Adoption: Wearing Your Heart on Your Sleeve
By wearing our hearts on our sleeves, are we jumping the gun and getting offended too easily?

When I was a kid, I was what the grownups called “overly sensitive”.  More than once I was told that my feelings would be less likely hurt if I didn’t wear them on my sleeve.  Life has proved this accurate, and it is not just feelings that can be worn on our sleeves.  Within the last several months, I’ve heard the following:

  • A mom was at the grocery store and overheard a fellow shopper comment that he wouldn’t buy the cantaloupe because it was from Guatemala.  As the adopted mom of two sons from Guatemala she took offense.
  • Zoë’s mom reported the following comment she heard while debating private versus public school education with an acquaintance.  The private school they were discussing was hard to get into.  The acquaintance remarked that Zoë would likely have an easier time getting into this school because she was African American and the school prided itself on diversity.  Zoë’s Caucasian mom was offended.
  • And then there is the perennial favorites asked of all parents who have children with non Caucasian skin coloring or eye shape:  “Where is your child from?”  I was on a radio show once (other than Creating a Family) talking about “comments” adoptive parents often hear.  A woman called in to say that she responded to the “where is he from comment” with an incredulous and loud “You mean to tell me that at your age you still don’t know where babies come from.”  She was practically gleeful at her witty put-down.

I’m as protective of my kids as the next mom, but I wonder if we are doing our kids any favors by being offended so easily.  I’m not even sure that the above remarks reveal any prejudice.  I try to shop local and eat in season.  I make an effort to not to buy cantaloupes from Guatemala, unless I’m in Guatemala.  Does that make me a racist or foreigner phobic or some patriotic nut job?  I don’t think so, but I’ll admit to being a little pesticide paranoia and a proud, if somewhat wayward, advocate of the locavore movement.  (I tell my kids that we should eat what’s in season until we’re so sick of it that we’re more than happy to not have it again until next year.  Just this weekend at the grocery store one daughter bemoaned the length of our local apple season and begged for some other fruit.  I relented with kiwis and grapes—the polar opposite of eating local and in season, although my happy daughter remarked that they were local and in season somewhere. That was too close to the “it’s five o’clock somewhere” thought for me to not give in.)

The second remark is trickier since the whole affirmative action debate can cut both ways.  The acquaintance’s remark may indeed have been accurate, but it implies that Zoë wouldn’t be accepted without being a minority.  If Zoë were truly not capable, I doubt she’d be accepted, but let’s face it, she might get the second interview because of her race.  I’ve got no problem with that since I think all schools benefit from having children of all races, backgrounds, cultures, and socioeconomic levels.  Not all education takes place in the classroom.  But does acknowledging this reality expose a closet bigot?

No doubt asking where a child is from is often a fishing expedition.  The questioner is probably trying to figure out if the child is adopted and if so, from where.  Fishing expeditions can be intrusive, but the motivation is seldom prejudice.  Maybe they are looking for a conversation starter or maybe they are thinking about adopting.  Although the question is often ill timed and sometimes crosses privacy boundaries, I’m not so sure it merits a bristly response.

As parents through transracial adoption we have to help our kids handle remarks like this, and offense doesn’t seem the best approach.  Going through life pissed off just isn’t healthy for us and certainly not for our kids.  Life is easier if you give people the benefit of the doubt.  In my experience, most people who make comments are more curious than racist.  I suggest assuming the best in people unless proven otherwise.

I’m still what some people would probably call “overly sensitive”.  I suspect it is part of my temperament.  Like all personality traits, there are positives (tuning into the feelings of others) and negatives (getting my feelings hurt even when that wasn’t the intent).  But life has taught me to at least try to keep things in perspective.  As adoptive parents we have to help our kids develop this perspective.  They’ll face enough prejudice on their own without going to look for it.

Image credit: kurichan+