Michelle Pfeiffer on racism and adoption prejudices

07/14/2007 at 03:36 PM ET
Michellepfeiffer4_cbb_cbb_2When Michelle Pfeiffer signed up to play Velma von Tussle in Hairspray, she sat her and husband David E. Kelley‘s children, Claudia Rose, 14, and John Henry, 12, down to discuss the character’s bigotry in order to prepare them for what they will eventually see on-screen. Off-screen, Michelle, 49, knows all too well about racism, having dealt with it firsthand when she adopted Claudia, who is of mixed-race.
I was shocked at the prejudice, voiced in some quarters, over my decision to adopt a mixed-race baby. It’s really surprising that people still put so much emphasis on it. None of us are pure anything. We’re all a mixture. Claudia is a beautiful child, and some of the most beautiful people I’ve seen in the world have been of mixed race.
The actress also addresses another prejudice she often faces – adopted children vs. biological children. Michelle, who once taught a reporter a "great lesson" by correcting her usage of the term "adopted daughter," believes that issue should be put to rest.
As mother of both an adopted child and my own birth-child, there is absolutely no difference in the huge amount of love I feel for both my children. I always knew I wanted to adopt a child and also have one of my own. There is no difference at all.

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denisse on

beautiful family, and i think the same if you adopt a kid is for love him/her like your own i told my friends that when i get older i would love to adopt and have my own kid and in the second i finish to said that they said noooooo, because you would never love your adopted kid like you own kid, and im like that not true i love that people that adopt can say i love my adopted kid like my own.

i also love that she doesnt like when people said adopted daughter that so good, because i hate when people say adopted and biological. her daughter is mixed-race wich races if someone know

Alyssa on

I kind of have to agree with what she is saying about prejudice for adoptive children vs biological children.

For example..
Brad and Angelina’s children, most people say her adoptive son maddox/pax.. her adoptive daughter zahara.. but when talking about birth daughter they just say Shiloh. They are all her children.

I think its great Michelle has 2 children whom she loves and it doesn’t matter if they are her birth children or not.. they are still her children.

Roger on

It’s funny, when I went to a screening of Hairspray a few weeks ago, I wondered how Michelle would talk to her children about the racism of her character, seeing that they’re old enough to see the film and grasp the issue. Not surprised that she would simply be honest with them. Also not surprised, sadly, that she was subject to the ignorance of those whose own bigotries surfaced when she adopted her daughter. The more I read about her as a mom, the more impressed I am.

Principesa on

I like Michelle as much as the next person but I think she too needs to learn something, too.

Positive adoption language doesn’t include the word mixed. Animals and nuts can be mixed, not people.

Bi- or multi racial is preferred and is positive language.

Nor do we parents divide our children using labels such as ‘adopted’ and ‘our own’. All children, whether they come to our family through biology or adoption ARE our own.

Chiara on

I have mixed feelings about the “adopted son/daughter” phrasing. I understand why people have problems with it. But if you look at the root of the argument, having a problem with the phrasing because it implies less importance or connection than biological children is cyclical: it assumes the belief that an adopted child IS less important somehow.

If one assumes that biological and adopted children are equal, the qualifier shouldn’t matter, no? You can take the viewpoint that a child came into your family via your genes or somebody else’s, and both are wonderful, and adopted children should be celebrated for being chosen just as much as biological children should be celebrated for being a product of their parents’ genes.

It think it should ultimately be up to the families to decide. If Michelle Pfeiffer, for example, wants no distinguisher between how her two children came into her family, then I fully support that and I think it’s great. But I don’t have a problem with people who use the phrasing either. Claudia IS adopted, that’s not a secret, it’s not something that needs to be hidden; in fact, it’s quite wonderful. An adopted child is chosen, that should be celebrated, and if people believe that a reminder that the child is chosen is appropriate then I think that’s ok too.

