Its a very racially-aware, racist world in which others have perceptions of them that affect their ability to date, marital/partner choices, what they experience in the workplace (am I not getting promotions because I'm not good enough or because my boss has racial stereotypes or worse, prejudices? and what will happen if I ask?), where they live (are my neighbors polite, but distant? Do they exclude us because they assume we go to parties with "our own kind" or are we REALLY menacing, in some way?), where they worship (if they do), and where they feel comfortable raising their own children. They have very definite opinions about where we raised them and whether or not we REALLY faced up to racism and armed them to deal with that or whether, instead, we did what was convenient and comfortable for US.
I also see that no amount of cultural competency or connection with others who look like them substitutes for in-depth processing of the losses they sustained-- of their birth parents, connection with ancestry, early history, facets of their self-identity. Cultural connections do not fix the hole in the heart. Without empowering them TO face these losses directly, they are more likely to abandon any interest in their culture-of-origin and connection to those who practise it and others who look like themselves (including other adoptees), in an ineffectual effort to stop the pain and shame-- to run and hide and avoid their own inner feelings.
One more reaction I would share about participating in heritage camps is this: that while our children benefit from opportunities to learn about the specific country and culture they were born into, they also need opportunities to have lots of interactions with all sorts of people of color AND for us to "get it" that if they are Cambodian, or Chinese, or Korean, or Vietnamese, that they need to understand and be connected to the Pan Asian American community-- not just to the more narrow and specific ethnic community of which they are a part. Or if they are Hatian, that they need to connect with the African American community. Or if they are Guatemalan or Peruvian, they need to connect to the Latino American community. We must consider who the broader society will see aned what they will think when they look at our child-- especially what they'll perceive when our child reaches adulthood. We must not make our child's connection so limited and narrow that he or she doesn't have an opportunity to connect with a fairly large and accessible grouping of people. We also cannot afford to forget that we are multiracial/multicultural families-- not Korean, or Chinese, or Cambodian, or Haitian families-- and our children need and deserve to connect with others who are straddling two or more racial and cultural groups-- just as their families are.
In short, I would suggest that a smorgasborg is much better than a one-course meal. The unforseen dangers in providing an exclusive connection with only the ethnic community of which your child is a part are the following: First, that your child may not have much access to that, specific ethnic community. Especially if you are looking ONLY to connect with an Ethiopian, Hatian, Guatemalan,or Cambodian community. And that even if we could accomplish that, it will not help our child when members of the greater society perceive him/her to be Asian, Latino, African American, etc... We must see the danger in not empowering our kids to form an alliance with those larger groups. They are unlikely to spend much of their lives visiting/living/working in their country-of-birth. They ARE, however, going to be perceived by society-at-large to be members of a racial/ethnic group, so that they will need to have a connection with that group and other people of color-- not just with their narrow ethnic group. Secondly, that your child may well develop the hidden belief that you are not REALLY as tolerant and welcoming of racial differences as you profess to be. That instead, you made an exception for people who share his/her ethnicity only because you sought the opportunity to adopt a baby or young child and know you have to compensate for the racialized attitudes/beliefs you have. Third, that its OK for them to put people, generally, on a racialized yardstick as long as they/you make an exception for people who look like them. Fourth, that their ethnicity is superior (intentionally or unintentionally implanting this belief/attitude is going to come around like a boomerang when the greater-society does not reinforce this and in fact, demolishes it).
On the other hand, empowering your child and family to make connections with ALL people of color multiplies the opportunities that are available to test out whether stereotyping is an accurate and desirable way to pre-judge people. It provides a much larger group of individuals, families, and communities to connect with. It provides a much stronger case for the fact that although various ethnic/racial groups have suffered oppression, through gathering collective power, they can fight and win battles in the fight against racism. It helps youngsters understand that the stereotypes and racism exists not because an ethnic/racial group is "foreign" it is because they are racially different and this is a convenient way for the dominant white community to keep each of "them" individually, and all of "them" collectively in their place-- a place where they do not have the same power and privilege that whites do.
Children learn by doing and through first-hand experience and not through listening to what we, their parents, merely say. When we provide opportunities for youngsters to develop interest and respect for ALL people, when we delve beneath the surface of why we profess such interest in celebration of ethnic culture to expose racism and teach our kids to stand against it WITH US, the likelihood that our youngsters will feel comfortable in the skins they come wrapped in, WILL have pride in their ethnic heritage, and WILL be able to connect with others who look like them AS WELL AS others of color, is greatly enhanced. THAT, in my mind, offers a better prognosis for our children's psychological health and happiness over the long-haul.
Jane Brown, M.S.W.
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Jane Brown is both an adoption social worker/educator and an adoptive & foster mother of nine children, some of whom are now grown. She lives and works in Arizona. She serves on the editorial board of Adoptive Families Magazine and writes a regular parenting column for the publication. She is the creator of Adoptive Playshops which is a series of workshops for adopted children age five+, their non-adopted siblings, and adoptive parents in which children are helped through playful, multisensory activities to explore growing up in an adoptive family and racial identity, plus develop skills for dealing with societal attitudes and beliefs about adoption and includes helping children resist and confront racism and bullying. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or at: (602) 690-5338.