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My Ethiopian Daughters

By Rita Radostitz

My daughters have caramel brown skin, dark brown eyes, and tightly curled black hair. They are African by birth, American by citizenship, but have always self-identified as Habesha (the Amharic word for Ethiopian). Two-and-a-half years ago, these eight-year-old twins left everything familiar and came to America to learn a new language, a new culture, a new family’s ways. Because of their history—and the long history of their people—they fit in differently in our society. Even though they have brown skin, and were adopted, they have little in common with the other African-American girl in their class, a native English speaker adopted by white parents as an infant.

My daughters’ biggest trauma stems from grieving their mother’s death. They watched as she became sick and died. They remember her, how she cherished them, and how sad they were (and are) that she was not able to raise them. Her picture holds a place of honor on our wall of family photos. When I parent them differently, they are quick to point it out. Every day, I try to respect our cultural differences and incorporate what they’ve lost into our lives.

It’s true that my daughters deal with racism, but they find it more baffling than upsetting. Their perspective of who they are is steeped in pride at being Ethiopian, from one of the oldest cultures in the world, in one of the few African nations never to have been colonized. Theirs is not the history of slavery and segregation experienced by African Americans. This distinction—that my daughters were born in Ethiopia and are citizens of America, rather than African-American—is a hot-button issue for many people. We make the distinction not to distance ourselves from African-Americans, but because my daughters’ culture is as distinct from that of their African-American friends as it is from that of their Korean-American friends. For them, being Ethiopian-American is about nationality, about culture, and only tangentially about race.

They know about slavery, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oprah Winfrey. But their history is the reign of Emperor Selassie, the majesty of the Queen of Sheba, and the speed of Olympic champion Haile Gebre-Selassie. "Soul food" is as foreign to them as injera and doro wat are to their classmates.

As a mother, I have to learn to balance this. I teach them the history of Africans in America, not simply because they are perceived as African-American, but because that history is a part of my history, part of American culture. I must teach them to honor their Ethiopian pride without letting them act like Ethiopian princesses. And I must help them to cherish what they left behind, while appreciating all that they have to look forward to.

Where do I go for help? There is no book on "parenting an adopted Ethiopian child," nor is there an Ethiopian-American museum. But we have books about Ethiopian history and Ethiopian folktales on our bookshelves, Ethiopian art on our walls, and Ethiopian spices in our kitchen. We also have friends: the Ethiopian college students who have become "big sisters," other families with Ethiopian children, who live close by.

We talk together about race, and I struggle with fixing their hair. We live our crazy, mixed-up culture every day, eating berbere on scrambled eggs for breakfast, and potatoes with ketchup for dinner. And we do our best to be a family: an interracial, intercultural family, but, most importantly, just a family.

Rita Radostitz is the director of fundraising and communication for Adoption Advocates International. Her 11-year-old daughters joined her family in June 2005.

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