People Are Cool With My Multicultural Family Until I Bring Up Race

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Ali Cummins Photography

“It was probably just a dumb teenager,” my friend concluded. “They just don’t think.”

When I didn’t respond, she added, “Not that it makes what he did right.”

The day before, a young man in a beat-up pickup truck drove past my house and yelled the n-word at my daughters who were happily riding bikes in the driveway.

I went into all-out mama bear mode. First, I called the police and filed a report, but I didn’t have a license plate number which basically rendered my report useless. Then I called the local high school principals, describing the vehicle and the driver, which didn’t result in any findings.

In desperation, I called my friend, an experienced mom, whom I thought would offer sound advice and empathy. I was wrong.

What I deemed racism, she flippantly reduced to “dumb.”

When I reflected on our conversation, I realized that the offender’s racism made my friend, who is white, very uncomfortable. This led her to resort to defensiveness in the form of personally reducing the impact of the incident to preserve herself. Her response is the epitome of white fragility.

I remember the joy all of our friends and family expressed when we brought home our first daughter, a six-pound baby girl with a full afro and brown skin. Two years later, we brought home another daughter. Two years after that, a son. And finally, four years later, another daughter. All of our children are black.

Our big, multiracial family garners a lot of attention. We receive questions, smiles, and second glances. Interestingly, we’re often approached by people who smile and proudly pronounce they are colorblind. Yet they approached us because our family is multiracial. Huh.

My husband and I have been deemed white “superheroes” or “saviors” for adopting children who “needed a good and loving home.” People often assume my kids’ birth families were young, promiscuous and using drugs — negative and inaccurate stereotypes of black people.

We’re asked what country our kids are from, the stranger’s eyes wide in anticipation. Some even suggest, “Oh, you got your kids from Africa?” No. Our kids were adopted from Missouri. The disappointment is apparent in their facial expression. They want a rescue story.

We’ve been told they just think “black babies are just the cutest,” fetishizing children of color. Yes, our kids are beautiful, and yes their blackness is amazing, but their cuteness isn’t rooted in the declarations of random white people.

These compliments-of-sorts are strange, uncomfortable, and oftentimes steeped in stereotypes regarding adoption and race. But the most offensive comments are the ones we receive when we’re engaging in a discussion about racism.

I think that often white people assume that because we, the parents, are white, we do not have the same feelings about racism that black people do. We are expected to be allegiant to white privilege. We aren’t supposed to “pull the race card” by bringing up the hard truths of being black in America.

Take, for example, Black Lives Matter. There have been numerous and violent incidents of black people being unjustly killed by police, many of these caught on video. When twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed by a police officer, I couldn’t help but think of my own son. He’s only six, but he looks older and always has due to his height.

Tamir’s death tormented me. His only crime was playing with a toy gun in a park. He was doing what kids do.

When the story circulated on social media, I noticed the numerous comments from white people, some assuming Tamir died because he was doing something wrong. Yet their own white tween sons could loiter in parks, goofing around until dusk, and not risk being shot, much less have the police called on them.

The white fragility clapback was loud and assuming. Why wasn’t Rice supervised? Where was his mother? Why was he holding a gun in a park? The gun didn’t look like a toy. He was up to no good. He appeared to be older than twelve. How was the officer to know his age?

According to some white commenters, if black children would just be respectful and compliant, they’d be safe. If they wouldn’t sag their pants or wear a “distracting” natural hair, they’d be OK. Just don’t be like “those people,” the ones who listen to loud rap, or hold up a black solidarity fist, name their kids Keisha or Jamal, or protest brutality.

The conclusion is that black people need to be quieter, smaller, and thus, they will be deemed safer — and this includes my own children. They can be black, but not too black.

For centuries, white people have made the rules. And those rules got us some nasty U.S. history: slavery, Jim Crow, the preschool-to-prison pipeline, red-lining, hair dress-code policies, hiring discrimination based on names, and much more. Of course, MLK Day is an exception. A day off work and school? Awesome! Post a quote about harmony and peace onto social media? Yes please.

But Black History Month? I’ve been asked many times, why do black people need an entire month to themselves? Shouldn’t there also be a white history month? (Just NO, but I’ll save this conversation for another day.)

Listen, I get it. Conversations about race aren’t comfortable for any of us. But they are necessary. We can’t avoid repeating the past unless we confront it, head on.

My family doesn’t have the luxury of pretending that racism doesn’t exist. We live it every day simply by being visible. Brown skin freaks a lot of white people out. That’s our reality.

I desperately hope for the day when the same person who says my child’s latest braided hairstyle is “so beautiful” will also not be afraid to engage in conversations about race. They will boldly proclaim that black lives absolutely matter, that systemic racism exists, and that kids of every skin tone deserve the same opportunities.

But until that day, I’m going to keep talking about race, no matter how uncomfortable it makes those around me. My kids are watching and learning, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to shy away from telling others that my children matter.

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