Different, like everyone else

Just before Mother’s Day, 2008, I stood at the cash register at a local business buying Lyndie her gift. Yosi, not even a year old, sat in a sling on my hip. The older woman behind the counter smiled at Yosi, looked at me and asked Is her mother an Indian? I blinked, then blinked again, then smiled back and explained Yoselin’s ethnic heritage. The woman was kind and meant no harm.

A couple months ago I had Yosi at the playground, and the mom of one of my friends was there with her towheaded grandsons. She couldn’t stop talking about Yosi’s beautiful black hair. Just look at it. Look how black it is. It’s gorgeous. So black. Love it. Love her black hair.

Last month my friend Melinda and I were sitting in a booth at The Coffee Pot, and Yosi had just made a new friend, a blonde girl somewhat younger than she. The girl’s mom was one of those blessed individuals who has never not found herself charming, and has never had any reason to believe that isn’t shared by everyone around her. She talked loudly and for the exclusive benefit of her audience, in this case us. She made a show of telling Yosi how pretty she was, and how she looked just like Dora. She said it at least three times. You look just like Dora. Mel and I looked at each other, said a number of things silently we didn’t actually say, and waited for the woman to leave.

Above: a completely normal family. Probably.

Lyndie and I live in a small town that is almost entirely white. People are nice, but…well, the town is white and Yosi isn’t. And it comes up occasionally.

There are two perspectives on how to react and handle this kind of thing with transracially adopted children when a stranger says something potentially offensive without meaning to. The first is that positive racism is still racism and should be headed off at the pass and politely corrected in the moment. Telling my daughter she looks like Dora isn’t endearing, you’re going a little far out of your way to compliment a relatively common hair color, and it’s not appropriate to ask what race my child’s mother is. The other perspective is that if the person’s intent is affirming, engage them based on that intent and use it as a chance to give them a positive view of your mixed family. Don’t create a problem where one doesn’t exist, don’t correct if the person wasn’t malicious.

I can see both sides, and while my conviction lies with the first solution, my practice usually falls into the second. Honestly, I never feel prepared when it comes up, and sputter through a reaction in my head before just smiling and walking away.

Kristen at Rage Against the Minivan wrote about this topic last week, and she gave some excellent tips for navigating these conversations. Regardless of whether you live in a family of mixed race, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how you think one should handle situations like this. Which reaction would you lean more towards and why?

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24 Responses to Different, like everyone else

  1. Danny says:

    To be fair, if you didn’t bounce around everywhere singing “Backpack, backpack” it woudln’t put the thought in people’s minds!

    It is a bummer that the nations aren’t represented in our county, however, by God’s grace that is slowly changing through many who have adopted!

  2. shan k says:

    Encountered this just recently. Someone I hadn’t seen in a while was making inquiries about my family — being kind. As we made the rounds of updates I said something like, “…and of course my neice is a genius…” Because I like to provide not-actually-solicitated proclamations of awesomeness about people I love. Then this happened (in a sweet tone): “you know, those asian kids are always so smart! It must be something about how they’re raised. So and so has one and so smart!”. *blink* Everything I could think of to say was snarky. What would be the point in a sarcastic geography lesson for a person who never lived 25 miles from the small southern town where they were born?

    I remembered not long after, though, that I was once saying to a coworker that I couldn’t leave my ‘perfect, blond, 5 year old daughter” on the corner alone to catch the bus. The woman, whose perfect, mixed race 17 year old is taking her first year of college courses along with her junior year of hs said quietly, “it doesn’t matter what their hair color is – sick people will hurt any child they can.”. I just looked at her, realizing that I’d let the media coverage of “perfect” white children’s disappearances bias my subconscious about which children were more likely to be hurt or disappear.

    Sometimes – in spite of our belief in our own openness – we all say stupid things.

  3. Kati Woronka says:

    As someone who has almost always been the minority, living in all kinds of different cultures, it seems like differences are either the elephant-in-the-room that no one wants to acknowledge, or they are the elephant-in-the-room that makes for a good conversation. But the elephant is there, so I much prefer to acknowledge it and have a conversation about it and celebrate the beauty of diversity, rather than pretend it isn’t there. The opposite of racism isn’t kicking-the-elephant-out; it’s celebrating the elephant. I don’t always do this well, but it’s what I believe.

