My friend and her husband, who are white, recently adopted their first child, who is black. They were selected through an agency by a black birth mother who felt they would make good parents to a child she could not keep. My friend had not been seeking out a black child. She had tried for years to conceive on her own, and they had also gone through several failed adoption efforts. She pursued becoming a mother as any parent would — with a trance-like dedication to providing her child with love and a sense of security. My mom felt the same way when she adopted me.
Today I read that the ‘Law & Order: SUV’ actress Mariska Hargitay has adopted a black daughter. “We talked a lot about mixed-race adoptions, and we are very excited that we are now a multi-racial family. We’re just so happy she’s here,” she told ‘People’ magazine. Awesome.
Hargitay becomes the latest white celebrity mom raising a black child in contemporary America (along with Mary Louise Parker, Madonna, Sandra Bullock and Angelina Jolie, among others), and I speak from personal experience when I say that I truly hope they don’t raise them to believe we are living in a “post-racial” era. Because we’re not. We are present-racial every damn day, every damn era. It’s like that.
When I went through my first ultra “I am BLACK” phase at about 15 years old, I asked my mom what the hell she’d been thinking when she and my dad thought raising a black child in rural New Hampshire was a swell idea. “We thought the world was changing,” she said, “the world was changing.” Bless her heart.
But the point isn’t whether or not the world is changing, or if as a general population we are making great strides in racial progress. It’s really about cultivating self-awareness around a cultural identity that will be judged and exploited and questioned again and again throughout the life of this brown-skinned person being raised by white parents.
Adoption in and of itself can be pretty sucky. Almost always it starts from a place of pain for everyone involved: a woman who has to surrender a child that has come from her body, a child whose first visceral experience is one of primal severance, and two people (or one person) who are aching to become parents. When you throw race into the mix, it gets complicated. And the celebrity element just gives it that trendy, colonization feel that puts everyone on edge.
I’m sure that Madonna and Sandy Bullock love their kids and wanted to become parents as much as my friend did, and as any prospective parent does, for that matter. My concern is that in their innocuously microcosmic bubble of fame and celebrity, they will struggle to help their kids build a racially honest sense of self. Rather they will end up instilling this: “You are special, the world is yours, you can be whatever you want, nothing can stop you!” And that may be the case for their kids if they, too, remain inside the celebrity bubble. But if they don’t, I’ll tell you what can stop them right quick: Glenn Beck (with or without his own show).
I was fortunate that my parents, who are artists and writers, encouraged individuality and gave me the freedom to create the person I wanted to be — and that’s all well and good, until someone calls you a nigger. Because my parents focused primarily on raising a child, not a black child, my young cultural identity was shaped, in large part, by outside judgment and prejudice aimed toward me, which didn’t feel that fun and caused a whole lot of unnecessary anxiety.
As I got older, I came to the conclusion that I would be in charge of being black on my own terms. And I’m good with that. I’m not saying it doesn’t still feel lousy when someone is blatantly racist toward me, but I figured out that it feels slightly less lousy when you sort of know it’s coming.
All that said, racism is far from the only challenge faced by white parents adopting black kids … I didn’t even touch the more and very pressing issue of proper black hair maintenance.