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Ask the Transracial Parenting Expert: When Strangers Ask Questions or Offer Advice

“How should I react when I’m asked a personal question by someone I don’t know, someone of my child’s racial background?” November/December 2007

Learning to discern the motives of people who approach you is crucial to you and to your children. Children notice both your response and your attitude in such public situations. Your reactions will inform their feelings about people of their race as they grow.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for parents of African-American children to be approached, in what is almost always a genuine attempt to help, by women suggesting hair products or advice. If this happens to you, you might ask yourself whether you could use help with your child’s hair.

 You might laugh and say, “Thanks, she is having a bad hair day. I can use all the help I can get.” Or, “Well, I usually use ______ on her hair. How is ______ better?” Such openness might lead to a friendship, or at least to a resource that you otherwise may have never known about.

Discuss what happened after such an encounter. An appropriate comment for a young child may be, “Wasn’t it nice of that woman to help Mommy pick out something to make your hair look even more beautiful?”

Different perceptions of adoption
Transracial adoption is still a curiosity in many communities of color, so opinions and perceptions will vary widely. Some people have strongly negative feelings about white parents adopting “their” children, and sense inherent racism in a system that allows transracial adoption. Others are simply grateful that children find loving homes, regardless of the adoptive parents’ race.

Get more resources about parenting transracially by Deborah Johnson.

You and your child will probably experience many similar encounters. Stories I’ve heard from adoptees and adoptive parents range from being politely asked why they/their child does not speak their/the child’s “native language” to being scolded for their lack of fluency.

As illogical as it seems, comments like these may come from adults who know that your child was adopted; language is so important that they cannot imagine how a child learns to appreciate his birth culture without being fluent.

I frequently experience this when I travel in Korea. My colleagues know that I was adopted, and yet they constantly ask if I speak Korean. Or, worse, they assume that I do, and they look dismayed when they realize that we won’t be able to communicate freely in the language. A gentle reminder that your children were taught English at home and at school should be sufficient.

Recognizing our limitations
When you are approached by someone of the same race or culture as your child, assume that he or she is trying to be helpful. Listen to what that person has to say, and ask questions. She has reached out to you, either out of curiosity or genuine concern. This is an opportunity to create a better understanding of transracial adoption, or maybe to make a new friend.

In a recent discussion I had with a group of adult adoptees, the consensus was that they were not prepared to be “people of color.” Many knew other adoptees, or had attended a culture camp, but they had never truly participated in their cultural community. It was a rude awakening for many when they left home and, for the first time, were viewed as a minority and treated as such.

There are so many things we want to teach our children. Unfortunately, we may not always be the best resource for them. Knowing our limitations and helping our children find resources—or accepting an offer of help or friendship when it comes our way—is sometimes the best thing we can do. You may have to make your own village to help you raise your child.

By Deborah Johnson, an adoptee from South Korea and a Minneapolis-based social worker with 25 years of experience working with adoptive families.

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For anyone who down plays the importance of family members’ responses to unsolicited questions from strangers, regardless of the stranger’s race, remember this: our children’s self worth and security is based on how we handle these types of questions. Regardless of who is asking the personal question we taught our girls, 6 and 10, to first size up the situation taking into account the following: 1) the person’s tone of voice 2) their body language 3) their choice of words 4) their proximity to them (are they in their face or on the other side of the bus?) 5) their age (especially the very young or the very old) 6)their intent (Nosy? Concerned? Interested in adopting? Attempt to break the ice? Rude? Threatening? Ignorant? etc.) 7) our daughters’ own intuition Next we empowered them with 6 ways to deal with inappropriate comments/behavior/conflict: 1)Humor; can they laugh their way out of an awkward situation or find humor in it? 2)Ignore; can they just walk away or pretend they didn’t hear them? Can their silence say more than words? 3)Share; do they feel comfortable sharing personal information with a stranger? Sharing something personal about themselves to personalize the situation or reach out? 4)Educate; can they take this opportunity to politely educate the stranger? (For example, we frequently use this with the terms “real mother” vs “birth mother.) 5)Likewise; respond likewise which MAY be hateful or ugly. Can they give it back as good as they got it never resorting to vulgarity, violence, or endangering themselves or the stranger? 6)Tell; get someone else involved who can help. We taught them they may choose one response or a combination of responses depending on their assessment of the situation. I use these same techniques and our girls have seen me in action many times responding to everything from, “Are they your real daughters?”; “Is your husband Asian?”; “Who is their real mother?”; Are they real sisters?”; “Are you teaching them Chinese?”; Why didn’t you adopt domestically?”; “Isn’t it awful China doesn’t want little girls?”; “Why are they so dark skinned?”; and my favorite, “How much did they cost?”. The last time a very endowed, unknown woman asked me how much the girls cost my response was this, “I’ll tell you how much they cost if you’ll tell me how much your boobs cost?” The stranger was mortified and embarrassed but she got the point and we had a laugh. The last time an unknown man asked me the same question I asked him what he made a year and as he stuttered and seemed to feel awkward I said, “that’s how I feel, how do you think my girls feel?” He apologized justifying his remarks by saying he was just curious and didn’t think. Then I handed him our adoption agency’s business card and told him if he really needed to know to call. It amazes me the things people will say in front of the girls as though they aren’t present. Certainly as infants they didn’t understand but now they do and the remarks and questions just keep coming. So now, with my oldest’s permission, I refer strangers to redirect their question to her and they immediately realize their insensitivity. It usually leaves them speechless especially when she very articulately answers their question! So that’s how we have dealt with some of the nosy, rude people but we have many, many more stories of how we shared, educated or used humor and were rewarded. We have made friends, enlightened a few, and mentored many future adoptive parents all because a stranger stepped into our world. The long and short of it is my husband and I have taught our daughters how to take control of something they have no control over and walk away with, at the very least, their dignity in tack, and at the very most a new friend. Once when I thought I may have gone too far I asked our oldest how the exchange between a stranger and I made her feel and she said, “I know I’m loved and belong even if that lady doesn’t.” Does it get any better than that?

