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Guest Posting: The Ignorance And Anger Of Strangers

Guest Posting:
The Ignorance And Anger Of Strangers

We are a conspicuous family.

This is the positive adoption language way of saying that no one mistakes us for Ward, June, Wally and Beaver Cleaver. There are very few places where our family is considered “the norm.” When we walk into a room people look. I used to think it was because I was such a snappy dresser! When we were initially moving through the adoption process, one of the big issues to ponder was our comfort level with being conspicuous.

When it was just Beth and me, people often thought we were just friends or even sisters–that made things easier for some. When our daughter Peyton turned us into mothers, it wasn’t quite so easy for people to assume our relationship was mainstream. Now that we have three African American children and can often be seen corralling, herding, teaching, hugging, laughing, correcting and supporting, it is pretty clear that we are an alternative definition of a family.

Part of our adoption education from the Cradle (an adoption agency in Evanston, Illinois) was how to handle the inevitable questions and comments from complete strangers, acquaintances, friends and family members.

Our children watch us. They pick up on our body language, our tone of voice and the words we use. And, when we are confronted, they watch how we respond.  Whether it is intentional or not, a message is sent to them if we always respond with anger.

Part of what makes our family conspicuous is that we are transracial. This means that I get to walk along an interesting path when it comes to race and racism. If I were to put a penny in a jar each time someone made a positive comment about our family and then take out a penny each time someone made a negative statement, I would have a jar full of pennies. Overwhelmingly I hear positive comments. Unfortunately, I remember the ugly ones.

In the past several years I have had three examples of this ugliness. When we first brought home Peyton, some older “friends of the family” stopped by our house to meet her. The older woman picked up Peyton, examined her and said, “So, what is wrong with her?” My first response, which I thankfully kept in my head, was “You’re an old woman and I’m pretty sure I can take you.” My calmer angels took over and I responded that she was absolutely perfect. I’m just not sure the woman would have asked the question if Peyton were White.

My next example happened when Peyton was about 18-months-old. We were walking through a store and a clerk paid more attention to us than was necessary or typical. She finally said: “Hmm, hmm, hmm I just don’t think I could love a child of another race.” The clerk was Black.

The third example happened when Peyton was about 2 1/2. She was perched on my shoulders as we walked around a store located in the south suburbs where we live. Beth was returning something and I was charged with occupying the toddler. A man walked up to me and loudly asked me where I had gotten the child.  I love to talk about adoption. So naively I went about explaining that we had adopted Peyton. The man interrupted me and with abject anger declared that she could never, ever be my child. When I realized that I was being confronted, I moved Peyton from my shoulders to my hip and I held her a little tighter. I scanned the area looking for an exit or maybe a friendly face that might step in and declare the man “crazy” or “out of line.”  There were plenty of people who witnessed this but no friendly faces emerged. It took me a long time to go back into that store.

I’m sure there have been other incidents. Maybe I’m too busy corralling, laughing, hugging or correcting to notice. That’s why I was caught off guard by a situation on vacation.

 I should go on record as saying that I have boycotted the state of South Carolina for several years now. Any state capital that would fly the Confederate flag probably doesn’t break out the good china for our family’s visit. But Beth’s brother and sister-in-law invited us to visit their vacation home on Kiawah Island. I was steeled for the visit. I was ready to voice my indignation and bolt at the first sign of separate drinking fountains or segregated lunch counters. I realize that sounds crazy but in my mind, South Carolina had never moved past the Civil Rights era.

Whether good manners precluded any untoward comments or enough Yankees had infiltrated the island, we didn’t face any overt hostility. However, one day Beth and I were playing with our youngest daughter, Emerson in the baby pool while our older kids were hanging out in the big pool with their aunt. A man with a Southern accent that signals ignorance versus gentility asked me which one of us was the mother. I replied that we both were. Then he pointed at Emerson and sweeping his hand up and down as if to encompass all of her said, “So, why did you pick THAT color.” With the word “that” he implied the color of her skin was something less than ideal. I wanted to believe that I hadn’t heard his question. I wanted to believe that he was talking about swimsuit color instead. So I looked at him quizzically and said, “I’m sorry?”

