In my last post, I wrote a bit of a precursor to my thoughts on how to talk to biracial families. I wrote this because I was filled with so many thoughts after my post called Talking to My Biracial Child About Why People Think She’s Adopted.
I was filled with thought because of a very tactful, respectful Facebook thread on my personal profile in which two of my mama friends of color disagreed on the subject at opposite ends.
The question was raised by a white friend, who has a white husband and children, “Is it okay to ask? And if not, what should be the protocol?” She genuinely wanted to know and said she never felt comfortable in these situations, wanting to “do it right.” But she wants to raise her children to be multiculturally aware.
I did give her my own answer, but what I wrote was less interesting (although I will share it) than the
debate multiple answers by two of my mama friends, who are raising multi-racial children. I did not publish the entirety of the thread, but I think that I pulled the important points out and was careful to maintain the integrity of their statements, as this was not intended for publication at the time written.
I felt it was important to share because these are two very intelligent and thoughtful women, both of whom I respect deeply. I am happy that they agreed to let me publish their comments.
The Two Opposing Views
My friend Melek (pictured above) is a black woman and married to a white man, her children are lighter skinned than she is and have dark straight hair.
Her opinion was that the questions posed to me by this white woman about whether or not Annika was adopted was highly inappropriate and felt offended for me.
She said after a lifetime of inappropriate questions from white people — Melek is also lighter skinned than her own mother — she’s sick and tired of it and is no longer nice about it, preferring to stop them in their tracks with a quick comeback.
“I’ve had people argue with me about it (WTF?). At this point, my standard reaction is turning it back on them. So I would have said to this mom. ‘No, she’s not adopted. Is your daughter adopted?'”
Melek says asking personal family questions crosses the boundary of polite society.
“… This is inappropriate on a couple of levels IMHO, if I’m just going to be blunt about it. Which I’ve started to become just because I don’t like boundary crossing and I’m getting more ornery the older I get.”
When I wrote back to her that I had considered turning it around on them by asking if their children were adopted too, but that I hadn’t because, (believe it or not) I just hadn’t had the balls. Plus, I swear to godzilla, every damn time this happens, I am floored and unprepared.
Melek says that it was a long time coming for her. She’s been watching this scenario play out since she was a child and her mother was the one getting the inappropriate questions.
“Believe me, I was uncomfortable too. But it happened to me as a child, so I got to see my mother handle it. But then as an adult, I had gotten used to not having to deal with it. Now it’s been 5 years of it, since having biracial children, so I’ve had more experience.
She says its time that white people begin to feel the uncomfortable feelings when it comes to racial questions. She does it to protect her fellow biracial families and to make people think.
“The way I think about it is this. Whether or not they know it, people *should* feel uncomfortable being so bold as to go there with a complete stranger. So I’m going to make them as uncomfortable as they should have been in the first place, so maybe the next interracial family they encounter won’t have to deal with the same.”
Melek says that in part, white people are simply just clumsy in their questions. And it’s not so much that she minds the question, but it’s often the way they go about it.
“But you know what’s funny. Black people have gotten the same information out of me, but just more tactfully. I think it just goes back to that cultural difference WRT (with respect to) being familiar. But I know what they’re asking and they know I know. It’s just a certain….finesse.”
On the other hand, my friend, Mei Ling, of Asian decent with a white husband, and a daughter who looks more white than Asian, says that while she’s not crazy about racial questions, she also doesn’t mind them too much and sees it as a way to counterbalance racism, knowing that her interactions with them may color their view of all people of color.
She says she prefers to let the world be curious and tries not to let it bother her, reminding herself that the more people feel comfortable with asking questions, then perhaps they will become less racist and more open to a multicultural world view.
“The more people can say I know xyz and they are nice people the less racist they become. So by responding rudely to someone who talks about race or any other sensitive topic you are promoting a culture where we can not discuss things, where kids think there is something wrong with being different because everyone is sensitive about it and they come up with all sorts of explanations and in some cases grow up to be racist because everyone was uncomfortable so there must be something wrong with it.
“It is natural for humans to be curious about what is different and/or scared which can be the other side of curious. I prefer curious and open to scared. I would say that by responding in a way that is negative, rude, sensitive the underlying unconscious message is something is wrong with being the way you are especially to children. Children want to hear it from the people involved and from their parents. As much you don’t want to be an ambassador for anything if you are different in anyway that people are unused to you become one and because the brain especially children’s brains like to sort/organize information into multiple categories you really don’t want or I don’t want people to sort biracial in the category of fear, rude, sensitive etc.
