The Day Cute and Brown Became Black and Threatening
Kevin Hofmann, was adopted in 1967 by a family in Detroit. Kevin was bi-racial (black/white) and his adoptive parents were white. He talks about transracial adoption from the been-there-lived-that perspective in his moving and often humorous book Growing Up Black in White. Kevin has been on an Adult Transracial Adoptee Panel on the Creating a Family show and whenever we talk I have always been impressed with his ability to capture the reality of his experience in words. He agreed to share some thoughts with us.
At 8 years old I stood in line waiting to get a ride in the little cart attached to the small donkey at Upland Hills Farm summer camp. This was a farm/day camp located in a rural area just outside of Detroit. While Mom and Dad worked during the summer months my brothers and sister and I and several other inner-city youths were bused Monday through Friday from Detroit to a farm. It was a program designed to allow inner-city children the opportunity to experience fresh, clean, farm living. Although at 8 years old, this farm seemed much more dirty than any city street I knew. I vividly remember trying to avoid cow and horse pies all day long hoping my Range Master shoes wouldn’t sink in a freshly made pie. Looking back on it, this program was designed for the “inner city” youth, but it doesn’t appear any of the black families got the memo because I remember being the only child of color on the 45 minute morning bus ride, at the farm all day long, and on 45 minute ride home at the end of the day.
It was here at this farm while waiting in line to ride in the donkey buggy that I matured from a cute little brown boy, who could flash a smile and get my way, into a black male adolescent.
While getting in line, I mistakenly cut in front of an older white boy and when he pointed out that I “took cuts,” I flashed him my cutest smile. The same smile that made color disappear in the past. But that day, I grew out of cute and no longer would the smile cover my darker skin. The boy looked at me with such disgust, anger, and hate that I instantly felt myself shrink. It was the look I would come to learn and understand exactly what it meant as I continued to mature in this color conscious world. This was the look that could call me all kinds of names, and demean me without a word being spoken; the look that I still see today as I walk through life as a black man.
At the farm, I learned that my white privilege I had benefited from living in a white household stopped for me at my front door and once cute and brown dissolves into black the world becomes a different place… a much different place, especially for black males. My parents never had the talk with me to prepare me for this, but my black friends had the talk with their black parents. The talk that told them when this day comes that the person trying to shrink you with their eyes is the wrong one and that you are just as valuable as anyone. Instead, when this day came for me, I walked back to the end of the line several inches shorter than when I got up that summer morning.
What White Parents of Brown Children Must Do
Talking about race is the one dynamic that is interestingly very different in black versus white households. Statistics show nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents; 75 percent of white parents never or almost never talk about race. White parents must become comfortable with this topic and should start the conversation early and often (as early as 2-3 years in an age appropriate way), so when (not if) incidents like my donkey buggy story happen your children are comfortable telling you.
One of the best ways to talk about race in a less personal way is to use the TV. When a show or the news has a racial topic, start talking. From personal experience you can never totally prepare for something like my donkey buggy incident or when my son was called the “N” word in a basketball game. You can only be there to let them express what they are feeling, tell them how great they are, and work with them to resolve it. This can mean a whole lot of helpless feelings as a parent.
I encourage you to check out Kevin’s excellent blog–My Mind on Paper. To listen to Kevin and other adult transracial adoptees talk about being raised by parents of a different race, check out this Creating a Family podcast.
Image credit: Kevin Hofmann