My Responses and Yours to “The Tiresome Question I’m Often Asked about My Brown Kids: ‘Where Are They From?’”
I was hesitant when Melissa Giraud and Andrew Grant-Thomas invited me to be a Staff Blogger with EmbraceRace. Don’t get me wrong: I’m comfortable writing and talking about race, and I think open dialog and sometimes-difficult conversations are crucial to dismantling racism and enacting real change. But, I was (and am) wary of centering my perspective as a white person. I do think white people need to reckon with, talk, and write about race and privilege, but I’m keenly aware of and invested in the need for white people to listen to Native people and people of color and to help amplify their voices.
So, when I wrote my first piece for EmbraceRace, “The Tiresome Question I’m Often Asked About My Brown Kids: Where Are They From?” (posted 4/29/16) I didn’t want it to stop at examining my experiences as a white mom of a diverse group of six children.
Instead, I wanted to build up to a culminating statement that would highlight “the fact that there are over 100,000 children in the United States without permanent families, and many of these children are children of color.” I wrote that sentence in my closing paragraph, and I provided a link to enable readers to get more information about the demographics of children in the American foster care system and the tremendous need for safe, permanent families for them. I saw this point as central to unpacking the question “where are they from?” and how it sometimes illuminates an assumption that adopted kids are from other countries, which, in turn, risks perpetuating factors that contribute to the instability of those thousands of waiting American children.
Building community in the space between readers and a text
I teach my students that meaning doesn’t reside in a text alone, but in the space between a text and a reader. This is why one text can provoke myriad responses, and I can therefore understand and accept that only some readers responded to this concluding part of my essay, while many reacted to other parts of what I wrote. Overall, I was heartened by the range and depth of thoughtful dialog that emerged in comments on Medium and in re-postings on the Huffington Post and the New York Observer. People raised questions, shared similar stories, asked for advice, posed challenges and offered other viewpoints. This give-and-take of ideas and stories around kids, family, and race is at the heart of why Melissa and Andrew created EmbraceRace, and it’s what I’m finding most personally valuable about my participation in this fledgling community.
Take, for example, what commenter Ranjeet Tate wrote in response to my unpacking of the question “where are they from?” with regard to my children of color:
“[it may be t]iresome, and inconvenient. But still a white experience for you. I know plenty of ‘brown’ mothers of fairer skinned children who are (with great kindness) presumed to be the hired nanny. Even though your interlocutors come from the same place of ignorance and idiocy, the effect on the ‘brown’ mothers is not just tiresome, it is demeaning and worse.”
“Yes!” I thought when I read these words, and I was grateful he added this perspective — my piece was incomplete without it. For the record, even when I was a brand-new parent in my early twenties, no one ever asked me if I was the babysitter or nanny to my children of color. Take a moment and think about the reasons why this might be…and then read this from commenter Dolores Du Bois:
“‘You’re so good with children, do you have any extra hours…?’ I would be asked. ‘Excuse me, do you mind telling me how much you charge per hour?’ Apparently, it never occurred to them that a woman who looked like me could be the biological mother of a fair-skinned and blonde child. When I answered that the child was mine, I could see the look of embarrassment and confusion — and then, the beginning of a convenient explanation: ‘Oh, is she adopted…?’”
He’s not my husband
One of the first commenters on my essay, Trevor Bird, identified himself as a biracial man who is the biological son of a white mother, and he wrote that as an adult he and his mom have been asked, not about nannying or adoption, but about their presumed marital status:
“‘Are you two married?’ ‘Is that your husband?’ ‘We have a great couples discount as well!’ It’s quite disturbing and extremely awkward, but none of it compares to the very noticeable level of awkwardness they experience when we tell them we are mother and son.”
I had to laugh when I read this comment, because it reflects experiences that my 19-year-old biological, biracial son, Rory, and I are just beginning to encounter now that he is entering adulthood. Last summer we were shopping at Trader Joe’s and I was standing with several of my kids waiting for them to get food samples. Rory was off to the side. As I passed the doled-out paper-cupful of some treat or another to my daughter, the woman working behind the counter asked me, “Would you and your husband like one?” “My husband?” I asked, confused, and then I realized she was referring to Rory. “Oh! My son!”
She turned scarlet, and Rory swept in with a laugh and said, “Don’t worry, it’s just that my mom is so young and I’m so mature. Happens all the time.”