Kel on

Sorry, Principesa but I have to disagree with you on this one…With diversity issues, one has to understand that their is not 1, 2 or any small number of acceptable terms. Mixed is very acceptable when referring to those of a multiracial background. I, myself, like to be called mixed. Most important is to ask the person how they would prefer to be identified, and since we can’t ask her daughter, one must assume that she knows her daughter better than you do. One way to know if some term is widely offensive is to see if the term has historically negative roots; which mixed does not! Other than that, it would be up to the individual if they would like to be called that. So, if you don’t care for the term I would respect that with ease. But calling Michelle out is not acceptable because it does not have a negative connotation.

melanie on

We used the term “mixed” in our house. I’m mixed (middle eastern/caucasian), my husband is mixed (puerto rican, causcasian, black) and obviously our 3 kids are mixed. I’ve never had a problem with it. In fact, when people refer to our kids as mixed, I usually take it as an understanding that they have first hand knowledge, as I consider it kind of an “inside” term. I’m not the least offended.

Natasha on

Chiara I agree with you. I think adoption should be something to be proud of, not ashamed of.

I think as long as it’s not used ALL the time, saying a child is adopted is not a bad thing. If someone saw Angelina walking down the street with Maddox, Pax or Zahara, they would probably assume they are either adopted or a friend’s child etc.

I think parents should be very proud to say they’ve adopted their children 🙂 It’s an amazing thing to do.

Robin on

What bothers me when magazines write about celebrities and talk about their “adopted” children is the implication that they aren’t “really their children”. Not that adoption is something to hide or even boast about. Adoption is a wonderful and personal thing and I applaud people who do. But think about it, do adoptive parents say this is my “bio” baby and this one’s not? NO! They say “these are my children.” Whether they are adopted or not and really it isn’t anybody’s business.

Robyn on

Robin, I think that may be true but because their daughter looks different than the rest of their family it is probably an issue. When children get older I am sure classmates and others make comments about it so it’s something they probably address on a pretty regular basis.

jane on

Chiara, I agree with you completely. I’d also like to add that to not acknowledge that a child is adopted is to ignore the child’s own unique heritage and history. It is much healthier to acknowledge and celebrate adoption, for the child’s sake, because one day that child will have many, many questions about her “birth” parents or country – it’s only natural.
Acknowledging adoption has nothing to do with loving or treating an adopted child any less, and everything to do with respecting that child has a “birth” family and a whole other history out there as well.

Principesa on

ITA, Jane. Adoption should be celebrated and in our family, it is.

However, I don’t say my son IS adopted. He WAS adopted.

Adopted is a verb, not an adjective.

As far as the question of being bi or multi-racial, I stand by my previous statement.

I am bi-racial. I have never called myself “mixed”. Other than sounding awkward, it isn’t an accurate nor positive picture of how I see myself.

Kel, I call Michelle out on the fact she uses that term we families blessed by adoption loathe: “my own”. Unless you have adopted a child(ren), there isn’t a question that raises the hackles faster than being asked if “you have children of your own”.


FC on

I see it as this. Adopted, biological, or even foster, they’re your children and you are responsible for them, love them and care for them until they are able to do so on their own, and even then, you still love them and want the very best for them. That’s what makes a person a parent to any child. They are your children, period, simple as that.

But I do like how she dealt with the movie’s core issues.

sinclair on

Michelle was “hocked at the prejudice, voiced in some quarters, over [her] decision to adopt a mixed-race baby. It’s really surprising that people still put so much emphasis on it.”

Welcome to reality, honey. I think adoptive parents, especially Caucasian ones, should really take time and understand the cultural implications of their adopting bi/multi-racial children. It is all well and good, but part of her naivety stems from living in a world where being white, her cultural perspective is very narrow. Not saying she does not know about other cultures, but I have seen this before. Several adopted acquaintances, some of whom have white parents, and the parents just thought they would adopt them and life would be popsicles and puppies, not prepared to raise children of color, who don’t enjoy the same privilege of wearing rose-colored glasses.

amom on

one can be open and proud of adoption without referring to one’s child as “adopted child x” – you parents through biology don’t refer to your children by the way they were conceived, do you? Such as the “child conceived via missionary position” or the “IVF child” or “the oops child”? So, we adoptive parents don’t refer to our children by how they came into our families. they are just our children. They are are own. It is only those people who don’t know much about adoption who have this desire to see children who were adopted labeled as such.

