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Monday21 April 2014

Looking Beyond Racism

By Carolyn L

Just moments before we walked into the festival, my son Tony grabbed my arm and whispered fiercely, "Please, can we tell everyone that I was born in France?"

I didn't have a moment to think about what he was asking and we were through the doors and into the school. The place was packed already; family groups moving through the halls and each classroom set up as a different activity. We entered the sea of people toward the registration table to pick up our name tags. While we signed in and added our names to the mailing list, I got a chance to look around and study the scene. Most families looked different, which means that they looked like our family; a Caucasian mom and dad, and one or more brown children. Even within this group there were some nuances, a few families had two moms or just one parent. A few had Caucasian or Asian or African American children in addition to their adoptive children from Guatemala. No one looked like they were born in France. I wondered then, why did my son want to say he was from France?

At Guatemala Family Day we were here to show our children that families are created in many ways. Of course, in our suburban town there were very few families that were similar to ours. With Tony still so young, I hardly realized that he noticed the differences. This was my mistake and perhaps the mistake of other families like ours. Tony noticed everything. Why wouldn't he notice that no one else in kindergarten looked like him? He noticed that my favorite book to read together that year was "We're different, we're the same." Everyone in school has two ears and a nose; most have a mom and a dad and most are brown or blonde haired. Tony has black hair and black eyes.

Ten years later and racial differences in our family only appear now and again and in very subtle ways. Recently Tony came home and announced that he had a girlfriend. This was not surprising; he is in middle school and has watched his older brother "go out" with girls. Tony told me about her in general, teenage ways, "She's smart, in the band and good at cross country". Later that night I found her in the year book. She was also brown. I know that they met because they have lockers next to each other. I know that they enjoy having lunch together, and sit together at band practice. However, I also know that there are not many minorities in our school. I wonder if they are drawn to each other because they are "different and the same"? I realize that it is an unanswerable question, especially from my pale skin perspective. I will never know what Tony sees from his black eyes or how separate he feels in the halls of his school.

Within our family there is no majority. We are all a spectrum of light to dark. I am the most pale. Then Diego, my oldest son, born in Guatemala is nearly as pale as I am. My husband and my younger son, Tony, are each brown and tan. My husband has Filipino heritage and this creates a great bond for my darker son. He would often comment that when we are all together it is as if no one could tell that he was adopted. He enjoys the anonymity that being with his father gives him. He does not enjoy the double takes that strangers give him when he is walking with only me. I recently asked him what race meant to him and he replied that it meant the color of your skin. I tried to push him on this and asked him if it meant anything beyond skin color. He struggled to put words to his thoughts, but proudly came through with "I think it is part of your personality, the part that is from where you were born." We talked further, discussing the various skin colors found in every country, even the shades within Guatemala.

It is important to expand the discussion of race beyond skin color, by connecting race, ethnicity and culture. In our family, we have discussed the differences in our skin color and eye color and body shape. We have discussed how adoptive families are made and that all families have unique qualities and personal stories. We have adhered to the idea that it is important for every parent to teach their children to see beyond racism and to have an appreciation for their race. We had not discussed what racial differences really mean, until we began planning a family trip to Guatemala.

In preparation for our trip we went to a local museum that had a special exhibit on Mayan culture and while it was not exciting for the boys on the surface, it prompted some interesting discussion. We were able to appreciate the impressive civilization of the Maya that occurred prior to Spanish conquistadors. This gave the boys pride and confidence in their race and an understanding of the history of race in Guatemala. Then later while we were visiting the Mayan ruins in Guatemala we were able to connect the artifacts on display and the culture that we were experiencing.

We visited Guatemala last spring as a family for the first time. It was amazing to watch the layers of wonder and understanding that came to each of the boys, but especially Tony each day. Day one, when he stepped off the plane, he stared at the crowds of look -a-likes and whispered a few times to me "Mom, they all look like me, all of them." By day five, he found hilarity in the stares that I received when we walked down the avenue in Guatemala City. He laughed at my discomfort when strangers would puzzle over our hand holding. When we left on day seven he was the happiest that I had ever seen him. Tony was for the first time at ease with the people around him and happy to be an invisible part of a crowd.

According to Webster, the definition of race says "a: a family, tribe, people, or nation belonging to the same stock b: a class or kind of people unified by shared interests, habits, or characteristics".

I used this definition in our family conversations to expand our view on race to be inclusive of ethnicity and roots to a country. I did not want my sons to feel that they were defined by their brown skin, and that brown skin was their race. The trip to Guatemala made it easier to bridge the discussion of skin color and minorities at school and a connection to a culture. There were no words or textbooks required for Tony to see the race of people that unify him to the country of Guatemala. He knows that in his birth country he is a part of a population and its history.
We adopted our children internationally believing that an interracial family was something to be explored and celebrated. It has been exciting to also embrace our adopted country and integrate another culture into our family rituals. In our house we have learned to cook empanadas and decorate our beds with brightly colored hand made textiles. It is still a struggle to bind the two cultures without a seam. We strive to include the folk tales and holidays of Guatemala. However these traditions only happen deliberately and with extra effort.

Many families, and especially multiracial families, will have to learn about race as it relates to racism. However, we have found many important opportunities to build our children's self esteem and knowledge of the world by teaching them the importance of their race. We believe from this, when confronted with prejudice, our children will be better equipped to respond if they have confidence in their heritage and are comfortable with where they came from. By giving our children a strong identity and deep knowledge about their birth country, we believe that we are giving them the tools to confront others when faced with queries and comments.

Tony might never be comfortable with sharing his adoption story. Except that with information and facts about the culture and people of his birth county he might be able to respond with confidence when someone asks him why he doesn't look like his mom.