Are standards dropped when the adopted children aren't white?

'In the saga of the twins,there has been hardly any discussion of the racial background of the children'
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The Independent Online

Imagine this. A well-heeled British Nigerian couple decide to buy a daughter on the internet because they have five sons and are desperate for a girl. They find twin girls in the USA. Lovely, they are, the children of a Polish immigrant and Tammy, a blonde, blue-eyed country & western singer from Oklahoma.

Imagine this. A well-heeled British Nigerian couple decide to buy a daughter on the internet because they have five sons and are desperate for a girl. They find twin girls in the USA. Lovely, they are, the children of a Polish immigrant and Tammy, a blonde, blue-eyed country & western singer from Oklahoma.

The deal is duly done, and they bring the children back. But then a scandal erupts, because it turns out that Tammy abducted the twins from their white adoptive parents, who had already paid her for the children. After a long chase, the original adoptive parents lose the children they have loved and cared for. Bad news, especially for the babies, who become ever more withdrawn as they look up at two adoring black faces, instead of the white ones they have grown used to since birth.

Now tell me - would the media, politicians, pundits and experts deal with this case without once mentioning race and identity? Would they even try to pretend that the race and origins of the parents do not matter when it comes to adoption? Of course not. You would still get massive condemnation and universal revulsion, the heat and the fury about the sale; but race would add further intensity to all of those reactions. Subliminal fears and prejudices would arise. Coded ways would be found to express the outrage many would feel at the very thought of black parents bringing up white children. (When did you ever see such a thing - even in the movies?) And here's betting that even the most fundamentalist anti-PC warriors would start arguing about the rights of the children to remain connected to their heritage.

And yet, in the ongoing saga of Belinda and Kimberley, the twins adopted over the internet by Alan and Judith Kilshaw (two people who are clearly very odd indeed), there has been hardly any discussion of the racial background of the children. Is it because the girls are mixed-race Americans, with a white father and black mother? Unlike with the blonde babies above, maybe issues of identity are considered irrelevant for these twins, who are already "impure", a bit of this and a bit of that, a rag-bag of genes. It could be that standards are low when it comes to non-white children in general.

As more and more children of the poor are imported by the rich, sensitivities about racial matching feel like undue bureaucratic interference, protectionism in a free-trade universe. A new (and in my view dangerous) orthodoxy is now firmly established in this country; most people have persuaded themselves that love is what matters when it comes to adoption placements and that all this obsessing about culture and background belongs to some previous, loony era.

Whatever the reasons, I think it is obscene that the central issue of identity has been whitewashed out of the raging debates over the children. I have just finished writing a book for the Rowntree Foundation on mixed-race Britons. For two years I met and talked to mixed-race people, including a number of children within families and in institutions. Such children are over-represented in the public care system and in adoption agencies.

The one unexpected thing I learnt through this work is that identity - racial, cultural and personal - consumes many mixed-race people, especially when they reach adolescence. Even those who had had secure and happy lives within their own birth families had a heightened awareness of who they were racially, how they were seen, how they felt, how they looked. I realised that my own daughter, who is half-Asian and half-English, will need much more conscious support as she begins to crystallise for herself the identity that fits her self-image.

I met one mixed-race girl who passes for white because she can and because she has grown to hate her Asian father. How will I cope if Leila does that one day? In another case, a wonderful white mother said that her teenagers, who have Afro hair and green eyes, had started to treat her as the enemy within because they are so angry at the racism they face from both white and black kids. One even threw a stool at her on a particularly bad day. Most of the young people I met were furious about the endless labels - ranging from "half-caste" to "black" - stuck on them by others without consultation.

Then there is the pain of misidentification, when a parent looks racially unconnected to the child. The terrible poignancy of this is brilliantly captured in From Caucasia with Love, by the American novelist Danzy Senna, a book actually that made me sob when I read it.

If these are the dramas in birth families, can you imagine how much more complex they are likely to be in adoptive or foster families? Anecdotal evidence I have gathered indicates that, in spite of careful assessments by social workers (who are now, of course, told they are putting up unnecessary barriers), a high number of placements fail and the goods are returned.

I am not arguing that only same-race adoption will do. We will never have the numbers of mixed-race families for all the children in care, and simplistic matching of such children with any "black" family without considering other needs can be very damaging. Mixed-race children have been successfully adopted by white and non-white parents, but in most cases the families lived in multiracial areas and were tuned in to the realities of race and identity.

That is yet another crucial reason why Kimberley and Belinda should not be left with the Kilshaws in a small Welsh village. At least the American couple who originally had them were also mixed-race, although that alone should not make them qualify after their little shopping-trip on the internet. As the twins grow up, they will learn about the miserable failures and depravity of the adults in the first months of their lives, and keeping their trust will be the first task for the eventual adoptive parents. The children will also look more and more mixed-race. In order to come through, they will need to be with parents who truly understand what that means. Both are essential for the wellbeing of the children, and I only wish that we could replace the witch-hunts that the story has generated with a little more thoughtful concern for these poor children and how they will come to see themselves in time.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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