Rory’s good-natured response is characteristic of how he handles such encounters, and if I’m being generous to myself, I’d say that he learned this, in part, from me. Several commenters on my previous essay pointed out that questions and comments about my family might arise from genuine curiosity and goodwill, and I promise that I really do recognize this. As I learned is common practice, I didn’t write the titles assigned to my piece on Medium and the Huffington Post (I simply gave my essay the working title “Where Are They From?” when I submitted it), and in retrospect, I think the published titles were a bit click-baity as they led with a stance that is more hostile to questions than mine typically is. As I wrote in my piece: “I try to receive them with generosity and openness — to a degree. I want to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I hope that their curiosity stems from goodwill and perhaps an interest in adoption that comes from lived experience, or even from plans or hopes to become adoptive parents.”
Trying (and sometimes failing) to respond with generosity and kindness
But, I’m only human, and I admit I have moments when my patience wears thin. Or sometimes, I sense not curiosity and goodwill, but hostility, or condescension, or worse. Or I might feel protective of my kids, standing there, absorbing poorly-thought-out questions and comments like “Where are they from?” and also: “Are they real sisters?” or “Where’d you get him?” or “What is she?” or “Didn’t you worry they’d be damaged?” or “Are you the real mom?” or “That’s not your mom” or “They’re so lucky you took them in” or “How do you handle that hair?” or “How much did it cost to adopt them?” or “Was she exposed to drugs?” or “You’re a saint. I could never do what you’re doing” or “She doesn’t look black.” And I dig deep to try to respond with generosity and kindness, but also with my kids’ needs at heart first. (Someone responded to my post with a recommendation that I check out Mother in the Mix, and I like her “Ask-back” strategy to such questions. Check it out).
And sometimes the stakes feel oh-so high, and the personal so very political, as I try to safely guide my children of color through a society that doesn’t always recognize their individuality, or their wholeness as human beings, or their rightful places as Americans. I won’t use space here to quote the hateful voices that characterize Native people and people of color as other, or lesser, or as not belonging here. Instead, I want to highlight a few comments from diverse readers of my prior essay that speak to experiences akin to those I offered:
“I’m glad you wrote this, it’s an interesting perspective. As a Mexican American (born in Ohio, parents born in Texas), I’m always asked where I’m from — to which I say ‘Ohio.’ And then I’m usually ‘corrected’, ‘Yeah, but where are you from?’. I mostly just chalk it up to people not articulating their thoughts clearly. I truly hope they aren’t assuming, because I’m dark complected, I’m not from around here! It’s probably naïve of me to do so, giving others the benefit of doubt like that. These exchanges can definitely be frustrating sometimes.”
“‘Brown people are born here too.’ I often wish I could yell this from the rooftops. The question ‘Where are you from?’ is among the first I’m asked in any non-face-to-face interaction. In person, my American accent and Boston pride are unmistakable. But if I’m online dating, the first assumption others make about me is that I am not from here. And nothing can irritate someone who bleeds red, white and blue more… Not having white skin does not mean I belong here any less than anyone else. My parents were immigrants, but I’m about as American as it gets.”
“As for me, when folks ask me where I’m from I too let them know the Midwest city I was born in. No but seriously what’s my culture? American as apple pie. ‘Your English is really good, when did you come over here?’”
“I’m Latina and have been asked the ‘Where are you from?’ question my whole life. It’s weird, I never really thought about it the way you explain it, but you’re so right. I always felt strange about it, but I also hoped that it was just innocent interest in my heritage. Even worse is the ‘What are you?’ question… That one really gets my blood boiling. As if I could be something other than human. I’m infinitely proud of my ancestry and ethnicity and welcome interest in it, but some people don’t actually care. Some people only see that I’m ‘different.’”
These comments weren’t written by white mothers of children of color, nor (as far as I can tell from their comments) by people of color with white mothers. And yet, their stories and perspectives intersect with my family’s, and those points of contact are the stuff of solidarity. There were many other comments that gave me good food for thought to mull over future posts for EmbraceRace, and I’m truly grateful for them. Even the few dismissive or hateful comments just show the work we have to do to create a more open and humane society for all people. So yes, I was hesitant to sign on to EmbraceRace, but I’ll keep writing, and I’ll keep listening, too.