Charlize Theron was recently spotted with her 5-year-old adopted Black son, Jackson Theron, who was dressed in a blonde wig and dress. The website who released the photos claim that Charlize Theron thinks her son is transgender, though these details have never been confirmed by the actress. However, this is not the first time he was spotted in public wearing “girls’” clothes. Another photo captured Jackson wearing a princess costume for a Halloween event.
As soon as I stumbled upon this story, I thought about a piece written by a Black woman, Doreen Oliver, titled “What Color Is Your Princess.” In the essay penned for the New York Times Motherlode Parenting blog, Oliver lamented the fact that her Black son– who steadfastly has his mindset on being a princess for Halloween– may have to be a White princess or no princess at all. She wrote:
“I pictured Oct. 31: my handsome, sturdy brown-skinned son in a flowing wig and poofy dress, tiara sparkling atop his head. I saw us trick-or-treating in our New Jersey suburb, going from one colonial to the next, our neighbors asking “And what are you, uh, little girl?” as they dropped candy in his bag after a curious glance at me.
I could handle that. Like Bug, I didn’t mind going against the grain. Also, the simple fact that one of my sons could express himself was a blessing. If he wanted to be a princess, then darn it, he’d be a royal She.
But when I browsed for costumes, I felt uneasy. In the princess section, long wigs were the color of spun gold. Even Snow White’s silky tresses glistened through the cellophane, the opposite texture of my son’s coarse hair. Whether it was Cinderella or her fairy godmother, each package showed a picture of a smiling white woman who glowed. “You, too, can be me,” she beckoned, “for this one special day.”
Juxtaposed, these two story offer a glimpse at the politics of transracial adoption. Did Charlize Theron, a White South African woman, have this inner conflict when trying to adorn her once princess-costume wearing son in long wigs spun of gold? While it is true that children have their own inclinations as individuals and in this case these two boys obviously wanted to express themselves by wearing girl’s clothes, it is also true that much of what it means to be “a girl” in our postcolonial world is defined by European standards. It is at this intersection where White parents who adopt Black children and Black parents who raise Black children may fail to meet. It is why a White parent, like Charlize Theron, may feel progressive for allowing her Black son to don a wig, without recognizing that hair color and texture are both extremely political issues.
While we can only speculate on the gender or sexual identity of either of the children in this piece, one thing we do know for certain is that they are Black. In the case of Doreen Oliver, her son’s transfixation on a princess costume was broken when he spotted a more appealing “Yo Gabba Gabba” DJ Lance in the store, at his own behest. In the case of Charlize Theron’s son, maybe he will always express himself by wearing girls clothes and wigs, maybe he is transgender or maybe he is just like any other kid with constantly fleeting interests.
Nevertheless, White adoptive parents need to be careful that their children’s freedom of gender identity expression does not reinforce underlying notions of White superiority. Or at least, they need to be ready to tackle the issue when it arises, as it inevitably will.