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Heavy Meddle: Help! Save Me — And My Child — From Other People's Adoption Ignorance

Yes, my family is transracial. No, that does not earn you the right to ask rude questions. (luiginter/flickr)MoreCloseclosemore
Yes, my family is transracial. No, that does not earn you the right to ask rude questions. (luiginter/flickr)

Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

Dear Steve,

I am a transracial adoptive parent, and I get very tired of people constantly praising me for “saving” my child. Many people ask very personal questions about his history before he joined our family. My son is 6-years-old now, and the questions have been asked continuously since he joined our family five years ago. The school secretary said, “He's so cute, why didn't his mother want him?” A person in Costco asked me what he was (his ethnicity) and how much he cost. He's shy and doesn't always talk to strangers, so I’m often asked if he speaks English. I actually had one old man in the grocery store insinuate that his mother was probably a prostitute.

I am frequently told that I am a saint for being willing to adopt. Most of these people mean well, but I can only imagine how horrible it feels to be told by strangers that you should be grateful that you lost your entire original family, got sent to a different country, and had to adjust to a whole new family, language and culture.

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These ridiculous comments and questions also come from teachers, coaches and parents of friends. We have definitely noticed that generally the less diverse the area is the more frequent and rude the questions are, but we have also gotten them from people who really should know better. I have come up with plenty of smart ass replies over the years, but I fear that these only make me feel better and do nothing to help my kid. For the record, we are very open with my son about his adoption and the circumstances surrounding it.

Thanks for any insight or advice you might be able to offer.
Flustered Mom

Dear Flustered,

This is going to sound weird, but I wouldn’t think of the people who make these comments as adults. In this context at least, I’d think of them as children, good-hearted but naïve (and therefore inconsiderate) children. This may help you view these encounters as teachable moments.

I realize it’s hard to summon patience when you’re dealing with a stranger who asks you in the middle of a supermarket how much your son cost. But it’s also true that your son is going to have to deal with ignorant and insensitive people for the rest of his life. As a parent, the best thing you can do is model grace and compassion, rather than anger.

It might also help to consider the motivations of the folks who offer these comments. The ones who make insulting remarks are either cruel, narrow-minded, or both. But most people, it sounds like, don’t even realize how hostile their comments are. My hunch is that they feel genuine admiration for your decision to adopt, in particular across race and culture. But they also feel threatened, at least unconsciously, because you’ve opened your heart in a way they cannot imagine doing themselves. Thus you get condescending questions and passive aggressive “compliments” that arise from feelings of moral inadequacy.

As a parent, the best thing you can do is model grace and compassion, rather than anger.

As for the folks who are a regular part of your son’s life, I would advise having a private conversation with them in which you explain why certain questions or comments are inconsiderate. Don’t be afraid to model for them how you would like them to express themselves.

To the school secretary who asked why your son’s biological mother “didn’t want him,” for instance, you should explain to her (as calmly as you can) that adoption is far more complicated than she seems to realize. It’s a wrenching decision mothers almost always make out of necessity, not desire. You should also stress to her that making such a comment right in front of your child is profoundly hurtful, because it implies that his biological mother didn’t love him. She’s a school secretary, so you can go ahead and presume that she recognizes how much children need to feel loved.

It sounds like you’ve been open and honest with your son about his background and your decision to adopt. You’ve probably already talked with him about some of these interactions. This is good. He needs to understand that your decision to parent him is a source of pride and joy, but that some people don’t realize how adoption works and this ignorance can lead them to say ignorant things.

It’s not easy being the ambassador of diversity. It’s sad and exhausting work to absorb prejudices, especially when they take the form of blithe remarks. In a better world, love and devotion would be all that mattered, not country of origin or genetic inheritance. As the adoptive parent of a child of color, your burden is heavier. But so too is your opportunity: rather than responding to bigotry with resentment you can work to reduce it, one person at a time.

Good luck,
Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football."

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