When Teddy was very young, he and I often took New York City buses and subways on which he frequently became the object of conversation. It never ceased to amaze me how intimate the questions people thought they were entitled to know the answers to. One day an elderly woman irritated me to the breaking point. On a bus load of attentive listeners she asked me whether my baby’s father was Chinese. I replied, “I’m not sure; I don’t know exactly who his father is.” I let this bombshell lie in the silent bus for what seemed like hours and then I said, “He’s adopted.”
This incident was a turning point in Teddy’s and my life. It was in this moment that I ceased to think of the difference between my race and Teddy’s as something of little consequence. It forced me to think about race in ways I had never thought of it before.
In my family of origin, race was a sensitive topic. My family roots are from the south where racism and prejudice are without apology spoken aloud. In my childhood I repeatedly heard my grandfather describe his business practice as hiring Jews to handle his money and Negroes to do his backbreaking work. I can recall my mother repeatedly commenting on the disgust she felt when she saw interracial kissing broadcast on TV. My parents made it very clear to me that I could not date men of different skin colors and were only marginally accepting of men from different religions. I was stunned recently when my mother casually mentioned that she never went to a grocery checkout line that had a Black woman working it.
Teddy was an unusual-looking baby. He had warm cafe au lait colored skin, a very broad nose, big brown eyes with a distinctive Asian look, and very thin straight brown hair. I, on the other hand looked typically Anglo-Saxon. No one ever questioned my race – it was obvious. His birth mother’s skin and hair were much darker than his, and she wore her hair naturally in the Afro style of the day. Her surname was Spanish, she self-identified as a Puertoricana, but spoke no Spanish and had never been to Puerto Rico. I met his birth father once, a very tall massively built man, who like his birth mother was much darker than Teddy, and had a Hispanic last name.
The first question I explored was – What is Hispanic? Is Teddy Hispanic because his mother told me she was a Puertoricana although she had never been to Puerto Rico herself? Must you speak Spanish to be Hispanic? Does the word Hispanic identify a culture, a race, or both? Does it matter that Teddy’s parent’s skin is dark and his is light? Since race is such an ambiguous notion, can you just choose what race you want to identify as?
I never completely answered those questions for myself or Teddy as what to me was a complex problem, but had one aspect of it remedied very simply by a toy. I wanted to buy Teddy a baby doll for his first Christmas. When I went to the store to buy one, I suddenly faced another problem: What color skin should the doll have? None of the “White” dolls really looked like Teddy, but then the “Black” dolls didn’t either. I finally discovered a line of dolls that included a “Brown” (Hispanic?) doll. I still was unclear what race Teddy should identify as, but I know knew the color of his skin was brown.
Further propelling me into a quandary was our trips to the sandbox as warmer weather loomed. Little children did not hesitate to ask me why Teddy’s skin was darker than mine. Telling them people come in all different colors and that he was adopted did not satisfy them. Would it satisfy Teddy?
I wanted to buy Teddy a doll house family, but was stymied by my limited choices. A catalog advertised we could have an all-White, Black, Asian, or Hispanic family of a Mom, Dad, boy child, girl child, and baby. I could have just bought two families, but I just wanted two persons. I ended up buying small jointed, flock cloth animal characters that could be bought individually. Our family was the bear family – a Mommy polar bear and a baby grizzly bear. Over time I added more animal families. Some were one-color animal families like the three hedgehogs, or three skunks; but there were also a grey mommy and red baby squirrel family; and a brown mommy, white mommy, and grey baby bunny family. All the animals were named after people we knew and were configured to be similarly diversified by color and sex.
Teddy always had a large selection of art supplies at his disposal. These included various flesh colored paints and crayons. I went to great effort to be sure Teddy’s preschool classes also had diverse flesh-colored art supplies available. Teddy invariably chose brown to color his skin, but my skin might be yellow or peach or purple. I still remember Teddy telling me, “Your skin not white Mommy, clouds white.” We had one of our first discussions that did not focus on the color of his skin, but on mine alone. He could look at his skin and see brown, but it made no sense to him that my skin was called white. He also called into question the color of other people’s skins by trying to name their skin color: black skin was not always as clear-cut to him as it often was to me.
Although I now felt comfortable with defining Teddy’s skin color as brown, I was still uncertain about his race. In a support group I attended for families with children identified as having Down syndrome there were two Black families. I asked both questions about race. They saw them selves no longer focused on issues of race: now the issue they confronted was disability. They lived in communities where they were accepted as a Black family: now they needed acceptance as a family with disability. These families were as a unit one race, and I didn’t think I could so easily dismiss race as they had. But, I also had to consider that their race was an identity they had held all their lives and the identity of disability was new to them.
I tried to imagine the impact of race upon Teddy. Did your race matter when you also had a disability? I have a friend who contends that Teddy’s disability is so predominant in his presentation to the world that his race becomes insignificant. I have considered Down syndrome to be a minority group, could it also be considered a distinct race? Merriam – Webster defines race as “a division of mankind based on hereditary traits.” Although you do not inherit Down syndrome per se, you are born with three sets of the twenty-first chromosomes that are the definitive marker for being labeled with Down syndrome. When the census expands the number of races from sixty-three to whatever in 2010, should Down syndrome be added?
