I was walking home with from school the other day with my seven-year-old daughter, Jasmine, and I was giving her the business because she wore cowboy boots on a day she had gym class. After realizing this on the way to school that morning, I’d agreed to bring her sneakers to school. That was, until I scoured the entire house and couldn’t find them. So, at the crosswalk on our way home that afternoon, I said to her, “I looked in your messy room, but I couldn’t find them on your messy floor, or under your messy bed, or in your messy closet.”
Another parent overheard this and chuckled, saying, “Glad to hear we’re not the only ones.”
“Seriously!” I said. “You’re definitely not the only ones.” Then I turned back to Jasmine and continued, “Do you hear what I’m saying, Jasmine?”
“Sorry to interrupt,” the parent said. Then she looked down and said, “You’re Jasmine?”
Jasmine nodded her head.
The parent then introduced herself as Alice, the sister of our friends who had recently moved away. We’d known the sister and family for years—our kids had been in preschool together, the boys had played on football teams, and the girls had been to each other’s birthday parties. What surprised me was that Alice knew all of this. She referenced that she was friends with my wife, Laurie, on Facebook, but it boggled my mind that she knew so many details about each of our kids.
“That happens to me all the time,” said Laurie when I relayed the conversation to her later that evening. “Someone I hardly know as a Facebook friend sees me in person and goes on and on about something we did with the kids a year ago. People are fascinated by our family because we’re so different.”
It reminded me of the private joke we tell each other when we notice people staring at us: “They’re smiling because we’re such a good-looking family.” It’s an attempt to settle our nerves when strangers don’t bother to hide doing a double take when they see us walk in the room.
Our First Celebrity Appearances
We’ve definitely come a long way since we adopted our first child and became a transracial family 13 years ago. I have a distinct memory of the first time I took Isaac out in public by myself. We were living in a college town, and I took him to a used bookstore. It was one of my favorite places in town, so I thought of our outing as going someplace familiar. But on that trip, I was immediately aware of the feeling that I was being watched. Ordinarily, when I’m in close proximity with someone sporting a pink Mohawk and numerous nose piercings, I’m the one doing the poor job of acting casual. So it was surreal to have the tables turned.
At first, simple errands like going to the grocery store were uncomfortable. It was obvious all eyes were on us. When I was in a better frame of mind, I could sympathize. I mean, I’d stare too if I saw a full grown white man chasing after a small black child who was running around and shouting, “Where’s Mommy?”
I quickly realized staring was small potatoes compared to the comments people would make. “I think it’s so great what you’re doing,” a lady said to us once at a burger restaurant. My impulse was to immediately shut down the conversation, but Laurie was happy to have the chance to set the record straight.
“We like to think we’re doing what any parent would do,” Laurie said. The lady touched both hands to her heart, took a deep breath, and said goodbye.
“What does that phrase even mean?” I whispered to Laurie. “What I’m doing is providing lunch for my son. Am I supposed to get a Nobel Prize because I let him get root beer?”
This would be the first of countless times we’d hear that specific phrase, along with far more outlandish comments and invasive questions. And while I struggled with how to interact with strangers and acquaintances, Laurie seemed to thrive under all the attention. “It’s our chance to show that we know what we’re doing and taking good care of our kids,” she’d say. The children’s appearance became one of her top priorities. Before leaving the house, skin was always thoroughly lotioned, hair was freshly edged and groomed, and their clothes were clean, matching, and trendy. She was equally adept at responding to strangers’ questions and comments, and, after the interaction at the burger place, I learned it was wise to let her do most of the talking.
But as Laurie seemed to become more extroverted, I became all the more introverted. It’s not that I refused to leave the house, but I just wished people would mind their business. Then, when it became obvious people were always going to stare, I wondered if I’d ever get used to it. I just wanted to be treated like any other parent.
But as I think about the conversation with the parent I met walking home from school the other day, I realize I can view it either way. I could choose to feel uncomfortable that she knew us from Facebook specifically because we’re a transracial family. Or I can choose to remember that she engaged me in conversation like any other parent who’s walking home from school his kid who loses stuff all the time and wears cowboy boots on gym day.