Sunday, March 29, 2009

"Little black babies everywhere!"

Yesterday Zoey and I tried out a new mom and baby class at the gym. It was part music class and part dance/movement class. The instructor--let's call her Barbie--was a tall, tan, hot, fake-blond who was rocking some tight yoga pants and a teeny fit t-shirt. And she was wearing a baseball cap that had rhinestones and glitter on it. Being one who believes that a person's head wear and level of spray-tan tells a lot about them, I assumed we were in trouble. Then she spoke to us.

"So, obviously you adopted?" she chirped. I wasn't a big fan of the use of the word 'obviously' but I smiled and nodded anyway. "So she's from Africa, right?" My smile got tighter and thinner.

"Actually no, she was born in Connecticut."

Barbie was unfazed and there wasn't even a flicker of 'Oh-crap,-I may-have-just-said-the-wrong-thing' across her face. I began to suspect botox as there wasn't that much facial movement at all. Barbie continued, "Oh. Well I have these friends who have 4 of their own kids and then they decided to get another one and they picked a little black baby too, even though they already had some of their own!"

Now at this point, the first thing I should have said was, "I believe the term you're looking for is 'biological child' because Zoey is my own child." Note: this wasn't the first thing I wanted to say. But it was the first thing I could say in front of my child that didn't have 4 letter words other than 'term' and 'Zoey'. But instead of swearing or saying something useful I said, "Well . . . that's great." Yeah, some advocate/social worker/mom I am.

Barbie was still unfazed and didn't seem to notice the look of shock on my face. She went on happily, "Yeah, and then, my other friends adopted from Russia! They went over there to pick out the baby and there was only this one little black baby in the orphanage, because they don't like black babies there, and they picked the little black baby!!!! It's great because little black babies have trouble finding homes you know. But those friends still want a baby of their own."

I wildly scanned the room and looked towards the door hopefully. Was anyone else hearing this? The room was empty and Zoey was busy eating the buckles on the stroller. I tried sending her a telepathic message to do a really stinky poop. But no luck. I was alone with Barbie. I yet again cursed my anal retentive quality that perceives anything other than arriving 15 minutes early as being late.

This might have been as good a time as any to jump in and say that Zoey isn't only African-American, she is also Latino. I don't want half of her racial/ethnic identity to be ignored because it's less visual, and I also don't want to sound like I have a problem with her blackness. That's a fine line to walk. And I don't know how to do it yet. So instead I said, "Adoption is a great thing." I could have at least faked a sudden headache and gotten out of there. But no. I had to stick around for the next train wreck...

"Yeah, and my neighbors? They're black. And they have little black babies too!!" Barbie seemed very pleased about this. She even flipped her blond hair back in excitement.

I had to ask, "Oh... They adopted?"

Now, before you read on, prepare yourself for her response... Are you sitting? Okay...

Barbie squealed, "No! The black babies are their own kids! There's just little black babies everywhere!!"

I literally had no response to this. None. Except to think, Damn Niki for being out of town and missing this.

Barbie's parting comment was, "Well, I have to go get ready to start class. But don't worry, maybe one day you can still have a baby of your own!" And she pirouetted off across the room. After I retrieved my jaw off the floor I wanted to yell after her to come back, that I wasn't done with her yet. I wanted to tell her that she needs to rethink her assumption that every person who's adopted a child still wants to have 'one of their own.' Adoption isn't settling. We are proud of our adoption story and we are proud of our daughter. I don't lay awake at night feeling a gaping whole in my life because I have not been pregnant or given birth. At night I lie in bed picking cheerios out of my hair, exhausted, just like all the other mothers.

But Barbie was on the other side of the room stretching and welcoming other moms and kids. We weren't going to come to any kind of understanding today. If only I could see into her fake-blond head, past the tan, past the rhinestone hat, and past the twangy southern accent that makes everything (even the most insightful of statements, which this wasn't) sound, well, dumb. If only.

I guess we all have stereotypes to overcome.


  1. Oh. My. God! I don't even know what to say (about Barbie)! I suppose I don't know all the details about your adoption, but I don't even know where to begin with this lady's comments. Funny how people don't even know what they are really saying.

