Wednesday 9 June 2010

My Children Are Not Educational Toys

[By popular demand.... #5. My thoughts on this were not as coherent as I had hoped. This nearly killed me, y'all.]

I've made a decision - the next person to ask me whether I need to put suncream on the babies is getting a punch in the mouth. I'm not quite sure why this is every white person's 'go-to' question about raising black children, but that seems to be the case. Like if they suddenly found themselves in my shoes, it wouldn't matter if the child grew up totally unsure about their identity, where to fit in, lacking any positive black role models and looking down the barrel of casual racism every day; that would be fine, but heaven forfend the baby should get sunburned.

I know I'm overreacting about that particular question, and if anybody I know in real life is reading this then they are definitely going to be offended, because I'm pretty sure that every single white person I know has asked me this question since the sun came out here, about two weeks ago. And I do take sun safety very seriously. And on one level, it's fine that people ask me this. It's sunny, we're at the park, they're slapping the suncream on their kids, it's a reasonable question. And I prefer curiosity to someone saying 'oh, seriously, your child isn't white? I didn't notice! Because we're all the same on the inside!' But sometimes, this question, and others like it, ('what do you do with their hair?') can make me feel really uncomfortable, and I don't quite know what to do.

I think I've almost figured out how to deal with conversations that are openly racist, or, more commonly, just plain ignorant. No matter who, no matter where, don't let it slide, ever. Challenge. Disagree. Not just when it's a conversation about people who share the same colour skin as my children, but anything racist, all the time. Zero tolerance. There's a lot of stuff that I used to let slip by me, but now - no way. I'm acutely aware that many adult adoptees say their parents weren't active enough as their anti-racist advocates, particularly with extended family, and those of us who have had the opportunity to learn from their experience have NO excuse if the same is said about us.

But I find this kind of thing much harder. It's not a racist question. It's not even a particularly stupid question. But it makes me prickle. I think that what upsets me is this. I get the distinct impression that some of my white friends ask me questions about my black babies that they would never ask if I was a black mother. Or at least, ask them in a way that they wouldn't ask a black mother. This is difficult to articulate, but I feel like there is an unspoken assumption that we belong to the same club, they and I, a club to which my children do not belong. And that our sameness means that it's okay - indeed, expected - for us to share information and experiences about our encounters with those who are not the same. Even, in my case, if those who aren't the same are also my children. We all know that the first rule of White Club is YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT WHITE CLUB, so none of this would ever be said out loud. But honestly, in some conversations it is palpable.

It feels similar to what I experienced when I moved to the UK from Australia. When I came across other Australians, we would always form a huddle and complain about the same things - usually the price of food, how cold it was, how long it was since we'd seen the sun and the impossibility of really getting to know anyone properly. Then we would tell stories about Rude English People I Have Met, and What They Said To Me. It was comforting. But time went on, and something changed. I began to feel at home here. I worked out how to navigate the supermarket, bought a decent coat, resigned myself to a lifetime of Seasonal Affective Disorder and made some friends. My accent was Australian (and it still is) but I didn't feel quite so partisan anymore. I began to feel that at least part of me was becoming British. And then the moaning sessions weren't quite so welcome. When people would hear my voice, and then want to talk about what was wrong with the UK, I kept finding myself thinking 'what makes you think I'm on YOUR side in this conversation?'

And that's how I keep feeling now. White people see my skin, and I think it makes them think that I'm on their side. I'm not going to go down the 'now that I have Ethiopian children, I consider myself to be Ethiopian too', road, because I think that's a pile of horse manure. I'm still white, I'll always be white, and there's nothing I can do about that. But that doesn't mean I'm on their side.

