Friday, September 05, 2008

What Makes a "Good American"??

I thought long and hard about whether to blog about this or not, and when something doesn't leave my head I realize it is probably something I should write about. It seems that when an idea creeps inside my cranium, I can't do justice to anything else until I explore it or write about it, so I decided to blog about this so that at least I could perhaps write something better tomorrow rather than carrying this around in my head longer.

The other day I received one of those emails that gets forwarded fifteen million times, you know the kind that we all get from many different people. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes silly, sometimes we have read the same one umpteen times, once in awhile it is a touching story...and then there are the ones that you close, open up again and reread, close again, and then can't seem to release it from your mind. You find yourself thinking about it off and on throughout the day, rolling it around in your mind as it stews or ferments. This can happen for many reasons, because you firmly agree with something, because it makes you angry, because it brings up unpleasant memories, or because it makes you think about yourself and your own perspectives in a deeper way.

That is what happened this week when I received one of those emails. It was titled "Can Good Muslims be Good Americans?" and the gist of it was that it was impossible for a "Good" Muslim to be a "Good" American. I read it through once, and then again, and then closed it. I came back to it a few hours later and re-read it. I was disturbed by it, but couldn't quite pull it together in my mind just why I was so bothered with it other than the obvious reasons. After thinking further about it as the day progressed, I realized it was because it hit too close to home, that my world since our adoptions is far larger than it is for some others and I doubt that many of my friends or family can adequately understand that perspective. After all, they are not parenting children with a Muslim heritage.

I wrote a lengthy, and what I hope was a respectful and kind response to the sender as I know it was not sent with any ill intent, and as usual in the writing came clarity. But it also brings up a much deeper struggle we all have as parents of kids from different do you show respect for their past and embrace the person they might have been if they would never have been adopted? For those who firmly believe that their children's eternal fate was at stake should they have remained in their birth country, how do you handle this issue without setting yourself up yet once again as their personal "savior", a role which is already assumed by many outside the adoption triad as they look inside and say over and over again "Oh, you saved that poor child from such a bad life"...and now you can claim that you saved them from eternal damnation as well, if that is your belief. How do you help encourage your child's pride in their birth culture if the majority of those around them express anger and hatred towards those of the faith they most likely would have been born into?

And do you remain quiet about it and ignore it, trying not to make waves or rock the boat? Do you confront it haughtily and with a superior attitude, as if you know better than anyone else because...after have been there. That's kind of like throwing into a conversation "Well I have lots of black/gay/hispanic/asian/jewish friends..." as if that statement alone absolves you from all thought that you might be just the tiniest bit prejudiced. Do you try to gently get the other person to see things from a different perspective? Do you let them know that something that has been said is simply unacceptable whether they understand your reasons why or not?

We are role models for our children in all kinds of ways. As adoptive parents, despite the fact that most of us have not been adopted ourselves, we model for our kids how to view the world and how to respond to those who interact with us. How we answer adoption questions in front of them gives them clues about who they are and what approach to use when asked those same questions themselves. If we act ashamed, then our children will be ashamed. If we agree that we are the saviors, then our kids wrongly feel that they owe us a debt that is impossible to repay. If we respond angrily, then our kids walk around with a chip on their shoulder waiting to pounce on anyone who innocently asks a question but might not be "PC" enough to phrase it with whatever wording is approved of at the moment.

But what about when our kids are not watching? Isn't that when we are put to the real test? What if someone says something or emails something that your children will never know you go ahead and pretend that it isn't offensive or do you address it in the same way you would if your child were present? Do you ignore it if you can? Or is it impossible to overlook because you forever now see things through the eyes of your child?

How do you respond to someone saying something like that in front of your child? What if someone came up to you in front of your son or daughter and said something like "If your child were still a Muslim as they probably would have been in their birth country, there is no way they could ever be a good American.".

To me this particular statement might happen to be about religion, but it could just as easily be a stereotypical comment about race... "Your child is going to be a whiz at math, because all Asians are good at math." or "Your child is going to be good at sports because all blacks excel at sports.". You will notice here I am purposely avoiding the more negative comments that are spewed by ignorant, thoughtless people as I can barely allow myself to even type them.

In part of my somewhat lengthy response, which I will not share in total here, I said the following:

My kids are not "good Americans" because they are Christians. Nor are they lesser people because of the color of their skin or the shape of their eyes. They are good Americans because they have good moral character, a sense of responsibility and a strong work ethic. What makes us all "Good Americans" is our desire to follow the laws of our land, to actively participate in political life, regardless of whether our chosen Candidate is one others agree with or is the participation in the process that is important. Our Christianity has NOTHING to do with whether we are "Good Americans" or not, and that doesn't just apply to our family but to all families, regardless of their chosen faith.

Did I have to even write a response? No, I suppose not and it surely would have been easier to just hit "delete" and act as if I had never read it. Should I have done that? Perhaps I should have...I will not say I know for a fact that what I did was the best option. But as I look into the upraised, trusting faces of my sons I did feel as if they needed someone to speak for them, for at this stage they can not address such things themselves. Whether they ever knew about it or not, I would.

But if I didn't this time, wouldn't it be that much easier next time to back keep my less-than-popular opinion to myself? And that next time might be right in front of the boys...someone might say as I have been asked years ago once already "So, are there a bunch of ragheads there?" and then will I have the courage to stand up to that kind of prejudice if I haven't practiced that much needed courage? Or take away the race or religion issues altogether, what about the next time someone boldly and thoughtlessly asks "So were any of them screwed up from the orphanage?" as the boys stand beside me. Will I have the guts to say what needs to be said in as kind a way as possible if I haven't taken the smaller baby steps towards that moment? Courage begets courage.

There are so many facets to this whole thing that it is hard for me to work it all out in my mind. All the "untouchable" topics are kind of rolled all up into one on this one for us...race, politics, religion. And yet somehow, Dominick and I are the ones to translate all of this for the kids, we are the mirror that reflects it all back at them and in which they develop their own self-image. Are they Americans? Yes. Are they Kazakhs and Kyrgyz? Yes. Are they Christians? Yes. Would they have been Muslims? Most likely, Yes.

So if they were not adopted, would they not have been good people? Sorry, I can't answer yes to that one. Others seem to think they can answer that one in the affirmative. On this one, I think we just have to agree to disagree.


Cindy LaJoy said...

Lindsay said...
What is a Good American if not simply a good person?

To judge a person because of what they are, rather than what they do is prejudice and something I despise.

I've had similar emails to the type you describe; mainly containing 'jokes' about people of different races and religions. Like you, I emailed the sender of the most recent one, and asked if they really felt it was the kind of thing I would find funny? Leaving aside the fact my daughter is not white, I'm actually pretty dismayed that someone who I thought knew me well, would actually send it to me thinking I would find its racist content funny at all.

Like you as well, I also thought of ignoring it and simply hitting delete. But then to allow the expression of prejudice and racism to pass unchalleged is to be complicit.

We may not change the minds of the prejudice by speaking out - but we will certainly not change anything but staying silent.

In the words of Edward Everett Hale:
I am only one,
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something;
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

Cindy LaJoy said...

I posted your comment under the correct post and I am going to try and fix this problem so comments come under the right post.

Anonymous said...

Whoa. Nice response, Cindy - those of us who represent the diversity of America salute you!

Vegas's three cents...

Anonymous said...


I've been reading your blog for many months now, and would like to say it's one of my absolute favourites.
I live far away in the UK.
I stopped attending my church recently after my priest said something about muslim people and then added "We all know how they are..." I felt it was so full of prejudice, I didn't want my kids to listen to that.

Best wishes,