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“However well-intentioned he and my adoptive mother may have been, they did not live through being beaten up, spat on, called epithets, or being told where to go — in my case, ‘Get back on the reservation.'”: My Conversation With Brent Snavely

As some of you recall, Kat Turner wrote a note, responding to a few posts on Land of Gazillion Adoptees.  Brent, in turn, responded to Kat with the following comment:

“Fascinating. Especially so since I was told my birthmother was, perhaps, a Korean who a service man married following the Korean war — this despite my adoptive parents having actually met her face-to-face.

It is not so much being ‘adopted’ that is at issue as it is identity, and particularly how one is constructed by the socio-cultural environment in which they are raised. My adoptive father, now 93, recently put matters into perspective for me: “It used to be, ‘Kill the Indian to save the man’. ” However well-intentioned he and my adoptive mother may have been, they did not live through being beaten up, spat on, called epithets, or being told where to go — in my case, “Get back on the reservation.”

As an ex-cop and now an attorney, I am well aware of various child welfare issues. I can only say that ,y life (to date) could have been much worse or much better…I will never know, but I really could have used a sound explanation for what I experienced.”

There appeared to be some stuff Brent was holding back, and so I asked for him to elaborate.

This is a lengthy piece and so we should jump right in.  Enjoy.

Kevin, thank you for inviting me to answer several questions you posed. I would like to make several points clear at the outset in order to clarify my life has not at all been “normal,” if such a thing can ever be said about being an adopted child. Without these points in at least bullet-form, I am certain my answers would seem entirely disjointed.

  • I was an infant adoptee in 1959: At three days of age I was in the arms of my adoptive family. This was near the end of the “Termination Period” and in the midst of the “Indian Adoption Project.”
  • My birthmother was from Tennessee, and my birthfather was apparently from the Cincinnati, Ohio area. Both are regions where some people avoided “Removal” during the 1800s.
  • My adoptive parents met my birthmother. They kept this secret, along with their physical observations of her, until I was in my middle-teens.
  • My adoptive father was an ordained minister, and my parents took my brother and me to Nigeria with them during their missionary work. I lived there from ages 9 – 14 and attended a parochial school for missionaries’ kids where most of the boys grew their hair long simply because there were no barbers available. Upon finishing their missionary work, we returned to the U.S. and I attended a rural public high school located near an Indian Reservation.

With the foregoing points made, I provide at least general answers to your questions below. There is more to the story. I am, after all, 52 years old with a lot of water having passed under the bridge…

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: You mention in your response to Kat Turner that you are an ex-cop who is now an attorney.  Could you talk about your careers and why you decided to make the switch?

Brent: The occupations I mentioned were to keep my response short. Like many, through my teen and undergrad years I had miscellaneous jobs. After college, I was a Public Safety Officer (a combined Police Officer/Firefighter) for several years. I was later a co-principal of a business that provided EMS training services and worked as a Paramedic. I then worked full-time as a Paramedic during the first half of law school before ‘clerking’ full-time the last half.

Why did I not seek to become an astronaut, ditch-digger, physicist or something else? My career decisions were, upon contemplation, made less out of choice than driven by need. While my occupations may seem vastly different, each has involved my doing something for others. When viewing my life in this way I came to realize my choices were largely reactive to my early experiences, which involved the personality traits of right-wing authoritarianism (not to be confused with right-wing politics) and social dominance orientation.

The authoritarian aspects simply relate to strict hierarchical power structures, and the dominance to socio-cultural roles. Dad was a Protestant minister and mom was a schoolteacher – few roles fit both traits, except perhaps the role of military officer. Both “did unto others.” Dad also had at his disposal “the power of God.” Both parents took top-down approaches to what was, and was not appropriate – their words were to be accepted.

