“Where are your kids from?”
When you are a pale-skinned mom with two brown-skinned children, you get asked this question on a surprisingly frequent basis in casual conversations in all kinds of settings. In adoption circles, we refer to these people as “supermarket strangers,” people who don’t know us or our children but ask rather invasive and personal questions without much preamble.
Occasionally, someone reveals their own back story first before asking about yours and your children’s. Other times, people feel a need to connect with a family that looks like their own. Once a woman told me about her now fully-grown son because seeing me with my oldest in a sling at the grocery store made her nostalgic. I imagined how much more difficult it must have been for both her and her son being an interracial family 25 years ago in Vermont. Another time, a man in his seventies told me how beautiful my kids were and that he had grandkids who looked “just like them.” In some circles, of course, this would be code for “they all look alike,” but I knew that this proud grandpa was letting me know that he, too, has a multiracial family. He may never have imagined that he would one day be so closely related to brown-skinned people, but it was clear that he fully accepted them as his own kin.
Hardly anyone assumes that I am my children’s mother until they hear my children calling me “mama,” and that can cause awkward social situations and unwanted questions or comments that suggest to my young children that they are less my children. For example, I have been asked, in front of my children, “Couldn’t you have your own kids?” to which I always reply, “These ARE my own kids.” Once, in September, someone asked if my kids were Fresh Air Fund kids — after the school year had started. In our family, my husband and I make a conscious effort to stress to our children that we all belong together as a family, because we know that so often in the larger world we are not perceived that way, at least not initially, and sometimes not at all. Adopted kids can sometimes share the status of step- children in adults’ minds, with their “real” parents hovering somewhere in the background.
But usually when people ask the question, “Where are your kids from?” they are already operating from unspoken assumptions. And it’s been a real eye-opener to learn what those assumptions can be. The number one assumption in most social settings is that my children are from an African country. International adoptions can cost more than twice domestic adoptions, but have the advantage of allowing older and single people to adopt more readily than most United States agencies allow. If I am someplace that suggests I am of certain socioeconomic means, like the Middlebury Food Co-op, or conducting professional development at a school, people are more likely to assume I adopted internationally. This despite the fact that I am married and was younger than 40 when I adopted my first child (40 is the cut-off age for many states in allowing infant adoption).
Statistically, it is unusual for upper-middle class married white people in the United States to adopt African American children. For a whole host of reasons, many adoptive parents want kids who “look like them,” or at least won’t draw immediate attention to the fact that they are a family formed by adoption. It can be difficult living in a fishbowl, and many parents don’t want that for either themselves or their children. In addition, many people in America live a fairly segregated life from an early age. They simply don’t have the same level of comfort that my husband and I have around all kinds of people. We were both raised in diverse suburbs of metropolitan areas, by parents who were explicitly antiracist in their values, and went on to have close friends and romantic relationships with people who were of different religions and ethnic and racial backgrounds than ourselves, including black people.
And then there is the unspoken “white elephant” in the room: the persistence of racism against dark-skinned African Americans in this country among whites. Surveys reveal that half of all whites in the United States think racism has basically disappeared, but adoption preferences tell a totally different story: Among parents who are willing to create an obviously multiracial family, far more are willing to adopt Hispanic or biracial American-born babies than African American children. In international adoptions, Russia, China and Guatemala topped the list for years before those countries began restricting their policies.
But I was startled yesterday when a friend of my oldest son’s was visiting for a play date and asked him where he was born. He told her, Pennsylvania, but she didn’t believe him, so she came and checked out his story with me. Turns out, the kids at school think he was born in Africa. As I already mentioned, this is a fairly common assumption among adults who may have clues about our socioeconomic status or who know other kids adopted from Ethiopia (the one African country that is truly open to international adoption at this point). But coming from a third-grader at Neshobe, who would be naïve about these first two factors, I guessed that something else was at work: the citizenship slander against President Barack Obama.
My son had informed me some weeks earlier that a classmate’s mother did not believe Obama should be President because he was born in Africa. Brandon is definitely a far more conservative town than Middlebury, with a lower educational attainment level and, I am sure, a higher proportion of FOX News viewers. The deliberate confusion about Obama’s birth (yes, Hawaii is a state, and no, it is not in Africa), like the mispronunciations of his name (Osama for Obama) that were pervasive in the campaign continue to thrive as gospel truth among some residents of Brandon, and this has trickled down, in its own innocent way, to my son’s world. So my husband and I are preparing him, as we do for all of his encounters with ignorant or racist people, with a come back: “I was born in Pennsylvania. Don’t you know where Pennsylvania is?” After that, most kids want to share where they were born too, or to lay claim to it themselves: “I’ve been to Pennsylvania. My grammy lives there.”
And my husband and I decided not to discuss the push to delegitimize Obama’s presidency by the far right with our kid. Instead, when we ask him why he thinks kids ask if he was born in Africa, he says, “Because there aren’t that many browned-skinned people in Vermont. But the rest of the world is different.”
To which I give silent thanks that Vermont is becoming “different” too.
Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.