    • I agree on principle, Kati, but when the elephant in the room is a four year old, it gets tricky trying to decide how to handle this kind of thing. Do I wrap the situation up quickly without saying much so my daughter doesn’t feel exposed? Do i take the time to talk it out, giving her an example of how to handle these situations proactively but also shoving her into the limelight all the more? If I were the one who was different, I think I would handle it just like you describe. But when it’s my preschooler, that changes things.

      • Kati Woronka says:

        yes, good point. I started when I was 9, and it was very tough, so I can imagine being younger is even tougher. But I really think the only way I could have avoided the pain would have been to have never lived the diversity in the first place. And now, though in some ways I have to admit I’m permanently scarred, I’m mostly grateful for having gone through that. I don’t know if a 9-year-old’s experiences translate to a 4-year-old’s, but my brother was younger than me and this was all a lot better for him than it was for me because it all seemed more open for him than for me. I’m not really sure, though. But this does bring to mind that, as a four year old, she’s getting ready to venture out on her own, and kids will not shy away from the topic at all, so it makes sense to me that she start engaging in these conversations when she has you to help her, rather than when she’s on a playground all her own. I can’t remember when I was four and don’t have any four-year-olds of my own, so can’t speak from experience, but this is what I suspect…

  4. Heather says:

    I dread questions. I keep waiting for a stranger to ask something about Arabella but I’ve been lucky so far. The oddest thing I’ve heard so far is “are they twins?” Really? “Uh, no. They’re 25 months appart.” I do not look foward to the looks on peaples faces in years to come when I tell them Arabella is my oldest. I like to think people are well meaning and need to be informed.

  5. Unreal. I don’t even know what I would say or do.

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  7. People feel like children are tribal property, so inappropriate questions get asked because they feel a child is part of their tribe. I’ve found the same kind of thinking goes for pregnant women as well, as total strangers have come up and rubbed my belly, and asked about my bodily functions something that people wouldn’t dream of doing to a non-pregnant person. I’ve heard people with redheaded children get asked all kinds of inappropriate questions, especially if no one else in their family is redheaded. I’ve gotten a few questions into my own heritage because both of my boys were born with a lot of dark hair.
    It’s a tricky subject, because overall, I think people are just trying to be nice because they are so enamored with your child, but on the other hand some people just want information, they are wondering about her story. We make all kinds of snap judgements about strangers, whether we like it or not and a few brave souls will actually ask questions based on those few snap judgements, to confirm to themselves if they’ve got your story right in their head. So is that right or wrong? Maybe it depends on how the question is asked or the comment is made. I really don’t know.

    • I think you’re right, Erin. These people were not trying to be mean. If anything, they thought they were actually proactively being good, like I would’ve wanted these things pointed out in a celebratory way. And that’s why it gets tough to decide how to handle it, because I appreciate that they are trying. They might be acting like bumbling idiots in their effort to let me know they’re okay with my brown skinned child, but they’re still trying. So…yeah. Welcome to my dilemna.

  8. Naomi says:

    How to keep this short…. I wholeheartedly agree with Kati. I don’t look like a minority, but my Amish background made me stand out a lot growing up. My parents left when I was very young and I wasn’t accepted well in either culture. I wasn’t like all the other kids I knew, yet my Amish cousins did nothing but stare at me because I wasn’t like them either. So in a sense, I do relate and it can be hard. But a few things shaped my opinion on this topic in college.

    One of them was a two-month internship in the Philippines. I was almost always the only white person there and I got the stares and the dumb questions, but I expected it. I fit in with the culture and learned the language as much as possible in my short time there and immensely enjoyed it. The other is a debate class I took as a senior. We discussed racism and there was an adopted Asian girl in the class. Her name is Jamie, her last name is Asian and very hard to pronounce, so everyone on campus called her the Asian Jamie. She was very upset when we discussed racism for that reason, and she cited several dumb questions she has been asked on campus. I agree with you, Dave, you can be all tied up in knots about dumb questions or you can realize most people mean well…. and even if they don’t, how do you benefit the situation with a sarcastic response?

    Yosi is different, and I think you should celebrate that. I was different, but my parents were struggling with their own cultural whiplash and that really made it worse. I like what Kati says, celebrate the elephant. Look at it like any kid who’s adopted. They were picked because they were loved and wanted, and the fact that they aren’t originally a member of that family is celebrated. Why not this? She’s getting to the age that she knows she’s different anyway, so I’d say be open about it. Model a positive response in front of her. If her mom and dad are comfortable with her being different, that will go a long way toward her feeling good about it too.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Naomi.

