Looking in from the outside

Do you ever think about how you look to the general public? Now, I’m not talking about whether your hair is perfect or your rear looks big in those jeans. But when strangers see you out and about, what do you make them think about? There is, of course, way more to all of us than what is apparent on the outside–and many times our real personality may not even conform to whatever stereotype our appearance evokes. But I do find myself wondering what stories pop into strangers’ heads when they see me and my son around town.

My curiosity about how strangers view us could just be my own neuroses. My son certainly does not seem to mind how others see us-he looks at me and sees only his mommy. All those people stopping us to comment on how cute he is or ask how old he is are only suspicious characters trying to distract me from giving him my full attention. Yet often I wonder if the added attention we get from the random passerby has to do how we came to each other and how our skin colors mark us as different and – to a stranger at least – not belonging to each other. I used to always assume that the average stranger sees us together and thinks about adoption, wondering if he was born in the US or another country. Perhaps that’s because it’s a question I ask when I see a parent-child pair of different races. Just today there was a White mama dropping off an Asian daughter at his daycare and my thoughts turned to adoption even though I had no clue about their real situation.

At least until recently when I was talking with a colleague who worked in another state. We work for different organizations that collaborate closely, holding monthly in person meetings. At one of the first meetings, I showed off lots of pictures of my son to everyone there. Of course being the usual proud mama who wants to brag on her kids. At the most recent meeting she mentioned she’s read a lot on racial identity development. It was more of passing comment made in a group setting but it sparked my interest. I am curious to watch how he develops his racial identity. How he resolves the fact that he is African American and Hispanic with White parents is a whole other topic. But I did read something that says by their second birthdays, toddlers in transracial families will have picked up on the difference in color and–if not quite its importance, the sense that skin color difference is not quite the same as having a different hair color. So later on when we were on our way to dinner, I asked her to recommend books I could read on racial identity development. As we got to talking, I told her about our situation. She was surprised and said that when she saw the pictures of my son, she assumed my husband was African American and that he was our biological son. It never occurred to her to think about adoption.

This was quite a new thought to me–the idea that we could “pass” as biologically related to each other when my husband is not with us. Don’t get me wrong, I am not ashamed of the adoption and don’t want Seven to feel that we need to “pass”. But sometimes you just don’t want to stick out or worry that if he has a meltdown someone will take it as commentary on all adoptive families and not what it is–a toddler being a toddler.

And then a story like this comes out where a father is questioned by the police because he has a different skin color than his daughters and “they just don’t fit together.” And it’s back to square one all over again. It is so disheartening to read that we haven’t come as far as I hoped in recognizing the diversity in all our families.

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