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An Open Letter to Becky Thompson

The following is a letter sent to Becky Thompson, a sociologist at Simmons College in Boston and the author of "Mothering Without A Compass: White Mother's Love, Black Son's Courage" (University of Minnesota Press, 2001). Because Ms. Thompson has not, to this date, acknowledged the letter in any way, I chose to make it public. Several simple typos have been fixed, but otherwise it remains the same as the original letter.

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I know that the book has been around for several years, but I have just discovered and read "Mothering Without a Compass" recently and I wanted to send you my reactions. I'm writing as an Asian person who spent part of my childhood in white households and an activist/scholar working on many social justice issues.

I want to begin by saying that normally I would not have written to a white author of a book about transracial parenting (as in, children of color being raised by white parents). In fact, I probably would not have read the book if it were written by some other white woman. There has been several such books, all of which have the consequence, whether intended or not, of making it appear more "okay" for white people to raise children of color while neglecting to address the root cause of the over-representation of children of color "in need" of (white/government) intervention.

I am only writing you because I have respected your work since I first came across "A Hunger So Wide And So Deep." I have quoted your works and actively recommended your books for others to read. I am telling you this because I want you to know my writing this letter to you is a demonstration of my respect for you. I trust that you would be open to my reaction and give it a serious consideration.

I find the book lacking of an acknowledgement of social factors that made your household "safer" and "better environment" for the child than his birth mother. You do seem to acknowledge that the ability to send him to a private school is a privilege, but aside from that it is absent.

Instead, you repeatedly discuss the presence of abusive step-father as the primary factor making your household "better" for the child than his birth mother's, but fail to discuss how the birth mother's race and class complicates dealing with abusive partner and protecting her children from him. Without such analysis, it appears to me that focusing on his violence is (or functions as) a convenient way to explain away the key advantage your household has over that of the birth mother as an isolated, individual or coincidental one, rather than a socially imposed disparity that is unjust.

In the middle of the book, you defend the birth mother's choice to let you raise her son by saying that it's also love when a parent makes a difficult decision to leave her child in order for the child to have a better life. I agree that parents should not be blamed for having to make such a choice, but again why he would have a "better life" being raised by a white college professor far away than by his own family is an issue that needs to be seriously discussed.

When "in the best interest of the child" becomes the standard for how we discuss the issue of adoption, we take attention away from all the social injustices and inequalities that make some people more resourceful and prepared as potential parents over others. The rhetoric of "best interest," while appearing compassionate, does nothing to counter social and economic policies that make it a disadvantage for a child to grow up in a non-white household. In fact, the white adoptive parents have vested interest in maintaining the racial and economic hierarchies so that they can continue to assure themselves that the child is better off being with them rather than with their birth family and culture.

In some cases, this pattern is as extreme as perpetrating wars: international adoptions from Korea began in the 1950s, then those from Vietnam and Cambodia flourished during the 1970s. The (mostly white) adoptive parents who were so "concerned" about the plight of these orphans had done little to stop the U.S. aggression that made these children impoverished orphans in the first place. In the 1980s, many orphans came from Central and South America, while the U.S. armed and financed military dictatorships, right-wing militias and death squads there. And today, the Department of State is receiving many requests from white people who demand their right to obtain Iraqi children, as if it's a prize for winning--or so they think--the war on its people.

But even when the actual war or force is not involved, how is it different if social and economic policies supported by white middle-class voters are deployed to persecute families of color, making it so horrible and unsuitable for children to grow up in that parents of color are pressured to give up their children?

I am not saying that I am against any and all transracial adoptions. But I am saying that "in the best interest of the child" is a rhetoric that is too often used to obscure real reasons it is sometimes in the "best interest" of the child of color to be raised by white people, and I think you help perpetuate this intentful ignorance by repeating that rhetoric without seriously challenging it. Perhaps the problems are too big for you to feel that you can do anything else that would improve the child's life more, but it needs to be ackonwledged rather than concealed that you are personally benefiting from racist and classist social structures here.

