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Was it Fair for Kendi to Bring Up the White-Savior Storyline During Barrett's Confirmation Hearings?

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett Full Opening Statement at Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing
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"In Mr. Kendi's world, Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett's decision to adopt two Black children not only doesn't qualify as an anti-racist act, he alleges that she is using these children to underpin the racism that she is incapable of acknowledging." - From "How Not to Think," (Editorial Board, Pittsburg Post Gazette, October 15, 2020)

ANGRY polarized debates between Republicans and Democrats continue. Yesterday I learned about one between students in my own university over Ibram X. Kendi's late September tweet asserting that a White family adopting a Black child does not automatically prove the family is not a racist nor an anti-racist. The context for the tweet was Judge Barrett's reference to her Black children as obvious evidence for her immunity to concerns about her potential racist decisions if appointed to the Supreme Court. The context also includes believing in such a claim for evidence in spite of previous decisions Barrett made as a judge, such as in a 2019 racial discrimination case where she argued that simply being called a "n-word" by one's boss does not create a hostile or abusive working environment" and ruled against an African American man who was fired by his supervisor.) What Kendi actually wrote in his tweet, which is not quite what the Gazette's editorial board stated, follows:

Sept 26, 2020 at 1:04. "Some White colonizers "adopted" Black children. They "civilized" these "savage" children in the "superior" ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity"and whether this is Barrett or not is not the point. It is a belief too many White people have: if they have or adopt a child of color, then they can't be racist."

The first major response to this occurred when Boston University College Republicans released a statement on Instagram calling for his removal of Professor Ibram X. Kindi "from any association" with the University. Kendi, as Director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University tweeted his words after listening to Amy Coney Barrett references to her adopted children from Haiti, in addition to her having refused to answer any questions about her positions on racial issues, such as the Voting Rights Act. Modifications to Kendi's words such as those of the Pittsburg Post were typical in most of the rebuttals from conservative media and Republican politicians. Senator John Kennedy is quoted as saying "Some butthead professor says that because you and your husband have to children of color, that you're a white colonist.!" Senator Tom Cotton responded "Ibram Kendi launches a cruel, racist attack against Judge Barrett and her family. But what else would we expect from a fraud like him?" Fox News reporter, Danielle Wallace, starts her piece with "Ibram C. Kendi, an American author who became the new director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University in July, railed against Barret on Twitter for adopting two Black children from Haiti, equating her and her husband as "White colonizers."

Setting aside the usual ad hominem rhetoric and out of context rebuttals, I can appreciate sensitivities about implying that White parents who adopt Black children may still be racist. It would be insulting, unfair and untrue to actually make this allegation as a generality. However, Kendi was not making such a statement. As someone who specializes in anti-racist theory, he is knows the dark side of White adoptions of children from marginalized groups. Consider the adoption of American Indian children by White parents. It is a tragic history for the most part, like that of the Christian boarding schools designed to "save the child but kill the Indian." Too few know about the devastation of the "adoption era" of American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

Such a history is relevant when considering the role of the Supreme Court and its potential major negative impact on Native families and tribal sovereignty. Just recently an evangelical Christian family almost won a Supreme Court victory that would have ended adoption protections for American Indians, losing with a 5 to 4 decision. Had Barrett been a part of it, one can speculate a different outcome. Kendi knows well that the this case and many before it were about white superiority and racist attitudes that wrongly separated Indigenous parents from their children. Referring to problem represented by the aforementioned case, the executive director of the IWCA Law Center in Minneapolis, which represents families affected by the child welfare system, said the idea was to "take the Indian out of the child."

Beyond such a general understanding of adoption history, Kendi also had more obvious reasons to put forward the possibility that Barrett's adoption may not prove her anti-racism. In addition to not answering any questions that about her previous race oriented decisions as a judge, she did say she was "following in the footsteps of her self-professed idol, the late Justice Antonin Scaliea," for whom she clerked, and of whom she has said, "his judicial philosophy is mine." Scalia notoriously denounced America's civil rights legislation as a "perpetuation of racial entitlement." Add to this that the professor surely knew the long history of Donald Trump's demonstrated racism, and that Trump was championing her nomination.

Although Kendi was merely stating that we cannot assume Barrett does not reflect the history of White-savior supremacy, I take it a bit further in this article. I believe it is not only possible, but that it is probable. In addition to her professional record, I found something unsettling in her opening remarks at her confirmation hearing that may hint at her using her adopted children as part of a White-savior story. She seemed to emphasize saving the two adopted children from horrible conditions in Haiti in ways that contrast with how she describes her biological children.

Jesse and I are parents to seven wonderful children. Emma is a sophomore in college who just might follow her parents into a career in the law. Vivian came to us from Haiti. When she arrived, she was so weak that we were told she might never walk or talk normally. She now deadlifts as much as the male athletes at our gym, and I assure you that she has no trouble talking. Tess is 16, and while she shares her parents' love for the liberal arts, she also has a math gene that seems to have skipped her parents' generation. John Peter joined us shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and Jesse, who brought him home, still describes the shock on JP's face when he got off the plane in wintertime Chicago. Once that shock wore off, JP assumed the happy-go-lucky attitude that is still his signature trait. Liam is smart, strong, and kind, and to our delight, he still loves watching movies with Mom and Dad. Ten-year-old Juliet is already pursuing her goal of becoming an author by writing multiple essays and short stories, including one she recently submitted for publication. And our youngest Benjamin, who has Down syndrome is the unanimous favorite of the family" Note how Judge Barrett refers to Vivian as "so weak" and that they worried she may never walk, but now is as strong as a man. John Peter, who barely survived an earthquake, is not happy as can be. As for the biological children, Tess shares her parents love for the liberal arts and is good at math. Liam is smart, strong and kind. Juliet is going to become an author and, at age ten, has already submitted a piece for publication. And little Benjamin, is their favorite. I admit my observation is not sufficient evidence for Barrett employing the White-savior problematic. None-the-less, with her reference to the adoption being the only thing she talked about as relating to questions about racism, it was fair of Kendi as a scholar to bring up the fact that settler colonists, which describes the majority of Americans, either knowingly or unconsciously possess attitudes of white superiority or privilege, whether or not they adopt minority children. He had no intention of painting a broad a description of such adoption motivations and outcomes. Still, he knows how wide-spread and harmful unawareness of white privilege can be, let alone when practiced by a Supreme Court nominee. In June of 2020, Terry Gross, the PBS host of "Fresh Air," interviews a white mother who adopted a black son and how she herself fell into this White-savior trap:

GROSS: You write, at first, having a black son was like a badge of pride, a badge of courage, proof that you were a kind and caring person and definitely not a racist, proof that you loved all of God's children. Can you elaborate on that for us, how it made you feel at first to have a black son?

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Wahinkpe Topa (Four Arrows) is a professor at Fielding Graduate University. Former Director of Education at Oglala Lakota College, he is a made-relative of the Oglala and a Sun Dancer. Selected by AERO for their text Turning Points as one of 27 (more...)
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