Update (Oct. 27, 9:00 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation and swearing-in on Monday night.
There is passion and rage around adoption on the best of days — arguments that rarely focus on the children. And, unfortunately for said children, the passion and rage are too often rooted in self-righteousness and not in problem-solving.
Kendi’s tweet was taken out of context in order to paint him as anti-white-parents-of-Black-kids and therefore dismiss his greater message about systemic racism.
So it has been with the harsh and dispiriting conversation surrounding the fact that President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a white woman, adopted two Black children from Haiti. Perhaps because the filling of a Supreme Court seat is a truly zero-sum endeavor — if one party is able to enshrine its choice, the other party is denied its own — everything surrounding the tooth-and-nail fight over Barrett’s confirmation as the replacement for liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is also viewed in such a binary manner.
Barrett, sadly, has only furthered this dynamic, distinguishing between her biological and adopted children in a way that made me — also a parent through both birth and adoption, and also a white mother to two Black children — gasp.
In her opening statement at her confirmation hearings, which culminated in a Senate vote and swearing in on Monday night, Barrett defined the children that she birthed by their talents and strengths and the kids she adopted by how much better off they are now than when she met them. It mirrors and tries to give a pretty shine to a long, evil history of racial supremacy and needs to give us all pause — a long enough pause to read and listen and learn and change.
But instead, another odious dichotomy was introduced. A tweet from a supporter of Barrett shared a widely expressed sentiment that Barrett cannot be racist because she adopted Black children, and that fact should nullify that line of attack by opponents of her being on the high court.
Professor Ibram X. Kendi, author of the bestselling “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” responded to that sentiment by providing historic context for abuses of transracial “adoption.” I put “adoption” in quotes because adopting a child means that you would sacrifice yourself for that child, not the other way around. (As my father said the day we brought our first son home from Ethiopia, “This child just arrived from halfway around the world and I would die for him. How is that possible?” A universal truth of parents and grandparents whether through adoption or not.)
Kendi, who came under a barrage of criticism himself, clarified that he was not saying that all white parents of Black children are inherently racist, but that they are not, by definition, not-racist and that, in fact, racism has even been a motivator in transracial adoption by white parents of Black children.
The first example, that Barrett cannot be racist because she has Black children, is — unless one has literally no understanding of racism — just so cynical, so insincere and political, as if her family photo is more telling and important than restoring dismantled voting rights. But even if having Black children did somehow magically remove every shred of racism from Barrett’s (or anyone’s) heart, who cares? What matters for the purposes of her judging is whether she is a force in undermining democracy or strengthening it. (And I, like many, do not have a lot of hope for her strengthening it.)
Kendi’s tweet, meanwhile, was taken out of context in order to paint him as anti-white-parents-of-Black-kids and therefore dismiss his greater message about systemic racism or acknowledge any sense of responsibility to engage in historic repair.
That’s not to say that Kendi’s tweet didn’t raise my own defenses and anxiety. I don’t have a lot of faith in worthy, productive and open discussion — the kind of discussion that Kendi’s tweet could have prompted — which would encourage us all to think about historic and present racism without categorically vilifying all white parents who adopt Black children.
I myself came to adoption through personal experience without a larger sense of the history of oppression that has sometimes accompanied cross-cultural adoption. It’s not that I didn’t care to learn about this living history, it’s just that, when I first articulated to myself and my mom that I was going to adopt, I was 9.
Until I was 7, my parents fostered children, so as a kid I lived with two foster sisters. The first, Mary, was a teenager, and my one memory of her was when my mother — herself only in her mid-20s — begged her 18-year-old foster daughter to not to move in with the older man she had met downtown. (Mary did and subsequently disappeared from our lives.) The second, Rose, who came after Mary left, was in middle school and we both thought we’d be sisters forever. The image of her being driven away, sitting in the back seat of the car and staring, as if ashamed, into the plastic bag on her lap will stay with me forever.
Race was not an obvious question for us at the time. The girls were both white and — like the majority of our hometown of Manchester, New Hampshire — Christian. (I, now a rabbi, received communion whenever we brought Rose to church on Sundays. What did I know? I’d just get in line with my older sister.)
Early in my marriage, I brought home adoption paperwork. I carried that paperwork in my bag with me for six years, through two biological daughters, until we adopted our first son. That paperwork was for adoption from foster care, but, in the end, we adopted two children from Ethiopia. Yosef, my spouse, had long been active in supporting Ethiopian Jews in realizing their generational longing to get home to Israel, and that deep engagement led us to that path of adoption.
We lived in a loving bubble in a Boston suburb and our kids went to Jewish day school that was mostly white. We helped found a Jewish multiracial community in our area — it was very important to us that our kids not see Black and Jewish as necessarily separate. We soon moved to Israel where being Black and being Jewish are decidedly not separate because of the large population of Ethiopian and other Jews of color.
When the controversy over Barrett’s children and Kendi’s tweet exploded, its binary stances only ratcheted up my concerns about how multicultural adoptions would be perceived. As a Zionist Israeli, my heart rate is at the ready to increase when people on the left present strict categories-of-righteousness in a for-us-or-against-us world that already sees me as an enemy of good (while telling me that anti-Zionism isn’t anti-Semitism — it is), despite my firm footing on the left side of both countries’ politics.
And so I thought, "Oh great, now I’m not only a white Zionist colonizer, but also a 'virtue-signaling' proponent of 'civilizing the savages' because I am white and adopted two sons from Ethiopia."
Early in my marriage, I brought home adoption paperwork. I carried that paperwork in my bag with me for six years, through two biological daughters, until we adopted our first son.
This was my gut reacting, of course, not what Kendi was saying. But, as the Twitter storm demonstrated, the discussion that has been ongoing ever since Barrett was nominated is certainly not in the spirit of seeking solutions or the well-being of kids — hers or anyone else’s. Nor is it about real social change. What arose includes lots of examples of self-righteousness rather than actually engaging this challenge and working toward something better.
In the biblical story, Jacob steals his brother Esau’s blessing from their father, Isaac. Esau, in a deeply painful scene, sits by his dying father and weeps, “Have you no blessing for me, too, father?”
The tragedy of Isaac was his belief that he only had one blessing to give, that blessing and generosity of heart — that God! — are zero-sum. My hope is that we can expand, and risk, our hearts and dismantle the ideological altars on which we sacrifice the expansiveness of empathy and wisdom and uncomfortable complexities. White parents who adopt Black children are not uniquely evil nor uniquely good. Like everyone, we are not the contexts — both tragic and redemptive — from which we have arisen and in which we live, nor are we free from them.