Rescued by Racism: The Blonde Maria and the Dark Roma

Why was the world so captivated by the picture of blond Maria with the dark-skinned Roma? Tunku Varadarajan on how racism saved the girl—and why that makes us uncomfortable.

Not since Fay Wray found herself in the meaty, black clutches of King Kong has a blonde in the custody of dark beings ignited the global imagination as has Maria, a tow-headed tot who was discovered in Greece three days ago, living in the midst of a Roma (or gypsy) family. As Greek police searched the family’s squalid home in pursuit of an unrelated criminal matter, they found Maria, flaxen-haired as the refulgent sun, underweight, unwashed, and so unconvincing as a gypsy child (for let it be noted, again: she was very blonde) that they switched their investigation instantly to one of the child and her origins. Who was she? How could she, so blonde, be living with these swarthy people? Something had to be very wrong: and very dark.

And so the child, Maria, was taken into custody, and an almighty international alert issued. Has anyone lost a child who looks like this little blonde creature? Six days later, the story is still vividly alive on network news and elsewhere. “Mystery Blonde Girl Found in Greece Prompts Search for Parents,” was how CNN put it. The best-selling Greek newspaper, Ta Nea, carried the story on its front page: “Mystery: A Blonde Angel Without an Identity.” The child’s blondeness became her talisman, the marker of her plight, her grace, and her salvation.

Think back to those amusing diversions, those little puzzles, one used to find in old-fashioned children’s magazines. Let’s call this one “What’s wrong with this picture?” The answer came almost instantly to the Greek police: Everything! It was, of course, a Manichaean reaction: The possession of a blonde child by dark-skinned adults was wrong, ipso facto (as lawyers might put it). The fact spoke for itself. There was no scope for debate. The child had to have been abducted.

I am far from hysterical about matters of race, and I pray that this child is restored to her biological parents (assuming they are alive). It goes without saying that I feel for the child: I find her portrait disturbing. She looks fragile, scared, and unhealthy: It is easy to imagine trauma behind those blue eyes. But this story has made me very queasy. Without condoning the Roma couple at the center of this international genetic mystery (who seem, by most accounts, to be dodgy people, found to be in possession of weapons and balaclavas), I was struck by the alacrity with which the official mind raced from mere observation to damning conclusion, the alacrity with which an international incident flared up in the space of a few hours—all because a blonde child was found in the custody of dark, Roma parents. A very dark-skinned kid in the keep of blonde people is part of the natural order, proof, in fact, of benevolence, of the bigheartedness of the adoption process. But the converse—as is Maria’s case—is not merely fishy, it is almost inconceivable. What is wrong with this picture? Everything.

At play here is a swarm of feelings, prejudices, instincts, paranoia—many age-old and atavistic—that most civilized people in the West (and many civilized people in other parts of the world) have taught themselves to suppress. The leap to racial conclusions, when it occurs, is a disconcerting impulse, particularly so when (as in the case of blonde Maria and her Roma “parents”) the leap is so unabashed, so artless, so unreflecting.

Disturbing, also, is the fixation on the child’s blondeness, and its frequent invocation to underscore her plight. Clearly implied in all of this is the belief that her blondeness is what these dark people coveted—coveted enough, in fact, to steal her away. (The Roma couple has denied abducting Maria, and the matter is now one for the courts.) But many media accounts of Maria’s story have also referred to the parents in question having at least six children whose birth documents look dubious. So where are the other children? No details? No names? No footage? No photos? No DNA tests? No outrage? No “angel”? No campaign? No CNN? No Ta Nea?

Why? Because they’re not blonde.

Maria, for her part, is blessed. She was rescued by racism. But at least she was rescued.