Friday, May 23, 2008

Too Much Attention

MommaLlama found this article at Adoptive Families Magazine online:

Too Much Attention, By Marybeth Lambe, M.D.

She has many children of many different races, and she is somewhat perturbed by the frequent attention and compliments that some of them receive, compared to the others. The line that caught my attention was, "Are our darker-skinned children unusually attractive? Or is it possible these compliments mask a subtle racism?"

Very interesting, and I had never quite considered it this way. We really do get a LOT of compliments on the boys. And I always took those compliments as just that - compliments. How nice of them to say something. Thanks, they are beautiful, aren't they! I know, they really are well-behaved today, we're very proud of them. It has occured to me that the attention is frequent and unsolicited, but I assumed that people are just interested in their story. They think it's nice that we've adopted. Maybe they grew up in a time where racism was more prevalent, and it makes them happy to see us doing away with old stereotypes. Maybe it gives them courage to consider inter-racial adoption themselves. We try to assume the best motives in people. I never sensed it as "subtle racism" as the author discusses.

The author notes that her dark-skinned children receive far more attention than her "normal" white kids. That presents a dilemma for all of them - the white kids are jealous, and the brown kids are self conscious and dislike the attention. I wonder if I would feel differently if we had white children as well and noticed a difference in the amount of attention they received.

So far, our boys just love any and all attention. (Maybe a bit too much, as we've discussed previously.) One day Bobcat told us, "Everyone thinks I'm cute!" Maybe one day they'll feel differently, as they get more aware of what makes them different from other people. We have noticed occasionaly some people with just a little too much interest in the boys, to the point of making us uncomfortable. (Especially MommaLlama - her feminine intuition is pretty good, I've learned to trust it.) But I bet every parent has felt that way about another adult at a playground or someplace. Something just raises a flag inside and you watch your child and that adult a little more closely. You don't want to accuse them of anything obscene, but you feel protective all of a sudden. You wonder if your guardian angels are telling you to stay on alert.

So I'm going to think on this a little more. I don't want to be naive. I want to see things from every angle and be able to understand how our boys see the world. I don't want to pretend that there is no racism. But I expected racism to be negative, as in ignoring us, refusal to make eye contact, or even outright rude comments. I would not have expected it in the form of false compliments.

Anyone else have any thoughts on the matter?


La Familia said...

Well, I would have to agree with your thoughts on the matter. I can't recall a time where anybody who is racist would just go up and compliment what they are racist against. Well, there is somebody I know who calls hispanics bad names but will come up to my husband and talk about how hard-working they are. Hmmm....I really do think most of the time people want to honor your family and are curious, maybe because they wish to do the same. I know I'm tempted to go up and ask questions because I'm interested in that route for my family but I always hold back because I'm unsure if they want to be questioned and I tend to err on the side of caution.

Michelle said...

I'd never thought about it much before. Our birth kids (who are caucasian) also received compliments on their behavior/looks when younger so we haven't thought much of it with our children who were adopted.

We have had rude comments as well and I try to attribute those to ignorance, not racism.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you brought this up. Mostly the attention that our family gets is kind and gentle. Sometimes it's more -- or a different kind -- than one would want.
I believe that most people's curiosity is kind in its intent, but sometimes people need to think about boundaries before they speak. I am equally creeped out by the folks who are upset by our family and those who are just a little "too thrilled" and intrusive. I'm proud of my family, but there are days when we just don't like feeling like we're obliged to explain ourselves for the idle curiosity of strangers. We're a family, not a freakshow.
My youngest is adopted and of a different race. We get much more attention -- and different attention -- than we did with the first two, who are also quite beautiful children.
I thought that we were prepared for the level of attention that we would receive, but at first, I wasn't. The nice comments outnumber the unfortunate ones by a lot, but I wasn't prepared for some of the really strange things that people would say, some of which were funny, some of which were bizarre, and some of which just made me say, "They can't realize what they sound like."
We've gotten used to it. Unless people are extremely rude and we're having a bad day, I really do try to extend grace and to assume that people are just being curious and that they don't mean to offend. Many people ask me "Is she yours?" or they just stare. That's just the beginning.
Some examples:
- the child who licked my daughter to see if she tasted like chocolate (we actually thought that was hilarious);
- the innumerable people who have remarked on how cute she is;
- the folks who have asked (persistently) what race she is;
- the people who ask if her daddy is Black (to which I responded, with wide eyes, "I don't know!' I stole that line from a friend -- read on);
- the folks who ask "What IS she?" and yes, there have been several.
- We have also been asked, by numerous people and in front of our children, "How much did she cost?"
I have been asked how much I charge for babysitting, or people have gestured towards my white children and asked: "What about them? Are they really yours?" and "Are they real?" and "Are they your natural children?"
- the strangers who ask for personal information about my child's birth parents ("Why didn't her real mother want her?" inquired one cashier in a grocery store) and/or want to engage in a long conversation about celebrities who have adopted.
Then there are the folks who just amaze and horrify me. During the first couple of months that my daughter was home with us, I was accosted on a number of occasions by women (I'm talking strangers, people in the park and the mall) who would scare her to death by getting into her face to oooh and aaah, and then TRY TO TAKE HER OUT OF THE STROLLER OR EVEN MY ARMS and comfort her! On one occasion, my kids and I actually began to flee Wal-Mart without my purchases because of the behavior of 2 of the cashiers. They put their faces up to hers (she was in the cart) and when she began shrieking in horror, they both attempted to remove her from the cart and were offended when I repeatedly insisted that they take their hands off of my baby and move away from her. These 2 women still glare at me when I go into that store. It's appalling.
I've had people ask, "You are going to raise her in her own culture, aren't you?" (huh?)and "How many more are you going to adopt?" and "Weren't there any children here in America who needed homes?" and "Couldn't you and your husband have any (or any more) of your own?" and "Are you going to ask for a boy next time/did you know she was a girl?"

My personal favorite, though, is the experience of one of my close friends. She and her husband are of different races, and a waiter asked her (in front of her 4 and 6 year olds) if they had 2 different fathers. She stared at him until he flinched and then casually smiled and said, "I don't know."

So, my long, roundabout answer to your question is: no, I don't think that it's racist for someone to say that your kids are beautiful. There are so many other things that they might have said instead. :-)

Bobbi in TX