home Africa, Entertainment, Racism, Society White Woman’s Burden: Madonna and the Malawian adoption

White Woman’s Burden: Madonna and the Malawian adoption

Madonna is continuing on a tradition of celebrities adopting foreign children. Though she has not reached the level of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, her recent attempt to adopt Mercy from Malawi would have made her the single mother to four children. The fact that she is unmarried with three children already at home and is still considered a potential adoptive mother speaks to the race and class privilege that Madonna possesses.

Madonna has constructed herself as the loving earth mother gone abroad to save the African children from a life despair. Though she has invested in orphanages and has started a few programs, her desire to adopt children despite the express wishes of their famillies, evidences her colonialist positioning. In this second attempt to adopt a child, the family has also expressed a desire to block the adoption.

According to The Sun, “the girl’s gran Lucy Chekechiwa, 60, said she has been asked repeatedly by officials if Mercy could be adopted by an “unidentified foreign family” — but was firmly against it. Speaking from her village in Zomba District, Lucy said: “Twice I have told the adoption people that I do not want Mercy to go outside the country. But they keep on at us. Now they say that Mercy will be leaving us, but can return at age 18.”

Even with the express refusal of the families in question, Madonna continued with her adoption plans firm in the belief that her class privilege would offer David and now Mercy a better life. Though a life with Madonna would provide opportunities that would otherwise be denied to Mercy because of her poverty and our decided commitment to maintaining a hierarchy of bodies, these children will lose their cultural links by not being reared within their country. It will not suffice to surround the children with Western blacks as they will not be able to pass on the traditions that are unique to Malawian culture.

Since the first white man stepped foot on the African continent they have raped and ravaged both the land and the people. To justify this history of tyranny the white man’s burden has been employed as a defensive ideology. Africans have been constructed as backward and in need of rescue. Difference has been understood as a signification of a lack of advancement rather than a alternate form of living. By adopting these children, Madonna is only continuing a long tradition of western colonization based in the belief that whiteness is ultimately superior to that of bodies of color.

Her position as earth mother, nurturer and caregiver is a role long played by white Western women when they set foot on the so-called Dark Continent. A simple glance thorough the history of white paternalism when directed at bodies of color clearly reveals that the permanent, devastating damage. At the height of the British empire, Englishwomen sought to “teach” Indian mothers so-called modern ways, even while they had proven themselves perfectly capable of rearing and nurturing children for centuries. Whiteness granted the Englishwomen expert status, despite their unfamiliarity with local diseases, environment, or traditions.

When the so-called “friends” of the Indian sought to elevate the status of American Indigenous Peoples they separated them from their families and placed them in residential schools. To this very day, Native peoples have never recovered from their loss of language, cultural traditions, and way of life. They continue to live in poverty and have become firmly ensconced as second-class citizens. Despite the mountain of evidence that white headship is harmful to bodies of color, Westerners continue to popularize the myth of its benign nature.

Madonna justifies her desire to adopt Mercv with love, and yet, like a spoiled child, she simply refuses to acknowledge that what we desire can be either inappropriate or unattainable. Though Mercy now lives in the same orphanage that her potential brother David once lived in, it is not necessary for her to reside with Madonna to have her life chances improve. If Madonna’s interests were truly not predatory, she could provide Mercy’s family with more than enough financial aid for them to raise her with advantages.

Madonna could begin an education fund for Mercy to ensure that the child would not grow up in ignorance, such are the capabilities of Madonna’s wealth. Oprah, for example, did not feel the need to separate families to uplift young girls: she simply built a school to provide them with opportunities.

Mercy resides in an orphanage not because she is unloved, but due to poverty. In the end, Madonna’s persistence is not about loving little Mercy above all else, but a desire to possess.


Renee Martin

Renee Martin lives in Canada and writes the famous Womanist Musings blog. She is as interested in socio-political issues as she is in television.

9 thoughts on “White Woman’s Burden: Madonna and the Malawian adoption

  1. How awful, that she would go against the express wishes of the family. Especially because, as you say, she could help in ways that are compatible with the child remaining with her family.

    There are a number of children in orphanages without relatives who are living or without relatives who care about them. Full disclosure: my parents adopted two such children.

  2. That’s awful. How was this girl even considered for adoption if she’s still with her grandmother, and her grandmother doesn’t want her adopted? It sounds like kidnapping!

    And I agree that she should have gone the Oprah route.

