Thursday, July 12, 2007

Half Human

Today during summer school Dominyk's class was discussing ethnic origins. According to his PCA, who accompanies to school each morning, one of the adults indicated his Norwegian roots, to which Dominyk replied, "I'm half German and half human."

His humorous retort reminds me of the school project we have had to contend with every year it seems. In one particular grade level (I can never remember which grade it is) there is a unit that deals with children's ethnic origins. The kids are required to complete a rudimentary family tree and then indicate, as part of the project, from what country their ancestors come.

Don't get me wrong. I think family history is important. In fact, I've been on my own genealogical quest since I was a young teenager and still spend a few hours a month researching my own family's roots. It's an enjoyable pursuit for me, and it only serves to bolster my self-understanding and fulfill the historic curiosity that is part of my personal nature.

For families formed through adoption, however, the experience can range from the traumatic to the lackluster. At the extreme edge is the anxiety it can create, especially for a child adopted as an older child, who still has memories of a birth family that was unwilling or unable to parent him or her. It may bring up their own unresolved questions about who they "really" are. In some cases, especially where little is known about an adoptee's family of origin, it may have little impact at all.

I have to believe, though, that in familes that have been formed cross-racially through adoption (as ours is), the questions about origins are a bit perplexing for the child involved. For our part, we have asked each child how they want to complete their family tree chart. Do they want to record their "legal" ancestors (as in mine and Claudia's genealogy) or do they want to record what little is known about their birth ancestors?

In each case our children have chosen to record their "legal" ancestors, which is fine until the question of ethnicity shows up. For our caucasian kids it really isn't much of an issue, because in this hodgepodge of whiteness that we stereotypically think of as North America who would ever know is someone claims German or Swedish or British ancestry? But when your child is physically distinct from you (whether that be eye color, skin tone or hair color), it is a bit more problematic. How do my children with Hispanic origins "justify" their ancestry as being largely Germanic and British (Claudia's and my roots) without looking foolish?

It is a cunundrum, to be sure, and there are no easy answers.

I wonder sometimes if we just need to adopt Dominyk's sagacious words: "I'm half [whatever you choose to identify yourself as] and half human." While not exactly accurate in terms of genetic descent, it certainly normalizes the situation and reminds all of us that when it's all said and done the most common connection we all have is the human one.

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