Posted by: Leslie B. Bishop at 12:42am Dec 4

I first encountered questions when I was in the process of adopting by one of my coworkers, a physician, who asked me what I would do when people asked me why she looked so different than me. Gabriela is from Guatemala, I am a blond, blue eyed midwesterner. My response was that I would be honest and say she was born in Guatemala. Nobody needs to know any more than that, friends, family and especially complete strangers. We live in a very diverse community in which we can potentially see Hispanic, Middle eastern, somali, and Americans in one trip to the grocery. We are stared at, but not in offensive ways, most people at the store smile. We are in our own little world, making our own silly (toddler) jokes,singing, saying rhymes, (some in Spanish) and if people question that we are completely bonded as a mother and daughter could be, they missing the point. We were recently at her doctor appt and a loud obnoxious woman asked us what country she was from. I responded with my usual "she was born in Guatemala", smiled, and left it at that. I could tell that now, at age 3, Gabriela was embarrassed by the lady asking, 9 but maybe it was because she was so loud!) but I responded to her (G)with a reassuring hug and kissed her. That night we again broached the subject that she was born in Guatemala, and lived at Mama Shenny's (foster family) until mama could bring her home. Now SHE regularly asks ME to see her lifebook, and to "tell me about when I a baby in Gamala" and "Mama Shenny". It also has helped us that she has a Diego DVD that has pictures of the quetzal, the national bird only in Guatemala. I have also given her special momentos with each birthday or Christmas that I bought in Guatemala, so she sees it as a "plus", not as a negative. For instance, we use a special table runner only on her birthday that is from Guatemala. For her "family" assignment, we brought in pictures of the two of us, and pictures of us with her foster family in Guatemala, because they are considered "our family in Guatemala". I know there will days ahead when more explanations will be necessary but I think if you plant the seed that adoption is adding to your child's life, instead of taking away from their identity, you can help your child develop positive self-esteem to counter those negative, or just plain nosy comments.

Posted by: belinda at 4:25pm Dec 4

My take on comments from random strangers is that in general, they're just curious. I don't think people INTEND to be rude, but curiousity gets the best of them and s they ask. My son is Korean, so I often get "how did you get a BOY from China?" I correct the comment that he's not Chinese, but Korean, and that it's possible to get children of both sexes from lots of different countries, it's a matter of process. I also get "my neighbor/cousin/friend adopted from China. That's one smart little girl" as if somehow a child's race plays into their intelligence. I usually just smile and move on. Other funny commnets I get from my students who should be old enough to know better, but sometimes just aren't are "will you tell Ben he's adopted?" or "why didn't you have kids of your own? what's wrong with you?" Depending on my mood, I'll either explain with correct answers and also give them a little lesson in politeness or I"ll make some flippant comment like "nope, I was planning to keep it a secret for life. I don't think he'll ever find out" (I do this because they're in middle school and typcially realize I'm being sarcastic. I wouldn't so this with younger kids). It's surprising in this day and age that so many people are missing those social boundaries. I also get very positive comments from the few Korean people in my community. There is the manager of a local fast food chain who comes out and speaks to Ben in Korean and whom I just may ask to translate something I have from his birthmom. There's the check-out clerk at the local grocery store, and there are a few kids in the area who are also Korean. These people usually are so excited to see a Korean baby they practically jump out of their skin! This makes up for some of the wacky/socially intrusive comments I get. Maybe it's becuase we're such an "instant" society that people forget their manners? I guess it's up to the few of us left wtih boundaries to teach those who don't have them how to get them!

Posted by: Jill at 10:31am Dec 8

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