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.
To avoid them only deepens the hurt. No one wins, not the adoptive parents bruised by stares and judgments, nor of the children who must struggle with the unsolvable puzzle of who they are. Ultimately, the losers are all people of color, forced to see a measurement of their own value reflected in society’s cavalier handling of adoption and race.
Popular culture treats transracial adoption like trends in ownership of Yorkies versus Golden Retrievers. On the Us Weekly site, a commenter wondered if Angelina Jolie would soon be adopting from Haiti so that she can “find … one to match Zahara.” Meanwhile, there’s the White Swan Barbie, which conveniently comes equipped with a special accessory: an adopted Chinese daughter.
Then there’s Gia, a contender on the The Bachelor whose job description is “Swimsuit Model.” Snuggled in front of a campfire with bachelor Jake, Gia tells him that she wants to have a couple of kids, then adopt a Chinese girl—“and a potbellied pig.” Giggle.
‘Degrees of separation’
I asked Terrance Heath, a black, man who blogs with his partner about raising two adopted African-American sons for The Republic of T, what he made of the rush to adopt Haitian “orphans.”
It “reflects a desire to avoid certain aspects of our history in this country, and may be based on the assumption that Haitian children are somewhat removed from that history,” he said.
”It does give them a couple of degrees of separation from the history of racism in this country,” as does adopting from Asia or Latin America.
There’s an unspoken hierarchy of adoption, said Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons, a transracial adoptee from Portland, Ore., who has worked within the Unitarian Universalist faith to educate young people of color raised by white adoptive parents.
On the top tier are white children, either adopted domestically or from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. When restrictions on those regions made it more difficult to adopt, China and other parts of Asia became the next most desirable. Latin America is next, followed by Africa (and Haiti, not accounting for the disaster effect). Mixed-race or biracial children can vary on this spectrum, but are considered desirable if they can "pass" for the biological offspring of their parents. Black American children remain in the bottom tier. “These perceptions are actually realities in people’s attitudes,” said Santos-Lyons, 36, who is Chinese and Czech, and identifies as hapa. He understands this firsthand: His adoptive parents, who are white and adopted him domestically, told him that they had been offered a black child before him.
“They declined, and waited until they got a child of my mixed ethnic background,” he said. “That’s a pretty heavy realization.”
When transracial adoptees grow up and begin to understand the history and politics of adoption—particularly the fact that many international adoptions have been the products of black-market child trafficking or coercion of birth families, Santos-Lyons said, “It leads them to become hurt and upset.”
Witness the group Transracial Abductees (subtitle: “angry pissed ungrateful little transracially abducted mother****ers from hell”), whose Web site asserts, “‘Adoption’ conceals the unequal power between abductors and abductees, and in the abduction industry in general.”
Voices less extreme have also sought to discourage transracial adoption, on the grounds that children of color raised by white parents lose a part of their identity, and aren’t equipped to live in a society that will judge them by the color of their skin. Historically, the National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stance against white parents adopting black children. Heath says he does support cross-cultural adoption, if the adoptive parents take the responsibility to ensure the child is not culturally and ethnically isolated.
“I try to teach my boys that they do not have to reflect all that will be projected on them as young African-American men. That’s something I learned from my parents,” he said. “It’s something that adoptive parents of Haitian children are going to have to learn.”
Angie Chuang is an assistant professor of journalism at American University School of Communication.