A report by Régine Jean-Charles for Ms. Magazine.
When Amy Coney Barrett described her children, it gave me chills—but not for the reasons most might expect.
Despite the national political drama that is swirling, in many ways, last week’s Senate hearings to approve Justice Amy Coney Barrett were uneventful—especially in comparison to the confirmation hearings that took place two years ago for Brett Kavanaugh.
But for me, as a Haitian American scholar who writes about representations of Haiti and Black girlhood, there was a disturbing moment.
I began to feel unsettled when Barrett named and described her children one by one. Clearly proud to be a mother of seven wonderful children, she went down the list of daughters and sons offering small details about each one in turn.
The eldest is a sophomore in college “who might follow parents into a career in the law.”
The second child, Vivienne, “came to them from Haiti when she arrived she was so weak and told she might never talk or walk normally. But now she deadlifts as much as the male athletes in our gym.”
The third is described as sharing her “parents love for the liberal arts” and also has a special talent for math.
Their first son and fourth child joined them after the devastating earthquake and was shocked to see the snow in Chicago. Other than this he is only represented in terms of his “happy-go-lucky attitude.”
Their second son “Liam is smart, strong and kind.”
The sixth child is a daughter named Julia who is working hard to realize her goal of becoming an author and has recently self-published.
And finally, the youngest Jonathan has Down Syndrome and is the family favorite.
Barrett’s Black Adopted Children Explained Only by “the Sum of their Trauma”
These descriptions troubled me as a Black feminist, as a mother and as a woman of Haitian descent.
First, I noticed that these Black Haitian children were merely the sum of their trauma. They could not be removed from the context of devastation that plagues descriptions of Haiti in the popular U.S. imagination. As Gina Ulysse explains cogently in her book of the same name, “Haiti needs new narratives.”
Indeed, the adoption narrative peddles the myth of Haiti as nothing more than a place of lack from which children must be rescued.
Second, as a mother of four who was also raised in a family of four, I am painfully aware of how my children notice our descriptions of them. Although we work hard to let them know that “comparison is the thief of joy,” inevitably they see themselves in relation to what we say about their siblings.
I could not help but wonder how it must feel for Vivienne, J.P. and Benjamin to hear all of their siblings described for their intellectual attributes and academic accomplishments—whereas they were identified for their strength and resilience.
Third, and perhaps most troubling from my vantage point, the disparity between how she described the biological children in terms of their intelligence and talent—as opposed to the Black children, who were strong and “happy-go-lucky”—plays into more nefarious myths about Blackness.
In a world where the adultification of Black girls has been well-researched, Barrett’s description of her daughter’s masculinized strength was at best a perpetuation of the strong Black women myth, and at worst, a reiteration of the perception that Black girls be seen as adults, and not girls. The descriptions of the Black children in which only their physical and personality attributes were described played into racialized and gendered tropes that are cloaked in racist beliefs.
The daughter is strong and masculine.
The son is happy despite all he has been through.
To add to this, the child who is differently abled was cast in a similar light that made no mention of intellectual ability. When I watched the clip with my children, they too, were disturbed and noticed that the descriptions of the children were not consistent.
“Either talk about how everyone is smart in different ways or don’t bring it up,” was the sentiment summed up by my eleven-year-old.
Problems in Transracial Adoption
Of course, what I noticed and was bothered by was just a short clip that cannot tell the whole story about Barrett’s treatment of her children. But the problems that surface in transracial adoption are certainly not new. Scholars and activists have brought light to how children adopted by parents of a different race can face challenges in identity formation.
Sadly, in the Haitian context, the question of adoption is fraught, as we have seen share of adoption scandals. Especially in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, when orphanages were emptied and international adoption chaos ensued, we learned that as is always the case, children who are already vulnerable and marginalized are even more at risk when disaster strikes.
Children as Symbols
Even more, what worries me about how Barrett talks about her children is that they have become symbols of her devoutness as a Catholic and commitment to being a mother. They are presented as symbols, rather than living, breathing and nuanced children who feel, see and are seen.
As Ibram Kendi expressed in a tweet about Barrett’s relationship to her Haitian children, having Black children is not enough to make one anti-racist.
Given the longstanding neo-imperial relationship between Haiti and the United States, how we talk about the Barretts’ adoption of their Haitian children merits critical reflection. As the Afro-French filmmaker Amandine Gay makes clear in her documentary about transracial and international adoption, it should not be taboo to talk about issues like politics, power and representation in relation to adoption.
In my work on representations of Haitian children, I look for how they are seen and how they see. Painfully aware of the sensational narratives that surround Haitian identity, I am interested in how Haitian girls in particular assert their visibility despite being rendered invisible.
The problem of erasure of Black girls in general, and Haitian girls specifically, is one that I have examined and see reverberating in U.S. media and popular culture.
This is why Barrett’s description of her children was so jarring to me. I longed to know how they see themselves.
How, if given the chance to speak would they describe themselves? What do they think about the fact that their mother is now positioned to be the next Supreme Court justice because of the same man who referred to their country of origin as a “shithole country”? Did they, like me, cringe when he described them in the Rose Garden on the same day of an event that led to several people contracting COVID-19? Do they know that their Black Lives Matter too?
More than anything, my desire is for Vivienne and J.P. to be seen as more than symbols—for them to be seen as smart, as talented, as more than their trauma, as unique and as special.