Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Skin We're In

We've known since the moment we decided to adopt transracially that the questions would start someday. Every parenting class and book on adoption talks about the importance of addressing racial differences within the family and I thought we were prepared. However...

Last weekend, Atticus and Paul were chatting on the sofa and Atticus casually said, "I'm not as good, because my skin is brown." You could have peeled both of us off the floor. Where would he get that idea?! A few days ago while watching cartoons, he commented, "I want to have a white tummy like Kipper the Dog," and on our way to Christmas dinner he said, "When I grow up, I'm going to have pink skin like Papa and Mama." All three times, we've responded by talking about how everyone is different, has different hair colors, different eye colors, different skin colors, and nobody is better or worse because of those things. We tell him that we love his brown skin. We remind him that his Ethiopian mommy has brown skin and that we're glad that even when he grows up he'll have brown skin because it's part of who he is. ("But who would I be if I had white skin?") We expected for our kids to have questions and opinions about our racial differences, but I don't think either of us was prepared for our three and a half year-old to start the conversation by expressing unhappiness with his own skin color. It's heartbreaking.

A significant portion of the students I've taught have been biracial and I've seen that this search for identity isn't limited solely to transracial adoptive families. Almost every single multiracial student I've had has commented at one time or another that they struggle with "which side" to go with. Did you know that many of the state tests and other forms students are asked to fill out still don't have a "multiple races" box to check.? It doesn't seem that significant, but I can't tell you the number of times I've had students freeze trying to decide which part of their background to acknowledge and which side to give the shaft to. It's a big deal to a kid when people classify them in a way that fails to take account of half their family. In many ways, I find it comforting that this type of grappling is so common. Atticus and Norah won't be alone in trying to reconcile their feelings about not looking like their parents.

I've also turned to a couple of other adoptive moms whose opinions and advice I value. Both replied that their techniques for dealing with these dialogues is much the same as the ones we're using. One thing that Shannon from Peter's Cross Station suggested doing that we haven't tried is dispassionately asking Atticus why he wants white skin. I assume he just wants to look like us, but it would be helpful to know if that's true in order to guide our conversations with him. We're going to ask him the next time he brings up the issue.

Norah loves to name the colors of peoples' skin, hair, eyes, etc., but she hasn't shown any signs yet of being uncomfortable with the differences within our family. Today she saw this picture of Rihanna (I read Don't judge.) and exclaimed, "Oh look! She looks just like me and she's gorgeous!" I hope she continues to feel that way.

We live in a diverse neighborhood and have the kids enrolled in a diverse public school. These decisions were very intentional and if we ever decide to move in the future we will again make sure that our kids are not the token Black kids in their new neighborhood or school. We're trying to keep the dialogue open about skin colors and differences and to instill pride in our kids. Our extended family has been great about trying to do this while also pointing out ways that Atticus and Norah are like us. My dad, for example, will remark that Atticus's ability to figure out how to open doors, windows, and baby locks reminds him of himself at that age. My mother-in-law comments that Atticus's peacemaking nature and empathy are just like Paul's. We all comment on the fact that being genetically unrelated didn't exempt Norah from being cursed with the bad vision that the women in our family have. As they become increasingly verbal, we do see so much of ourselves in their mannerisms and the words they use. I hope these commonalities will provide comfort to them when they're tempted to feel alienated and different.


lindsay said...

It feels heartbreaking to read from afar, I can't imagine how sad to hear from your baby.

I hope Atticus and Norah always have communities to support and love them on their journeys.

Anonymous said...

What Lindsay said. I love you four, and your children are so lucky to have you both. - Andrea