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What Does it Mean to Center Marginalized Voices?

As a transracial and transnational adoptee, I grew up being told adoption is an act of love, that I was chosen, and my birth mother couldn’t take care of me and gave me up for a better life. This narrative is the most common one about adoption (Medium). But this fairytale frames adoptive families only as saviors and adoptees only as grateful children without complex or nuanced experiences. Many narratives about social issues have the stories of the people they’re supposed to be about as an afterthought. Whether it’s stories about adoption instead of adoptee stories, complaints about homelessness affecting inconvenienced homeowners, or allyship focused on the allies themselves, these narratives center and benefit the privileged. It is imperative we start centering marginalized voices in order to create change.

In the dominant narrative about adoption, Westerners must “save” non-U.S. babies to give them better lives. There isn’t a question of if those lives are, in fact, better for the adoptees or whether taking children to the United States is the best way to support these children from international (and predominantly non-white) countries. This incomplete story paves the way for exploitation and fraud by promoting adoption at all costs (Time, No White Saviors, AlJazeera). Currently, adoption myths fuel the exploitation of Ukrainian children, as they did in Haiti in 2010 (Salon). 

TAKE ACTION

• Listen to adoptee voices and support petitions created by them like the Adoptee Citizenship Act.

• Give directly through mutual aid or to community grassroots organizations working to support those that are houseless.

• Read books that center those with lived experiences, such as: So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeomo Oluo or How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

As an adoptee, I know that adoption is an act of trauma and displacement (USA Today). I was removed from my birth family, country of origin, and culture. I was placed in an orphanage as a newborn and then in foster care. I was then raised in a white supremacist country by a family who didn’t have the tools that all children of color need from their kin (LA Times). I still feel that I don’t quite fit in or belong anywhere. Without stories like mine, we miss opportunities to think critically about adoption and create the proper support and resources for adoptees and adoptive parents.

World Adoption Day was founded by a white man because of his “big personal experience surrounding adoption.” His siblings are adoptees, but he is not. The World Adoption Day website features content where the perspectives of adoptees are missing completely (WAD). Though this is supposed to be for adoptees’ benefit, they’re the objects, not the subjects, of this story. 

We can see a different version of this problem in the LA Times op-ed Listen to the neighbors of homeless encampments. We aren’t just grousing, which says homeless encampments are a problem because homeowners are inconvenienced, not because people are forced to live on the streets in the richest country in the world. In language that reeks of privilege and entitlement, the article talks about the “chaos and suffering” that housed residents experience due to encampments in their neighborhood. Zero concern is shown for those living on the streets. There’s certainly no thought of how their housed neighbors could best support them.

Even people of color can get decentered in conversations about racism. We see white activists, authors, and educators profit immensely off of anti-racism work and take opportunities away from BIPOC experts (Forbes). We see allies take up space instead of creating and offering space, which puts the sincerity of their support in question (Yahoo). In other cases, “allies” center their own distress at racism existing, not the distress of those affected by it. As CNN’s John Blake said, “White tears aren’t a sufficient substitute for fundamental change. Sometimes they can even be an enemy of racial progress. It’s far easier for some White people to embrace the symbolic gestures of racial solidarity — buying the latest anti-racist book, planting a Black Lives Matter sign on their lawn — than to do the hard work of making racially transformative change possible.” After the black square and other virtue-signaling centering white feelings, we have seen white support for Black Lives Matter plummet and few shifts in long-term support for BIPOC communities (US News). 

Adoptees being told to be grateful fuels exploitation and the absence of resources for adoptees to cope with the trauma of displacement. Discussion of homelessness without unhoused people promotes anti-homeless thinking and policies, including brutal encampment sweeps (ACLU Washington). White folks who focus on being “good allies” rather than divesting themselves from whiteness and holding themselves and others accountable, center their experiences, meaning racialized people can’t even set the terms of anti-racist struggle. 

Continuously centering marginalized voices is a lifelong practice. Look for organizations in your area that are led by those directly impacted. Allied Media Projects support community-centered, media-based organizing for change. Right 2 Dream Too has run an incredibly successful overnight rest area for unhoused people in Portland, Oregon, for years. It’s led by unhoused or formerly unhoused people themselves. San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness is also led by unhoused people, who are also activists and community-based researchers. Adoptees For Justice is an adoptee-led organization whose mission is to educate, empower, and organize adoptee communities. Books like All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung, The Wake Up by Michelle Kim, and The Black Friend by Fredrick Joseph are also excellent examples of people from marginalized communities sharing narratives too often left out. 

Ultimately, centering your comfort above those most impacted by an issue does harm. To disrupt this, we must continuously listen and learn from those most impacted by social issues. We need to not just affirm their lived experiences but let them lead the way in creating change. We must believe their stories, create space for them, and share them without centering ourselves. We need to ask what resources would support them instead of telling them what we think they need.


KEY TAKEAWAYS
 • Center marginalized voices and question dominant narratives. 

 • Learn from those with lived experience and/or the originators of the theories and bodies of work.

 • Support organizations that are led by those with lived experience with the issue.

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