A Darker Shade of Pale

Posted by Osagie K. Obasogie April 18, 2007
Biopolitical Times

Don Imus' slanderous comments and the Duke lacrosse players' dropped rape charges have moved race back into America's consciousness. But another case that may very well come to represent the future of racial conflict is quietly making its way through the New York State Supreme Court. Nancy and Thomas Andrews (pictured above) are suing a Park Avenue fertility clinic for botching the IVF procedure leading to their second daughter's birth (Jessica, pictured between the couple).

According to DNA tests, the clinic mistakenly fertilized Nancy's egg with sperm from someone other than her husband.Assisted reproduction errors like this are certainly unfortunate, though not entirely unprecedented. But what's extraordinary here is that a significant part of the Andrews' lawsuit sought relief not simply for the mixup, but for the specific "harm" inflicted by having a "black child."

The Andrews argue that had the procedure gone as planned, Jessica would not only have been related to both of them but would also have a lighter skin tone similar to their first daughter (pictured above to the far right). Jessica's darker skin suggests to the Andrews that her biological father is someone of African descent.

The Andrews make no bones about their particular disappointment with Jessica's skin color, having described their anguish in the lawsuit:

• "We underwent a difficult and complex medical procedure for the sole purpose of bearing a child of our own."
• "While we love Baby Jessica as our own, we are reminded of this terrible mistake each and every time we look at her."
• "We fear that our daughter will be the object of scorn and ridicule by other children, both in school and as she grows up."
• "She may be subjected to physical and emotional illness as a result of not being the same race as her parents and siblings."

There's certainly a lot going on here. But what strikes me most is that despite their disappointment in Jessica's color, Nancy is curiously dark herself. She is a native of the Dominican Republic - a nation with a strong African heritage. While sensational headlines such as "Black Baby is Born to White Pair" might sell papers, what gets lost is how genes express themselves differently in each person.

Put differently, it's quite possible that Jessica could have had a similarly dark skin tone even if Thomas' sperm was used. That's simply how heredity and skin complexion work; every Black family I know spans a hue that reflects this genetic roulette. (Think about the Cosby show and why the cast's dramatic variation in skin tone never seemed all that strange.) This isn't to say that the Andrews should not care about the mixup. Rather, it is to suggest that their expectations are strangely misguided if they think their children's African heritage can somehow be washed away.

The Andrews probably know that their daughters will never quite look like Malibu Barbie. But somehow I suspect that if an IVF mixup had led to Jessica having fair skin, light hair, and green eyes, the lawsuit - if it went forward at all - would be of a qualitatively different tenor. Which highlights the tragedy of this all: when the Andrews look at their 3-year- old little girl, they seem to see her through the same colorstruck lens as Don Imus'. And that surely is a pity.