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.