Traci on

What does it matter if the child is biological or adopted?? Why should you feel the need to tell someone, “This is my Sarah, John, adopted daughter Suzy.”??

It shouldn’t matter if they are adopted or not. They are still your children, loved just as much as your biological children, and it shouldn’t matter how you aquired the child.

Aaron Boatwright on

As an adoptee, I find it offensive when I read “so and so’s adopted child John and her daughter Jane”. It IS offensive. It connotes that there is a difference between them. Like it or not, there are huge prejudices and misconceptions associated with adoption, and by separating birthchildren and adopted children in that way, it just encourages it.

It would be great if the “adopted” qualifier meant something special, but you’re kidding yourself if you think that something special connotes something positive for the vast majority of people.

I know a LOT of adoptees, and not ONE of them would tell you they want to be referred to that way. My family never referred to us in such a way. Nobody would have even dreamed of it. In fact, my relatives, although they knew we were adopted, forgot about it because we were treated just like any other child born into the family…i.e. “You get that from OUR side of the family..” etc.

If we had been identified as adopted all the time, how would that have made us more a part of the family? It identifies you as different. It puts you off to the side in a different category. We always grew up with positive attitudes about adoption, and I think it was a direct result of us having been treated and referred to exactly as all the rest.

Chiara on

Aaron: with all due respect, you have no idea of my own experience re: adoption. Your experience is not identical to everyone’s. I was simply stating my opinion that I see both sides of the argument. That includes yours.

amom on

Actually, Aaron’s perspective is the mainstream view of adoption – from adoption/child welfare professionals to parents to adoptees. People who hold on to other views are just reluctant to change. And, unless they refer to biological children as “biological child” then they are also hypocrites.

To prove the point – which apparently needs proving — here are the guidelines for journalists writing about adoption and children who were adopted http://www.adoptioninformationinstitute.org/journguide.html

in particular see the section on when adoption is/isn’t relevant:

“When is mentioning adoption not relevant to the story?
As in the case of race, religion or gender, the fact a person was adopted should be mentioned only if it is clearly pertinent to the story. For a journalist, the main requirement for language is accuracy. It is inaccurate to use language that implies that having been adopted confers a different/lesser status within a family, and that having been adopted is a main distinguishing feature that a person retains for life. That does not mean adoption should never be mentioned but its relevancy must remain clear to the story.

Once a child reaches adulthood they should be referred to as an adoptee or adopted person.

A daughter who joined the family through adoption should be described as simply a daughter. If it is relevant, use phrasing such as: “She was adopted in 1997” rather than “she is adopted” or “their adopted daughter.” For instance, coverage of the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman divorce typically described the couple as having “two adopted children.” The fact they were adopted was not relevant to the story. The obituaries of Maureen Reagan provided another example by mentioning her brother Michael was adopted. The fact that he was adopted 50 years ago was as relevant as information that someone else was born prematurely or by Caesarian Section.”


“Language suggesting parents “couldn’t have a child of their own” is inaccurate. Adopted children are their parent’s “own” by law and by love. Such language suggests adoption is second best can be hurtful, especially to the children. The myth that most people who adopt go on to give birth is also inaccurate. In reality, only 15% of adoptive parents eventually become pregnant. While both adoption and birth are celebrated, it is hurtful to suggest that one is more their parents’ “own” than the other. Consequently, the phrase “children of their own” is an equally inappropriate reference to birth children since it implies some special status above children who came to the family in other ways.”

Lauren on

My mother’s friend just dealt with the problem of racism and adoption. She had to take her 13-year-old Chinese daughter with her to get a new passport in a ritzy suberb next to theirs, and when the woman behind the desk saw Juliana (my mom’s friend’s daughter), she said, “You’re CHINESE!?” Well, her mom let the woman have it, as she should have, and when she was telling us all the story not long ago, her daughter was smiling the whole time, and when her mom asked if she embarassed her, she laughed and replied, “No.” I don’t know what my reaction would’ve been had I been in her place.