I am conflicted when I read about the orphans taken out of Haiti in the days after the devastating earthquake there. By now, we’ve all heard the story of the missionary group that improperly removed children from Haiti, despite repeated warnings to their leadership that they lacked the authority to do so. Lest we conclude this was just the mistake of misguided, but well-intentioned ordinary people who didn’t know any better, the U.S. government has also been responsible for improperly conceived plans to take children out of Haiti. Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania, with the support of the Obama administration, successfully organized an airlift of 54 Haitian children who were supposedly in the process of being adopted, despite being aware that not all of the children were orphans, or even in the adoption process. It is not, however, only rescue missions and airlifts that give me pause. In the days after the earthquake, a feel-good story surfaced of a widowed white woman who had all but completed the adoption process for twin babies in Haiti, a boy and girl. With the help of the U.S. embassy and a non-profit group, she was able to hasten her adoptive childrens’ arrival in the U.S. after the quake. When reading the article, I scanned the page for a picture, wanting, in particular, to see the little black girl.
Children need and deserve supportive homes where they will be loved and taken care of. My child is in a home with two parents who adore her and are committed to her well-being, no matter the sacrifices that her well-being will require. I am in no position to deny that to any other child, regardless of whether that child is of the same race as his or her adoptive parents.
There is something unsettling, however, about the speed with which these children were improperly (and, likely, illegally) taken out of their home country. I see a troubling arrogance behind the intentions of the missionaries and the U.S. government: the assumption that anywhere but Haiti would be better for those children; the assumption that the life Americans could provide for the children would surely be better than any life Haitians could provide for them in Haiti. The assumption, even, that whites looking to adopt these children would necessarily be capable of raising a black child in the United States.
Staring at the picture of the little girl, I first wondered, “has this mother mastered the most basic of parenting tasks for those fortunate enough to raise a black child—that of grooming a black child’s hair, in all it’s curly and kinky glory?” More substantively, I questioned whether she had grappled with the harder questions, like how race will impact the twins’ educational experience. Has she considered the assumptions that teachers may make about their intelligence and capability on account of their dark skin? Is she, and the other white adoptive parents implicated in these news articles, prepared to confront the lack of celebrated role models for their adopted children; to counter societal preferences for blue eyes and straight blond hair that their brown children do not have? In the hopes of raising a “colorblind” child, will these parents errantly avoid discussions about race and racism in their home, thus leaving these babies to draw conclusions based on their observations of a world that inevitably places black and brown people at the bottom of a social hierarchy? Have these parents confronted their own beliefs about race, both conscious and unconscious? Have they considered how their own understanding of race, or a lack thereof, will affect their ability to parent these children? Considered, even, whether their own psyches harbor the very same assumptions that allow missionary groups and government officials to disregard the right of a sovereign black nation to control when and how their children might be removed from their country? Do any of these white parents believe themselves to be superior parents for these black children because they are, well, white? Note, I haven’t even begun to address what the adoptions mean for the loss of Haitian identity among these children.
My suggestion is not that being white should necessarily preclude white people from adopting black children. No race has the monopoly on properly raising children, and black children do not “belong” to only black parents. Indeed, to open your heart and home to a child you did not conceive is a beautiful thing. But like any adoptive parent, you shouldn’t be deemed fit to adopt a child if you’re not prepared to address the unique circumstances of that child. Growing up as a person of color can be challenging enough; to grow up without parents who can understand—or worse, refuse to acknowledge—that experience is doubly difficult. It would be a mistake for a white parent to assume that because race is not a factor in their own life, that it won’t be a factor in the lives of their black adoptive children.
Even I, a black mother, struggle with properly contextualizing race in my daughter’s life. And if I can struggle, then I’m left wondering about how these white adoptive parents are faring. Who, I wonder, are the best parents for these black children? To what type of family can a black child properly be said to belong?