Generating Discussion: “Alien” Sexuality: Race, Maternity, and Citizenship

In this article, Natalie Cisneros investigates the rhetoric of the “problematic of alien sexuality,” or the fear surrounding the procreation of people who do not have or are not perceived as having/deserving citizenship.  These anxieties are closely connected to discussions of children who are born to parents who may or may not be documented citizens during pregnancy and birth (in essence, ‘anchor babies’).  The birthright citizenship policy of the United States (those born within the US have automatic citizenship) complicates this discourse and brings into question which sort of bodies are perceived as producing citizens and which are not.  There is a long history of women being treated as the producers of the next generation of citizens rather than being recognized as citizens in their own right.

From this history emerges discussions of the perceived worth of women’s bodies as compared to the worth of fetuses (note: such rhetoric equates women with wombs and this is, of course, a cissexist perspective; at the same time, this gendering of reproduction is significant because it demonstrates how conceptualizations of women—regardless of childbearing capacity—have been, and continue to be, linked to sub-citizen roles by understanding them as a means to an end).  Women have increasingly been viewed as vessels for future citizens in political discourses, a shift that further pushes women towards this sub-citizen role while simultaneously emphasizing the importance of fetuses’ future citizenship. 

Cisneros explores the dilemma that arises when government groups are both fearful of ‘alien’ reproduction yet are also concerned about the wellbeing of the fetus (in such a discourse, classified as an unborn child), at least theoretically.  As the fetus becomes an increasingly visible figure in the US, mothers—especially mothers deemed alien—are increasingly erased.  Even the prevalence of the term ‘anchor baby’ in discussions of citizenship, access to services, etc. emphasizes the fetus and erases the mother.

The figure of the alien mother upsets the concept of ‘virtuous motherhood’ because she is not perceived as fitting the idealized mother’s image as an honorable site of nation building.  Cisneros notes that while the fetus represents a nationless tabula rasa of sorts, immigrant mothers are viewed as fundamentally outside the charmed position of citizen.  Here, positive and negative eugenics come in to play, or the idea that some bodies are encouraged/obliged to reproduce while others are discouraged/prevented from reproducing, respectively.  Which bodies are perceived as producing desirable citizens, or citizens at all?  In light of these ideas about ‘healthy’ reproduction, how are alien mothers doubly regulated?

            Early on in the article, Cisneros describes the ‘alien’ subject as “always-already” racialized and classed, and therefore automatically with a history that positions such sexuality as other, undesirable, and threatening.  I found the phrase “always-already” to be especially perceptive.  How does this “always-already” process of thinking about alien mothers keep them in the category of other?

Conversations About the Role of Race

In April, the US Supreme Court heard a case (Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl) concerning adoption and custody rights in relation to Native children.  To briefly contextualize the case, the court is examining whether or not the biological father, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, was within his legal rights to claim custody of his daughter.  At the discretion of her biological mother, the child had been living with white adoptive parents.  The controversy arises from the father’s alleged renouncement of parental rights and responsibilities prior to the adoption.

The biological father claimed custody under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA).  This law was created in 1978 in response to a long history of community fragmentation, cultural suppression, and forced assimilation.  Historically, young people in particular have been targets of cultural erasure efforts; separation from families and communities at boarding schools, limited scope of education, and shaming of cultural heritage are a few examples.  ICWA was also an effort to empower tribal governments, especially with respect to issues and decisions directly affecting Native communities.

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ICWA & Adoption

On April 16, 2013, the Supreme Court heard a case concerning the Indian Child Welfare Act in relation to adoption and child custody rights.  While accounts of the situation differ and some details remain disputed, the case centers on whether or not the biological father (a citizen of the Cherokee Nation) has the legal grounds to claim his daughter.  The biological mother chose to enter into an open adoption with white adoptive parents after the biological father allegedly gave up custody rights and responsibilities.  After learning about the adoption, he claimed custody of the child under the ICWA, a 1978 law that addresses removal of Native American children from their families and communities.

1) “Adoption Case Brings Rare Family Law Dispute to High Court” via NPR

One of the things that struck me about this article was the way race is handled.  Dusten Brown, the bio dad, is described early in the article as “technically about 2 percent Native American.”  This preoccupation with who is “legitimately Native” or “Native enough” in both legal and cultural contexts suggests a wider anxiety about racial classification.  Several of the commenters felt that the bio dad’s custody claim to the child on the basis of race was insubstantial and even outdated, perhaps because this article emphasizes his irresponsibility.

2) “The Ugly Side of the Adoption Industry” via Indian Country Today Media Network

This article is notable for depicting Brown as a sympathetic, proactive parent figure who simply harbors a “deep desire to raise his daughter, named Veronica.”  In addition to emphasizing Brown’s integrity (which, interestingly, is in part built up through repeated mentions of his military deployment in Iraq), the article prominently vilifies the biological mother.  She is described as breaking off the engagement, placing the child up for adoption “[u]nbeknownst to Brown,” and cutting off all communication.  This news sources has several articles about the case, so this is just a sample.

3) “Adoption Controversy: Battle over Baby Veronica” via Dr. Phil

This episode (as of 4/22, the top Youtube hit for “Baby Veronica”) is incredibly sensationalistic and offers some interesting insight into how a popular mainstream talk show platform (like Dr. Phil) covers the case.  All guests, including the white adoptive parents, are asked questions specifically designed to elicit heated emotional responses.  After one guest criticizes ICWA of being racist towards capable white adoptive parents (this is definitely worthy of further analysis), the attorney clarifies that ICWA operates on the basis of political affiliation (i.e. tribe membership), not race.  The topic of the child’s “drop of Indian blood” and its significance comes up again and again.  Although guests from differing perspectives appear on the show, “the tribe” is repeatedly vilified for the audience and is presented as illogical, unfeeling, and out-of-touch.

4) “How Being Separated From My Family and Tribe Affected Me” via ACLU

This short article offers the perspective of one woman whose family has been affected by the dismissal of ICWA.  She feels “the coverage [of the Baby Veronica case] has been largely one-sided, and I thought it was important for people to hear my story.”  The author describes her experiences with the adoption/foster system and the disconnection from her Cheyenne River Sioux heritage in hopes that “our testimony may help the next social worker, lawyer, or judge to just simply do the right thing.”  I am interested in finding more firsthand accounts of interactions with ICWA, so this was a good start.

Some preliminary questions I have:

  • In what context was ICWA created (goals, supporters, political climate, etc.)?  Has it been effective?
  • How does this case fit into a larger history/context of white adoption, especially with respect to Native babies?
  • Who is considered a capable parent and why?  What is considered a good environment for raising children and who decides this (legally, culturally, etc.)?
  • Why and how is the biological mother so frequently vilified by pro-ICWA articles?  How does her position as Latina affect the situation and why is this usually only brought up to downplay the child’s “Native blood”?
  • Why has so much anti-ICWA (for lack of a better term) commentary insisted that race is or should be irrelevant in this decision?

I’m still learning about preferred and self-ascribed identity labels (as compared with, say, those conferred by the government or the media) in relation to Native American experiences, so I apologize for using any inaccurate, unfavorable, and/or offensive terms in this post.