Let's talk race.
Did you wince? It's not a popular topic. It's a hush-hush kind of thing, the type of blog post that you grimace at and skip over, because you know that reading it will make you uncomfortable.
Buckle your seatbelt.
There are so many things I have been wanting to write about; so many thoughts I want to share....and almost everything is a hard topic. Taboo subjects and the effects that these realities have on our families. Adoption "secrets", shoved away and hidden beneath smiles through gritted teeth, and tears washed down the shower drain.
I have a whole list of half finished posts. Some of them I can't finish because it is too hard to form the words. Too painful. Some are worded too harshly, written in in anger at the injustice of the world, and at the people who choose to ignore it. Truth, but truth that needs to be spoken with love. Some posts are just a fragment of a thought; one paragraph that brings pages of memories with it. So. Many. Posts.
But today, the topic that tugs on my heart, is race. And the ignorance that accompanies it.
As parents, we want to protect our kids from being hurt. As adoptive parents (and then if there are "special needs" on top of that), I think the instinct to protect is even stronger, because our kids have already dealt with more hurt in their short lives than is even imaginable to most people. For me, all I want to do is fix everything for my kids; to take away their pain. I want to shield them from the world and its cruelty, from the ignorance. But I can't. Despite my best efforts, my kids are constantly hurting. Pain from their past life, and pain from the present. And when my kids hurt, I hurt.
One wound, an old sore that is constantly reopening and bleeding, is race.
Yeah, I said it. SKIN COLOR.
When we decided to adopt, we had originally started with Guatemala. My family is Latina, and Abe and I honestly knew that with how hard adoption is, one thing that might make it easier was having a child that *might* look a little bit like us. It's hard enough to have all the struggles of adoption and parenting, but when your family is multiple skin colors, people are quick to notice you. Stare at you. Make assumptions. Question your family's legitimacy.
Think about it. When you see a white woman with a white child in public, you barely even notice them. But if you see a white woman with a brown child, or a brown woman with a white child, you may have to remind yourself not to stare. Your mind probably goes three places, and maybe even in this order: babysitting, adoption, or interracial marriage.
Our family is the center of attention wherever we go. And skin color is the first thing that gets us noticed. When we go out in public, people stare. I think in their eyes, we are a walking circus. Four skin shades, three languages (we try our best to keep Z's Amharic....plus we use ASL so that catches people's eye anyway). I get it. We look weird. And the looks of surprise that we get don't bother me.
What DOES bother me is when people look down their noses at us. Whisper about us. When people wrinkle their noses or flat out refuse to look at us. When those things happen, it isn't about age, or language or gender. It's about the fact that I have "white" skin, and they have brown. And it makes me sick. I don't care if people are staring at me. But I ache for my KIDS. They see it. They feel it. And they know the root of it. And it hurts them. Crushes their pride, makes them feel inferior, burns them with shame. And I get enraged. And very, VERY protective.
Along with the stares, we face ignorance.
Everywhere we go, people assume that I am babysitting. I understand why it's peoples' first guess. Even though it is 2014, people can't wrap their minds around multi-race families as the first possibility of why the five of us are in public together. And Abe and I are probably in the top ten percent of the youngest parents with the oldest children ever. Levi and Abe are just ten years apart. I joke that Levi and I are like Mary and Jesus. But the real issue is the assumptions people make after I say that I'm the kids' mom. People never believe me, and then when I confirm that the kids are mine, they assume that the word "MINE" means I physically gave birth to them. And then they have assumed that I sleep around, because I am so young with multiple older kids. And have said as much to me. What is WRONG with people?!?!?! There are multiple other scenarios that could have happened. Of course, adoption. But what if I had been raped as a young teen and gotten pregnant??? What if my kids were my half-siblings that I was raising because of some tragedy? There are plenty of reasons why I could be raising big kids. And every time someone makes a thoughtless comment, I ache for the innocent people in those other scenarios, who are hurt by this ignorance. When people finally realize that "mine" means MY children, but not from my stomach, they label us. To them, we are not a "real" family. We are not blood relatives. We are illegitimate.
