How Will Michael Jackson's 'White' Kids Get Along in a Black Family?

Racial stereotypes could cloud the futures of Michael Jackson's children.

July 9, 2009, 3:57 AM

July 9, 2009 — -- It's the moment from Michael Jackson's memorial service that people are still talking about: daughter Paris-Michael, surrounded by her aunts and uncles, took the stage and proclaimed her daddy the "best father you could ever imagine."

In the coming months and years, 11-year-old Paris and her two brothers, Prince I, 12, and Prince II, 7, will have many adjustments to make without their famous father -- not the least of which may be growing up in a family in which their fair skin will noticeably set them apart.

Since Jackson's death, the children have been staying with their grandmother, Katherine Jackson, at her Encino, Calif., estate. A judge granted her temporary custody, and she has filed to become the children's permanent guardian.

There's nothing unusual about black families taking in their kin. Historically, they have often done so, but when the children look more white than black, eyebrows -- and stereotypes -- get raised.

Even with trans-racial adoptions on the rise, it's still far more common to see white parents with adopted Asian or black children than the reverse. Steve Martin made a joke out of being adopted by black parents in the movie "The Jerk," but all kidding aside, it's still extremely rare for black parents to adopt a non-black child.

"It's much less of a two-way street," said Robert O'Connor, an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, Minn., who studies trans-racial adoptions.

Adoptions of infants domestically and abroad remains an "overwhelmingly a white phenomenon," said Adam Pertman, executive director for the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a research and advocacy group.

Though blacks have often informally helped raise their relatives -- the "it takes a village" model -- only in recent years have they begun to formally adopt and, mostly through the foster care system, where blacks are disproportionately represented, Pertman added.

"It's rare for someone black to say, 'I want to adopt someone white,' because there are a lot of black kids in the system," Pertman said.

Because of that rarity, white children of black parents can face a unique set of challenges.

Questions About Michael Jackson's Children

It's always been presumed the Jackson children are bi-racial. But questions have begun surfacing about whether Jackson was actually the birth father.

Days after Jackson's death, Us Weekly claimed the pop star's dermatologist Arnold Klein was the father of the two oldest children, Paris and Michael Jr., known as Prince. But Klein told "Good Morning America" this week that, "To the best of my knowledge, I am not the father of these children."

Jackson friends have said that the King of Pop always wanted children with blond hair and blue eyes, and Paris and Michael Jr.'s biological mother, Debbie Rowe, is exactly that.

Jackson's youngest son, known as Blanket, was born to a surrogate and his mother remains unknown.

The children did not appear so dramatically different from their famous dad, whose own skin color had undergone a radical transformation since childhood. But, living with their black relatives may require some adjustments, especially since the children, who lived a sheltered and nomadic existence with their father, have not spent extensive time with them.

But O'Connor believes the Jackson children will have to make fewer adjustments living with their grandmother than they would with Rowe.

"Because of the lifestyle the children have lived already and their celebrity status, living with their white mother might be more of a shock than living with their black grandmother, who has dealt with fame and celebrity all of her children's lives," he said.

Pertman said the Jacksons' class and privilege could buffer them from some of the issues that other African-Americans raising white children might face.

"Madonna has black kids and Michael Jackson has white kids," Pertman said. "People of significant means, and not just celebrities, do not live in the same day-to-day world. They can provide buffers for their kids."

White Parents With Black Kids

White parents who have adopted children of color also deal with less recrimination. They may draw stares and nosy questions, but it's probably less likely that someone will follow them through a grocery store and ask their children if they are "OK."

That's what happened to Mark Riding, an African-American living in Baltimore who co-parents a pale, freckled-faced red-haired girl named Katie. Riding's mother-in-law Phyllis Smith, also black, took in Katie, now 9, when she was 3 and living in foster care.

A child of a local prostitute, Katie had tantrums so awful that she was turned away from 12 homes. Smith eventually became her legal guardian and Riding, a private school admissions director, and his wife Teri, a human resources executive, became "backup" parents, keeping Katie on weekends and summers and taking her along on family vacations.

"No one ever assumes that Katie is our daughter, even though we're looking after her in the same way (as a white family who has adopted a non-white child)," Riding said. "We've been followed through grocery stores. And it's happened to my wife where someone came up to Katie and said, 'Are you OK?' It's completely disrespectful."

"It's frustrating," Riding added. "I understand it's unique, that white people aren't used to seeing a white girl in a black person's care unless it's a nanny situation, and especially a black man's care. But if I were going to steal someone's little white child why would I take her to the park or the grocery store?"

Riding believes prejudices that people are not even aware of make it difficult for some to grasp his family's situation. But Riding said he's never received a negative response from other blacks. In fact, in the black social group they belong to, others have assumed that Katie is mixed despite her overwhelmingly Irish appearance.

Riding believes such reaction harkens back to a time when the "one-drop rule" was commonplace, in which even a drop of black blood made one black. As a result blacks are accustomed to having family members of all varying shades.

Still, Riding and his wife are conscious of finding ways to help Katie embrace her Irish heritage -- by playing up St. Patrick's Day and buying her a cup emblazoned with her family crest -- and also connect with other whites and navigate the sometimes tricky waters of race and identity.

"She avoids race. She doesn't like to talk about it, but we're trying to take the time and be thoughtful about it now," Riding said.

While African-American parents may face more scrutiny, O'Connor believes their adopted white children will have an easier time adjusting than children of color raised by white parents.

"Some people would say, 'aren't you concerned about racial identity and self esteem?" O'Connor said. "I'm less concerned, because they are going to see themselves positively portrayed in media, films and books. If anything those children will be able to develop a bicultural identity that helps them rather than hurts them."

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