Let’s work on those analogies

life_analogy_funny_mug_humor-p168969205980994860trhr_400Newsweek has an interesting story about black parents adopting white children headlined “Raising Katie: What adopting a white girl taught a black family about race in the Obama era.” As you may have picked up from the headline, the story struggles a bit with trying to pack way too much into one family’s story. Still, it’s an interesting piece:

Several pairs of eyes follow the girl as she pedals around the playground in an affluent suburb of Baltimore. But it isn’t the redheaded fourth grader who seems to have moms and dads of the jungle gym nervous on this recent Saturday morning. It’s the African-American man — six feet tall, bearded and wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt — watching the girl’s every move. Approaching from behind, he grabs the back of her bicycle seat as she wobbles to a stop. “Nice riding,” he says, as the fair-skinned girl turns to him, beaming. “Thanks, Daddy,” she replies. The onlookers are clearly flummoxed.

As a black father and adopted white daughter, Mark Riding and Katie O’Dea-Smith are a sight at best surprising, and at worst so perplexing that people feel compelled to respond. Like the time at a Pocono Mountains flea market when Riding scolded Katie, attracting so many sharp glares that he and his wife, Terri, 37, and also African-American, thought “we might be lynched.” And the time when well-intentioned shoppers followed Mark and Katie out of the mall to make sure she wasn’t being kidnapped. Or when would-be heroes come up to Katie in the cereal aisle and ask, “Are you OK?”–even though Terri is standing right there.

Is it racism? The Ridings tend to think so, and it’s hard to blame them. To shadow them for a day, as I recently did, is to feel the unease, notice the negative attention and realize that the same note of fear isn’t in the air when they attend to their two biological children, who are 2 and 5 years old. It’s fashionable to say that the election of Barack Obama has brought the dawn of a post-racial America. In the past few months alone, The Atlantic Monthly has declared “the end of white America,” The Washington Post has profiled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s struggle for relevance in a changing world, and National Public Radio has led discussions questioning the necessity of the annual Black History Month. Perhaps not surprising, most white and black Americans no longer cite racism as a major social problem, according to recent polls.

Again, that reporter is working overtime to make this adoption mean something huge.

I have neighbors of various races who have adopted children of various other races — including a black mother with a white child. But while it’s acceptable and increasingly popular for white families to adopt black children, the opposite scenario isn’t as prevalent. While both white and black families prefer to adopt children of their own race, black families have a better chance of adopting a same-race child because of the current demographic situation in foster care. So this makes for a great idea for a story — particularly since we learn in this Newsweek piece that Congress might reinstate race as a salient consideration in adoption cases.

While there are certainly religious ghosts in all of this, none of them are explored. Well, almost none. Check this out:

Last November, after a grueling adoption process–”[adoption officials] pushed the envelope on every issue,” says Mark–little Irish-Catholic Katie O’Dea, as pale as a communion wafer, became Katie O’Dea-Smith: a formally adopted member of the African-American Riding-Smith family.

We don’t learn what religion, if any, the Riding-Smith family has. We don’t learn what it means that Katie O’Dea is “Irish-Catholic.” But more than anything, what in the world is that “pale as a communion wafer” line? The reader who submitted the story put it in her typically understated fashion: “Not the best analogy.”

That’s an understatement.

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  • Julia

    “It’s not fair that she’s got to grow up feeling different when she’s going to feel different anyway. She wears glasses, her voice is a bit squeaky, and on top of that she has to deal with the fact that her mother is 70 and black.”

    How about the problem of being outed as the child of a prostitute in an article in a national magazine that can be googled forever?

    Why are the black folks in the article not identified as Baptist-Africans? Do we really know the little girl’s mother is Catholic? Should she be categorized according to the GR criteria of Catholic belief and practice? If the little girl doesn’t or never went to church, how can she be called Catholic? Does she have a Catholic baptismal record? You shouldn’t count on looks – most of the famous Irish-Catholic priests and cops in the movies were actually Irish Protestants, like Barry Fitzgerald and his brother Arthur Shields.

    For that matter, why are Hispanics not identified as Hispanic-Catholics or increasingly as Hispanic-Pentecostals?

    Or why are Hispanics a category at all? There are so many kinds it is almost useless as a category.

    Most Hispanic/Latinos from Mexico are Spanish-Indian-Americans.

    On the other hand, many Hispanic/Latinos from the Caribbean are actually Spanish-African-Americans and some are surely Spanish-African-Indian-Americans.

    But I have some friends who are just Spanish-Americans from Madrid.

    Many South Americans are Italian-Argentinians with no Spanish heritage at all.

    I wonder what the up-coming census categories are going to be? I understand that at one time Irish was a “non-white” category.

  • William Harrington

    In my mind it raises a non-religious non-racial, but definitely media related issue. How much of peoples concern is due to the practice of cable media latching onto stories and running them ad-nauseum as if nothing else in the world was going on. more than a few of these stories have, in the past, been concerned with child abuse and abductions. With that kind of coverage don’t people tend to get at least a bit paranoid and doesn’t this family catch the consequences of this not so much because of race but because their race makes it obvious that there is a non-biological link here of some sort? In other words, its not because the parents are black but because black parents adopting white children is unusual enough that the first thought in peoples media saturated brains is not “adoption” but abduction. There has been a lot of coverage of white people, even celebrities, adopting children of other races that this can be a common assumption, but this is the only story I’ve over heard of about black parents adopting a white kid so its not going to be a common assumption for a lot of people.

  • Julia

    In looking at the “Irish” moniker I stumbled upon the difficulties in Ireland of defining who’s who. Which part of the Irish population does the little girl come from?

    A. Indigenous Gaelic Catholics OR

    B. Catholic conquerors and settlers who became Gaelicized through intermarriage to one degree or another:

    1) Old English who came about 100 years after the Norman Conquest,

    2) Some would distinguish the Anglo-Normans who came after the conquest mainly from Wales and not England, Normandy, Brittany and Flanders.

    3) But see the Hiberno-Normans who descended from the earlier Vikings (later known as Normans in France)

    4) And the indigenous Irish distinguished the homelands of the invading Vikings: Fionnghaill- Norwegian Vikings; Dubhghaill= Danish Vikings


    5) English, Welch and Scots Catholics who fled persecution in their homelands and blended in with the indigenous Catholics.

    C. OR the Protestant conquerors, settlers and converts who set themselves apart:

    1) Anglo-Irish AKA New English who came with the Tudor re-conquest in Elizabethan times.


    2) Unionist planters arrived immediately before and in the wake of Cromwell to settle confiscated Irish land and towns – most of these folks are in what is now Northern Ireland. Americans call them Scots-Irish because most were from Scotland. Others came later through regular immigration.

    3) Protestant Huguenots from France who settled around Dublin.

    4) The Protestant Ascendancy who were the new Protestant landlords throughout Ireland.


  • Tyson K

    Julia’s comments all highlight the most salient point about race and ethnicity that one can make: they are all socially constructed categories, with no real basis in “biology” or geography. Humankind contains a broad spectrum of physical characteristics; when we group together (sometimes in a contradictory fashion) some of those characteristics to define a “race” or “ethnicity,” we’re just deciding where to draw an arbitrary line on that spectrum. The problem is, some folks– like the complex “Hispanics” talked about, don’t fall too easily into one categorization or another. To be “Hispanic” is really a cultural thing. Even the U.S. government is drawing the lines in census categories, they’re still just as arbitrary.

    Of course, the fact that race and ethnicity are socially constructed categories doesn’t give them any less potency as social forces, and that’s the point of this story, which addresses a complex issue that isn’t often thought about.