Every year, I teach writer Elna Baker's essay, "Babies Buying Babies" to my freshman composition classes as an introduction to narrative and critical thinking. We listen to her This American Life recording and I watch the students cringe, chuckle, and scoff as she recounts her former job at FAO Schwartz, where white Upper East Side moms refused to buy certain dolls because of their skin color. In the end, as non-black minority dolls gradually begin to be "adopted," Baker admits, "What were left were incubator upon incubator of black baby dolls."
Class discussion is predictable. "It's [insert year here]! I can't believe we haven't gotten past this!" Obama is often evoked as an arbiter of how much less racist these18-year-olds think the country is now than it was "back in the day." Usually my goal, to remind students of the insidious ways in which racial prejudice impacts even the most innocuous of activities, is achieved. But last year, a black student raised her hand. "I don't see that much wrong with this," she shrugged. "My mom only bought me dolls that looked like me, too." As other students nodded, I thought to myself, it's time to reassess this lesson.
For that class, the takeaway wasn't that white moms didn't want to "adopt" black dolls. It was that more black families should. That sentiment can be applied to the topic of real-life adoptions. There is merit in matching black babies with parents who look like them - particularly if a greater number of those babies are left languishing in the adoption and foster care systems, and especially when those babies are discussed like salable commodities.