Saturday, June 6, 2009

On Being Visible

When you go out for dinner, do other patrons frequently glance your way? Waitresses make inappropriate comments about you or your children?

When you walk into a store, does the staff frequently watch you and your family, sometimes following you for no apparent reason?

When you are at the park or pool or playground, do other families there often ask you inappropriate questions about your family makeup, your attachment to your children or your parents and expect you to divulge your history?

When you were growing up, did your friends ask highly personal questions about your family and your history, including your genetics?

Do people frequently touch you without your permission? Particularly your hair?

Do people think its cool to use slang phrases with horrible racial overtones they don't understand the history of to describe you or befriend you on facebook or other such sites?

If you were able to answer no to most or all of those questions, I can assume you are white, probably your parents are white and also, your kids are white. You aren't disabled or visibly different from the "majority" in any way. You are, in fact, invisible to the majority of other white people. Trust me, it's true. When people see you, they see themselves. They assume your family is like their own family. They assume the kids with you are your own kids. They assume you gave birth to them. They assume you have a right to be where you are doing what you are doing. You are not questioned, you are afforded the privilege of invisibility.

This is not a right afforded to minorities. Didn't know that? You should. You have a responsibility to understand what it is like to not be YOU.

Even for me, a woman who was prepared for being part of a trans racial family, the shock of suddenly becoming VISIBLE when we adopted our sons was a difficult transition. I had been an invisible mother before of a beautiful white baby - but noone thought to ask me how long I had had him for, or what his history was, or where he was "from". Noone touched him without asking me first, noone expected him to want to go home with them because he was so cute. The comments, the stares, the looks, the questions, the touching and even the overly enthusiastic fawning over my children was new. The assumption that other people have a right to know your history, THEIR history, to judge or evaluate your parenthood, your right to act like a family was constant.

If you can imagine how difficult it was for me, now imagine being 4.

Going through a difficult transition into a new family and everywhere you go people ask questions, comment or want to touch you? You can imagine then how much you would enjoy finally, eventually as you become more well known in your town and community, being slightly less visible. You know that being followed in a store as a ten year old doesn't happen to your white friends. You know their mother doesn't have to explain that how you dress, and act in a store will make a difference between how you are treated. You know that other kids have no idea about racism or how awful it is. You understand this all because you have to. You are visible wherever you go.

People know you, people know your family and eventually the questions become less. You head off to high school, and it's an entire new crowd of people. Kids who think they have the right to ask you about your "real" family, your history, where you are from. Kids, sometimes white ones sometimes other minority kids, think its cool to call you "nigga" or call your other friends that too. They simply don't understand that its not a cool new nickname but has a horrible and awful history to it that you hate. It hurts, but you don't say anything.

And then your parents ask your opinion on fostering two different racial minority children. And you say no. No. No. No. No. And finally ok, but you aren't going to like it. And your parents are confused. Someone did this for you, didn't they? You got to stay with your brother because your foster parents were willing to take you in. You should pay it forward. You should understand the need. You should want to do this. But what you know, but can't express, is that this will make us MORE visible.

Greg and Eric were both resistant initially to us bringing the girls into our family. Eric's resistance lasted less than 24 hours, Greg's about 3 days. Both have warmed up completely to the girls, as I knew they would, which is why we chose to proceed but I could NOT understand their reluctance to foster and in Greg's case, his initial extreme reaction to the possibility.

What I now understand is that having foster children threatens their place, their role in our family and worse, it increases their visibility. We are now a tri-racial family. There is great resistance in our area from the racial community to which my girls belong to having their kids in white families. We now deal with high visibility from both a minority group judging our right to be cuddling, parenting or being with the girls, as well as being noticed continually by the white community, and of course, they are dealing with being black in a mostly white town.

Also, to my sons, there is a definite hierarchy of family. Being a "foster kid" is something they would never, ever, ever want to be thought to be. They know that foster kids have social workers that visit them at school. They know that foster kids don't have the same name as their parents they live with. They know that foster kids aren't permanent. That foster kids can be taken away by anyone at anytime. They know that foster kids are less than full members of the family they live with, because the government dictates that they be so. They know because they lived it.

My kids are intensely proud of their right to be fully, completely and permanently part of our family. That is why they HATE the questions some feel they have a right to ask. They are simply OUR sons, and part of our family, unless they choose to share differently with you, that is their right to live and be. And now we are a foster family.