So we get stared at, questioned, and dismissed because of physical characteristics. Skin color, and age. And once it is confirmed that my kids are adopted (half the time we just let people assume whatever they want, just to save ourselves the hassle) people feel like it's okay to make insensitive comments. For some reason, being an adoptive family makes people feel like they have the right to ask us whatever they want about us. Almost as if they are demanding an explanation and we are defending why our family looks different from theirs. They ask deeply personal questions about adoption, our lives, and my kids' backgrounds. They ask inappropriate things. And often, they ask these questions when my kids are standing RIGHT THERE.
And we hate it.
It's not that we don't want to talk about adoption, or that we are in denial about how our family came to be. It's that we'd really just love to sometimes be able to go out in public, and be seen as a FAMILY. Without being questioned or stared at. Without being stopped and having people criticize or gush over us. Without complete strangers trying to touch my childrens' hair. (What if someone you didn't know walked up to YOUR child and started rubbing their head or pulling their hair????)
They ask where my kids "real" parents are. If they are orphans. If my kids are happy. How much they cost. They ask my kids if they like their new "mommy" and "daddy". If I have heard about such-and-such adoption horror story. Why we didn't adopt domestically.
I'm sorry. I didn't know you could approach perfect strangers (or even friends) and ask these kinds of questions. Especially, especially when my kids are standing RIGHT THERE. Did you have sex with anyone last night? How much do you weigh? Why did your spouse leave you? How much money do you make and what do you spend it all on? Do you tithe? Pretty sure you'd be super offended if I asked you such invasive questions....but that's exactly what you're doing to us.
But I don't say those things. Because I honestly believe people are not TRYING to hurt us; they are just ignorant and not thinking before they speak. And for the sake of them learning how to correctly converse with future adoptive families, and not be so unwittingly cruel, I smile and just say, "I'm their mom, thanks." If they persist, I tell them "I have an adoption blog....I'd love to share it with you. It might answer some of your questions," and then I give them the link. Sometimes I say, "That's not information I can share with you." If my kids aren't around, I might respond to the, "Are they orphans/where are their "real" parents" question with: "Each child's story is different. Kids are adopted for many different reasons....sometime because of death, or war, or inaccessabillity to resources for special needs. It varies for each child." I'm trying to educate them without getting specific. However, at this point, they typically cry out, "You're such an ANGEL! What a GOOD person you are, to take them and bring them here! They are SO lucky!!!"
Reallly? REALLY??? Have you thought about what you're actually saying? How are my kids lucky? I know you mean because they are in our family, but all adoption comes from pain and brokenness. Adopted kids have been hurt beyond belief, lost their families, language, culture. They have been taken away from everything and everyone they have ever known, sent with complete strangers across the ocean to a foreign land, forced to accept a new language, culture, and family, permanently, and none of it was their choice. It doesn't matter if they are happy here or not; these kids are are not lucky. But I digress.
Back to racism.
Skin color has also been a hugely sensitive topic within the safety of our family. First off, my kids have all been upset that they don't look like us. The issue wasn't originally that they were brown and we were "white". It was that we didn't MATCH. That's painful. They wanted to look like us so we would LOOK like a family. So they could pretend that we had always been their parents.
I look at my friend, a dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty, who adopted from Latin America. (Thanks for allowing me to use you as an example, babe.) Her daughter is three, and is dark-haired and dark-eyed. They LOOK like each other. And no one gives them a second glance when they are out and about (except to stare at their gorgeousness). No one thinks, "Oh, she must be ADOPTED," or "Where's her "real" mommy???" They don't approach her and ask if her daughter likes America, or how much she paid for her daughter, or if she has HIV. They don't step aside to avoid being near them in store aisle.