  3. I’m sorry, but this is clearly a case of kidnapping. The family’s resistance to the adoption makes such an adoption completely illegal. Maybe we should start a petition to get Madonna and the others involved for kidnapping. Truly gross, neo-colonialist, bullshit.

  4. Pingback: Links - 2009-04-13 at Racialicious - the intersection of race and pop culture
  5. Look, I’m not crazy about Madonna’s behavior either, but let’s be clear: the child is not WITH her grandmother; she is in an orphanage. I’m sure the orphanage workers are doing the very best they can, but an orphanage is not a place where children thrive. So, although I don’t like how Madonna has gone about this attempted adoption or her other adoption, I can’t fault her for wanting to offer a child a life outside an orphanage.

    As for this “If Madonna’s interests were truly not predatory, she could provide Mercy’s family with more than enough financial aid for them to raise her with advantages,”–I’d say that it’s not that simple. If only it were. Of course Madonna could provide Mercy’s family with more than enough money to live well. But what would be the consequences? An outsider swooping in with lots of money for a single family in an impoverished area is also problematic, and also has a bit of the Western Savior stuff to it that gives me the willies. But beyond that, what would be the social consequences for the family? Would everyone around them be jealous? Would they become targets of thieves? Of corrupt politicans? I’m all for the Oprah-like intervention that helps a whole community but I think this sponsor-a-family idea is a bit naive, and has consequences we can’t know.

  6. Mercy is not in an orphanage because is not wanted by her family but because they cannot afford her care that is the fact that you are neglecting in your analysis. Providing for her family or helping her community would ensure that Mercy could return home. Madonna is interested in collecting children like prada purses not in doing good.

    In terms of Westerners sweeping in an “doing good”, since they/we are responsible for the impoverishment of the third world it is our duty to mitigate some of the damage that we have done in whatever way we can without enforcing harmful cultural norms.

  7. Renee,
    I agree with you 100% on this:

    “In terms of Westerners sweeping in an “doing good”, since they/we are responsible for the impoverishment of the third world it is our duty to mitigate some of the damage that we have done in whatever way we can without enforcing harmful cultural norms.”

    I agree! BUT I’m not sure a popstar giving financial aid to a single family accomplishes this goal–especially if she just takes it upon herself to figure out how and what to give. I’m saying that this may do more/other damage that we cannot–as cultural outsiders–foresee or appreciate AND that the money–if the transaction was not handled in a culturally appropriate way–might not go to Mercy’s care. I’m all for supporting the child remaining with her family of origin–I’m just not sure what the best way of going about that is.

    As to your other comment:
    “Madonna is interested in collecting children like prada purses not in doing good.”
    I actually think that Madonna IS interested in doing good, but she has a very confused/screwed up notion of what that means. There’s some analysis of that and some suggestions of what might be useful here:
    I’ve also written about this article here: http://nobody-asked-you.blogspot.com/2009/04/in-all-hubbub-and-bluster-swirling.html

  8. Here is a link to an article on Madonna’s adoption by Jacques Peretti of The GuardianI hope people will pay heed to.


    What has happened with Madonna adopting a second child against their family’s wishes is very disturbing. Angelina Jolie’s oldest daughter also was adopted in a disturbing manner, with the grandmother against the adoption.

    Mercy’s father is a very young man, holds a job, and his story is very sad. Governments of these countries are pressured by these rich westeners who in turn pressure these childrens families. Mercy’s grandmother actually delivered Mercy. She has emphatically and repeatedly stated she does not want her granddaughter, whom she ushered into this world and whose daughter she watched die to have her, taken from her country.

    Just because a person is struggling to survive does not mean they do not love their offspring. There are different understandings, coping mechanisms and means of bonding and feeling cared for in poverty stricken counries where the children are raised in orphanages. In war torn and impoverished countries children often are sent to orphanages so they can simply eat, however they do not lose connection with their families nor identity. It is horrible to see truly desperate peoples familial bonds broken over and over again because westerners who want their babies have enough money to break them. Madonna set up a visit between David and his father but the fact stands that steamrolling over a povety sricken family’s wishes is not right. These people love their children, or childrens children, too, but can’t stand up to such wealth and power of their governments pressuring them not to make scenes and then guilting them that the child will be better off. They have little to no rescource or recourse to fight or plead their case.

    If celebrities bond with babies that have family, better to send the family/baby a monthly stipend so the child can have education, and support the family with a means to travel to see the child and feed and provide for the child. Breaking up families is not right and not good for the country, international relations, the people of the country nor the children themselves.

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