My shift from cop to business owner and Paramedic was simply due to heavy drinking. I wish it had been a neater transition, but it was not. My shift to law school and my current practice of law was due to realizing I had better use my intellectual capacities more fully, or I would “think myself into trouble.” Now, having just completed work on a Master’s degree in Liberal Studies, I am moving toward a lifework of truly serving my fellow human beings as opposed to merely earning a living in service-oriented occupations.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Nice! You state the following: “I was told my birthmother was, perhaps, a Korean who a service man married following the Korean war — this despite my adoptive parents having actually met her face-to-face.”  There’s a lot going on in this statement.  Could you please elaborate?

Brent: Around when I was 3 ½ years of age, mom told me I was adopted. My older brother, also an adoptee (seven years older and not from the same birthparents) was also told of his adoption at an early age. Because of these facts, I do not believe the disclosures were because of phenotypic characteristics. My mother was, however, clearly concerned about my appearance. She would say things to the effect of, “If you were with just me or dad, people would think you got your looks from the other parent, but when you are with both of us, it is clear you are not our child.”

I found out she overtly lied to me when saying she had no information about my background. She had speculated my birthmother had been an “imported bride” of a military man who served in Korea and that something (unstated yet clearly amiss) led to my being “put up for adoption.” She would say she simply did not know anything else, that the records were sealed, that I should accept that she and dad loved me and that I was “like” their own child. Dad was mostly silent.

Up until we left for Nigeria, I was to stay away from the brown-skinned children who frequented a nearby lake when we went picnicking (given where we lived at the time, I now know those children were likely of the Pottawatomi tribe). When my brother called me an “Indian giver,” she had a bit of a fit. I was so young at the time that, except for her taking the time to explain the connotations in fair detail and to assure me I was not an “Indian giver” (retrospectively, perhaps more emphasis was on the “Indian” than on the “giver”), I probably would have ignored my brother and thought nothing more of the matter. Only after my mid-teen years’ suicide gesture/attempt did mom disclose more. My parents had met my birthmother prior to my birth. They helped pay for food and prenatal care.

The most information I was ever able to extract about my birthmother was the following. She was white, but there was something wrong with her skin. Her hair was not blonde, but neither was it black, and she had pale blue eyes. She was a high school graduate, who, while working as a clerk at a store in Cincinnati, met a police officer described as 6’ tall, dark hair and dark complexion, with blue eyes. Her older sister had several children of her own and wanted to adopt me. However, my birthmother knew her sister was an alcoholic and did not want her to adopt me and she repeatedly asked my adoptive parents for assurances that I would receive a good education.

To this day, the only information I am certain is accurate is that pertaining to the physical description of my birthmother. Both my adoptive parents have, separately and at different times, described her to me. Given my physical attributes, it is probable the physical description of my birthfather is accurate. My birthmother stayed with friends of my parents for several weeks before I was born. Because she told them the same story about my birthfather being a police officer, and continued to express how she would never trust cops, it is quite possible that information is also accurate (and perhaps this played into my seeking a job in a similar capacity).

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Wow… How have you dealt with the racism you’ve obviously encountered in your life and what advice do you have for younger adoptees who may face similar situations?

Brent: The racism issue caused me a good deal of grief during adolescence (ages 10-20 +/-) largely because I had no rational explanation for what occurred. I walled off my feelings and, at least by way of outward appearances, undertook living a “White” life while maintaining reservations about “truth, justice and the American way.” I became what I most despised. I would not recommend that anyone follow the path I took. It has nearly killed me on several occasions.

On a lighter note, there have been a number of studies conducted regarding how to best “inoculate” youths against being damaged by racialized relationships. There seems to be a delicate balance between expecting racial discrimination and integrating pride in being a member of a particular social group. I believe the same may be said of ethnic, sex/gender, religious and cultural matters not readily discerned from mere visual observation.

There should be no doubt that, notwithstanding a certain degree of silence about race in these United States, racism (along with many other “isms”) remains firmly entrenched along colorlines. It is more difficult to detect than in days past since overt words and acts are now generally considered unacceptable.

