When you adopt, especially when you adopt transracially, as a parent you often find yourself in strange social situations. You get people who ask strange questions about how your family came to be. You get people using inappropriate phrases when discussing your child. You get prying, insensitive questions. It happens.
And today, I got all that and more. For today was the first time since we brought Stinkerbelle home that I have had to deal with racist comments.
Now, let me preface this by saying that, in many cases, the stupid and insensitive comments and questions I have often gotten usually do not come from a place of malice. They often come from people who are curious and just don’t have the experience or the tools or maybe just the common sense to discuss adoption in a more enlightened manner. And that is okay — I don’t mind that so much. I find that people often have good intentions, but their execution is flawed. And so, in those conversations, I try to use appropriate adoption language, and model more sensitive phrases, and correct where I can.
Racism, on the other hand… well, it never comes from a place of good. How could it possibly?
And so, today, I found myself in a very strange conversation. I had taken Stinkerbelle to her class at The Little Gym. It’s a small class, maybe 8 kids and their moms or dads or caregivers, and That Baby is usually one of the most enthusiastic participants. She’s definitely the most visible, in the centre of every activity, expressing her full-throated joy.
Plus she’s the only black child, and has a white mom, so she is highly visible.
One little girl in the class, Riley, is a sweet little slip of a thing. Strawberry blonde, quiet, but physically the top of the class. Riley got game. And often times, she is there with her nanny — at least, I would assume that the woman is her nanny, as Riley is as white as white can be, and the woman with her is, I believe, Filipino. Plus, I’ve seen Riley’s mom or dad come in to pick her up after class, so the woman with her is not her mom.
After class today, Stinkerbelle and I were getting our shoes and socks and sweaters on to go home. We were seated on the floor in the reception area by the cubbies, with all the other moms and kids. And Riley and her nanny were standing nearby, looking at us.
Riley’s nanny began to ask some questions. Now, she was as pleasant as can be. She was really, genuinely trying to be nice, and Riley seems to like Stinkerbelle, so I think she was encouraging them to be pals and was trying to befriend me as well. But it was one of those situations where, as nice as she was trying to be, the questions were ALL WRONG.
Nanny: Is she your daughter?
Me: Yes, she is my daughter.
Nanny: Oh that’s nice. How old is she?
Me: She’s two and a half.
See? Nice, right? Friendly and everything. Then…
Nanny: Is her father black?
Oh, lady. Really? But then I thought, okay, here’s someone whose first language is not English, and also, cultural differences being what they are, perhaps blunt is the norm for her. I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Me: No, he’s not. Stinkerbelle was adopted.
She seemed quite pleased with that. I guessed that this was where she was going with her questioning, and perhaps didn’t have the language. So I cut to the chase. Plus, I’m quite proud of having grown our family through adoption, because I have always wanted to adopt, and think it is a fantastic way to bring families together. And I would never want Stinkerbelle to think it wasn’t something I was not proud of.
So the nanny carried on:
Nanny: Oh that’s nice. Did you adopt her here in Canada?
Me: No. Stinkerbelle was born in Ethiopia.
Nanny: Oh, wow! So you travelled to Ethiopia to adopt her there?
Me: Yes. Yes we did.
Phew. Conversation back on track. I was feeling better about it, because it seemed as though this young woman was interested and generally positive about Stinkerbelle and her story. And sometimes in a second language, it really IS hard to know what is appropriate and what is not. I relaxed.
Nanny: She’s so happy! She is always smiling and laughing.
Me: Yes, she is ALWAYS cheerful. We’re very lucky.
The Nanny encouraged Riley to talk to Stinkerbelle, and seemed to want them to be shake hands or hug or something and be friends. I warned Riley off, because Stinkerbelle has a cold.
Then she said:
Nanny: You couldn’t have your own children?
Whoa. Holy innapropriate questions, Batman! I stammered. I think she may have twigged that something was wrong, because she quickly added:
Nanny: Do you have any of your own children?
Alright, missy, I thought (but thankfully managed not to say out loud), my cutting you some slack in this conversation is rapidly coming to a middle, here. And the best friend forever thing you’re trying to encourage between Riley and my daughter is kinda teetering on the brink right now, because you keep talking!
But I composed myself, and, trying to model appropriate language, said:
Me: Stinkerbelle IS our child. Our only child.
I got up to get more of our stuff from the cubbies. Nanny smiled and said:
Nanny: She is very lucky.
Me: No, we’re very lucky. We are blessed to have her. She is a wonderful child.
I carried on getting Stinkerbelle and myself dressed, hoping this woman would just go away.
And it was then that she came at me with the coup-de-grace. With her most sincere, lovely, admiring smile, she said:
Nanny: You know, EVEN THOUGH SHE IS BLACK, she’s very beautiful.
And there you have it, folks! DING DING DING, I thought, WE HAVE A WINNER IN THE INGRAINED RACISM SWEEPSTAKES!!
OH HOLY HELL. You didn’t, you COULDN’T, have just said that to me. Not here, not in front of all these people. And not, worst of all, not knowing how incredibly, horribly wrong that was.
I took a step back, mentally and emotionally. I am trying to learn to NOT wig out about these situations, because first off, I am a big, loud woman, so I try to pick my public scenes with care — and I was not sure if this one was worthwhile.
But secondly, I don’t want to call attention to these comments within earshot of my child if she may not have noticed them, and clearly she didn’t; she was playing with her shoes. Plus she’s two and a half. The only thing she’d notice right now is that her mom went apeshit. She’d notice the anger, and the shouting, and the me going all thermonuclear on someone’s ass.
I paused, and very loudly and clearly said, simply:
Me: She IS beautiful. She is a BEAUTIFUL GIRL.
At that moment, Riley’s mother came in to the gym, and thankfully, the nanny was diverted.
I was not sure that wigging out on Nanny’s ass would have been the right thing to do in this particular scenario. First off, I genuinely believe that the Nanny’s questions and comments, however inappropriate they may be, came from a place of wanting to be friendly and were genuine. I cannot be in her head, but her tone, her body language, all led m to believe she was simply trying to be friendly. And I also wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt, that perhaps language barriers may have contributed to some of it.
Having been a teacher of ESL and having worked with people of many, many different cultures, I know that institutionalized racism still exists in the world, and that it is still acceptable in many cultures to think of other peoples through racist eyes. Does that excuse the inappropriateness and ugliness? No. But here is where the crossroads was: If I were to assume that her comment was racist in INTENT, which would take into account where she came from, and that is was not just a misfire in her expression in a second language of something a little more innocent, then I would indeed be just as racist.
And I don’t want to be that person.
So I took the conversation in the light that I hoped it was intended — as someone who was curious about how our family came to be, and wanted to pay some compliments to my daughter, but lacked the language and cultural skills to do so effectively.
I don’t believe it will happen again. I truly don’t. But, if it happens again, I WILL correct her, and no mistake about THAT. I have no problem doing THAT. But I will be sure to speak to Riley’s mom, her employer, about the issue.