In the last month, both Charlize Theron and Jillian Michaels went public with the news of adding to their family through adoption. In both cases, their new additions are black children, which has sparked a flurry of Internet commenters to question the "trend" of white celebrities adopting black babies. This conversation has become a predictable subject every time a celebrity adopts a child of color. It usually takes a cynical tone, as if black children are a fashionable accessory... this year's Manolo Blahniks. Frankly, I'm a little weary of the scrutiny, and of the idea that transracial adoption is merely a trend. I'm going to attempt to answer that question, and then I'm going to suggest some more relevant questions we should be asking about race and adoption. But first:
Why do so many celebrities adopt in the first place?
While I certainly don't know the motivations of each and every celebrity in terms of why they've chosen adoption, I would guess that their reasons are similar to the general population when it comes to this choice. While some may have been interested in adoption all along, it's likely that many of these women focused on their careers in their 20's and 30's and then found themselves ready to be parents, only to discover that their fertility was on the decline. This is a phenomenon that is not exclusive to celebrities -- many women who choose to put off childbirth in favor of professional pursuits discover, too late, that their ovaries were ready to party a decade ago and no longer feel like cooperating. It's documented that 50% of women over the age of 35 will struggle to conceive. And while many of the recent celebrity adoptive moms may look young and fit and healthy, no amount of working out or botox or expensive skin creams are going to make a woman immune to the frustrating facts about fertility and maternal age. I would guess this plays into why so many celebrities adopt. It also bears mentioning that there are plenty of actresses who choose to undergo fertility treatments or who use surrogates to carry their biological children -- a fact that seems to receive much less scorn than women who adopt children of color. I would also venture to guess that for every celebrity who is public about her fertility treatments, there are several who are keeping mum about the details of how they conceived a child in their 40's.
When I look at the celebrities who've adopted transracially in the last five years or so, nearly all of them are over 40. Sandra Bullock, Kristin Davis, and Mary-Louise Parker are all 47. Connie Britton is 45. Mariska Hargitay is 48. Do I think that these women made the decision to adopt because they wanted to be trendy? No. I think they wanted a family, and their age and/or single status posed a challenge. That's my guess as to why they adopted in general, but let's look at the question more often being asked:
Why did they adopt black children?
I think to answer this question, it's important to note that adopting black children is not, in fact, a fad. The truth is that racial bias in adoption preference is very prevalent, with black children waiting the longest to find a family. Here are some numbers culled by Love Isn't Enough that represent online profiles of adoptive families and what races they are open to adopting:
88% would 'accept' a White baby
33% would 'accept' a South American or Hispanic baby
28% would 'accept' an Asian baby
14% would 'accept' a Black baby
This is true of international adoption as well. Only 7% of internationally adopting parents adopt black children, with most prospective adoptive parents preferring to adopt a child of Asian or Eastern European descent.
We were told at an informational meeting by an adoption agency in California that the wait for healthy white infants was over two years because there are so many prospective adoptive parents unwilling to adopt a child of color. On the other hand, in most states there are black children waiting for families. As such, when you fill out your adoption paperwork, if you state that you are open to any race, the chances are pretty high that you will be matched with a child of color. For a variety of reasons, it appears that celebrities are more apt to be open to black children. I would imagine this is, in part, because they are more traveled, have worked in diverse settings, live in cities like LA or NYC where there is a lot of racial diversity, and because they have means to provide a child with broad cultural experiences. (It also bears noting that there are many African-American celebrities who have adopted black children as well: Shonda Rhimes, Viola Davis, Angela Bassett, and Reverend Run, to name a few).
Knowing what I know about racial preference in adoption, this is why criticism of celebrity transracial adoption irks me the most. Would it have been preferable for these women to have indicated that they would rather wait for a white child? Would it have been more noble for them to pass over the kids waiting for families, because God forbid they be accused of following a trend in their quest for building a family?
Some better questions to ask
There are better questions to ask when it comes to transracial adoption and child welfare. I would so much rather see people questioning why black children are overrepresented in foster care and adopting waiting lists and how many are aging out without families and what we, as a nation, can do for the thousands of waiting children who won't be adopted by a couple dozen celebrities. As for celebrities who've adopted children of color, I'm thrilled that these kids have found a family, famous or not.