Towards Understanding Tone Policing In Adoption

Tone Policing in Adoption

I recently wrote a piece for an Australian audience, which I conceitedly thought was good. However, a couple of international adopted adults, and whose voices I value, drew my attention to facets within my piece that were tone policing. I initially had a knee-jerk response and was devasted because that was not my intention, at all. However, this forced me to examine what tone policing was and unfortunately, I conceded they were right. So, I took that piece down and cried. Activism is not for the faint of heart — there are many polarizing views and it can feel like a never-ending barrage, but no-one ever said it was going to be easy. I have been involved in the Australian adoptee activist community since 2010 and I am not sure if I have much more left in me. But this piece is a first attempt for me to gain a greater understanding of tone policing in adoption activism and my complicity.

Tone Policing — What Is It?

In essence, and I am no expert, tone policing is a dismissive and patronizing strategy that focusses on how something is said (the tone), as opposed to what is being said (the actual message). This derailment tactic typically occurs when an oppressed or marginalized person tries to discuss or call out issues. In our case, it occurs when adopted people call out issues in adoption and they are tone policed, here are some examples:

Ø calm down, people won’t listen if you say it like that.

Ø you’re just an angry adoptee and you don’t speak for others.

Ø stop being so emotional about this, you sound hysterical.

Ø but if you just engaged nicely people would come on board.

Ø If you weren’t so sarcastic, people might listen to what you have to say. Etc.

In sum, tone policing is a derailment ad hominin argument strategy which tries to discount the message by attacking the person and their tone. This example, which was shared with me via Twitter, sums it up perfectly: No, We Won’t Calm Down — Tone Policing Is Just Another Way to Protect Privilege.

What is clear from this and other explanations of tone policing, is that while we continue to focus on how something is said, we are ignoring the fundamental truths that adopted adults are conveying. This is designed to obstruct authentic discussions, not enhance it. This gaslighting is so devious, so cunning, that it can leave one feeling like they are wrong, histrionic or irrational. I have felt this way! Sometimes I do get angry, sometimes I do get upset, sometimes I am calm, sometimes I am happy, sometimes I cry and get frustrated! I am human. That should not detract from the message that I express or other adopted people share. Unless you have lived with adoption severance and the inequalities inherent, you have no idea the strength or courage it takes to speak out. Our voices are valid, but we already know that! Tess Martins piece on tone policing in racism is another excellent read which nails it: Racism 101: Tone Policing

Why Tone Policing Undermines

In all honesty, I do sometimes find other posts, tweets and articles confronting and uncomfortable. But that’s the point, getting outside my comfort zone and being challenged is how I will grow, learn and as adults we are responsible for our own feelings. I can choose to engage with someone or something they’ve written or I can excuse myself or scroll on by. According to Nelson, it’s reasonable to set boundaries and protect yourself. That’s the decisions we all make and some days I do have to step away. However, it is NOT my right to tell another adopted person how to talk about adoption in order to make it more sanitized or more palatable for others or indeed to manage my own fragility (we all have those days).

Adopted people are invisible. We are given new identities and government/agencies abrogate responsibility for us. We are severed from our kin, culture, and community and whether you characterize your adoption in binary ways such as ‘good or bad’ is immaterial within the context of the broader structural inequalities and human rights issues in adoption (eg., see links below on child trafficking in adoption). So if someone uses a ‘tone’ that is interpreted as anger, they have every bloody right to be! For example, the apathy of the broader public who swallow up this savior ideology while systematically ignoring or dismissing the issues and our voices leaves me feeling frustrated and I am sure my tweets sometimes reflect this.

So, if I haven’t clarified why I think tone policing is undermining, below are some links to examples (that enable us to look at adoption through a different lens) which highlight some of the structural issues. There’s enough sugarcoated, feel good, propaganda out there being spruiked by lobbyists who control the narrative.

Finally, this piece is not designed to tell other adopted adults how to interact in adoptionland — this is not a script and nor is this about bullying. To clarify, I don’t consider disagreement and engaging in robust discourse amongst other adopted activists (peers) as bullying. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, bullying is not the same as conflict. Rather this piece reflects my attempt (albeit clumsy) at unpacking this complex issue.

And, to those adopted adults who I have tone policed, I am sorry. I can’t promise you that I won’t make many more mistakes but each day I try to learn and to that end ‘when I know better, I will try to do better.’ But I guarantee I will make more mistakes, say the wrong thing and I know I will continue to have days where I feel disillusioned, angry, frustrated and upset. I will never please everyone (nor should I try to) and I may just walk away for good (oh my husband would be so very happy ) and hand it over to others in the community who are fearless. Someone said to me today that walking away or pretending we don’t see issues reflects privilege and they’re right. I clearly don’t have the answers, all I know is that I have lived adoption and I am still learning but what I have read, seen and heard already is difficult and horrific. This is but the mere tip of the iceberg. Enough about me, here are some links — I hope you make time to look at them.

Disclaimer: these links to clips, books, articles, and sites, which give a glimpse into the issues within adoption (I have not read Roeli Posts book yet but it’s on its way to me), are by no means exhaustive but they are indeed intended to be dissenting.


· The Traffickers -The Dark Side of Adoption and here is an interview with British journalist Nelufar Hedayat on Today (USA). This was available on Netlfix as well but here is details on IMDb.

· Here Roelie Post, an adoption whistleblower who is in hiding, speaks out in an interview (there are English subtitles).

· Romania For Export Only

· Against Child Trafficking

· The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption

· Sex Trafficking and Organ Trade: An Abuse of the Adoption System


· Adoptionland –Rehoming: Dan Rather Reports

· What Happens When Adoptions Go Wrong

· Rehoming 101


· Daniel Drennan ElAwar and he now publishes conference papers etc. on Academia

· Colonization and Adoption — A History


· William Hammersley

· Julie Gray — Ungrateful Adoptee

· Adoption — Blog by Nell Butler (former care leaver).

· Dear Adoption

· Kerri Saint — Mad About Adoption


· Feminist Lens on Adoption

· Adoption is a Feminist Issue, But Not For The Reasons You Think

· Beggars and Choosers: How the Politics of Choice Shapes Adoption, Abortion, and Welfare in the United States

Human Rights Activism in Australia

Australian Activist, Dr Catherine Lynch