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.
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?