I can’t tell the difference between dark blue and black, so my socks rarely match. My students never fail to notice this and point it out to me. They wanted to tease me about it originally, but when my only reaction was to look down and say “Oh. Sure enough.” they gave up. End of conversation. (I learned long ago from my fictional idol Maude – as in “Harold and . . .” – that you can’t go through life letting people judge you all the time.) So my mismatched socks have become my third trademark, along with the bowl of Müsli and thermal coffee cup from Starbucks.
The judgments of others turned out to be something of an issue when my husband and I decided to adopt a child 16 years ago. I’m not sure how big of a factor it was for him, I only know it took him a very long time to warm up to the idea. I’ve seen the same dynamic with many couples who eventually adopt or foster children it is almost always the man who hesitates, just can’t imagine it . . . But once my husband did warm up, he immediately became the motor behind making it happen. He read up and researched our options, he talked to everyone, he made phone calls and established contacts and before I could catch my breath, we were sitting in the Ethiopian consulate and finalizing our decision. While talking to the ambassador, I asked fairly directly how he felt about our bringing an African child to live in what must be one of the whitest of nations. His answer surprised me. He said that language and self-confidence mattered much more than skin color. Imagine a policeman asking a young black man for his ID or driver’s license. If they can’t communicate, the situation can immediately become tense, even hostile. But if that man answers fluidly in a local dialect, some sort of equality is established and the tension is immediately diminished.
In the process of adopting we had to take a course, go through a series of interviews with social workers and fill out form after form. The strangest one had a checklist of characteristics that would be acceptable to us for our future child - little boxes next to points like “different race”, ”different religion” (??), “physically handicapped”, ”mentally handicapped” . . . I asked my social worker what percentage of future parents ruled out different race and her answer was “most of them”. She quickly added that it wasn’t necessarily about racism. Many uncomfortably expressed the wish that the child would look similar to themselves. They didn’t want it to be immediately apparent to the world that the child was adopted. They didn’t want to have to answer a lot of personal questions.
Over the past 15 years I have answered thousands of those personal questions, but it has never bothered me. I saw those conversations as teachable moments for our circles of friends and acquaintances. The vast majority of these talks were open and pleasant, even if a lot of people clearly had trouble figuring out how to formulate their questions. They affected me emotionally about as much as my mismatched socks. There were only very few notable exceptions. One or two positive conversations that led to future adoptions by other people. And a less pleasant one with a stranger - an elderly woman on the street. She asked me “Where did it come from?” and “How much did it cost?” and by it she clearly wasn’t referring to the adoption, but to the actual baby in the carriage. That thing. I can’t really remember any other such experience though. In fact, my daughters’ receptions in this country have been effusively positive in general. There have even been some hilarious encounters. Once in a sporting goods store, the saleswoman peeked into the carriage and started gushing rapturously about my daughter. She then said:
“I guess she looks a lot like her father, hey?”
“That could be. I dont really know,” I answered.
When my daughters started Kindergarten they had to deal with other children wanting to rub their skin (to see if the brown disappeared) and feel their hair. But that only stayed interesting for a short time. Their teachers told us how amazed they were by the color blindness of the children. They often played a game where all the kids sat in a circle. One left the room and while gone, a second child lay down in the center of the circle and was covered with a blanket. The first child came back in and had to figure out who was missing (i.e. under the blanket). Not an easy task for an out-of-sight-out-of-mind four year old, so the kid under the blanket would stick out a hand or foot. When that child was one of mine and she stuck out her hand, the teachers assumed the jig was up. But it didn’t happen that way. The guesser didn’t see the brown skin. So my daughter stuck out her foot. “Oh those are Mitzis socks!”
In general, my daughters have had far fewer negative experiences than I expected at the start. In fact, over almost 15 years, I can count the number of times on one hand. And curiously, almost all these incidents happened in the second week of their first year in a new school. It seemed that afterward, their classmates all went color blind, just like in Kindergarten. Once, when my older daughter came home in tears and told me a boy at school called her “Schokotafel”, all I had to do was point out that I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like chocolate. A few years later another boy asked her in the wrong tone why she is brown and her parents white. She put her hands on her hips and said with huffiness: ”Because I come from Africa (you moron)!” (with those last two words implied, not stated.) End of conversation.