About four months ago (about six months home from Ethiopia), I knew with sudden clarity that it was time to initiate conversations with our kids about skin colour...and to verbally recognize the difference between Seth's and Lizzie's skin colour and Geoff's/Matthew's/my skin colour. The kids had been home for long enough, their language was good enough, and it was clearly, clearly time.
The moment of my realization caught me off guard and unprepared. The kids and I were walking out of a building after the boys' weekly gym class and I was holding the door open for my kids to walk through; I continued to hold the door for a man passing through just behind us. Seth looked at the man's face as he walked through the door, did a double-take and then just outright stared. Then, just as the man was walking by, Seth said in a tone of disgust "dat man's face black. Bleh!" I hope the man didn't hear Seth, but I'm not overly confident...I can only hope that Seth's accent made his words unintelligible for someone walking a couple of feet away.
I was dumbfounded. Speechless. Mortified. I had, of course, been expecting differences to be noted between dark and pale skin; had been mentally bracing myself for a day when my kids will experience some manner of discrimination from a white kid; something like that. But I had never ever thought, in my naive little mind, that the discrimination might come from my own kid, and be directed at another person of colour. It's probably true that the kids had, at that point, seen many more people who looked brown like themselves, rather than someone whose skin was inky black. Clearly the man's appearance took Seth aback. But his reaction was something that I was in no way prepared to handle, despite a friend having told me before that she had witnessed this before, when in Eritrea (a country adjoining Ethiopia) some years ago.
That evening, when putting Seth to bed, I made my first foray into a real conversation about skin colour by exploring with him a little bit his reaction to seeing the man after gym class - it was somewhat complicated by the fact that Seth's language was still a bit of a challenge, particularly around concepts. He said that in Ethiopia black skin wasn't a good thing, though he didn't know why. I was actually encouraged by his uncertainty about why this might be his view, because it gave us opportunity to talk about what kinds of things really made a person nice or not nice ("bleh"), and we talked about the differences in skin colour between him and me and what that might (or might not) say about the kind of people we are. He concluded that even though he and I had a different skin colour, he thought that "we both ok" and I casually extrapolated that conclusion to his perception of the man he'd seen earlier in the day. My hope is that this was a non-complex way (a starting point) to give him something new to think about when it came to his evaluation of skin colour.
Since then, we've had numerous conversations about skin colour differences. Frankly, it's been hard for me to raise the topic. In part it's been hard because I've been dealing with a child whose starting point was an assumption that black skin was automatically a bad thing; it's hard to start out from that baseline without making him feel shame, but start there we did because I want him to really and truly internalize what he comes to think/believe about differences in people and not just squelch behaviour because I've shamed him into it. It's a slower process for sure. The other thing that's made it hard for me to have these conversations is because I don't really know how to. It seems to me that we don't actually talk a lot about race/colour/differences in our society...or maybe it's just me. It feels awkward to me. And because I don't know how to talk about it, I worry that I might say the 'wrong' thing, or that I might offend someone; and in the case of my children, I worry that I might inadvertently teach them in such a way that they won't feel about themselves (or others) the way I hope they will. Does all of that make sense?
All of the awkwardness I've felt has led me to understand about myself that I'd be far more comfortable just assuming that Seth (and Matthew and Lizize) is ok with things as they are. But I remember reading in that book Twenty Things Adopted Kids Wish Their Adoptive Parents Knew, by Sherrie Eldridge, that parents must not assume that just because our kids don't raise such issues that we can be complacent about it - we need to initiate the conversations.
That totally makes sense to me. It's not like Seth and Lizzie don't notice things such as skin colour differences. Seth certainly did that day. They also notice now, too, that strangers in a store pick us out as a unique-looking family, and sort of get that it's because we have different skin colours in our family. And if they don't think to raise the topic, or feel comfortable doing it, it's up to Geoff and me to do so.
And so, we've begun. Since the incident with Seth after gym class, I've been initiating conversations about colour versus race. I don't think he understands the difference between colour and race yet, and didn't believe me when I mentioned that he would be considered "black" by most people who see him. He thinks of himself as brown, and I'm just going with that for now - until I know his perception of skin colour is a little more balanced. I've asked him how it might have felt to that man after gym glass if he'd heard Seth's comment about his skin colour, and how Seth might feel if someone ever says something like that to him; we've talked about all kinds of things that make people different and the ways in which people are the same/similar; we've talked about the things that make people interesting to us (skin colour as well as what a person is like on the inside); we've spent time talking about how we can tell what a person is like on the inside in addition to looking at the outside; we've noted what it's like to live in a family where there are two skin colours; and we regularly talk now about what's beautiful about different colours of skin and hair, and what we like/dislike about our own colours.
I also, just once, mentioned to Seth that, just like he said "bleh" about that man's skin colour, there will be people in his life who will say or think that about him; I don't think he's quite ready for that direct a conversation yet, but a seed was planted for future conversations that we will need to have. It makes me terribly sad to know that I need to prepare my children for the certainty that there will be people in their lives who will judge and reject them for/by the colour of their skin; that there will be people who will be scared of him as a teenager only because he's black and might be wearing a hoodie; that people in law enforcement might treat him differently because of his race or, worse, treat him brutally. I've thought about Treyvon Martin so often in the past few weeks.
