Whose Adoption Is It Anyway?

What do Sandra Bullock, Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer and Angelina Jolie have in common? If you are one of those Americans whose pulse is tuned in to the ever-transforming world of American popular culture, then you are well aware of the fact that each of these celebrities has adopted African-American children or children of African descent. Over the past several months the issue of interracial adoption has resurfaced in the public sphere and has become one of the so-called “hot topics” where more than a few people have jumped head on into the debate. The New York Times, the ABC daytime program “The View,” blogs for several prominent news organizations and independent blogs are just a few of the venues were one can witness spirited debate.

The fact is that interracial adoption is a subject that seems to periodically resurface in the public arena. It is a cyclical topic. The topic usually reaches a fever pitch whenever a movie like 2009’s The Blind Side (which starred Bullock, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance) or 1995’s Losing Isaiah, starring Oscar winners Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, becomes popular.

While both movies tackled the issue from different perspectives, the issue of racial identification was at the forefront of each film. Indeed, arguments surrounding the topic tend to be defensive and based on emotions that can often be refuted. Critics of cross–cultural adoptions argue that it reinforces the belief that disenfranchised Black children must be rescued by socially conscious Whites or that many Whites who engage in such behavior are often well-intentioned but misguided, or in some cases, are engaging in a “trendy” form of altruism in an effort to assuage their guilt of benefiting from being White and privileged.

In 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers referred to trans-racial adoption as “cultural genocide.” The group further stated that under no circumstances should any Black child be placed in a White two-parent home. Now, almost 40 years later, the organization has softened its stance but still maintains the belief that children of color are better served in environments where influences of their racial and cultural heritage are evident. Such factors, the group argues, are seen as vital for the child’s awareness, positive self esteem and protection from racism. This argument is somewhat flawed.

Kids who are adopted by celebrities are going to have lives that are atypical of most ordinary people regardless of race. Oftentimes, the level of wealth and social contact offsets any level of traditional issues that many ordinary folks of all races have to tend with. Secondly, who is to say that because a Black kid is with a Black family that they will can protect them from racism anymore than a White two-parent family? Can a Black, two-parent family teach a Black or other non-White child that they will face racism more effectively than a White child? Perhaps, perhaps not.

One could argue that a person could grow up in a Black household, live in an all-Black neighborhood, attend a predominately Black High school, worship at a Black church and have their entire livelihood enraptured in the Black community and still suffer from low self-esteem, self-hatred and other insecurities. The same could be said for person of any racial group who is immersed in the trappings of their culture.

On the contrary, it is possible a Black child could live with two non-Black parents, reside in an integrated environment and harbor a high level of self- worth, racial awareness, respect for others and become a well–adjusted individual. The White parents could be racially and culturally aware and the Black parents could be resistant to any sort of African-American culture. Similar arguments could be made in regards to biracial children. President Barack Obama is a shining example of a person who has moved in both worlds. He was raised by his White grandparents, married an African-American woman and developed friendships with people across racial lines.

Children, regardless of their race, should be placed in families that will love, discipline and provide for them. While in some cases, race could and perhaps should be considered, the fact is that common sense and pragmatism should be the deciding factors in adopting children of any race or ethnicity. In what has been termed our post-racial America, it would only make sense.

Dr. Elwood Watson is a full professor of history and African-American studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the author of several award-winning academic articles, several anthologies and is the author of the book Outsiders Within: Black Women in the Legal Academy After Brown v. Board (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Spring 2008).