Broadly speaking, a quiet anticipation that an individual of color will eventually “play the race card” seems to lurk beneath what seems to be a façade of acceptance – that anyone would anticipate such a “play” evidences an underlying racism. Under a placid exterior and a plastic smile, racism is cleverly acted upon in hidden ways. It is not because of skin color, but because of culture. It is not race, but clothing. It is not because of one’s body, but their non-conformance with “Whiteness.”

In relation to the last point, while pursuing a Master’s degree this past year, I discussed the concept of “Whiteness” with a number of individuals. Those who identified themselves as being White became agitated when “Whiteness” or “being White” was used – those “of color” understood the concept immediately. So long as dominant society members (and Whites have been dominant) felt comfortable voicing their belonging to a race, it was fine to reference skin color. However, when “others” focus attention on “Whiteness,” they cry foul! They demand silence, with silencing now comprising the most effective and pernicious aspect of a racial hegemony.

Human lives and human relationships are messy. They alternately involve boredom and excitement, joy and sadness, anger and fear, and love and hate. Silence = Stasis, reflecting that we do NOT live in a “post-racial” society since there has never been actual equality or equity in this republic.

Heinous acts motivated by racism still take place. Individuals are brutally beaten, murdered, and discriminated against in the U.S. because of the social construct called “race.” When such things occur, mainstream society tends to pooh-pooh the news. “I (or we) did not do that, never owned a slave, do not ‘see’ color, am/are ‘colorblind.’” This pervasive attitude arises from hegemonic processes such that even those who are victims begin to buy the story. After buying into the program, they are silent and often wonder what is wrong inside of them, rather than to comprehend that it is not they, but society that is off kilter.

I can only suggest that youthful adoptees of color growing up in the U.S.A. seek out support from those who are aware of the strengths associated with their race, color, culture, etc., and then prepare to face discrimination by discussing facts clearly and calmly. Of course, if someone approaches carrying a baseball bat and shouting racial names or it otherwise becomes clear one is in danger, they should run away. Standing ground or physically fighting it out will gain nothing.

Land of Gazillion Adoptees: Word to that…

4 Comments on “However well-intentioned he and my adoptive mother may have been, they did not live through being beaten up, spat on, called epithets, or being told where to go — in my case, ‘Get back on the reservation.'”: My Conversation With Brent Snavely

  1. What an amazing story. I am at awe and inspired by your strength for survival. This is an interesting article on how international adoption started from a humanitarian’s perspective.

    • Indeed, Brent did a fantastic job on the interview. Also, thanks for the link, Jin. I actually saw this post you’re sharing. Interesting stuff! I posted on FB/G+.

    • Jin,

      Thanks for your kind words. I did take look at the materials at the URL you referenced (I think Kevin mentioned it a day or so ago). I am certain the Holts did what they ‘believed’ to be “best”. They had good intentions but…well, you know what the road to hell is paved with.

      There is a substantial difference between children left parentless due to disease, accidents, war and other violence as well as abuse/neglect. Children in such circumstances would, as I see matters, be prime candidates for adoption. Aside from absent parents or non-parents/dangerous parents,it would seem efforts would be better aimed toward ameliorating the conditions and circumstances that prompts anyone to think that adoption is in “the child’s best interests”. Of course, a long-term solution would require flattening socioeconomic and policial class stratification and “We the people” would Actually BE “equal” — such an idea causes the collective American psyche to shudder.

      The play of the colorline is quite striking as regards children. Many of the TV ads seeking donations to help children present a White adult seeking funds to ‘adopt’ or support a child of color who happens to be outside the U.S. One might wonder why ads do not solicit help to remedy poverty’s effects on White children in the U.S. (I can make strong argument as to my thoughts on why, but the explanation is a very long one).

      • I wish you the best as you share your story. It takes a brave soul to be able to share his story. I’m not a fan of those TV ads myself. I think there is a better way to help other then taking the children out of their homelands.

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