He went on to declare that she must be adopted and he wanted to know why we would pick that color. Wow. He said it twice. It was a real question.

During our conspicuous family training we learned that there are three ways to handle situations like this. We could use humor (of which I am a big fan); we could reply with anger or we could educate. The “rule” is that we should take the pulse of our children to understand how they might feel. Above all else we need to protect them. Take a heartbeat is what we were told. And that is what I did.

I decided that the man asked out of ignorance. In my experience when you add anger to ignorance the outcome is rarely positive–think Confederate flags hanging in state capitals. I decided to educate.

But what about you? Have you ever been shocked by the rudeness or questions of strangers? What were your experiences – and how did you respond?

Andrea Denney is a middle-aged, mini-van driving, Sunday school teaching, softball-coaching mother of three (Peyton-9, Bennett-6 ½ and Emerson-3) who lives in the south suburbs of Chicago.  When she isn’t extracting petrified chicken nuggets and fermented juice boxes from the back of her van, she is the Vice President of Operations and Finance for a qualitative market research company.   In her spare time she is pursuing a Masters of Divinity degree from Chicago Theological Seminary and falls into bed each night hoping to muster just enough energy to recap the day with Beth, her partner of 23 years.

 

 

26 Comments

  1. pattyrowland

    August 11, 2011 at 8:29 am

    wow…there are no words…you would think in this day and age people wouldn’t be so ignorant…that’s just very sad…congrats to this writer for making her family what she wants it to be…they are very brave.

  2. Kathy

    August 11, 2011 at 8:40 am

    I have to say this was one roller coaster of writing. First off, I would love to hang out with you and your family and have a couple of cocktails; you are definitely my kind of people! I have a child with special needs and laughed out loud when your first thought was that you could take that older women. It is so hard to deal with such ignorance, especially when it comes to family. I personally feel anger and then sadness. My only hope is that someone quietly slipped out and keyed that jackass’ car, while no one was looking. May God continue to bless you and your family-

  3. R. C. Bacon

    August 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

    In a restaurant that I frequent, from time to time an affluent looking homogeneous white couple and their family also frequent. You would not notice them except they have with them their children, two sons and one daughter. More noticeable is the gorgeous little girl who happens to be African American. Clearly this little girl is the center of their universe and they are clearly the center of hers. I am happy for their family every time I see them.

  4. Evelyn

    August 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

    This is so sad. Some things will never change. What does color/race have to do with anything. Every child not matter his/her race/disability needs to be loved and love does not have a color.

    Yes, I have experienced something with my child. My child was wearing a helmet to help correct the shape of her head and a man said out loud while we were standing in checkout line, “She looks like she’s getting ready to go to space.” I didn’t say a word, I just looked at him and others said nothing. It was so quiet.

    Sometimes it is best not to say anything and there are times, when we must put people in there places.

    This is a very heartfelt post! I’m glad I read it.

    Take care,

    Evelyn

  5. veronicamills1

    August 11, 2011 at 8:50 am

    To Andrea and Beth-
    God Bless You. What you are doing is wonderful and very gratifying. Don’t worry about what people say and push it out of your mind. Just when you think you have heard it all, there is always an ignoramus lurking around the next corner. I agree and it is sad to say that even with all of society’s technological advances the culture of its people keeps reverting to the primitive.

  6. Cody Williams

    August 11, 2011 at 9:03 am

    May God bless you. Not so much because of the life choices you’ve made, but more because of the ignorance of people. And I mean all people. Yes, everybody.

    Totally ignorant.

    A nationally known columnist and ‘liberal thinking’ colleague pulled me to the side at our convention last week and for probably the 800th time in the past 8 years asked me who was I dating and why haven’t I “found love” in my life, with that if you have not there must be something wrong with you and your life has got to be miserable indignation.

    I proceeded to tell her, for the 801st time, that I’m content being me and happy raising my kids and at this stage in life don’t have a real desire for a lover of any kind. I’m just not interested.

