I remember someone came up to me in the airport, in disbelief, to stare at Sophia and ask if she was ours. I quipped, “Yes, she’s only 12 hours old and we are all doing great.” Ted and I laughed the whole way home about the stares and reactions that clever response had drawn. But the truth is, as the days went on, my beautiful brown daughter with a full head of jet black hair provoked this response on a daily basis, and the more they asked, the more I wasn’t sure what to say.
Ted was quick and to the point. “She’s our daughter. Do you have any other questions?” That usually shut them up and he kept reminding me that we didn’t owe strangers on the street any explanations.
For myself, I found the struggle more emotional. I imagined that somehow people could tell she wasn’t really mine—like they could see through the façade of motherhood I was trying to paint on but which still felt so fragile and uncertain. I questioned if I was somehow ashamed or embarrassed because she was Latina and we weren’t. If I really felt good about her heritage, then why wouldn’t I tell them?
Eventually I learned to differentiate between people who mattered and people who didn’t. I sometimes told more and sometimes nothing at all. I grew more confident in myself and didn’t worry so much about strangers.
I didn’t anticipated those feelings to surface again when we adopted James. I was surprised the first time someone asked, “Whose child is he?” when I was unprepared to answer. The resolution came quicker the second time around, but what I hadn’t considered was Sofia being a witness to these new interactions.
We moved when James was just a year old to a new house in a new neighborhood. When our neighbor finally had the nerve to approach, both kids were in the double stroller after an energetic excursion to the park. Sofia was all ears. “So I guess you do a lot of babysitting?” the neighbor, Jean, asked. She was definitely in the category of someone who needed to understand, so we stood for a while as she cooed over the children and told me about hers, already grown.
She’s actually been a good friend to our kids, inviting us to Chinese New Year celebrations with her family and always giving birthday and holiday gifts. After our chat that day, I asked my three-year-old Sofia if she knew why Jean had asked about babysitting. “Oh Mommy, she can’t figure out how we go together because we are all different colors. Some people just don’t get it!”
Now, the kids and I have three or four ways to respond, depending on our mood, when we get questioned. A few years ago, right before bed, James began to cry. I heard Sofia tell him, “People are mean. Because we are brown, some people don’t like us. I know it’s hard, but we can’t let them win.” I wanted to run in and scoop them up, tell them I could protect them and that it would be ok, but I know I can’t do that. Watching our five-year-old learn to toughen up is hard, but better tough than unable to survive.
When you choose to become a family that is different from most, you must be prepared to confront your own racial biases in both overt and subtle ways. We all bring assumptions and unexamined ideas to new situations.
The first step in the process is also the one that never ends. You can expect to find that you carry within yourself both negative and positive internalized attitudes about adoption and race. Our society is biased in many ways, and each member of society (whether we are personally touched by adoption or race ourselves) is a student of the lessons society teaches us. But attitudes can be changed.
Acknowledging your own racism and “adoptism” is painful, particularly since it may mean that you carry prejudices against your own child. Though you may feel yourself free from these biases, it is more likely that you just don’t recognize them fully yet.
Transracial adoptive parents are afforded continual opportunities to examine and develop new attitudes that expand far beyond the overly simplistic and often inherently negative values held by a society undereducated about adoption and race. If you haven’t had much experience with these issues, your antennae are not yet well-developed. If you think that most people feel adoption is a good thing, you probably haven’t yet had the opportunity to experience people’s “special” reactions to special families.
The more you know, the more you will realize how much race and adoption matter. The more you realize how much they matter, the more you will know how much there is to learn. We must acknowledge where we are beginning from so we can become conscious enough to change. If growth and learning sound like fun, jump in, because it will last a lifetime and then some!