Madonna, Africa, adoption, and the white man’s burden

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Before I get started with this post, a few clarifications. First, I don’t think that Madonna is the evil, attention-hungry, Angelina-copycat that others are making her out to be. I’m sure she was guided by the best of intentions when it came to this adoption. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t buy into essentialist notions about blacks, whether she realizes it or not.

Second, we have no way of knowing exactly what transpired during this process. Was she really led to believe that David’s father’s whereabouts were unknown? Is it true that his father never visited David at the orphanage? Was David’s father misled into believing this was not a permanent adoption? We’ll just never know, and it’s best not to make assumptions about any of the facts.

Third, I do not oppose international adoption and no, I wouldn’t prefer to leave the orphans to die. But are those ever really the only two options?

Okay, with that out of the way…

I was struck by how many times Madonna used the phrases “I will give him a life” or “he didn’t have a life” when referring to her adopted Malawian child, David, during her interview with Oprah on Wednesday.

And I think this gets at one of the main problems I have with the way international adoption is discussed in this country. There’s always this unspoken, underlying assumption that:

  • keeping the child in the home country = no life or a bad life
  • bringing the child to “the West” = a good life

The situation in Malawi is dire, yes. But discussions about international adoption always make it seem as if every single child who doesn’t get adopted by an American family — no matter what country the child is in — is going to die. Like, right now. But that’s just not always the case.

Also, we really need to question the assumption that the benefits of international adoption will always outweigh the negative repercussions. I encourage you to read this post of Ji In’s at Twice the Rice, in which she writes that “there is irreparable pain and there are primal wounds inherent in adoption that no privileged upbringing can erase.”

Can a better standard of living, healthcare, education and loving adoptive parents ever make up for what is lost when a child is removed from his or her country and culture? Shouldn’t every effort be made to try and keep families together? Shouldn’t adoption be a final resort? I don’t pretend to have the answers to those questions, but I’m disappointed that the questions are rarely, if ever, even asked.

If a country is experiencing such extreme poverty that it cannot adequately care for its children or orphans, is international adoption the best solution? Or the only solution? If, like Madonna was, you are so moved by a country’s troubles that you feel compelled to do something to help, are there other things you can do? Things that could actually help solve some of the underlying, fundamental problems that have led to this dire situation in the first place? Those questions are never asked either.

I was surprised that Madonna so willingly and unquestioningly accepted the orphanage’s claim that no family member — not even the father — had ever visited David since his arrival at 2 weeks old. Not only did she fully believe it, but she immediately assumed that it meant that “no one was looking after David’s welfare.”And during the entire interview, she didn’t once acknowledge the fact that David’s father might have kept custody of his son, had he had the resources. Her focus was on his apparent gratitude to her: “Thank you for giving my son a life.”

This lack of acknowledgement of a father’s loss reminded me of the old slavery-era essentialist notions about blacks that were created to justify oppression. Black people were characterized as subhuman and bestial. That meant that the notions of democracy and freedom this country was founded on didn’t really apply to them. Black men were said to not love their wives and children the way white men did, therefore it was perfectly okay to split up families and sell them off to different plantations.

Could a similar essentialist/white supremacist notion be at play here? Does Madonna believe that David’s father couldn’t possibly love David the way she can? That the affection and parental relationship she can offer is inherently superior to his?

I also wonder whether there are essentialist ideas at play in the way the Madonna, Oprah, and really everyone else in the media constantly talks about “Africa” as if it were one big country, with people who all share a culture, language and political system. Africa is an enormous continent, with countries that are vastly different from one another. And yet all we’re told about it is that there are children dying, there are wars, there are a lot of people with AIDS, and everyone is really poor. And anytime a movie is made about Africa, the focus is on the white people in the story, so we learn nothing there either.

We never really hear about how or why things got to this point in the specific country. What historical events led up to this situation? What responsibility should former colonizers bear? What geopolitical interests want to keep the status quo? What roles have large corporations played in contributing to this mess?

When those questions are never addressed, we’re left with the general sense that it’s the Africans’ own fault. That they suffer from some kind of fundamental, self-destructive pathology, and that they need white people to step in and save them from themselves. Basically, it’s a white man’s burden thing. No wonder people don’t think it’s racist to suggest that African-Americans were better off because of slavery — at least they didn’t have to stay in Africa!

I sincerely hope that all the criticism surrounding Madonna’s adoption will cause people to rethink the simplistic ways in which international adoption is framed. For more on this topic, check out the adoption roundtable discussion I hosted with Jae Ran and Ji In on episode 41 of Addicted to Race.