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chocolate cake, race relations, power imbalance

What Enlightened Self-Interest in Adoption Can Teach Us About Race Relations

Gosh, is it scary to talk about anything race related. But I’m going to zoom out and talk first about things that are power imbalance related, using adoption, political theory, and the enlightened self-interest of sharing cake.

chocolate cake & power imbalance

Power Shifts in Jim Gritter’s Hosting & Guesting Model

Jim Gritter, a pioneering social worker for open adoption, suggests in Hospitious Adoption (if you can’t find it to buy, try your library) that people in adoption relationships should take cues from the hospitality industry. Think about what makes a good guest. Think about what makes a good host. And then when you find yourself in one of those roles, take on the mindset of a good guest or a good host. (I submit this means to be able to imagine yourself in the place of the other and to then follow the Golden Rule.)

Which role will you play in your adoption relationships? If you’re an expectant mom, you are, literally, the host of your baby. You (and your baby’s father) are also the host of anyone else you invite to be at the open adoption table. The hopeful adoptive parents are guests at your invitation.

And once invited, here’s where hopeful adoptive parents ask themselves, what makes for a good guest?

Adoption’s First Power Shift

Adopting parents begin as guests at the invitation of the expectant parent(s). But once the baby is placed, there is a profound power shift in which the adoptive parents become the hosts and the child’s birth parents are now their guests.

Here’s where adoptive parents ask themselves, what makes for a good host? And the birth parents can likewise be mindful of the question, what makes for a good guest?

Adoption’s Second Power Shift

This new power dynamic will be somewhat static for about a decade, and then there will be a slow and gradual shift.

Ultimately, the host of all these relationships will be the adopted person. The question for parents to keep in mind, then, is this: What will your son/daughter have learned from you about good hosting?

That old Harry Chapin song  was a sort of warning about one day, when it’s too late to change course, you find out “he’s grown up just like me. My boy was just like me.”

Power Imbalance in Robert Nozick’s Political Theory

I learned about Robert Nozick’s political theory while in grad school. And I use it today when I teach students about how they might create their most desirable society.

Wikipedia says: “For Nozick, a distribution of goods is just if brought about by free exchange among consenting adults from a just starting position, even if large inequalities subsequently emerge from the process.”

What my professor taught about a just starting position was this: Envision your ideal society. How would the economic system work? How would the justice system work? How would the political system work? What kinds of laws, rules, protections, and safety nets would be in place?

That’s the Breaks

Now envision that your ideal society is breathed into existence, but you yourself are going to be randomized. In other words, you may be wealthy or of little means or somewhere in between.  You might be a brilliant light in the world of industry, art, music, entertainment, sports, or you might be mediocre or even lackluster in your abilities. You could end up a member of any race, of any ethnic group, of any class. You could be able-bodied, or you could face one or more physical or intellectual disabilities or health issues. You might be high-functioning and resilient and capable, and you could also deal with any of a variety of mental health issues. You could be born into an intact and close loving family, or you might be raised by someone who struggles with caring and providing and who has their own significant challenges.

Assuming you get a different life than — maybe even the opposite of — the one you want or the one you are familiar with, now how might you tweak your ideal society in terms of economic, justice, and political systems?

Self-Interest of the Enlightened Kind

Once my students realize they could just as easily be in the group with less access to influence as the group with more, they begin to make changes.

And this is where enlightened self-interest comes in. When you realize that your fortune may one day be tied in with another’s, your perspective shifts and widens.

Chocolate Cake

I understood Robert Nozick’s concept in a flash, for my parents had used it with my sisters and me. It’s so simple and intuitive.

If there was part of a cake left and we all wanted it, our parents solved the problem the way many of yours did. The person who cuts the cake is the last to choose their own piece. Assuming everyone wants the biggest piece possible, it’s in the slicer’s best interest to make sure none of the pieces are too small.

In other words, there is reason to seek equality, even for the person holding the power at that moment.

Race Relations & the Coming Demographic Shift

Last month, journalist Harry Smith offered a segment on NBC Nightly News about how Anglo Americans* will be in the minority in just a couple of decades. (Video no longer available.)

This causes me refer back to Hospitious Adoption. Majority groups might want to ask themselves if they are demonstrating the  aspects of holding power and influence that will also serve them when what goes around comes around.

Summoning the vibes of both Jim Gritter and Harry Chapin, when you end up on the short side of a power shift, what do you hope those coming in to power remember from your own behaviors?

I’ve been told I sometimes sound all Rodney King-ish on this blog, but it’s not because I’m all soft heart. (I’m so not). It’s also cold, hard, calculated self-interest. Not only is is morally right to practice kindness and the ability to put yourself in another’s place, it is also smart.

* I wonder if “Anglo” here is a misnomer, as it seems to denote people of English descent.  German-Americans and Irish-Americans outnumber English-Americans (as do African-Americans and Mexican-Americans).

I use “they” in taking a neutral  point of view, but as an “Anglo” American, I also mean “we.”

What are your thoughts on the coming demographic changes? Are we creating the world we’d want to live in no matter what station we might eventually occupy?

Lori Holden, mom of a young adult daughter and a young adult son, writes from Denver. She was honored as an Angel in Adoption® by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute.

Find Lori’s books on her Amazon Author page, and catch episodes of Adoption: The Long View wherever you get your podcasts.

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9 Responses

  1. I am completely at a loss as to why people can’t see that it’s in their own best interests to make sure there is fairness for everyone. But if I get to ranting, I’ll never stop, so I’ll leave it at that. 🙂

  2. This was such a huge piece of the discussion around the ACA — every person has the potential to end up needing major medical care. Even if you don’t need it now, you may need it down the road. Therefore, pay into the system and support it for others, and it will be there for you if you need it, too. And if you don’t, be okay parting with that tax money because it went to something positive — helping others — vs something negative — harming others.

  3. This is timely for me, as I’m currently living in a system where many around me don’t understand the concepts you outline here. There’s a big focus on grabbing as much of the pie as possible with little empathy for those who are unable to grab as much due to circumstances that are both outside their control and limit them. Every time this is pointed out, I’m met with shock and anger. Shock as enlightened self-interest isn’t on the radar and anger because those who have are feeling exposed.

    Honestly, I believe we are quickly coming to a crossroads for the transitions you speak of (the major players who are driving some of this have yet to be exposed) and it’s frightening a lot of people as there is uncertainty on the other side. Which is why teachers like you are insanely important Lori. We need to be trained to think outside ourselves as the default is to solely thing of the self in the short-term.

    And the humerus, huh? Sadly, mine is the atlas.

  4. There is nothing old about Cat’s in the Cradle, nothing is old when something is as timeless as this song (or Harry Chapin either).

    Some will have rude awakening coming there way, it’s not as if they haven’t been warned, they’ve chosen to wear blinders and I don’t think they’ll ever hear.

    I’d guess where I live it’s close to 50/50 white/people of color, it may even be 40/60 (all based on my perception when I’m out). I think it is a good thing and will make all of us better people.

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