    “Yeah, right!” has always been her response. “You’re lying,” the smirk on her face suggested.

    I chose not to get defensive. What’s the good in that? I am not comfortable with anyone prying so deeply into my personal life. I have grown tired of trying to educated with spiritually lofty witticisms. I wanted to chalk it up as being a female inquisitive thing, but I have male acquaintances just as nosey.

    I think about how bad a person must feel who receives this type of personally intrusive inquisition who desperately wants love but for any number of reasons can’t find it.

    It just amazes me, as in the story you’ve told, how little discretion ‘ignorant’ people have. Of all races and persuasions.

    Again, may God bless you.

  7. b.

    August 11, 2011 at 9:20 am

    Cody, what you said reminds me of the inquires of “why don’t you have kids yet?” questions people pepper me with. As far as I know I don’t have fertility troubles (we haven’t tried yet). It’s no one’s business! The ask-er doesn’t know what (if any) hornet’s nest they are stirring with the question.

    What many have said echos my sentiments, so I will simply say that I am glad you have much love and positive experiences that I hope will come to outweigh the bad in the end! I am curious as to what your reaction was to the man on the beach…

    I also want to throw one *small* thing out there. A Southern twang isn’t a mark of ignorance. Many MANY highly intelligent people speak with one. It’s a matter of regional dialect. It’s sort of like assuming someone with a British accent is really smart.

  8. dianthe

    August 11, 2011 at 10:33 am

    i could never adopt a child of another race or one with special needs either – because the first time someone said something that ignorant to me, i’m pretty sure i’d punch them in the face – and i’m pretty sure adoption agencies frown upon that kind of thing!!

    you and Beth are a blessing! thank you! not only for raising children who deserve to be loved – but for raising children without teaching them hate – those children truly are our future!!

  9. MyGrL

    August 11, 2011 at 12:54 pm

    Stories like this blow my mind. Unfortunately, ignorance isn’t reserved for race or special needs situations only. I was adopted from the Cradle in the late 60’s. Growing up adoption wasn’t as common or certainly not talked about like it is today. My family was always very open about adoption and my brothers and I spoke of it freely.
    When I was in college working a part time job an adult coworker asked me what I called my “Foster Parents”.
    I politely responded that they weren’t my foster parents, I was adopted and they are just my parents so I call them Mom and Dad. She very condescendingly looked at me with pity,put her hand on my shoulder and said,”But they’re not really your parents. They’re not.” Oooookaay. Guess I should start calling them “Mr and Mrs. So and So” Lol!
    My mom worked with someone who didn’t know my brothers and I were all adopted. It came up and she was shocked. We couldn’t be adopted because she’d met us and observed us with our mom and it was clear how much we loved each other! “They can’t be adopted, you love them too much!” Honestly.
    The thing is both of these women were kind, funny, intelligent people. They’d just never had any experience with adoption. That being said people really need to think before they speak. Maybe let those of us who are “Experts” in adoption be the ones to explain our experiences.
    Sadly,some will never get it.

  10. Christi

    August 11, 2011 at 2:59 pm

    Wow, what a great column, thank you for sharing. The ignorance of grown adults baffles me. My 11 year old daughter is in a wheelchair and when we go out I am AMAZED at how many adults stare at her with their mouths hanging open. On my occasional “bad days” I will announce, “IT’S A CHILD IN A WHEELCHAIR!” or just stare back at them, it tends to make them snap out of it and turn away quickly. People that are so full of hate and ignorance have no idea that gay and lesbian parents want and love these kids of ours so much, we have to go to “extra” lengths to get them and once we have them there’s nothing we won’t do to make a wonderful, loving life for them. Thank you again for sharing your experiences with everyone.

  11. Cooper Smith Koch

    August 11, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    My partner of 12 years and I have two beautiful Hispanic/Asian-mix kids in Dallas, who are both two years old (not twins, adopted at birth three months apart). We’ve only had one single negative experience – from a snooty gay guy, of all people. Fortunately, it was in a very public restaurant and MANY other people came to our defense before we had to do anything, including his tablemates. He ultimately stormed out in a huff.