These brief conversations with Seth, and knowing a little of the kinds of conversations to come, have given me the tiniest of windows into how incredibly difficult it must be for generation after generation of parents of colour who have had to talk to their children, whom they would give their life blood to protect, about such things as racism and discrimination. How can a child possibly come to grips with the fact that someone might want to hurt them (emotionally, physically, sexually) simply because of the colour of their skin? Sadly, embarrassingly, horrifyingly, that 'someone' is most likely to be a person who wears the same colour of skin that I do. Maybe it is me.
This is a huge area of learning and growth for me and I am muddling my way through. But I was encouraged when, about six or so weeks ago, I met Seth's new Sunday School teacher, a young man in his teens whose skin is similar in shade to the man we'd encountered in the doorway two or three months earlier. I met the new teacher on the day that he began working with Seth's class, after Sunday School had finished for the morning. I have to tell you that my first reaction upon seeing him was to worry about what Seth might have said. I introduced myself to the teacher, and asked how things had gone; apparently they went very well, and Seth had apparently wanted to wrestle with his teacher (a little too much!). I didn't feel brave enough to initiate a conversation with the teacher about race, but I do think it might have been wise to chat with the teacher about Seth's earlier reaction, in the hopes of reducing the odds of Seth hurting his new teacher's feelings or the relationship. Thankfully, though, the relationship seemed to be off to a good start and I was saved a conversation that I didn't feel ready for.
Later that day, I had a chance to sit down with Seth and ask him what he thought of his new Sunday School teacher. He said he was "nice." I asked what he meant and he told me a couple of nice things that his teacher had done/said. I then observed out loud that his teacher had black skin, in contrast to the colour of his own skin, and in contrast to mine. Seth agreed. I asked if he'd noticed, and Seth said "yeah" in that duh kind of voice that only kids can do so well. I asked what he thought about that and he said it was "fine." He then noted that his teacher's skin was very dark, and different than his own, and then added that "he was very nice to me." It was another good opportunity to talk about differences and likenesses between people and how God had created us all different - inside and out. In the weeks since that first meeting with his Sunday School teacher, Seth has come home with lots of good things to say about his teacher, and I'm thankful that he is experiencing someone that has such a positive impact on his life. But I know that this is just the beginning.
I've also had a few race-related conversations with Matthew (in fact, those started before his siblings came home from Ethiopia), and I've just recently begun such conversations with Lizzie. Though she is younger, she is becoming cognizant of the differences in skin colour and I have noticed her occasionally looking longer at people of colour. Then, just recently, when holding our arms up together and noticing the differences between her colour and mine, I referred to the different colours as brown and peach. She said "no, Mommy; your skin is like peach, but mine like chocolate! Yummy chocolate." I agreed with her and said that maybe this is why I love to nibble at her, because she looks and tastes delicious to me. She laughed and we proceeded to nibble at each other's arms. I asked her if she noticed people with brown skin, and she immediately talked, in her somewhat broken vocabulary, about a little girl in her Sunday School class who has brown skin like hers. Given that she has only attended Sunday School a handful of times (usually she stays with me), I could tell that this had impacted her. She said that she liked it. Then she added that Seth had the same colour skin as her and that "was good in our family." (I thanked God in that moment that we had two Ethiopian-born children.)
This is a challenging area for me, and I am really working on it. I have not lived in my children's shoes and I don't know from personal experience what it is like to be brown in a sea of white in this part of the world...or in my neighbourhood. I don't know what preconceived notions I have about people of colour and what issues I will have to grapple with as my children age and undergo experiences of racism or discrimination. I've heard many people say, over the years, that they simply don't notice skin colour, but I think that's hogwash. Of course people notice colour; we're (mostly) not colour blind and certainly I can see that my children notice colour, too. How we choose to act as a result of that observation is a much more interesting topic of conversation, IMHO. I need and want to be prepared to work with my children: that may mean helping them, as they get older, find mentors who are people of colour; it will mean helping them prepare for the inevitable experiences of discrimination that they will suffer; it will mean protecting and defending them at times, and educating others at other times; it will mean being a 'soft spot to land' when things happen that wound them. I don't frankly know what it will all mean. But I will do whatever...and I need to prepare myself to actually do whatever.
I think my two younger children are beautiful, and the richness and lushness and depth of their skin colour is part of what I see in them that is beautiful. But more importantly than what I think, I want them to love and appreciate themselves for who God created them to be - inside and out. I want them to appreciate the variety and beauty of God's creation as they look to other people and so I need to continue to figure this stuff out in order to prepare (myself and) them for a world that isn't always a just one. They are already viewed as a little different because they are (obviously) children of adoption; their race is another point of distinction that will impact their lives.
I hope even in writing this I have not offended anyone with my words or intentions or actions or assumptions. I am out of my depth here and I welcome feedback that will add to my knowledge and understanding. But I refuse not to talk about it, and am becoming more comfortable talking about it, because I believe to my core that to stop talking about it would be the greatest discourtesy to my children...all three of them.