By Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker
I was about five years old, on a road trip with my parents somewhere in the South. We stopped at a campground and set up our tent, then headed to the pool area. Three kids, a boy a little older than me and two girls a little younger than me, were already in the kid’s pool. As my parents secured chairs, I began climbing into the pool with the other kids. Not one step in, the girls slid over to the boy with frightened expressions and he put his arms protectively around them. The boy gave me one of the meanest glares I had ever seen and said, “You can’t be here. You have to pay to be here.” I was confused, but assured him, “My parents paid, we’re staying here tonight.” He gave me the hateful stare again, his voice even harder, and said, “Well, you still can’t be here.” I didn’t say another word. I felt confused, afraid, ashamed, and humiliated. I slowly backed away from the pool and walked over to my parents, saying nothing.
This was the first time I remember experiencing racism…except, it wasn’t until I was much older that I recognized it as racism. At the time, I was just a young Indian-born adoptee, living under the umbrella of my parents’ white privilege, with no understanding whatsoever that there may be people in the world who don’t like me because of my skin color.
It wasn’t that I didn’t know about adoption – I had always been aware of that part of my identity, since my parents talked about it openly from the time I arrived home as an infant. The problem was that we never talked about race. I knew that I looked different than my parents. When I was three years old, I asked my mom when my skin was going to turn her color. She said she was so shocked she didn’t know how to respond.
I don’t blame my parents for the lack of race discussion in our home. At that time, international and transracial adoption was about assimilation, not about acknowledging the challenges that arise with differences. My parents were both White and grew up in mostly White communities. They had no concept of the daily experiences of a non-White person, no understanding of what microaggressions and covert racism look like, and certainly no tools to share about race with me in a developmentally appropriate way.
That left me unprepared. It meant that I had no concept of the experiences I would face on a daily basis as a non-White person, no understanding of the microaggressions and covert racism that left me feeling hurt and confused, and certainly no words to explain what I was going through. Even if my parents had been armed with the knowledge and tools to prepare me to face racism, I’m sure they would’ve had their doubts. What kind of parent wants to expose their child to such scary truths at such a young age?
I do. I am now the adoptive parent of a Black son. I am fiercely determined to prepare my child for the world he is going to face, the world which will often only see him as Black. I do not take this task lightly. I worry daily about the fine line between sharing enough with him to prepare him, while not sharing so much as to unnecessarily scare him.
When it comes down to it, I’ll err on the side of preparing him every time. I don’t want him to experience the self-doubt that grows from moments of racism when you don’t have a clue what racism is or that it exists. Those moments when you wonder why a joke bothered you, why a supposed compliment hurt you, or why you felt uncomfortable with the way that person looked at you. I don’t ever want him to believe that he is “too sensitive,” or “can’t take a joke,” or needs to “lighten up and stop taking everything so seriously.” I want him to trust his instincts and know how to call out racism when he experiences it.
The first step toward any child understanding racism is to acknowledge differences in skin color and talk openly about them. Allow young children to talk about literal colors such as peach, pink, tan, and brown, and as they become school-aged, attach the appropriate race labels of Asian, Black, White, Latino, and Native American. Validate awareness of differences, and bring the conversation back to commonalities. This might sound something like, “Yep, you’re right. Your skin is brown and mine is pink. That means your race is Black and mine is White, because of where our oldest family members came from. Our skin is different colors on the outside, and we both need lotion to keep our skin from getting itchy.”
The next step is to openly admit that there will be times when people treat your child differently because of their race. There are plenty of children’s books and shows that offer conversation starters in this area. When a character is being treated poorly, talk with your child about what is happening – what is it that other characters don’t like about this one? You may say something like, “Hmm, I wonder why they are being so mean to the rabbit? Do you think it’s because they don’t like carrots or fur? It’s not very fair how that works, is it? That sometimes people might not like us because of what we like or because of how we look. I know it makes me sad to think there might be some people who don’t like you because of your beautiful brown skin or because you like to eat pickle sandwiches.” From there, answer your child’s questions or move on if they don’t have any. Many kids will need a few days to process and come back with questions later.
When it comes to talking with your transracially adoptive child about race, honesty is key. Be willing to struggle through the uncomfortable conversations together, so that your child knows they can come to you about their feelings no matter the situation. For more tips about developmentally appropriate ways to talk with your child about race, including six strategies for responding to racism, and a number of other adoption topics, check out these videos by the author: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/bwpseducation
Dr. Chaitra Wirta-Leiker is a transracial adoptee, adoptive parent, and psychologist specializing in trauma and adoption. Learn more about her work at http://www.growbeyondwords.com.