It does feel, sometimes, like people view my children as educational toys. They're a safe, easy way to learn about black people. You know, without actually having to talk to a black person. And I get frustrated, because my children are not a bridge. They do not have a responsibility to my friends to link all the colours of the world into a complacent little circle. And they are not objects; curiosities to be examined. They are their own selves, with their own complicated histories, and neither they nor I owe my friends any information about their skincare regime. I think that sometimes people are wanting some kind of inside scoop - for me to go into detail about how hard it is to care for such 'difficult' hair or skin, but it's just not going to happen. They aren't entitled to that information, even if it was the case. I am not on their side.

But sometimes it's a hard balance. Because sometimes I ask myself - are these the opportunities I've been waiting for? Is the problem not too many questions about their skin, but too few? I think most of us can agree that a fake-o 'colourblind' approach to life doesn't do our children any favours. And I wish that I could have more frank discussions with my white friends about race, not fewer. But I want them to be real. Surely the really important issues around skin are privilege and prejudice, not, well, skin. I want to talk about how we approach our own whiteness, before talking about anybody else's blackness. I don't really know how those conversations would sound, but I'm sure they wouldn't just be about sun safety or hair products. I hate that I am still so bad at making those conversations happen.

So, back to the sun cream. Mostly, when sun cream comes up, I say 'Well! The babies take longer to burn than a very pale baby, but they will still burn. I do put sun cream on them, but we don't need it if they're only going to be outside for a little while. We have suncream that smells like coconut. Doesn't their skin smell delicious? What type of suncream do YOU use?' And questions about hair get 'isn't their hair BEAUTIFUL? I just can't wait until her hair is long enough to braid. Do you think your little Susie's hair is going to stay blonde?' And none of this is going to set the world on fire, and sometimes I wish I could have the courage to be a lot ruder, but for now, for questions that aren't outright impolite, I've decided to stick with simple answers that affirm my children and then move swiftly on.

All of this feels almost impossible to write about, because I'm so painfully aware of how little I know. And maybe my approach is wrong - maybe I'm reading too much into comments that are totally innocent, or maybe the reverse is happening and I'm ignoring something really big, and I should be... well, I don't know. And of course some of my friends don't do anything like this, and I need to remember that I never used to care about race until I realised that it was going to affect my family. So I'd better not climb too high onto my high horse, or I'm liable to fall off. This is all really hard. I know I'm making mistakes. I hope I'll be willing to learn from them. But whatever happens, I hope the babies always know that I am on their side.


  1. Oh Claudia.
    There is so much--SO MUCH--in this post. I can't even probably don't want to hear this but I read every word you write and discuss with my husband and you are helping us immensely...blazing a trail (and I know you don't WANT to be an educational toy yourself for other adoptive parents!). But there you go.

    The first rule about white club is you don't talk about white club--no truer words have been spoken/written/blogged. And the weight of those words is tremendous.

    Your last sentence is precious and a treasure--yes, your babies will always know you are on their side. You're one fierce momma!

  2. Wow, that was an amazing post. You really hit the nail on the head naming the weighty issues behind those "innocent" questions from friends and strangers. Good for you for being fiercely on your children's side.

  3. Yes Yes Yes! I love it when you blog your thoughts.

  4. this is so... it's just... i can't even say how...

    well (obviously) I'm practically speechless.

    you said it all so very well. I really have nothing to say but AMEN to all of that.

  5. Gosh, what a fabulous post.

    And even though you said at some point that you don't feel very articulate, you so are!

    (also, didn't know you're Australian)

    I'm afraid I'm one of those bolshie sorts who sees every interaction as an opportunity to EDUCATE but you're right, not when it comes to my children.

    I really think you're doing such a fantastic, balanced job with this - well done!

  6. This is one of the best posts I've read on race in a very long time. Thank you.

  7. Thanks for saying that you are painfully aware of how little you know. It makes me feel better. I feel utterly speechless (and dumb) at times about these issues. I keep telling myself that having the motivating factor of an actual newly adopted child in my house will change my frame of reference. Right now my thoughts seem obscure and I feel way too white. Thanks so much writing this, you've no idea how much it helps me read these thoughts. You're Australian? Had no idea.

