I’m still thinking about yesterday’s post–the whole story of the blond Roma children. I’m inclined to agree with Kisrita when she says “the fact that a kid looks different should never be a cause for authorities to get involved unless you have clear evidence of wrongdoing” (that’s in the comments from yesterday) but I’m afraid there’s some distance between should and is. What I mean is that it does happen, even though I think it shouldn’t.
There are at least two different things I think about here–or maybe two different levels on which I think about the same thing. First, there’s the mere fact that different looking adult/child dyad can raise eyebrows or attract attention. Second, there are the specific ways in which this plays out depending on the specific differences we observe. I’m going to consider these in reverse order–second one first.
The second thing is very much about race. So, for instance, a dark-skinned adult and a pale-skinned child might be assumed to be nanny/caretaker and child rather than parent and child. If you switched the races (dark-skinned child/pale-skinned adult) I think you’d be much less likely to find that assumption made. Some of this is discussed in a new post on Code Switch–the NPR blog I mentioned yesterday. And it is telling. When an adult/child difference in appearance maps on to race-based stereotypes you get stark reactions. So for example, the stereotype about Romas laid over the difference between adults and child created real problems. People were especially quick to leap to an assumption of kidnapping (and then of child-selling) where they might not have absent the stereotypes attached to the Roma.
But there are problems even absent the dramatic play of race stereotypes. As the Code Switch post notes, parents and children who do not look like each other are frequently treated in ways that many would find demeaning, to say the least. As the statistics in the Code Switch post suggest, this can easily include a lot of families.
It’s worth noting that there are many reasons why children and parents may not look (that much?) alike. The Roma story out of Ireland demonstrates that even genetic parents and children can be quite different. I assume (though I might be wrong) that this is more likely to be true in cross-racial relationships but even in intra-racial relationships (as the Roma’s seems to be) you can find striking difference. Beyond genetics, though, there are all the blended/step-families and adoptive families and families conceived using third-party gametes.
All of these families are subtly (and not so subtly) undermined by our assumptions that parents and children should look alike. I’m fairly confident that this causes pain and, at least in some cases, harm. I’m include to echo the closing note of the Code Switch piece:
how long will it take for our perception that members of a normal family will “look like” each other to catch up with the way American families really look?
I don’t mean to minimize how difficult it is to move away from the automatic assumption that families look alike. But I do think we should try to move away from it, because it just isn’t true.
I know that lying under here someplace is the fundamental divide between many who read/write here about how much and/or what genetics should mean. For some, family relationships should follow from genetic relationships, and so perhaps the assumption of common appearance is somewhat more defensible. (But see the dark Roma and the genetic but pale child.) But those of us who think that families are defined by the way they function in the real world, there’s really no excuse for not trying to get beyond this assumption.
I don’t mean, by the way, to suggest that genetics is of no importance. The question is really what its importance is. And on that note, I think I’ll leave you all with this video clip from the New York Times Modern Love. It’s an account of a woman who, after many years, was contacted by the genetic child she had given up for adoption. It’s quite clear that the connection between them is important to both of them, but it isn’t a parent/child relationship.