Teddy and I also participated in a Latin American adoption support group. Families whose children came from Peru, Bolivia, and San Salvador got together to share adoption stories and learn about the culture their children were born into. At first, this seemed a comfortable place to be a part of, especially since I had lived in Peru as a child. (My family lived in Lima for a year as part of my father’s employment.) But, as Teddy grew older I came to realize that being born in East Harlem is very different than being born in Lima, Peru. Although in some ways we still had much in common with the other families, in the end it felt like we didn’t belong. Our adoption story did not have the same joyful aura of rescue from abandonment, excitement of a foreign culture, and mysterious intrigue that the other stories had.
I went to a few meetings of a multi-racial family support group. The goal of this group was to negate the power of racial identity: the concept being that no one is truly of only one race and so we should stop identifying ourselves with any racial identity. As much as I wanted to support this notion, I felt I still needed to know what box to click when it asked for Teddy’s race. I wanted to know what race I should try to help Teddy feel proud to be. In the group, I met a man from Puerto Rico who was very dark skinned, and I asked him about my concerns. He insisted that in Puerto Rico there is no question of race, he is a Puerto Rican. He told me to forget the racial question. I wanted to, but could not. My race to me seemed inconsequential, Teddy’s did not.
Golf professional Tiger Woods when he first took the world by storm was perceived to be a Black American. After Woods won the 1997 Master’s Tournament and was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey he said he wasn’t actually Black at all– he was Cablinasian (Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian.) He described his father as half-Black, one-quarter American Indian, one-quarter White and his mother half-Thai and half-Chinese. Woods did not want to ignore the racial question, or become a new all encompassing racial amalgamation, but be defined by each and every race that had an impact upon his identity. Was the message I could glean from this be that Teddy was not only Black and Hispanic, but also White? Was I shortchanging Teddy by raising him to think of himself with one or no racial identity?
I considered the concept of passing. As my light brown skinned child, it can easily be assumed that Teddy is White (only well-tanned) like me. Is being a racial minority in American society like being Gay: no one would choose to be Gay if they had a choice? Does the one drop of Black blood rule still make you Black no matter how light or mixed you are? I considered what identity would give Teddy the best life. Would Teddy be able to be employed, to have a nice place to live, to be a member of his community without relevance to his race? A study that compared the rehabilitation success of various races concluded that “Blacks fared worse at every step from referral to closure” (Atkins & Wright, 1980, p. 44). In the end, I decided I wanted to raise Teddy with the truth, but I was still unsure what that was.
As Teddy grew out of infancy, he would often lay his arm next to mine and examine them. He would point out the similarities and the differences between our arms. He never asked a question, although it was obvious to me that he had one. He would point out children who looked like him in color and in disability and tell me they were like him. “Look Mom, that girl is the same color as me.” He also pointed out families where the mom was white and the children were not and tell me they were like us.
As Teddy socialized more independently of me through school, I noted a pattern when we met his Black friend’s moms. They often verbally expressed a surprise that I was White. Unless they knew me, they had assumed I was also Black. When I asked them why, they said because Teddy was obviously a Black child with his high big round butt, and his broad flat nose. When I met his friend’s moms of other races race was never brought race up. If a White mother overheard one of these conversations she might chime in with a comment that she never thought Teddy looked Black. Is your racial identity about how you look, how you live, or your genetics?
It wouldn’t be until Teddy was in third grade and had a Black male teacher that this question would become substantially resolved. This teacher had skin color only slightly darker than Teddy’s, and had a Hispanic last name. He identified himself as Black. Teddy identified himself as being like this teacher. Over the course of that year Teddy began to describe himself as Black and brown. He was very clear about being brown. “ I am brown, I have brown hair, brown eyes, and brown skin – I love brown”, but he also noted that others were “Black like me”.
For the first time he started to show a preference for “his” culture over mine. He had always been exposed to music from Hispanic and Black cultures among others, but now showed a preference for Black musicians, TV shows with Black characters, and pointed out dark skinned girls more often than light skinned girls as being pretty. The radio in the car became a source of conflict as he was drawn to rap music, and I preferred we listen to blues and classic rock.
Long before I began to seriously worry about how to support my child in his new distinct identity he seemed to settle into a much less rigid view of himself. His interests widened again. Although I still note some preferences than seem to be culture-specific, Teddy now seems very comfortable with his melting pot identity. But, skin color is still interesting to him.
Each year when a new school year begins he never fails to tell me what color skin a student has and it is always in comparison to his own or mine. “Fadi has White skin,” (He has, in fact, skin color very similar to Teddy’s, but Fadi’s family are relatively recent immigrants from the Middle East.) “Kanzi has brown skin like me,” (Her skin is much darker than Teddy’s is.) “Billy has skin like you,” (He and his family are most definitely readily identifiable as a White family.) He consistently uses skin and hair color as a reference point to describe people he meets. I find it difficult to strike a balance between supporting his interest in the outward appearance of people, and trying to help him see what is really important to know about a person is how they interact with him.
I will never know to what degree I fostered his interest in skin color through my own indecisiveness about his skin color and race. When I asked Teddy what he thinks about skin color he replied,
“I like all of them. I like being dark, I like being brown. I like Black people a lot, I like all the people a lot. I like Martin Luther King – he black like me. Oprah, too. Black people come from Africa. White people are good, all my family are white – not me. I don’t want people to kill people because they have skin. I want people to hug each other and be nice to each other, not angry. People take care of each other and stop hating and be happy.”
I cannot say we have ever or will ever embrace the notion that his or my race doesn’t matter. It is clear to me that my child is entitled to know that it doesn’t matter what color your skin is – you are loved.