    So...are you going back to the class?

  2. The class was fun and it was so clear that the lady meant well . . . We may go back. But we won't go early. And it's sooo true -- I really don't think she was aware of how I was taking the comments. I clearly need to work on how to educate others etc. :)

  3. Wait, wait, wait. Zorro was adopted from Russia?

  4. (oh, and Hispanic/Latino/whatever is not 'race' per se, but instead is ethnicity. Yeah, this seems like splitting hairs, but really there is an important difference here that even the U.S. government uses, because being Hispanic is being from central or south american culture that speaks Spanish (or also Portuguese or French if you use the term Latino).

    If you look at the diversity of Latino/Hispanic peoples in the U.S., fully half are 'white', and if you look throughout the rest of the Americas you get places like Argentina where they are just about all 'white' and other places where there is much higher 'black' hispanic (like many Caribbean Islands) and places with high 'native american' hispanic (Peru I think), plus a good chunk of 'Asian' hispanic (the president of....forget which SA country before he was disposed).

    The reason people think Laspanic or Hispino as 'race' is because the majority of Latinos that American run into are Mexican. You see, many/most (have to check the numbers) are 'mestizo' which is some unknown mix of native american, but since they have long since messed up all the whole tribe affiliations down there, they aren't allowed to call themselves 'Native American' on the US census.

    So many people think Hispanitino as vaguely brownish Mexican and think 'that MUST be a race!'

    I am way too fascinated by demographics and population stuff.)

    Also, did you adopt Demetri too?

  5. Thanks for pointing that out. It is all very interesting stuff. :)

  6. Ok, I've had time to think about this stuff while I was bathing the kids, so I'll add something besides smart-ass comments and interesting tidbits that only a biologist who reads the almanac would care about...

    The main point here isn't so much that it is obvious that Zozo is adopted, since there are plenty of times where you see parents that look nothing like their children and know that they must have adopted. But it is the assumptions that she is adopted and the lack of social skills that causes someone to think they can talk to you about stuff like that even though they don't know you.

    Ok, point one: assumption that she is adopted. Sure you are much more pastey pale than she is, but does that necessarily mean she was adopted? What if she took more after her father? Yeah, if her father was black (hispanic too apparently) she might look more like him. Again she might not (it isn't a blend, though usually with gradient traits it is somewhere between the parents), but if you only see one parent, you can't make an assumption about parentage. I mean, look at Tiger Woods. If you saw him with his mom, you might think the same thing, but you'd be wrong.

    But that is neither here nor there, because if someone doesn't know you, they shouldn't be asking personal questions like that. Yeah, adoption isn't something to shy away from at all in conversation, but questions about your family are (by definition) PERSONAL. If you had two children that looked different, it would be terribly rude and dickish to ask if they had different fathers. If you were with your husband at the store it would be rude for a stranger to ask if you lived together before marriage. If you...well, you get the idea. The point is that this girl was out of bounds delving into personal information like that. It would be like meeting someone in France and them immediately talking to you using tu rather than vous ('tu rather than Lei' for Italian since I don't know French).

    But in reality it comes down the the novelty of adoption. Adoption is interesting and not hugely common for the same reason that it takes lots of paperwork and interviews and all to adopt a child. This is because adoption is not for everyone. Most people aren't able to be in the mindset to adopt a child (I admit that I probably couldn't), and adoption agencies know this and screen out people in which it probably wouldn't take. And you know what? There is nothing wrong with this.

    But what happens is that you have a large group of people who aren't adoption-types, and when they see obvious adoptions, they act like it is some novelty thing and must find out more! It is somewhat similar to having twins (Laura has a story similar) when people literally will stop the car to ask if they are twins. Slack jawed gawking?

    It doesn't help that you live in Tennessee where they probably don't like seeing any black person near any white person, except if they are bringing them some food (oh zing! Old south you had that coming!).

    It sounds like she was going along those lines to point out her faux-liberalness and acceptance. Did she mention that she had a black friend and voted for Obama? But, really, boundaries people!

