How I Teach My Children to Stand Up to Ignorance

As my years as a mother have accumulated, I've learned the most important thing is nurturing, teaching, and defending my children against ignorance.

Rachel Garlinghouse March 26, 2015
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My family has attracted the ignorance of strangers for over six years now. There is no rhyme or reason to when or where we might be approached by someone asking us a question in the name of curiosity. I’ve been asked questions in bathrooms, lines, grocery store aisles, on park benches, at basketball games, at church.

These questions include: Are your children real siblings? Were their birth parents on drugs? What country are they from? Where is their real mom? Aren’t you afraid their birth parents will try to take them back? Why didn’t you adopt a white baby?

We’ve also been told: Adopted kids have problems. Mixed babies are so cute. You are so wonderful for adopting. There are so many children who need good homes. It’s so great that you were able to avoid stretch marks and labor pains! I bet you’ll get pregnant now that you’ve adopted! I bet adoption is very expensive!

The intent of the askers is likely not malicious, but the intent is not what matters to me. It’s the fact that the person made a conscious decision to turn their intent and their thoughts into audible words, words directed at me and the children standing by my side. A person who chooses to demand answers of my family, often seeking justification for our authenticity, is a person I’m not interested in engaging with.

Take, for example, a recent situation my family encountered. We were at my four-year-old daughter’s basketball game. As we were putting on our coats and preparing to exit our row of seats, I stood up and came face-to-face with a woman I’d never seen or met. She asked me, “Are they all in the same family?” (“They” being my three children.) In an attempt to make her re-think where she was going with her pending interrogation, I replied, “Yes, we are in the same family.” My daughters were on either side of me, looking up with their inquisitive brown eyes. “I mean, are they FROM the same family?” the woman asked, leaning in a bit closer.

Pause.

We have been asked the “real” questions for years. Are my kids real siblings? Where are the kids’ real parents? “Real” is a substitute, the askers believe, for the more appropriate term “biological.” However, either way, such questions are not appropriate because the “realness” of a family isn’t based on DNA.

I looked into the woman’s eyes and said firmly, “That is none of your business.”

She then redirected and said about five times how “wonderful” my husband and I were for adopting. (If I had a nickel…) Then she looked down at my six-year-old daughter and asked her, “Do you like getting your hair braided?”

In that moment I was finished with the conversation. Addressing my child was not only inappropriate, it was downright infuriating.

Some adoptive parents feel that their job is to educate the public on adoption, so they have no problem disclosing parts of their children’s adoption stories to any Tom, Dick, or Harry (or Theresa, Diana, or Harriet) who asks. Some adoptive parents feel that it’s important to always respond politely because to be blunt and honest about the person’s rudeness will reflect poorly on not only them and their family, but the entire adoption community.

It’s been difficult for me to know what to say in the moment of questioning, which often occurs at the most unexpected and inopportune times. I’m not a quick-thinker, nor am I always the most eloquent speaker (After all, I’m a writer for a reason). I’m also an outgoing chatterbox (think Anne of Green Gables). I can talk to a brick wall and make a friend. I like engaging with people, learning what we have in common, and perhaps striking up a friendship.

But as my years as a mother have accumulated, I’ve learned that what is most important is not satisfying the curiosity of strangers or saving face by always being the better person and “turning the other cheek” to those who demand answers of me. The most important thing is nurturing, teaching, and defending my children by empowering them to stand up to injustice and inappropriateness. Because they were adopted transracially and because they are people of color, there will be no shortage of ignorance, curiosity, and judgment. Difference often makes others uncomfortable.

My children and I have had many talks, and here is what I’ve taught them by both word and deed:

— It’s never okay for a person to touch you without your consent. For example, if a person tries to “pet” your hair, you can say to them loudly, “Do not touch my hair. I do not like it.”
— It’s not okay for an adult to use their authority, their size, and their age to bully you into answering their questions about things that you want to keep private.
— You can share whatever you are comfortable with regarding your adoption. You own your story.
— You can walk away from people who are making you angry or uncomfortable with their remarks, even if it’s mid-conversation.
— You can tell a person that what they are asking of you is none of their business.
— Adoption and race and anything else under the moon are always okay to discuss with Mom and Dad. We will respond with empathy, empowerment, and education.

People are going to demand answers from our children forevermore. Their job isn’t to appease the person who decided to say it with little regard for the receiver. Their job is to respond with dignity, self-confidence, and authenticity.

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Rachel Garlinghouse

Rachel Garlinghouse is the author of "Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parent's Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children," "Black Girls Can: An Empowering Story of Yesterdays and Todays," and "Encouragement for the Adoption Journey: 52 Devotions and a Journal" (co-authored with Madeleine Melcher). Rachel's adoption education and experience has appeared on MSNBC, NPR, Huffington Post Live, ABCNews.com, Babble, Scary Mommy, Portrait of Adoption, Slow Mama, I Am Not the Babysitter, and more. Rachel is a mom of three children, adopted domestically and transracially. Learn more about her family's adventures at White Sugar, Brown Sugar or on Twitter @whitebrownsugar.


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