Raising Katie

During my lunch break today I read a very interesting article at Newsweek.com.  I was clicking a link to an article and glanced at the title of another article. That other article was Raising Katie:  What adopting a white girl taught a black family about race in the Obama era. I clicked the link to the article since it peaked my interest. You always here about white families adopting black, latino and asian children but you never hear about black, latino and asian families adopting white children.  Of course there’s an imbalance between whites adopting children of color and people of color adopting white children.  When folks see young white children with a person of color most assume the child is with their nanny or babysitter. They never think that the adult of color could be the parent of the white child.

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.

riding_family1

The article talks about the Riding family who live near Baltimore, MD. Mark Riding and his wife Terri have two biological children.  In 2003 Terri’s mother took in a then 3 year old Katie O’Dea on a temporary basis.

That question hit home for the Ridings in 2003, when Terri’s mother, Phyllis Smith, agreed to take in Katie, then 3, on a temporary basis. A retired social worker, Phyllis had long been giving needy children a home—and Katie was one of the hardest cases. The child of a local prostitute, her toddler tantrums were so disturbing that foster families simply refused to keep her. Twelve homes later, Katie was still being passed around. Phyllis was in many ways an unlikely savior. The former president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, she joined her colleagues in condemning the adoption of black children by white families as “cultural genocide”—a position she still holds in theory, if not in practice. She couldn’t say no to the “charming, energetic” girl who ended up on her front doorstep.

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. (Phyllis is her legal guardian, but Mark and Terri were also vetted as legal surrogates for Phyllis.)

To be sure, it’s an unconventional arrangement. Katie spends weekdays with Phyllis, her legal guardian. But Mark and Terri, who live around the corner, are her de facto parents, too. They help out during the week, and welcome Katie over on weekends and holidays. As for titles: Katie calls Phyllis “Mommy” and Terri “Sister,” since technically it’s true. Mark has always been “Daddy” or “Mark.”

I wonder if Phyllis Smith ever thought that she would become the legal guardian of a white girl. I do have a problem with her attitude towards transracial adoption when it comes to black children as cultural genocide. You would think that having Katie around would soften her stance a little bit.

Part of the reason for the adoptive imbalance comes down to numbers, and the fact that people tend to want children of their own race. African-Americans represent almost one third of the 510,000 children in foster care, so black parents have a relatively high chance of ending up with a same-race child. (Not so for would-be adoptive white parents who prefer the rarest thing of all in the foster-care system: a healthy white baby.) But the dearth of black families with nonblack children also has painful historical roots. Economic hardship and centuries of poisonous belief in the so-called civilizing effects of white culture upon other races have familiarized Americans with the concept of white stewardship of other ethnicities, rather than the reverse.

The result is not only discomfort among whites at the thought of nonwhites raising their offspring; African-Americans can also be wary when one of their own is a parent to a child outside their race. Just ask Dallas Cowboys All-Pro linebacker DeMarcus Ware and his wife, Taniqua, who faced a barrage of criticism after adopting a nonblack baby last February. When The New York Times sports page ran a photo of the shirtless new father with what appeared to be a white baby in his arms (and didn’t mention race in the accompanying story), it sent a slow shock wave through the African-American community, pitting supporters who celebrated the couple’s joy after three painful miscarriages against critics who branded the Wares “self-race-hating individuals” for ignoring the disproportionate number of blacks in foster care. The baby, now their daughter, Marley, is in fact Hispanic. “Do you mean to tell me that the Wares couldn’t have found a little black baby to adopt?” snarled one blogger on the Daily Voice, an online African-American newspaper.

You can read the entire article here.

One response

  1. Hi, I’m of Irish descent, and I think this little girl is much better off in her present home than she would have been with her biological mother. It makes me laugh a little, though, when the article says her adoptive parents want to keep her in touch with her Irish heritage by taking her to the St. Patrick’s parade – because the parade doesn’t really have to do with the Irish in Ireland but with the Irish in North America.

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