  8. fantastic. thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this. you seemed to hit every nail squarely on its head and eloquently said what is just a mashed up jangle of fear and tongue-tied thoughts in my own head. i have so much to learn and i hate that i'm learning with my own kid having to hear my "explanations" to people's queries. I found your line about how you didn't worry about race until it affected you very convincing and very accurate as honestly this has been my experience too. again, thanks so much. corinne, &

  9. I've tried to think of an appropriate comment a few times, but my words seem to fail today. Thus, all I'm going to say is "Bravo!" and "Thank You!"

  10. I love your justified anger/frustration with these questions that seem invasive and weird - even though it is hard to explain exactly why. Though you did an excellent job! Being on your children's side, even if you end up coming off rude, does seem like the best thing to do, even if you don't have it all sorted out yet.

    I am tired, too, of having people want their kids to be friends with ours so they can feel off the hook for not going out and befriending whole families of color. I don't want my kids to be their token brown friends.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!

  11. you are my hero. can i send my whole family to read this without hinting that they tick me off sometimes? i think i will have to. because I am on my son's side now.

    also, i heartily agree with Corinne
    s comment.

    also, my word verification is "and skin"

    also, i am in addis right now reading your post. so cool. i should be asleep though.

  12. There is so much I want to say but I have literally one minute. So. Now I can say very little. But know this- this is an outstanding post and I'm so glad you wrote it.

  13. I think you do a good job. And if it helps, I think in some cases the questions just depend on if the person you're asking is a friend. (at least for me. Are these people asking you strangers? Then I totally get it.) But my Nigerian friend and I ask each other questions like that all the time. She once asked me how I managed my "witch's hair." Absolutely no offense intended. It makes me laugh to this day.

  14. This is such a great post. I was shocked at how many people in my neighborhood, who have ignored me for years, now want to hang out so the kidlets can be their bridge, and so they can hang out with black people without having to hang out with black people. Thanks for writing this.

  15. First let me ask - what sunblock you use while on your high horse??? (obviously joking)
    Then let me say - I am so, so, so naive. And I am fearful my children will pay the price. Because I do believe many questions are innocent. And I do believe that sometimes people become friends because of their kids or their dogs and there isn't some underlying negative motivation.
    I want to be aware... I want to be helpful... I want to talk about what is important. But I don't want to be suspicious and assuming.
    Having moved to a whole new state (where we know no-one) the same week I brought home my son means I will never have the absolute knowledge of who my new friends were before I was "the mother with the adopted black child."
    One thing is for sure, Claudia, you are keeping the conversation stirred up, and the value of that is beyond measure. Now I have to go read your post again.
    Thank you,

  16. A few months ago, a college friend of mine wrote me on fb to tell me how wonderful she thinks Abe is, how much she wishes her son and my son could play and how much she'd love her child to have "an Abe" in his life. She lives in a community that is 50/50 white/black. She isn't friends with any of the non-white members of her community and considers my son "safe" because of his membership in the White Club. I was pretty offended never wrote her back. This post explains exactly why I was upset. My son is not her bridge. She should find her own.

  17. I empathize with your feelings and agree with much of your post. I also feel that I want to encourage more questions. White people have so much fear about race, which usually results in silence, which results in more segregation, which results in more misunderstandings and racism in general. So, my approach has been to help people feel comfortable with talking about race, no matter how the conversation begins (as long as I think they mean well). It may start with the banal question about sunscreen or hair, but perhaps if that goes well, they may feel better about talking about bigger stuff. No, our children should never feel that they're a "bridge" or educational tool, but I'm also cautious not to end the conversation. I don't know, perhaps that is a contradiction that I'll have to rectify. All I know is this: No conversation = no learning. There is so much learning we all have to do!

  18. Oh and it's so so so annoying to have to hear the same question over and over and over again... and then have to answer it over and over and over again. It only compounds it's idiocy in my brain. UGH!!

  19. This is a great post, Claudia. I'd love to repost it at Irene's Daughters sometime!


Over to you!