We are always a visible family...and we get comments on our make-up all the time. But last week, when we were in the U.S., I experienced a whole new level of feeling conspicuous. In fact, I've never yet experienced so strongly the sense of being a conspicuous family as I did last week. We live in a fairly diverse city, but the overall population isn't that huge, and so being in a large city with a dominant black culture was interesting...and a little disconcerting, given a few experiences we had.
The morning after the kids and I began our little road trip, we ventured into Trader Joes to collect a few groceries. As I was waiting in line to pay, with the kids playing 10-15 feet away, I happened to meet the eye of a (black) woman putting her groceries on the check-out counter. She was shaking her head and waggling her finger, seemingly in my direction. I felt like looking behind me to see who she might be referencing, but decided to ignore it, and so I simply offered a small, friendly smile and looked away. Moments later, however, she approached me, still shaking her head. In fact, she pointed and waggled her finger at me. It suddenly dawned on me that her non-smiling face and head shaking might just be about me, and I began to wonder what I could possibly have done. I quickly skimmed through the past twenty minutes that I'd been in the store, thinking about what the kids or I could have done to cause this look to be directed at me.
I could think of nothing. But I didn't have to wait long to find out.
In a low, hostile tone, she proceeded to tell me that she was tired of white families adopting black babies. Directly into my stunned face, my face which still had a hint of leftover smile about it, she said that she knew many families that looked like mine and that she was so terribly tired of it, that it wasn't right that I be parenting black babies. That tirade went on for a bit, and I can't remember all of the words that she used, but it was hostile and nasty. She then proceeded to tell me that my further offence was that I was a white mother of a black daughter whose hair I was not taking care of.
She shamed me right there in public and all I could think was thank God my kids were engaged in their own shenanigans and didn't have to hear this. After a full minute or so of her hostility, the woman (whose own hair, incidentally, looked like it was in as much need as Lizzie's of care) moved off to pay for her groceries, and I went into automatic mode putting my groceries on the counter. Then she came back to me and said that she hoped she hadn't caused offence but that she was so tired of seeing this scenario. She said that she would set me up with appropriate people who would take care of my daughter's hair. I declined. There were any number of things that I wanted to say, but the feeling of humiliation that would have seen me let loose on her rudeness, the fact that my kids were now approaching, and the pride that kept the tears at bay prevented me from uttering a further word.
The woman left the store.
The cashier saw my full eyes and asked if I was ok. I just nodded and paid for my groceries in silence. I collected the kids and began walking towards the car and, as I walked, the tears began to flow. The kids didn't realize anything was up until Matthew got into the car and asked me a question that I was unable to answer. I was trying hard to be silent so that they wouldn't notice, but it was too late. They all unbuckled their seat belts and gathered around and I had six little arms around my body in five seconds flat. Their comfort and concern brought a fresh wave of tears, and the kids were somewhat alarmed. I managed to say that I was ok, that I had not fallen or otherwise been hurt physically, and that my feelings had been hurt by something someone had said in the store, and that we would talk about it at another time. We were all subdued as we drove back to the hotel and I repeatedly assured the kids that I was ok. I was able to put on a mask of being ok but honestly, it took the rest of the day for me to be able to put it into perspective and behind me.
What's somewhat ironic about this is that the day before was supposed to be hair day - the afternoon Lizzie and I would spend washing/conditioning/combing/styling her hair. But because of a blizzardy weather forecast in the area we had to drive through to get to our destination, we decided spontaneously to leave on our trip a day earlier than planned, and so Lizzie's hair was left looking rather rakish and unkempt. Earlier on the morning of the Trader Joes incident, I had told Lizzie that she and I would be working on her hair that afternoon; the hair plan was already in place.
But oh, that incident crushed me. I felt sucker-punched. That someone, anyone, would believe that I should not be the parent of these kids I love with my whole being, made me want to throw up. I've fielded a whole lot of comments over the past almost-three years; I've shrugged off lots of little hurts and offences over this time period; but none of those experiences have affected me the way that woman's hostile voice and choice of words did. I was shamed. For being a white mama. For daring to adopt "black babies." For not doing my daughter's hair. It really hurt.
That afternoon, I did get through Lizzie's hair and put it into a simple, two-ponytail style. I had other plans for her hair, but the comb through took longer than usual and so I saved the more elaborate style for a couple of days later. For now, it was simple, but neat and pretty.
