You might know it by now: Patriarch Phil Robertson of the hugely successful reality TV-show Duck Dynasty has a new grandson. The baby is the fifth child of his youngest son Jep, who with his wife Jessica adopted a boy after having four biological kids. This became the past days rapidly news, because adoption is not only de rigueur amongst celebrities, their fans love this specific sign of their idols' humanity. It is almost as if the stars adopt to please their fans. And so they show them off in the popular press: Madonna, Brangelina, Sandra Bullock, Rosie O'Donnell, Viola Davis, Sheryl Crow and Marie-Louise Parker and so many others are all pictured with their kids.
Adoption these days is so hot, that the press is not only following actual adoptive families, but also highlights celebrities who are considering adoption, like Kim Kardashian. Her visit to a Thai orphanage last year where she met 12-year-old Pink, who she 'totally' wanted to adopt - but didn't because the girl didn't want her - was for days 'big' news. And most recently this was the bizarre headline about her sister: 'Khloe Kardashian Reveals She & Ex Lamar Odom Were Planning To Adopt Before Divorce'.
So it is not unexpected that Duck Dynasty - now in its ninth season - gave birth to an offshoot show covering this adoption. Jep and Jessica: Growing the Dynasty will run 8 episodes on the A&E network. Last week was the premiere with two episodes and the second had a big surprise.
Those who follow the Robertson posse even only a bit may remember the uproar that followed an interview in GC magazine a few years ago with Patriarch Phil. Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times a fine column about it and he quotes the grandfather about his distorted, racist view of the situation of African Americans before the Civil Rights era:
"I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I'm with the blacks, because we're white trash. We're going across the field. ...They're singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, 'I tell you what: These doggone white people' -- not a word! ...Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues."
I imagine that no black person in her or his right mind would have voluntary after this interview other than distant and formal relations with this man. But alas, the Duck Dynasty grows in an indeed surprising way. We, after hanging cliff in Episode 1: The Call, learn in Episode 2: The Homecoming that the boy is black. Was this a cynical choice by the makers of these series? Or was it again ignorance? However, Jules, as the baby is named, has familial relations with this man and one day he will have to confront the worldview of his grandfather. By adoption he is innocently forced in this painful situation.
Son Jep has not to be like his father, of course, but in the first episodes the new parents don't show any enlightenment. Not one word is spilled between the adoptive parents about Jules' race. Race shows up in Episode 1 only once in the person of a black social worker, who talks about the perils of adoption and not about race. In Episode 2 the boy's race is implied at an all-white family gathering where one of the guests who holds the baby, calls out in jest 'Simba', the Swahili name of the Lion King. And then at the end of this episode at an again all-white baby blessing for family and friends Dynasty Patriarch Phil has the last word. Invoking the Lord, he stresses - fully in line with his GC interview - that He sees just one race, the human race.
It might be that behind the screen Jules' adoptive parents are much more informed about transracial adoption, and are aware of what by now is standard fare in adoptive parent education: the need of supporting the racial identity formation of the adopted child and of creating a racially diverse world around him, where he can be with people who look like him, and learn from them.
After seeing the first two episodes, however, we have to be very concerned, also because the mother of the boy, the biological mother that is, or the father, are not in the narrative of the show. The adoptive parents chose for a - these days very seldom allowed - closed adoption, they told US Weekly: "We just felt like for us, a closed adoption was the best thing that fit our family, and just the protection of our kids and even [Jules]." Biological and cultural heritage are an intrinsic part of Jules Robertson's identity and denying it can only be done temporarily, even in a closed adoption. And, as we know from so many stories by adult adoptees, the denial comes with great emotional costs for the child later in life. To get an idea how life looks for people who started as their son, it might be helpful for the Robertson clan and specifically for Jep and Jessica, to pick up the recent collection of 16 interviews with black Americans on transracial adoptiom by a black transracial adoptee, Rhonda M. Roorda. The book, In Their Voices, was published last year by Columbia University Press, New York. It might be a helpful read for their social worker as well.
Transracial adoption as depicted in this new show is not only hurting this specific child, but it will hurt future transracial adoptees too. Showing transracial adoption in this manner to a huge mostly not informed audience spreads the myth that colorblind parenting of a black child is just fine. Those who went before this couple as parents and those who went before Jules know better.
Next Wednesday 01/27 E&A broadcasts a new episode on the circumcision of Jules.