In the latest episode of Red Table Talk, Jada Pinkett Smith, alongside her mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, hosted former Sex and the City star Kristin Davis for a probing, earnest talk about the complications of transracial adoption.
Titled “Should White People Adopt Black Kids,” the discussion featured Davis talking at length about her experiences as the mother of two black children: a 7-year-old daughter and an infant boy. While she dispels a few myths—“The biggest misconception is that there’s some kind of like, ‘I’d like a black child please, like that handbag over there,” Davis explains, going into detail about the process—a substantive part of the conversation focused on how Davis was forced to confront racism in a much different, much more personal way.
“It’s one thing to be watching [racism] happening to other people and it’s another thing when it’s your child. And you haven’t personally been through it. It’s a big issue,” Davis said.
She talked about one pivotal moment when she noticed her daughter wasn’t being treated fairly during recess at her mostly white school—Davis said when she raised her concerns with school administrators, they were summarily dismissed.
“‘We just see them all the same. We don’t see color,’” Davis recalled school staff telling her.
“It was a very harsh moment of understanding,” she continued. “I don’t know how every person of color has gotten through this. I don’t understand how you could take this every day.”
Well, there is no opt-out button, which is the first and only thing. But while the quote is striking, it’s not altogether shocking or novel. Sure, there’s an entire internet out there; sure, black people and people of color have laid out, for literally centuries, the myriad injuries and devastations, large and small, that come part and parcel with living in this country; sure, there is no shortage of sources capable of confirming this caste system in the present-day (in fact, one of the first places one ought to look is our education system).
That this information was available to Davis, but not rendered immediate or urgent until it was her own child facing these issues, is not surprising. I don’t even think it makes her a bad person per se, though it certainly confirms her privilege.
What I find most striking is the function of these conversations—and the persistent public regurgitation of them. By the time I began writing this piece, Davis’ Red Table Talk interview had been picked up by Newsweek, Blavity, CNN, People, and USA Today, just to name a few. Each summarizes Davis’ and Pinkett Smith’s discussion points, most of them centering on Davis’ emotional response as she talked about her experiences (Most headlines were variations of “Kristin Davis Tears Up as...” Syntactically, Davis’ reactions were more newsworthy than her child’s interactions with racism).
The subtext hinges on the power of contrast: If even a privileged, hyper-visible white woman (someone most famous for playing a privileged, hyper-idealistic white woman, at that) could both encounter and be devastated by racism, doesn’t that show what a pervasive issue it is? But that framing raises another question: Why do you need a Kristin Davis to say it?
The mere existence of these conversations—and the earnest, exhaustive replays and recitations of them—appear aimed at persuading some uncertain congregation to come to terms with the ways race shapes the country we live in. This collective, presumably, cares about equity and justice but is more likely to take the message to heart—or, more likely to feel affirmed—when the messenger is white.
At one point, Davis expands on her feelings about white saviorhood, acknowledging it as a problem while wrestling with her personal qualms about the term.
“I don’t want to say that that’s just a myth,” Davis said, before adding “It’s not really what I come across so much...because are you saying then, ‘Don’t try to do anything good because your skin is white?’ Because that’s not going to work out.”
But white-savior narratives aren’t problematic because they are centered on the goodness of white people, but because they continually posit white people (and a white perspective) as the most credible. A child is valuable when a white person evaluates her. Racism is real when a white person acknowledges it. Of course, when a Honduran migrant crosses the border to save his child’s life—an act that, in itself, affirms the value and possibility of that life—he is a criminal. When a black mother works multiple jobs to feed her children, she is negligent—or irresponsible for having the child in the first place.
I don’t say this to dismiss Davis’ story—not her shock, her pain, or her struggle. I don’t at all question her bona fides as a mother: What is abundantly clear is that she’ll go through great lengths to protect, nurture, and raise up her black children in a country that has spent a great deal of its time and resources cutting those children down.
But I do wonder, why is it Davis’ tears are considered so remarkable? And I do find it impossible to listen to stories like hers without thinking of the generations upon generations of people of color—black and Native people in particular—who have said the very same things and begged this country, just once, to believe them.