And yesterday, I overheard a conversation where Tanner was asked if his brothers were his foster brothers and I understood, at least a bit, what my boys face. They don't want ANYONE ever questioning their place in our family. And fostering makes us visible, once again, where everyone feels they can ask questions. Questions that make them visible. Questions that make them feel not fully a part of our family.

Fostering the girls was still the right decision to teach our sons compassion and kindness, to love children that need loving. It was right to teach them the sacrifices that are involved in opening your heart and home. But there is a cost that I need to acknowledge.

I know I can never understand, fully, what it is like to be them.


Cecelia Griffiths said...

Thank you so much, Jen, for writing this. This is something of which I have to at least some degree, been instinctively aware - at least enough to wince when I see it happen - but have never articulated or fully appreciated. With your permission, I'd like to circulate this quite widely among teachers. I will attribute it properly, of course.

Kristie said...

I don't think that I will ever be able to stop saying what an amazing woman you are

OAM3 said...

Your perceptive soul is why I have no doubts as to the future of all your children. Jen, you "get it" in a way we should wish for all parents of any kind to "get it". You honor your children's souls.

Thanks for leading the way for the rest of us.


Anonymous said...

I love the complexity of which you delve into racial issues. It quite literally is not "black and white" and is so complicated and multi-faceted.

Jen said...

Oh there are so many things I said yes to, and I am still after 5 years so amazed that people think its okay to ask such personal questions about my son. And I keep hoping that the hair touching thing will stop because at 5, my son more than deserves his personal space no matter how much some random stranger wants to feel his hair.

Anonymous said...

Jen, you mentioned the kids' reaction to having foster sibs and what you think is the explanation. Do you also think their initial reluctance was also due to having to face yet another change - within a year which has brought so much change and loss? When I look at the latest change, their mother (who is their world, along with their father) dealing with cancer (which included you having to leave them for a time) I imagine - as best I can - how hard this was. And this was not the only stress of change and loss in the past year. Quite simply, there have been so many coming your way.

Every family has its complexities but families with visible and invisible differences and abilities have more challenges in our white-centric society. Along with loss and change and the stress of illness, well, your family has survived and, more than that, kept on doing what you are called to a family who loves and supports and cares.


Anonymous said...

Your blog post made me think of the time we were in a restaurant together, family time, and all of a sudden we hear my 3 year old shout at a group of strangers in the restaurant "WHO ARE YOU LOOKING AT?"

kris said...

i have a 9 yr old son, adopted from vietnam at 5 months. we get some stares, not that many that i notice but i don't much notice other people because i am just not a people person. i would say that i about never get inappropriate comments. i think i am just one of those people that looks like you do not want to mess with them or something. i won't say people have never said stupid things but mostly asking where he is from in front of him (ask him) or saying how lucky he is, though i haven't actually heard that one in a few years. that seems more of a baby/toddler thing. i know i have friends who have adopted children that have gotten some pretty stupid comments but i really just haven't.

Angie said...

What an amazing post! Our daughter is from Guatemala. It is obvious she is adopted as we are quite white. I am amazed to this day, after her being home over 2 years, the stares and comments we get. Most of them have been polite so I really can't complain, but it gets kind of annoying. It seems everytime we go out someone is staring. A lot of people tell us how gorgeous she is which is nice but sometimes we just want to run to Lowes or to eat without the questions and comments.

Also, I cannot stand the touching that complete strangers do. I will never forget this elderly woman who touched our daughter's hair and face. I have issues with germs and somehow managed to remain calm but I almost lost it! Now at almost 3 our daughter is kind of shy with strangers so when they talk to her or try to touch her she turns her back or head. That is fine by me!

Anyway thanks for this great post!!!

momof4 said...

Jen, I feel compelled to write today as I have been lurking here for awhile came to your site from a fellow blogger. I have 2 "white" children and married for a second time and now have 2 "non white". I was mortified the first time I was asked when did I adopt her and how long has she been in Canada! Why do people have such a hard time accepting that I could and did give birth to these not so white babies! Thank you for bringing awareness to issues that so many children not just mine or yours face everyday. You are an incredable woman of knowledge and what a blessing you have been given to be able to put your words so gracefully on these pages. God Bless you and your family!