Then you take the fact that my kids are coming from a country where being brown is the NORM. It IS the majority. And then they come to America, where they are suddenly the minority. Looked down on. Treated differently because of their skin. I am not kidding (I wish I were)....people have wrinkled their noses at my kids, at our family. Have stepped around us, turned away from us, whispered about us. Have shown preferential treatment to kids with paler skin colors. Have outright made comments TO MY CHILDREN. "I'm glad I don't have BLACK skin! I wouldn't want to be BLACK!" People, racism in America is far from dead.
My children became the minority and recieved all the pain that comes with that, and then I had to explain to them about black history in America. And they were shocked and heartbroken. America was supposed to be this wonderful place of opportunity and freedom and SAFETY. Equality. And instead, my kids are hurt and betrayed to learn the truth.....that America has an ugly history regarding the pigment of your skin. In Ethiopia, my kids had been nothing but proud of who they were; now they became ashamed of their color. Their hair. Their physical features.
I have spent countless hours telling them they are beautiful, that God made them unique and special, and that I think they are perfect. That people are ignorant and stupid. That they are not inferior because they are brown. I don't tell them "It's okay," because it's not. It's not okay that they are hurting and feel different just because of something that makes each people group unique and beautiful. It's not okay that Levi came to me just last week, because he identified being left out of something because of his skin. Normally, he would tell me he felt left out because he is deaf. But his poor heart was stricken because someone chose "every kid but me, and they were all white," and he was heartbroken and confused. And I was heartbroken for him. It's not okay that my child has lain on my stomach and said, "Mommy, I wish I came from your tummy so that I looked like you." It's not okay that in order to fit in (no matter how diverse our community and friend base is) that my one of my kids took some lotion and lathered it all over their body in an attempt to make their skin "white".
Even within the safety of our house, there is occassional tension.
Natalie's skin is very pale. In fact, she looks like she is half Ethiopian, half Caucasian. And that was an issue when she first came home. Not only is Natalie LIGHTER, but her skin looks like mine. Her hair is curly, but not in an afro way. And this put more strain on my other kids, because Natalie looks like she COULD be my biological daughter. And that brought its own pain to our household.
My point with all this is, if you are a mixed race family, you are going to face all this. Stares. Ignorance. Racism. It's not easy. It's not fair. And it's not avoidable. I wish I had the answers; could tell you how to ease the pain for your kids. But I can't. All I can say is, ignore the stares. Or tell your kids it's because your family is cool, and everyone knows it. (Obviously my kids know that I am kidding when I say this, but we still laugh about our paparazzi.) I have to admit, I HAVE lost my cool with stares a couple times. Once, in a grocery store, a family of four was staring at us and FOLLOWING us. The teenage girl stuck her tongue out at Z and then she and the dad started laughing about it. I snapped. And turned right around, walked within ten feet, and started staring at them. And then I followed THEM around. With crazy eyes. They had no idea what to do. (I don't recommend this haha.) I've also heard of stories where a stranger comes up and touches an adopted kid's hair, and the parents walk up and touch the stranger's hair right back. I haven't done that yet.
Anyway, laugh at the paparazzi. Confront the ignorance, but do it with kindness. I really think most people don't even realize how inappropriate they are being. I am a firm believer that if we gently and kindly correct/redirect rude questions, we can educate these people on how to properly address an adoptive family, or how to ask questions (and which ones NOT to ask!). As far as racism, and trust me, this one SUCKS the worst......I don't know. My kids and I have cried together. Talked about how all people, no matter what they look like, are designed (typically) with the same physical shape (one head, two arms, two eyes, one nose, a heart...). We talk about forgiveness. We talk about our own stereotypes, and how to recognize and change them. And I have responded to verbal assault with calm words, and with one situation where I yelled. (Because when someone wounds her cub, a mama bear roars.) But nothing can erase or ease the hurt that racism is going to cause us. So mostly we just hold our heads high and smile proudly. Because we know the truth. Being a multi-race family is incredible and unique. And we love our family.