White Madonna and African Child

Thanks to celebrities known to us on a first name basis, the controversy over white Americans adopting babies from African countries is in the news. An article in the Washington Post, African Adoptions Raise Big Questions, talks about being involuntarily displaced from your cultural roots:
While some may see a great need being left unfilled, international adoptions are not "an easy option," said Jackie Schoeman, executive director of Cotlands, a South African organization that cares for children affected by HIV.

"For us, first prize is to place the kids locally or even regionally. If the only other option is for them to be in a long-term institutional then we would consider international adoption."

Schoeman said there were advantages to international adoptions. Recently one of the children for whom her organization cares was adopted by parents in the U.S. and now can receive medical care unavailable in South Africa.

However, Schoeman and others are concerned about the long-term effects of such a big move on a child, particularly in the development of cultural and individual identities.

"We don't really know enough about what a black child growing up in Finland is going to feel. I don't think it would be an alien culture because they would have grown up exposed to it. But will they have felt better staying at home?" she asked.
I'd like to compare the lives of "African-child-growing-up-in-Finland-has-white-Finnish-parents" and "African-child-growing-up-in-Finland-has-African-biological-parents." Does the presence of two people, this biological mother and father, with facility in what would have been his primary language, their physical resemblance to him, connections to the history and culture of his origin, stories from their childhood, and contact with his extended family, make all the difference for a displaced child? Is the company of these two people, or even one of them, enough to alleviate concern "about the long-term effects of such a big move?" Or is it really better for every child to stay in a community of people who share the same cultural identity, language, history, heritage, and skin color? Hey, wait a minute -- that sounds a bit like ... apartheid. How did I end up here? Hmmm....


Anonymous said…
It's such an interesting question, Mitali. And I have to say, from my personal experience, it's better to have a family, two parents, siblings, a community, even with the differences.

I know two children, one adopted from China, the other from Sierra Leone, who are doing pretty well in my adopted midwestern small town. Will they go through identity crises in adolescence? Probably. But, they have a family to help them deal with it. A family who will most likely still be around. A family with the resources for counseling, for medicine, for food, for college. Families who will help them trace their pasts if that is at all possible.

That being said...I am just feeling "icky" about the whole celeb adoption of Africa. Maybe that's wrong. Maybe they'll make a difference. But, somehow, Madonna's lining up of children to chose the perfect one seems not right. She could fund a freakin' community to take care of that child. And, bringing him up in wealth will not help him. It would have been better if she paid the adoption fees for 10 normal families in the U.S. or the U.K. to adopt the 10 children instead. I know many people who could make room for one more child, but that $ 30,000 and all the red tape is beyond them.

Thanks for articulating the "ick" many of us feel, but can't explain exactly why.
Monica Edinger said…
I think each adoption is unique and different. My issue in the specific case of Madonna is that she used this as a publicity stunt, in a (to give her the benefit of the doubt) very misguided way to draw attention to issues in Africa. With all the celebrity clout she has, this was a major missed opportunity.
Mitali Perkins said…
I'm the mother of two boys adopted from India. We "look like we belong together," so the boys don't get asked too many identity-related questions, and I can see other benefits of sharing the same ethnicity (which we do, sort of, since we come from different parts of India).

Nonetheless, I'm uncomfortable with trying to define who can and can't be family according to ethnic identity. That line of argument sounds a lot like the anti-miscegenation laws of the fifties and sixties, when people were again trying to use race to determine who can be in the same family.

I understand the fear of cultural genocide, and that international adoptions and intermarriage can feel like weapons in a desperate battle to keep your language and culture from disappearing. I understand the power and wealth issues, and don't believe for a second that a child will be happier in a home with more material possessions. But the great idol of racial and cultural identity has caused more grief than joy in human history, and the bottom line is that children need parents to nurture and love them, race, caste, and class no bar.
Christy Lenzi said…
We just had dinner last night with a family where the parents had chosen to adopt three children. The parents are white and adopted their children from Ethiopia quite some time ago. I realize these kids may face times of questioning their cultural identity at some point, but to see them so fully integrated into a loving family unit made me realize that it was a very positive thing for both parents and children.

What was interesting to me was that as my husband and I talked about it in the car on the way home, my sons (5 and 7) were so surprised to learn that the kids were adopted. They had apparently not considered it unusual that the couple's children had a different skin color.