Shortly before dinner time, Lizzie and I left for the mall where we were meeting my sister/family for dinner. No lie, from the time I left the parkade to the time I met them at the restaurant ten minutes later, no fewer than seven (black) people commented to me on how lovely Lizzie's hair looked, on how beautiful a little girl I had, on how blessed we were, etc etc. I was getting nods from black men, black store employees actually exited the stores they were working on to say hi to Lizzie and give her high fives, and I was getting the nods and the comments.
Huh? The only thing that had changed over the course of those few hours was how Lizzie's hair looked; she was even wearing the same clothes as earlier in the day. I have learned over the past few years that black women go through a lot with their hair and that there is a special relationship between black women and their hair; what shocked me was the extent to which that affected us. We are always a unique-looking family; but there we were uncomfortably conspicuous and I found myself even guarding how I spoke to the kids in public because I could see that people were watching me.
Two days later, I styled Lizzie's hair further, in the style that I had planned for her the week before, and for the rest of the week, I can't tell you how many questions and (positive) comments I got about my children (well, the younger two...Matthew was largely ignored). It was quite an experience in contrasts.
The other thing that struck me was the contrast between the experience at Trader Joes, and the experience I had just a couple of weeks ago with the worker in the health food store who took my hands and blessed me and made me want to rest my head on her shoulder for the warmth that she provided my heart. (Read this post about that moment.)
The power of our words is just so strong. Regardless of intentions, our words and tone carry so much weight; hold such power to hurt, or to uplift. Two radically different perspectives, both offered during less-than-stellar hair moments for Lizzie, and the difference in impact worlds apart.
Three days after the Trader Joe incident I talked to the kids about what had happened. That had been my plan all along but I needed a few days to process things and to figure out what words to use and to plan what messages I wanted my children to receive. They'd been asking occasionally about what she'd said to me, and I finally just sat them down and we talked for well over an hour about what had happened. Despite my inner prep for that conversation, despite the fact that I explained what happened matter-of-factly and without any of the emotion they'd seen in me a few days before, it was hard to start that conversation. Though they never saw my inner trepidation, I found it so hard to say the words, because I so feared that they would interpret her words as being from me, or that I would somehow be ok with what she said. It's gut-wrenchingly hard to tell your child that someone thinks I shouldn't be their mother, that sometimes how we look as a family is a problem for other people, that not everyone agrees with adoption, and to tell one child that her hair is going to be an issue for some people and might impact what they might think of her/me. etc etc.
But talk we did. Talk and talk and talk: About our uniqueness as a family; that we will likely always draw attention; about community and racial diversity; about the various choices we have by means of response when we experience hard moments like at Trader Joes (because the kids' first reaction, understandably, was to want to hurt her back); about the difference between the two significant comments I'd received over the course of just two weeks; about our responsibility as Christians to act in kindness and love regardless of whether or not we agree with another person; about the impact of our words; about how I would change nothing about our family's make-up; about how proud we can choose to be of our multi-cultural and bi-racial family, etc etc. I asked them questions; they asked me a zillion questions; and we role-played how we might respond when other people make negative comments, because it surely will happen again and I'm not always going to be there to protect them from it.
Seth asked me towards the end of the conversation if I would change anything about our family and how we looked; maybe for a million dollars, he suggested. I said, with tears in my eyes, that there was nothing in the universe that could ever make me want to change our family. Not a million dollars, not a trillion, not a gazillion. Not anything. He sighed and rubbed my hand. Leaned on me. Said "me either." Matthew echoed him. Lizzie just snuggled in.
We four half lay on the couch together in that hotel room and just hugged each other tightly. We were all drained, I think. But it felt to me that we also bonded even more deeply, as often we do after a big conversation.
My heart hurts, knowing that my kids will experience these kinds of moments at times when I won't be able to protect them or to prepare my words before diving in to conversation. I had no idea when we entered the world of adoption that we would experience so many comments, that the kids and I would have so many conversations on adoption/race/family/first family/etc/etc/etc, that hair would be such an issue, that people would feel so free to judge and comment on our family make-up, that it would sometimes be just so hard because of how other people might view us. These things, these conversations, get so much air time in our household that sometimes I wonder what on earth other families could possibly have to talk about! I know that's crazy, but it does cross my mind at times, because these and related topics have formed part of the fabric of who we are now as a family.
For better and for worse, we're in this together.
Regardless of what Trader Joes women say.