It greatly bothers me that you wrote toward the end of the book that it would have been plausible and "selfish" for the mother to come and take back her son from you because it would have subjected him to great harm, such as those inflicted by the abusive step-father. I am bothered especially by the insinuation that you are not being selfish for wanting to keep the boy. The only difference, of course, is that you have enough privileges in this society to provide the child what his birth mother cannot--and because of this, you are shielded from acknowledging selfish motive here.

On the other hand, the birth mother would be cast as the "bad mother" regardless of what she does: either she doesn't care for her son deep enough to take him back, or she doesn't care for him enough to leave him. Your providing defense for the first criticism (e.g. it's also love when a parent leaves the child in order to give him the best life) only serves to confine the birth mother's options under the second criticism, which functions to your interest. I think that parents in general need to be clearer about their own selfishness in having a child, but I feel that it is particularly important for white adoptive parents of children of color.

In the middle of the book, you discuss how many white parents try to expose their children of color to their cultures, and how that is not enough. But the "another step" you are advocating for is merely "scrutinizing white parenting norms and incorporate hard-won African-American ways of doing things into everyday life." I do agree that "scrutinizing white parenting norms" is important--not just for children of color, but for white children also--but that is still not enough. And potentially dangerous.

The problem I have with the approach that these white parents take (i.e. exposing the child of color to her or his culture and people) is that it individualizes what is wrong about the institution of transracial adoption as it exists today. It assumes that the damage occurs only when parents fail to expose the child to her or his own culture and people, neglecting the fact that damages are being done every day to the families and communities of color before the child is made available for the white people to adopt.

The availability of these children to white people is itself the result of racist social and economic structures. For privileged white people to claim the child's best interest, as opposed to their own self-centered interest, as the primary (often only) reason for adopting her or him is irresponsible and delusional. I am not saying that white people should or should not adopt children of color; I am however saying that white people who adopt children of color (as opposed to giving away the resources they have toward empowering communities of color) need to acknowledge that they are acting in their own self-interest.

I am also disgusted with the degree to which you take advantage of your racial and class privileges in establishing legal barriers of protection from the mother of the child. In several parts of the book you acknowledge that you are accessing privileges based on your race and class, those privileges that are unavailable to the birth mother, and yet you seem to always justify doing so as being in the best interest of the child. But toward the end you write how obtaining legal guardianship would prevent the birth mother from taking back her son even if there weren't any violence going on in that family: legal expenses and prejudices in the legal system alone are enough to prevent the birth mother from reclaiming the child. How can that be possibly justified as being in the best interest of the child?

In the end, you state that what matters is love toward the child, which both you and the birth mother share. But clearly her love toward her son was not enough for her to give the child best of possibilities. It took more: in particular, it took race and class privilege you have over the birth mother. Her difficult decision to leave her son for you to raise is perfectly understandable under the given circumstances; however, as a white college professor, do you not have some sort of responsibility for the circumstances that pressure parents of color to give up their children? Is adopting truly the compassionate act when the child in question did not need to be taken out of his family had it not been for racial and economic repressions?

Of course, most people find it impossible to completely let go of the benefits they receive because of their unearned privileges. I am keenly aware that my relatively (compared to the rest of the world) comfortable lifestyle is sustained through active perpetration of violence and repression by the past and present U.S. imperialisms, both militaristic and economic, and yet I am unable to let go of that lifestyle. So I am not going to castigate you for not simply offering all the money and resources that you are now spending on behalf of the child to the birth mother so that she could keep her son instead. But I am disappointed by the lack of acknowledgement that this would have been the righteous thing to do, and that choices you've made is based on your own self-interest.

I could go on and on, but I feel that I'm starting to repeat myself so I will finish here. I'd like to clarify once again that the only reason I am writing you is because I have high respect for your other works and therefore I've had high expectation. If I thought you were a hopelessly clueless white academic, I would not have written you--in fact, I would not have read beyond the first chapter of the book--but what you write is important to me because I see you as an ally against white supremacy and economic injustices.


Emi Koyama