Haiti’s ‘Orphans’ and the Transracial Adoption Dilemma

Bring up race and adoption, and watch people squirm. But the reality remains that African-American children remain on the bottom rung of the adoption ladder.

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Call them kidnappers. Call them good Samaritans. Call them unwitting victims to a political drama staged by the beleaguered Haitian government.

Call the 10 American missionaries under arrest for taking 33 children out of earthquake-ravaged Haiti what you will, two facts—rarely mentioned in news media accounts—are indisputable:

All of the detained members of the Idaho-based Baptist group are white.

All of the 33 children are black.

Black like Madonna and Brangelina’s adopted African children. Black like 1 in 3 American children in foster care and awaiting adoption. Black like the race least “preferred” by prospective adoptive mothers, according to government data.

Bring up race and adoption, and watch people squirm. The deep racial politics of adoption are mired in centuries of colonialism, as well as white paternalism over domestic minority groups and developing countries. The result: They have left scars as deep as forced adoption of American Indian children into white families in the mid-20th century—and fresh ones from the campaign to convert Muslim Indonesian orphans to Christianity after the 2004 tsunami.

The current-day realities of transracial adoption remain tangled in the U.S. government’s own conflicted policies about race-matching versus “colorblind” adoption, as well as constantly shifting regulations in countries such as China, the former Soviet Union and Guatemala. There are uncomfortable contradictions: Whites are chastised for their reluctance to adopt black children, but then those who do adopt black children are criticized for not being able to prepare black adoptees to face discrimination—or embrace their identities.

And the most unsettling contradiction of all: Isn’t adoption an act of love? A selfless act? Can we honestly tell the parent of an adopted child who happens to be of a different race that their bond is somehow tainted by generations of racism?

But societal attitudes about race and adoption are not borne of a single family, incident or policy. And our unwillingness to address them amid the clamor over “Haiti orphans” only stymies the real discussions Americans—whites and people of color, adoptive parents and adoptees—need to have.