Thursday, February 04, 2010

Children Are Not Bling

 Haitian orphans at the UN compound in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Wolfgang Rattay/REUTERS
Children Are Not Bling
Adopting From Countries Like Haiti Should Be Done Carefully. And Why Not Consider All Those U.S. Kids Looking For A Home?

By Allison Samuels | Newsweek Web Exclusive

Feb 3, 2010

Just a few days ago I came across a fashion Internet game that made my skin crawl. I love fashion Web sites and make a point to check out as many as I can. But this game was unlike any other I'd seen. Its purpose was to equip stylish Caucasian socialites with the necessary accessories for the perfect photo op and/or trendy, eye-catching fashion statement.

It's innocent enough, until you see the suggested accessories. Jimmy Choo shoes, Gucci handbags, Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses, and, last but not least, an orphaned Third World child à la Maddox Jolie-Pitt, Zahara Jolie-Pitt, or David and Mercy, Madonna's adoptive children.

In an instant, every imaginable objection anyone could have to interracial adoption came rushing to my mind. Like many in the African-American community, I'm sometimes torn on the idea of children of different races being raised by those from another culture. My reasons vary, but for the most part they revolve around concerns that the child will be separated from or have limited access to his or her birth heritage, which can create its own share of emotional problems.

But the thought of a child, any child, being used as fashion accessory is unacceptable. And when you add the faces of abandoned, poverty-stricken children to the picture, it seems particularly cruel.

Fair or not, it is images like those in that game that so often make African-Americans and other minorities question the ability—and, often, the motives—of eager white Americans, inside Hollywood and out, to successfully adopt children who look nothing like them. Are they adopting minority kids because it's trendy? Do they do it just for appearances's sake or to keep up with the Joneses—or, in this case, the Jolie-Pitts? Is it a sincere desire to aid a helpless child or an effort to impress others with their own colorblindness and selflessness? Or is it all of the above?

These unsettling and raw questions are bound to become louder as the U.S. readies for an influx of thousands of Haitian children orphaned by the recent devastating earthquake. The sad faces of that country's most innocent victims continue to flood our television screens, surely prompting many Americans of all backgrounds to consider bringing these children into their homes.

Reports show that the interest in adopting Haitian orphans is exceptionally high. Evidence of this became even clearer this past weekend after 10 church-group members, mostly from Idaho, were arrested at the Haitian border attempting to transport 30 children without proper documentation. The group claimed to be rescuing orphans with no place to go, though at least one little girl reportedly said her parents were still alive. The sickening thoughts of child trafficking and kidnapping are what come to mind first when you hear stories like this one. But another more complicated one crossed mine.

While we've seen a rush over the last few years to adopt children from Third World countries, particularly from Africa, little is said or thought about the thousands of African-American children here in this country with no parents or homes. Why is there no building interest in adopting them? No, odds are the children here aren't going to sleep hungry (though some probably are) and they aren't stuck in a country ravaged by heartbreaking disaster. But isn't a child in need a child in need?

More than half of the 500,000 children in foster care in the United States are minorities. Of that number, 40 percent of the children eligible for adoption are African-American. Is it more acceptable for a white family to adopt a child of African descent from another country?

I first thought about this last year, when I seriously considered adopting a 6-year-old boy from Ghana. His name was George and I met him while teaching math and reading at his school in Hohoe, a small village deep in the bush of the country. Upon hearing my plans, many of my friends chastised me for not considering the many African-American children in the United States in need of a loving home. I knew the alarming numbers, but I'd fallen in love with the chubby face and huge eyes of the little boy who immediately attached himself to my side the moment I became his teacher. I'd hadn't gone to Africa with the thoughts of adopting anyone. It just seemed that George and I were meant to be together—though I rarely understood what he was saying because he spoke his tribal language of Ewe. Unfortunately, Ghana frowns on single women adopting male children so I've now made the commitment to pay the $12 dollars a year it takes to keep him in school and to increase his monthly allotment of sandals, lollipops, and bubbles.

Of course, there are white families that have adopted African-American children, but not in any large numbers given the relative easy process it is compared to international adoption, which often takes years. So I ask again: what is wrong with African-American children? I continue to support many orphaned and disadvantaged children in United States through volunteering and donations. I still hope to adopt an American child sometime soon.

And let me stress that I have no doubt that the majority of the people who go through the process of adopting have the right motives and intentions at heart. But good intentions can only go so far when dealing with children with their own unique backgrounds and cultures—not to mention that the parenting job becomes just that much more difficult when traumatic events come into play as well. Some may quickly forget that this very good deed will come with some serious heavy lifting.

On the outside looking in, it's easy to be taken in by the lives of celebrities Angelina Jolie, Madonna, and even Tom Cruise. They appear to be the perfect examples of a blended family. Pictures of smiles and exotic vacations are paraded in national magazines. Yet they offer no real clue into the true inner workings of a family brought together by choice.

The harsh reality for the Haitian children who are now in need of homes is that smiles, vacations, and laughs are likely pretty far off in the distance. The time and effort that will be needed to get these children healthy and back on track won't be fun and the work that it takes won't be documented in magazines for the world to see and applaud.

Many will argue that love is all a child needs and that skin color will ultimately have little to do with the emotional and physical healing process these children will need to undergo. How I wish that were true.

Still, my hope is that the authorities in charge of placing these children in their new homes will pay attention to more than a potential parent's financial assets and affluent lifestyles. My hope is that the families chosen to adopt these children will also agree to make a firm commitment to honor the child's history, culture, and heritage. Despite its sad legacy of poverty and political unrest, Haiti is a country with a fascinating and amazing past that deserves to be preserved by those who were born there. And that's something that has to be taken seriously by any American extending a helping hand.

*W.E. A.L.L. B.E. Radio*On Haiti, King, Obama, Race, Religion & Other Matters: A Conversation With The Honorable Rev. C.T. Vivian

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