I sat on the suitcase watching my daughters, ages 5 and 6, play tight-rope walker on the parking bumpers in the car rental return parking lot. My husband was inside, handling paperwork. The girls were 10 feet away from me and there was no one else around. We were outside, under a shining sun, waiting for the shuttle to the airport to catch our flight home.
“Whose kids are these?” a strange voice demanded with a shout. I turned and saw the shuttle driver.
“They’re mine,” I replied.
The driver looked me up and down with a bitter expression on his face.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“These your kids?” he asked incredulously.
“I said they were. Is there a problem?”
He didn’t answer but got into the shuttle. We loaded our own suitcases and climbed aboard.
The 5-minute drive to the airport seemed so much longer. I watched the driver’s reflection in the rear-view mirror. He continued to glance up and scowl at me, my husband, and our girls. Our daughters were oblivious, my husband was curious, but we were the only passengers on the shuttle and my eye motions were not enough to explain to him what was transpiring. When we finally pulled up to the terminal, I couldn’t get my family away from this man fast enough.
Ten years have passed and I still remember this as if it happened yesterday.
We’re a biracial family, built through adoption; two Caucasian adults and 2 Latina daughters. This isn’t the only time we’ve run into a situation like this, but thankfully, most people who meet us for the first time don’t seem as taken aback by our family makeup as this shuttle driver was. For me and my husband, it’s almost become a non-issue.
But my daughters would disagree.
When we moved to a new community four years ago, their elementary classmates were full of questions. That’s your mom? Why doesn’t she look like you? This was to be expected, I thought. It’ll die down. And we coached them on how to respond and comforted them when the questions became too much.
We got the second wave in middle school, where they were suddenly thrown in with hundreds of students they’d never met before. A school counselor tried to carry on a conversation with my daughter in Spanish, assuming that just because she was Latina she spoke the language. Kids did double-takes when they saw my husband or me behind the wheel in the pick-up lane. The volleyball coach asked my daughter where her mother was, when I was standing right next to her. The looks and questions were even more intense from the other Hispanic students in the school trying to process our family make up.
When you’re in middle school, you want to blend in with the crowd. Having olive skin and dark eyes, when your mom has freckled arms coated in sunscreen, just doesn’t help.
When we adopted our kids, we said that skin color didn’t matter. And it didn’t. And it still doesn’t matter to us. It didn’t matter to our daughters, until they started to notice that even in this modern age, it still matters to others. Now that they’ve hit adolescence, it’s become a big deal.
So, what’s an adoptive parent to do? How do we coach our teen through this kind of reaction from others? Here are some tips we’ve learned:
- Keep your eyes and ears open. Try to notice what your teen notices so that – IF they bring it up – you can talk about it later.
- Be aware that it’s happening more than you realize. Your radar on this isn’t nearly as strong as your teen’s.
- Don’t (over)react when it does happen. Stay calm and go about your business. If strangers ask questions, like “Where’s your daughter from?” I’ve learned to respond: “She was born in Guatemala but we’re from Holland.”
- Don’t minimize their sensitivity to this. As a middle-aged Caucasian woman, there’s no way I can perceive this the way my daughters do. Their feelings are their feelings, not mine.
- Help your teen develop tools for dealing with the stares of curiosity, confusion, or disgust. Your family is different, it is unique. The W.I.S.E. Up program created by Marilyn Schoettle, M.A., at the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.) empowers children and teens to take control when they encounter painful or disturbing encounters with others who are uneducated about adoption. The W.I.S.E. Up Powerbook provides helpful information and collaborative guides, and is available for purchase. The basic concepts are:
W – Walk away or choose not to pay attention
I – It’s private: I can choose not to share information
S – Share some information about adoption or my story
E – Educate others about adoption in general, by telling them correct information and helping them understand it.
Lord willing, one day soon society can see a transracial family and not even question it. But until then, we need to remember that this issue is circling around our teens every day.