    In the early days, I had many situations where I could feel people looking at us and starting to get my guard up when they approached. I could my mind saying “ah, hell, I don’t want to have to cuss down an old lady today,” only to have her say something so sweet that my eyes welled up with tears.

    As the saying goes, “What other people think of me is none of my business.” Ignorant is as ignorant does – including speaking out about things they know nothing about or choose to not understand. And chances are, nothing I say or do is going to change their minds anyway.

  12. Irene

    August 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/light-legalized-sex-marriage-york-online-petition-urges/story?id=14275363 Would you want to see Bert and Ernie get married?

    Andrea sounds like you are blessed with a wonderful family and thanks for sharing your experience…people can be so unthoughtful and I think that is more of a cancer in our society that needs addressed. Family is family.

  13. m.e. johnson

    August 11, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    I agree with everyone. Some people’s behavior/attitude is beyond description. As an older Black woman I too have encountered my share of slings and arrows. One difference I notice is that I always had to be smart enough to be afraid. I hope that aspect never enters your and your dear family’s life.

  14. kim

    August 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    wow, great article! my vietnamese twins and i (a brooklyn, italian-american, scottish american, recovering catholic, lesbian tomboy) thank you for writing it.

  15. Diana

    August 11, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    we are a conspicuous family. we’ve been there. and I am always looking to see how others handled their situations. thanks for sharing!!

  16. Mary E.

    August 11, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    We walk such a careful line, don’t we, between protecting our children from ignorance and our desire to educate people who might be considering interracial families for the first time. Great post — thanks for sharing.

  17. Doyle

    August 12, 2011 at 9:22 pm

    My cuz Danni and her husband adopted three children frOm the orphanage in Africa where they hard work . Danni looks white (Latina, Irish, cherokee) her husband is 1/2 white/asian. She always has stories of people looking and trying to figure out how they became a family.

  18. Michelle @ Bridge Communications

    October 27, 2011 at 4:46 pm

    You should check out the Biracial family Network (BFN) in Chicago. 30 years of multiracial families and counting. Aplace were everybody loves somebody of a different race- child, spouse, parent. And November is national adoption month so of course we will be on topic with a panel of birth moms this year! November 19th. Disney parade after. All welcome.

  19. Jenn

    June 8, 2012 at 6:35 pm

    God Bless you and thank you for sharing! I am shocked at the ignorance and it makes me sick to my stomach to think that there are people out there like that. I guess I must be really naive to think this still goes on in the 21st century.

    I wish I could meet you and your family … you sound like people I would love to get to know and interact with! I can feel the love in your voice and how lucky are you to have these wonderful children in your lives? They are lucky to have you both in theirs too!

    On a side note, I have a cousin who has a son that she gave birth to and a daughter she adopted from Ethiopia. She and her husband are both caucasian and while it’s none of my business or anyone else’s why they even adopted, but my guess is that they did it because they could and wanted to have another child and the opportunity presented itself. My cousin’s entire family and extended family could not be more excited to have this wonderful little girl come into our lives. Can’t imagine life without her. To all of us, it doesn’t matter what the color of her skin is … and it’s never mattered; she’s a human being that gives so much love and deserves to have a family who can care for her and love her and I for one, just want to eat her up!

    Again, God Bless all of you and I pray for good health and happiness to you all for the rest of your days!

  20. Carissa

    July 22, 2012 at 12:24 am

    I can totally relate to this article. We too are a conspicuous family, having two daddies and two mommies. No, we are not polygamists. My childrens biological father is gay and I am a lesbian. We sure get some funny looks sometimes. Their father sometimes says “take a picture, it will last longer” and we all laugh. We have learned to expect that we are not what people consider the ideal, especially in Utah. But, no one really understands the true gift we have found- unconditional love for our 3 blessings and also for our unique situation. And our children are so blessed to have so many parents that love them! So I understand the looks and the insensitive comments. May God bless you for loving your children so much!

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