“The biggest component of fear is the unknown. So if we want our children to live in a society that respects differences we need to role model that and what being sensitive says on unconscious and conscious levels is that it is not okay in some way.
“Does it get old having people ask questions, yes, then again, if you didn’t have a hang up would it be? Talking openly is the only way to normalize certain situations and we have the option of making that normal positive or normal negative. Many people still live in very homogenized areas especially kids who are only exposed to a limited about of environments/people. Kids come into this world color blind that are just trying to learn and categorize what they see and it is parents reactions mostly unconscious and little bit that teach them what they need to fear or not. In the same vein, they also naturally categorize things in known categories. By responding politely and in a matter of fact manner, you give them a new category and normalize what was previously unknown.”
Mei Ling’s attitude may also have formed from her own childhood. Her mother, being an immigrant, had a different view of the questions. (I’ve noticed this with Toyin. He says that as a child he never minded having someone ask to touch his hair, because then in return, he would ask to touch theirs. He says they were just being curious. But many African Americans consider it extremely rude to touch or ask to touch their hair.)
“My mom never responded rudely because she is from Taiwan and due to the cultural differences she was dealing with already never realized it was rude, plus she is a naturally friendly person who likes meeting new people. She did not see the question as anything different than asking someone’s name and hobbies. In the American culture, yes it is considered rude, but then ask yourself if you really want to continue cultural practices from a culture with so many people who are clearly negatively racist?”
Mei Ling also experienced some boundary crossing in Taiwan, where she visited as an adult.
“I do not disagree that there are boundaries that should not be crossed one of which is touching. I am a big believer in boundaries. Granted the first time I went to Taiwan, I can’t tell you how many people asked to touch me, touch my hair, take pictures of me with them and holding their babies. I’ve had my cousin assume my hair was dyed, I had uncle who told me I would never be good enough because my hair is not dark enough, my eyes were too light. The examples (examples are upcoming) Melek is giving those are definitely pretty awful and do fall into the category of protecting self and child. I also think that arguing with someone about their family situation is just plain rude any way you look at it that is beyond the pale…”
Melek disagrees with Mei Ling that we are ambassadors. She believes that people of color should be given the same respect that white people are shown. Physical attributes and questions about children’s parentage right in front of the children are simply out of line. Not only that, she thinks that these questions and attitudes only perpetuate racism.
“…I believe there are boundaries that should not be crossed. Why should my child have to wonder why someone would think he was adopted at 5 years old? I want to protect him from that for as long as possible.
“The problem with not teaching children appropriate boundaries is that they grow up to be adults without appropriate boundaries. I have had white adults (school administrators in high school) ask if my hair was “really my hair” and proceed to dig through it looking for weave tracks when I said yes it was.
“I have had adults argue with me in front of my child about whether he was mine. If you don’t know me or my family, you have no right to know anything so personal as how we became a family. What’s it to you? How does it affect your life to know whether my child is adopted?
“Again, I don’t think it’s unnatural for the child to ask or be curious. I do think it is incredibly inappropriate for the mother to ask, instead of using it as a teachable moment.”
Melek says she understands that in part, this attitude pertains to white privilege in that white people feel they can be familiar with strangers, whereas, that is simply not the norm for African Americans.
“However, again, this may be a cultural difference. Black Americans have different cultural norms, and I think other Americans (particularly white Americans) feel like it’s ok to be familiar with strangers, particularly black strangers. I don’t like that.”
I will wrap up this post in the next few days with my own thoughts on how I feel about these interactions. I will leave you with this. I agree with both of them — to a certain extent.
I also want to note that in this particular case, I will ask that you keep your comments very respectful of these two opinions. Both women were kind enough to let me publish this and both were written originally under the guise of some aspect of privacy. Not that my commenters aren’t typically respectful, that’s mostly for the trolls.
If you are just reading this and haven’t read Part I, please check it out here.
On a separate note, please check out Melek’s website Black Women Do VBAC! Melek is a natural birthing and VBAC advocate. She has recently started this project where she shares birth stories from black women who have done a VBAC, (vaginal birth after cesarean/C-section.)