    (Next time you really should let her keep talking and instead of getting annoyed, just view it as comedy. Try adding things that makes 'muricans uncomfortable like "well, she really was born from an implanted egg from my life partner. I have to go or we'll be late for mosque, though I wish you would keep this hush-hush and don't tell immigration about us.")


  7. I am stunned. I really like to think that the town we live in isn't that backward, but then I forget that my favorite neighbors consist mainly of transplants and I used to work at a university with virtually no native Tennesseans. But I don't think a lack of social skills or complete ignorance about adoption (especially interracial adoption) is limited to the South. Plenty of people where we lived out West would have made similar inane observations.

    I like the idea of just not saying anything and viewing it as comedy, but there also could be some good one-liners you could keep in the back of your mind for times like these. Like "get over yourself, Barbie, and quit assuming my singular goal in life is to pop a kid out of my body instead of 'settling' for this incredibly gorgeous and awesome baby who happens to have a little bit different coloring than I do." Oh wait - that's not really very subtle. Or as short as a "one-liner" should be. That may need a little work.

    Why is it so hard for people to imagine that others don't think as they do? Not like I'm immune from projecting my own viewpoint on others, but I at least have some social skills and will stay away from an incredibly personal subject until I know a person for more than, oh, 5 seconds!

    Oh honey, I WISH I had been there to witness that (and "accidentally" trip ole' Barbie while she was pirouetting by). At the very least, I could have jumped in with a wild tale of the people I knew purposefully dying their children green and purple because plain old vanilla white children are becoming so passe...

  8. And FYI, I know it must be hard for you to overcome the beautiful-professional-athletic-intelligent-funny woman stereotypes that come along with possessing such qualities (such as everyone assuming that you must also be able to spin straw into gold and shoot rainbows out of your, oh never mind), but you do an admirable job of handling that as well. You will teach Zozo well someday.

  9. The Stringers told me a bit of this last night, but I have to say....I was wholly unprepared for what I just read.

    I'm just staring at this little comment box, trying to think of something- anything, to say that doesn't involve smacking ol' Barbs.

    Here's the thing- someone who's capable of making ANY of those statements (TO A STRANGER, no less!), would probably not have benefitted from any helpful tips you might have offered her had your jaw not been at your feet, In fact, it would only have furthered her belief that you are bitter and defensive over your situation. The mind reels.....

    All I can say is props for not barking her into a corner as I was hoping you would as I read this. What can I say, I like a little messy justice in the morning.

    BTW.......ummmm.....may I come next time? :)

  10. I still stand by my theory that when you meet a set of parents & their child for the very first time, the only appropriate comment/question is (and this should be directed at the child), "You are so cute! And how old are you?" If you are meant to know more details about the relationship/origin/whatever, someday you will find them out.

    If you subscribe to my theory in ALL situations (even situations like with Niki & Charlotte where you're pretty darn sure they are biologically mother and daughter), you will always be safe. You won't be assuming anything about the baby's origins, gender, nationality, etc. All babies have an age!! :)

  11. Erin, you are sooooooooooo right. I'm going to start handing out little cards with your theory printed up on them. Every time someone asks me a dumb question I'll just give them a card! Yeah!!! I love it!

  12. Did you feel like you were trapped in the Twilight Zone of unbelievable conversations? I wonder how Barbie would have responded if after she opened up with "obviously you adopted" you had asked, "Why do you say that?"
    I love Erin's theory about appropriate baby comments/questions. Unbelievalbe, unbelievable. I wonder if Barbie will ever realize how clueless her comments were. I think I would have responded with politely stunned silence as well. I guess this is your rough draft interaction for potential future comments ....surely not as bizarre, but perhaps similar.

  13. p.s.
    I'm so proud that I finally managed to post a comment. And I bit embarrassed to admit my previous ineptitude. I'm going back to comment on the poo story

  14. I think Barbie's first assumption was way off. Zooey certainly could be your biological child if Demetri was just a bit darker hued. You could have told her she's Barack Obama's "love child"! I'll bet that would have given her pause, even if she's incapable of thought.

  15. How BIZARRE. Your daughter is absolutely scrumptious, by the way. What a sweetie.