Blood and Water: Family Resemblances-Adoption, Personal Identity, and Genetic Essentialism (2005)

Source:   Witt, Charlotte. “Family Resemblances: Adoption, Personal Identity, and Genetic Essentialism.” In Adoption Matters: Philosophical and Feminist Essays. Edited by Sally Haslanger and Charlotte Witt, Pages 112-131. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2005.

Charlotte Witt’s article explores the repercussions of the traditional definition of the family as a biological unit when, in today’s world, an increasing number of families do not fit that mode– whether because of adoption (the focus of our research), the “blending” of families in the case of re-marriage, or other situations. This change in what the American family looks like upsets long-held beliefs relating to what family is and means.

Family resemblance is often a source of self-identity, and is emphasised from an early age. Harry Potter fans will easily recall that Harry “has his mother’s eyes” and the way everyone insisted on telling him so; but how this fact of looking like her hardly made him feel closer to the mother he never knew. The way identity is couched in genetics-based resemblance, how can adopted children forge an identity? Witt comes to the conclusion that resemblance is most often nebulous (you more likely have your great-uncle’s eyes than your mother’s) and is a poor foundation upon which to base any sense of kinship. In this way emphasis on family resemblance (born of the idealization of genetic ties in the modern and historical United States [especially for individuals who feel they have superior genes- think eugenics]) is a detriment to families both united and not united by biology.

Witt, as part of a contemporary community of feminist adoption historians, very interestingly points out in her article that feminist and adoption theory tend to participate in perpetuating the idea that biological family is the ideal. “Feminists, who privilege the maternal relationship and emphasize its gestational and bodily aspects, at the same time privilege a biological view of family relationships” (136). Adoption theorists, among other things, focus on finding ways to make adoptive relationships ‘like’ or ‘as good as’ biological– implying that such relations are not by nature equal to biological parenthood. In this regard Witt offers constructive criticism to the adoption education and social services communities as well. In this Witt reminds us that modern American society still has much to learn and much to improve upon in regard to adoption.

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5 thoughts on “Blood and Water: Family Resemblances-Adoption, Personal Identity, and Genetic Essentialism (2005)

  1. This is really interesting. I remember a family in my ward and how people talked about their adopted son looking so much like the mom. In a way this justified the relationship more and was considered a greater blessing. It’s a really good point that we need to think differently about families since the way they are constructed is so diverse.

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  2. When I read this I think about my own attitudes toward adoption and the families that are created and built from it. I like it when scholarship helps us think about our own prejudices and misjudgments. It’s important to keep our beliefs in check with reality. I’m going to choose to not see adopted families as “different” or lesser than biological ones.

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  3. I look nothing like my parents or siblings, and when I was younger (about ten years old, I think) I was secretly convinced that I was adopted. Though fictious, this idea made me feel distant from my family members. Eventually, my mom persuaded me that I was grown in her womb, and I felt like a real part of my family again. Now, I realize that our cultural obsession with biologically-tied families instilled that fear in me.

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  4. This is really interesting, and something I was not consciously aware of but realize I’ve seen. My cousins are adopted but one of the first things people always say about them is how they look biological. One of my other cousins who is married adopted her own child, who is a different race than her and her husband, and I’ve noticed that people tend to remark upon what makes him particularly African-American-looking or “different” from his parents.

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  5. I think this is a very prevalent topic in society. What deems something a family bond? I too as said earlier in the comments have seen how people truly desire to make themselves believe a child is biological, is it not enough to love them as a member of their family. When I was younger my aunt demanded a DNA test be done on me and my brother in order to determine if I was “really” my father’s child because of my hair and eye color. I was not hers unless I was proven to be his. Really though in the end, does any of it matter. I was talking to someone who was strongly against biracial adoption and I just simply could not understand why it mattered. I think this post makes it very clear. It is very insightful and it is okay to look different than family members whether there is a similar genetic code or not.

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