Thursday, May 24, 2012

When strangers ask questions | Part 1

This post is the first in a series about how to handle intrusive questions about our transracial families.

 If you are a transracial family, you probably know what this post title is all about.  When we become parents to children who don't look like us (through adoption or step-parenting/marriage), we are instantly more visible to other people.  Many, many total strangers have asked us very personal questions about our daughter.

When Anya Rashi and I are by ourselves, we fly "under the radar" a little more.  People often assume that my husband is of another race -- I've had some hilarious and awkward encounters resulting from that assumption, like the time a cashier at the grocery store asked if an African-American man with gorgeous dreadlocks was my husband.  The poor man -- all he was doing was walking behind me while I stood in the  line.  Another time, a stranger walked up to Peter while he was holding Anya Rashi and started shouting, "Hola!!  Hola!!" at her, assuming she was Hispanic.  But the older she gets, the less humor there is in these situations.

Other times, people ask questions because they themselves are connected to adoption.  I've had some beautiful conversations with other adoptive parents that way.  Other times, they're just commenting on how beautiful my daughter is -- just as anyone might compliment a biological mother.

Then there are the other types of questions -- the ones about Anya Rashi's history, her birth place, and her birth parents and their circumstances.  If you are not an assertive person with good boundaries before adoption, you will likely have to grow into that type of person.  As she grows older, I have had to be more comfortable shutting down questions that embarrass her.  At this point, she is old enough to understand everything, and her personality is such that she does not like being the center of attention (or worse, being talked about as though she isn't standing right there).

This week, I was part of a great discussion on a transracial adoption forum about this very topic.  There is a wonderfully wise social worker who weighs in on these topics.  Jane Brown is able to offer unique insight, since she grew up in an ever-changing transracial family with parents who provided foster care.  She is now a licensed social worker who advocates and holds workshops for adoptees.  Children, teens, and grown adoptees have provided her with their perspectives about what it's like to be the unwilling center of attention, and offered their experiences as guidance for the adoptive parents in how to talk about adoption, deal with strangers' questions, and how to frame our reasons for adopting so our kids grow up with healthy identities.

One of the points she shared was about INTENT vs. IMPACT.  Many of the situations and questions I detailed above are very innocent in their intent.  People are interested in adoption, and when Anya Rashi was very young, I often took the "educational" approach.  I liked sharing about what a blessing she was to our family, and usually tried to use that approach to deflect the hero/rescuer status people bestowed on us, which seems demeaning to her -- it makes me feel like they think our daughter was some kind of project we took on to try and save the world.  Especially after she turned 3, I have deflected this kind of talk to keep her dignity as a unique person intact.

Ms. Brown has this to say:  "Regardless of whether someone is asking questions that are well-intended, the primary concern needs to be the IMPACT on the child..  A stranger will be momentarily affected by what you say and then forget about you, but your child is deeply and permanently impacted by the accumulation of responses you give.  He (or she) learns whether he matters ENOUGH to count more than strangers who are voyeuristically curious.  She learns whether your need to brag or educate others about adoption is more important, or whether her need to feel like everyone else -- protected from being constantly and continually singled out -- is more important to YOU, the person she depends on most in the world."

I will post again next week about ways to respond to invasive questions, and about how to talk about God in the context of adoption in ways that don't create confusion for our children.  Many thanks to Jane Brown, MSW, for helping me and many others to be more informed parents!


The Baxter Family said...

Thank you so much for posting this! Our first daughter is now four years old, and like you, my responses to these questions from strangers (and others) have started to change. I am looking forward to your next post!

Miche said...

Oh this is so awesome, thank you! I want to be prepared for how to handle this when our Princess comes home. I wonder, how do you deflect the whole "wow, what a lucky kid" responses people might have? What are good things to say to indicate that we the parents are so privileged to have been able to parent our child?

Unknown said...

Great thoughts! The intent vs. impact is such a concise way to keep in mind what I want my goals to be in these interactions. I still bumble around more than I'd like so any additional tools are welcome.

Here's one I get a lot recently--are they siblings? (in reference to my 2 from India.) It finally occurred to me that "yes" is the right answer 99.9% of the time.


No Greater Love said...

Oh, Nancy....this is good. Thank you for taking the time to write it. I can't wait for the next one. I love that...intent vs. impact. I know for a fact that I wouldn't get mad at people for asking questions...I'm quite forgiving, and realize that people word things wrong, but totally don't mean it, so I am SO glad you wrote about how it's the impact on our child that is the most important thing when deciding how to answer. It will make me more opposed to my more normal "let things slide" attitude. :)

Oh...and I laughed out loud at the check out woman thinking you were married to the beautiful dreadlock man. :)

The Labontes said...

We have seen our way of responding change as the boys age as well. I was like you, "gently educating" for a long time, but as the boys are much more aware, and Max, like Anya, hates to be singled out for any reason, we shut down and give our "back pocket" answers much more. And like Heather, our answer to the sibling question has always been "yes."

Jenna said...

I am half Indian and I have people who guess I am Hispanic or Filipino all the time... Your daughter is beautiful! With living in So Cal, there are a lot of people who have adopted children so it is very interesting to hear your perspective on it. Thank you for the post![:

Karen said...

Thanks so much for this, Nancy -- I cannot wait to hear more!

:) Karen

Joy in the Journey! said...

I love the questions...most days. Having baby bug is allowing us to learn to deal with these questions and our answers before our precious 7 (8 by then) year old son comes home and KNOWS what people are saying.

Sometimes, I truly believe people don't mean what comes out... :)