What we can learn from Melissa Harris-Perry

Last week, a segment appeared on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show on MSNBC that reviewed the best photos of the year and asked a panel of actors and comedians to give them humorous captions. It was supposed to be a light-hearted look back at the year, but things went awry. One of the photos was of Mitt and Ann Romney surrounded by all of their grandchildren . . . a photo tradition the Romney's do every year. This year, Mitt was holding his newly adopted African-American grandson, the only person of color amongst over 20 cousins.

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Immediately, the child’s racial difference became the focus. Actress Pia Glenn jokingly sang "one of these things is not like the others," (the song used in Sesame Street segments to help kids identify which object doesn’t belong) and comedian Dean Obeidallah joked that the photo "really sums up the diversity of the Republican Party." Melissa Harris-Perry wondered what it would be like if Kieran Romney (the child in focus) ended up marrying North West and Mitt found himself with Kanye as an in-law.

The segment was brief, but it immediately drew a firestorm from conservatives and adoptive parents alike. Conservatives were upset that they used the photo as an opportunity to take a pot-shot at their political party. Adoptive parents were upset that jokes were made indicating that this grandson didn’t fit n. Both were upset that such jokes were coming at the expense of a child.

As I watched the backlash, I found myself ambivalent. I immediately noticed that many people took offense at the fact that his racial difference was even noticed . . . as if seeing the one brown kid in a sea of white faces, and commenting on it, is a racist act. We’ve been taught to see everyone as equal, and while I think it’s valuable to view every person as equally worthy, I also think it’s dangerous to ignore racial differences completely. We are not living in a post-racial America, and no doubt Kieran Romney, as a black male, will have a different experience negotiating the world than his white family members.  Even if his family treats him the same, it’s probable that society will not. The only way to deny this is to deny the voices of black adults who share their own current experiences with racial bias on a regular basis. So I personally wasn’t offended that his race was noticed. I notice it in that photo. I think, if we’re honest, most people do.

However, I did find it cringe-worthy that, rather than opening up a dialogue about race and transracial adoption, the commenters went for a quick laugh at an adoptee’s expense. While she didn’t quite get there, most of us know that the lyrics immediately following the refrain Pia Glenn sang are, “One of these things just doesn’t belong.” It is incredibly hurtful for adoptees and adoptive parents to hear an implication that, because of race, an adopted child doesn’t really belong.

Like many others, I also found it distasteful that the commenters made a child the brunt of their jokes. I did think that crossed a line. As a politician, Mitt Romney is fair game. But his son and grandson did not sign up for this. So while I found the whole segment in poor taste, I did not think it was racist. While the jokes were in poor taste, the people making them were likely joking as a result of some real concern they feel when they see a child so clearly racially alienated in his own family. I can understand why this gives people pause. I don’t think it’s fair to speculate on how he is being raised from one photograph,since we really have no idea how Mitt’s son Ben’s views transracial parenting, if there are plans to add another black child to the family, if they are seeking diversity in this child’s life, etc. There has been a whole lot of speculation on that based on what we know about Mitt Romney, and I would certainly hope that my aptitude as a transracial parent is not based on the perception of my parents. I truly hope that Kieran’s parents are educating themselves and taking the necessary steps to ensure that their child grows up around other black people who can mirror and affirm his racial identity. Of course, unless those parents choose to speak publicly about their parenting choices, everything else is just public speculation.

I’ve watched Melissa Harris-Perry’s show for a long time. I am a big fan of hers. I know her backstory . . . that she was a brown child born into a large, Mormon family. Also, in watching the segment, it was clear that these jokes were coming from the actors/comedians and not from MHP herself. I definitely think the segment went off the rails, and that MHP could have worked harder to reign it back in. But at the same time, I saw the segment as some rather desperate and tasteless attempts at a laugh and not as some kind of statement about transracial adoption. MHP has featured transracial adoptees and parents on her show many times, and I’ve always felt like she has been one of the best journalists to really explore the inherent issues with depth, nuance, and compassion. I didn’t take the segment as a personal affront to my family.

I also felt that Melissa Harris-Perry did an exemplary job of issuing a swift apology, first on twitter, and then live on the air the first chance she got. Her twitter apology is as follows:

"I am sorry. Without reservation or qualification. I apologize to the Romney family. I work by guiding principle that those who offend do not have the right to tell those they hurt that they [are] wrong for hurting. Therefore, while I meant no offense, I want to immediately apologize to the Romney family for hurting them. As black child born into large white Mormon family I feel familiarity w/ Romney family pic & never meant to suggest otherwise. I apologize to all families built on loving transracial adoptions who feel I degraded their lives or choices."

And her on-air apology came the day her show resumed:

I felt her apology was sincere and I believe her when she says she is “deeply sorry that we suggested that interracial families are in any way funny or deserving of ridicule.”  I was also impressed that Mitt accepted her apology.  "I recognize people make mistakes. The folks at MSNBC made a big mistake," Romney said. "I'm going to move on from that."

I think we all should.

Melissa Harris-Perry is an important voice as it relates to race in America. She is also a black female journalist in a world where white men dominate.  But more than that, she has been a consistent champion of diverse families and anti-racism. I hope that anyone not familiar with her will look at her entire body of journalistic work, and not this one segment that clearly went wrong.

But I also think we can all learn from how she handled this incident. When it came time to apologize, she articulated a philosophy that I think can help every relationship:

A blueprint for apologies

Imagine a world where everyone followed this blueprint . . . where instead of arguing over what we meant, we have empathy and compassion for how our words effect others. I think this situation perfectly illustrates the importance of recognizing intent vs. effect. It’s possible that Melissa Harris-Perry and her panel legitimately did not mean to insult transracial families. And it’s possible that transracial families legitimately felt insulted. Both of these things can exist at the same time. I think the world would be a better place if we could all take a cue from Melissa Harris-Perry in being swift to apologize instead of defend when our words have been hurtful, even (and especially) when we didn’t mean them to be.

Now someone send this memo to Paula Deen and Phil Robertson


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