      Of course we celebrate Yosi’s heritage and her being different, but it’s not as simple as that when it comes to situations like this in public. Yosi will never question whether she’s different. She’s brown and we’re white, and we are very open about her adoption and her ethnic and geographical heritage. But an unexpected run-in with a stranger is not really the place to celebrate that if she’s still trying to figure out who she is and what that means.

  9. Erika says:

    I love Rage Against the Minivan! Glad to see two blogs I came to read through totally separate channels connected to each other…

  10. Vicki says:

    oh the black hair comment made me laugh! my husband’s grandma who i loved dearly said to me several times “you people have such pretty black hair!”. you people. she commented on my people’s black hair a lot. i took it as a compliment because i loved her so much. so, i did grow up in an all white county in southern indiana, and i am 1/2 mexican. my mom and i were the different peoples with the beautiful black hair. all my cousins were red-headed and freckle faced, and then there was me. so, i guess what i am saying is, i wish i saw other people like me when i was growing up. of course i saw my mom, but no other kids like me unless we went to louisville or evansville….maybe. i want you to seek out the latinas and take her to them if you don’t do this already! it is hard being a different color in an all white small redneck town. please take her to the city as often as you can, and let her see that there are other little girls that look like her. every time i am on this blog and my kids are looking at yosi, they always ask if she is a picture of me when i was a kid. no kidding buddy.
    but, on the fun side, when she gets older it is always a fun game when she meets someone new to see if they can figure out what ethnicity she is. because people will straight out say, “i hope you don’t mind me asking, but “what” are you?” yes, they will ask this, guaranteed. i usually get native american or iranian or muslim believe it or not. it’s a fun game :) – teach her to have a good attitude about it. because people will stare and try to figure it out. be fun! others are just interested and want to know – don’t take offense. it’s really okay.

    • Vicki says:

      i also want to add that i remember “praying” to be magically changed into a yellowed haired, blue eyed, pink skinned little girl. i felt so out of place and ugly sometimes. you guys need to do whatever it takes to ensure that this “prayer” will never cross her sweet little heart. k? that is all.

  11. melinda says:

    One suggested response:
    When a white woman talks about Yosi looking like Dora, allow for your friend to look at said, loud, bubbly, high pitched white woman and remark what you’re all thinking: “oh, and your daughter looks just like Barbie! How cute!!” Friend should squeal upon delivery. Or shoot daggers. Whichever.

    I mean, and I know this is an entirely unhelpful non-answer (for helpful, see my suggestion above), I think Yosi’s going to help you guys understand when to step forward and when to step back. Those absolutely beautiful and full, dark eyes of hers communicate much and you read them well; there will be days she’ll need to see you to step up and call the other person out and make them think… and there are going to be days when she’s just going to want to exhale and not get all stabby, but smile and engage the other person, and she’ll need you to model that, too.

    I may not have grown up in a small town, but I’ve never been the racial majority anywhere I’ve been that wasn’t a family party, and I’ve known fully both of those sides, and your child’s eyes communicate well and y’all read them well, and I think you’re gonna end up just fine. No easy answers, but just fine. (and I’m *sure* we can work on some awesomely inappropriate one-liners for these moments, if holding them in your head would help in any way… blog contest?)

  12. Pingback: Different, like everyone else (continued) | The Screaming Kettle

  13. well, I really like this. you dictated my thoughts quite nicely. :)

  14. Naomi says:

    I like Melinda’s answer too. You’ll figure it out. You won’t always get it right, but that’s ok… nobody does. I’d hate to oversimplify, but to me, it all boils down to someone saying something dumb to your child. I’m not a parent, but I bet if I ask any parent I know, they’d come up with an example of someone saying something dumb to their child. All children Yosi’s age are figuring out who they are and where they fit, and that leaves parents trying to protect them from stupid people who say stupid things. I think you’re doing an excellent job of realizing when people don’t mean anything by what they said. And I think you’re not as alone in this as you think you are. Yosi will grow into a strong, beautiful person who is comfortable being who she is and thinking outside the box. I say take every situation as it comes and trust your gut on how to handle it. And in the meantime, practice one-liners with Melanie. :)

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  17. Pingback: A wrap-up to my unplanned week of posts on diversity and transracial adoption | The Screaming Kettle

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