Ground Rules

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Recently, former GOP Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, was “royally blessed” (as he announced on Twitter) with an adopted black grandchild. Even more recently, Melissa Harris Perry – the sharpest host of any show on television – brought together a handful of comedians and political critics to debate the meaning of this new symbolic addition. The segment was, some claimed, a tad ribald, featuring more than a little laughter about the dense, difficult comedy that obviously flows from the notion of a large white conservative family adopting a small black child. The complaints about the laughter came from all directions – from a right wing media machine engaged in constant warfare with its imagined opposite, to liberal bloggers, who sensed in the Romney’s adoption of a domestic African American child a responsible turning away, at least, from international adoption.

In the end, Harris Perry agreed that the segment had gone overboard, and issued a tearful apology. She’d broken the “ground rules,” she said.

I wish she hadn’t. Apologized, that is.

I think her instinct was spot-on. The staging of a cross-racial and transnational adoption is always a political act – when we define politics broadly. This is as true for the Romney’s family as it was for Jim Jones, Josephine Baker, Angelina Jolie, Mia Farrow, or Helen Doss. No one randomly adopts across the color line. Such assemblages require choice and intent, and often a conception of “salvage,” an acute awareness of racial difference. And the “ground rules” here require that we discuss these families politely – partly out of deference to the real human impact adoption makes in the lives of so many, partly because good people make this commitment every day, and partly because calling attention to the ethics of a deliberate search for “a child of color” who needs “salvation” is a too blunt reminder that such liberal sentiments have troubling roots.

As a consequence, there is often something about adoptive families that is hard to figure and hard to say out loud – the potential for a sort of ornamental quality, through which the child of color is displayed in ritualistic fashion as a member of the family, but often in poses that mimic – unintentionally or otherwise – the darker territories of racism and colonialism. Call attention to it, and you are likely to be labelled a cynic or worse. Laugh at it, and you’ll be demonized.

But laughter is how we manage our emotions in difficult circumstances, when we lack the language to express discomfort, worry, or even anger. And there shouldn’t be anything “off limits” about the forced assemblage of the racially-mixed family.

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When I first saw the image of Keiran Romney, I thought of this portrait of the McCains. By all accounts, John McCain is an honorable, kind father. And the decision of the McCains to adopt was a noble one, rooted in personal experience and goodwill. It is hard, though, to understand why – when it came to be their moment on the cover of People – they chose to have their daughter kneel before Cindy here, as if she’d fallen prostrate before the memsahib. Her shirt matches that of Cindy, and they alone wear jewel tones, but that shared scarlet splash binds the daughter to the mother, creating the illusion of servitude, control, and domination. Indeed, the whole image looks as if it were photoshopped together, with the proverbial white middle class family in the background, and a archetypal postcard from the Raj superimposed up front.

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Reading the image this way, I think, isn’t “off limits,” because the very point of the McCain’s adoption was to incorporate a racially distinctive body into their family. That incorporation is a deliberate provocation to the established racial order, but it also snaps race into sharper focus. We should think harder about the work that such an image – and such a family – does in our political culture.

When young Kieran Romney – whose name means “black” in Gaelic – grows up, where will he sit? When he sits on Grandpa Mitt’s lap, what we he learn of race? When he needs to define himself racially and religiously, what will he say? When he looks in the mirror, what will he see? If he runs for President, how will we talk about him? If we laugh at our hypothetical answers, it is because they are so worrisome, so troubling, so complicated, and not because they are actually funny.

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