The census and civil disobedience: No check box for my kidlet

[Editor's note: This week, we will look at the 2010 federal census and varying reactions to it. Today, guest contributor Liana talks about representation of adopted children on the 2010 census. Wednesday, I hope to post an article by columnist Pia Guerrero of Adios Barbie about the how Latino peoples are represented on this year's census. On Friday, I will write about why the information on past census records are so important to my family.]

written by Love Isn’t Enough guest contributor Liana; originally posted at Welcome to the Dollhouse

Excuse me while I have a bit of a rant today, my friends.

The subject of my rant is actually nothing new, I’m sorry to report. It actually began with the last census in 2000, it seems. But at that time I was either unaware, unenlightened, or not close enough to the issue for it to get under my skin as it does today in 2010. And it has gotten deeply under my skin, much like a scabies mite in an unsuspecting household of nudists. I am not at the present time a happy camper.

You see, I’ve just learned that the government decided to get curious about adoption during the 2000 census and as such, for each child listed, you must indicate whether this child is your biological child or your adopted child. Upon learning this a few nights ago, my first through 12th thoughts were: Are they demented? Are they on crack? Why would any parent want to distinguish how his/her child joined the family? Aren’t there enough traumas inherent in adoption as it stands as to avoid adding more insult to injury by looking to distinguish adopted from biological children? Our Certificate of Adoption that we received upon finalization of our daughter’s adoption stated:

she shall be considered the daughter of the adopting parents, entitled to the same rights and privileges, and subject to the same duties and obligations as if the said person had been born in wedlock to the adoptive parents.

So what am I missing here? Why does the census bureau want to now treat her differently than a child of our genes?
There’s something that stinks about this and I’m getting a little angrier each time I think about it. It feels to me like just another way of othering adoptees. And god only knows, navigating adoption is difficult enough for all members of the triad without the damned Census Bureau coming in and adding insult to injury in the guise of well-meaning othering.

What’s othering, you ask? I envy those of you who need to ask. Here is a good anthropological definition:

An Anthropological Definition:


Simplistic recognition of normal human diversity, combined with ethnocentric thinking can lead to a tendency to depict ‘others’ [women, people o color ...] as somehow, categorically, topologically, intrinsically, DIFFERENT. In that “difference”, lays the potential for HIERARCHICAL or STEREOTYPICAL thinking ie: all women are the same…. All men are the same [and they come from Mars]….

This practice of comparing ourselves to others and AT THE SAME TIME DISTANCING ourselves from them is called ‘OTHERING’, by which we mean positing that humans and societies whose life and historical experiences vary from your own are ‘different’ [which is true] and not understandable [which is not true]; use of the distance and difference to re-confirm one’s own ‘normalcy.’1

Here’s a psychology wiki page with more detail on othering.

As a person of color (yes, those of you inclined to see this statement as “playing the race card” can just tune out now), I’ve spent a large proportion of my 46 years dealing with being “othered.” It hasn’t been all hearts and flowers by any stretch. Whether the othering was because I was the lone chocolate chip in the sea of shortbread, or because in a sea of chocolate chips, I didn’t speak AAVE, or because in a sea of women, I was the unpartnered and unparenting. Whatever the reason, there is the “oh you’re different so you don’t really fit in with us” message that comes across loud and clear.

So when I learned of this checkbox that I’m being asked to mark indicating whether my dear daughter is biologically mine or whether she joined my family through adoption (I still wonder what I would have marked for my donor egg pregnancy had I not miscarried. The child would have been neither my biological child nor my adopted one…where’s the category for that?), immediately I called a foul. Why the need for such a distinction? We’re just getting to the point where savvy media representatives (I dare not call them journalists) are beginning to actually refer to adopted children as (get this) their parents’ children and not adopted children. Yep, Zahara Jolie-Pitt. You’re actually your parents child in some stories and not the little brown child they picked up in Africa…you know the one who’s adopted (said in loud whisper).

We’re told, according to this lovely press release, that it has to do with gathering information for adoption agencies and clearinghouses and are given a lovely example about how adoptive families have median incomes overall than biological families. Wow, isn’t that interesting?! Well in my book: no it isn’t. If you want to find out that type of data, then find another consent-driven nationally-representative survey (something like the YRBS but for adults) to add the adoption question to. You don’t add adoption questions to the census, just to find out fun, “we’re-just-curious” statistics for the next version of Freakanomics. Give me a break!

You want to know if I am black (or African-American, non-Latino, as the survey reads.)? Fine. That affects allocation of resources/dollars for my community based on majority/minority representation. But seriously, are you trying to tell me that you really want me to mark the “adopted” box for my daughter because this “may inform policy-makers who develop legislation related to adoptive families.” Like what? If there are enough check boxes the legislators are going to vote for we adoptive parents to get trips to Barbados? Right…especially with our higher median income. I’m just not buying it, especially after the first statistic listed in the press release is about median income and which group (adoptive or biological families) was more likely to own their own home. That does NOT seem like critical information for a legislator.

At 2 3/4, my daughter doesn’t fully grasp the full meaning and impact of her having joined our family through open adoption. And we, her parents, and her firstparents recognize that she will experience some trauma when she forms an awareness of how she came to be with us. Yet we will continue giving her the love, strength and foundation(a very strong foundation indeed) to help her move through this eventual trauma with her ego identity intact.

Do not mistake any of this as being about shame. There is no shame in our family home regarding adoption. This is about privacy and her adoption being her story, not something that needs to be shared on a census checkbox. This, IMNSHO, is government-sanctioned othering for dubious reasons, at best. There are other methods of gaining adoption data for those entities who are interested.
Now when the census form begins to list all the methods of non-genetic family building as options for each child on the form, then perhaps we can talk. I mean isn’t it important to know the families created through:

a) donor egg
b) donor sperm
c) donor embryo

And let’s go a little further. Perhaps we should include biological, but conceived with fertility treatments children as a checkbox as well, because, you know, the fertility industry might need that type of information for their continued work (Octomom, anyone?). Let’s also not forget that approximately 12% of children are not the biological child of the father listed on their birth certificate. Should there be a box about that? (I’d like to see the wording for that one!)

So the net of this long-ass rant is that when weighing the potential for othering our kid versus the unconvincing arguments in favor of why this information is collected, our response to this census question will be: none of your damn business.


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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek,, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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