Sometimes I am aware of racism directed at my daughter. There are small things that I think I pick up on, all from well-intentioned people. One time someone asked me if she and her brother were my foster children. Sometimes people ask which state programs they are on. Occasionally there is something overt, like when a friend’s parent told her daughter she couldn’t have my daughter over because she is black. That’s rare, though.
More often I find myself wondering why something someone has said just doesn’t sit right, like the way so many people have referred to her as a diva. Is that a race thing, or is it just a reality TV thing? Or is it a sexism thing? Or am I just making too much out of nothing? Often it’s something where I don’t even remember the exact wording, I’m just left with an impression: Did that person just imply that my daughter is beautiful despite her very dark skin? Sometimes I suspect I am losing it entirely. Why is the salesperson steering us toward so many white items of clothing and mentioning how “flattering to the skin” the contrast is? It feels vaguely wrong, and wildly impractical. (When I Google the white clothes thing as best I can, the crowdsourced questions about this issue suggest to me that I’m not the only person who notices this, but whereas I’m trying to make out a stereotype, the questions I see are asking these questions in dead earnest. “Why do black people always wear white clothes?” Ugh.)
I very rarely take offense to these things, even afterwards. It doesn’t feel right, like I have no right to define something I can barely make out. Also, as a white person, do I have the right to call out subtle racism when I don’t always understand it myself? I feel like the answer to that question is no, and even if it weren’t, I would have a hard time conveying what I’m perceiving.
I ponder these things sometimes, and I worry about my daughter.
But then her younger brother decides that it would be funny to stuff marshmallows down his pants, or I get a work call, or my dog has an accident, and I have to put it aside. And that, of course, is the big difference, the huge reason why I can never, EVER remotely understand what my daughter experiences. She doesn’t get to put it aside. Every day she is perceived through a prism I don’t see, and she in turn perceives the world through hers. Right now she can’t begin to articulate what she sees and hears or senses about race; as an adopted child, she is more focused on figuring out where she fits within the family unit, and mourning the many losses she has experienced, than in the world as a whole; but she absorbs all of these things, nevertheless. I can just hope that she comes to me when something confuses her, and that I can give her the answers she needs.
Right now, my daughter knows she can rely on me to be her fierce protector when someone is overtly “mean” to her in any way. I have called the parents of a boy who was bullying her. And of course, I raised holy hell when her friend’s parents didn’t want her to have my daughter over. But when all these other things appear, these nebulous shapes I can’t make out, those things that just flash by — by NOT saying anything about them, what am I telling her? And all the things I miss entirely — am I denying their existence to her because I can’t see them?
And God knows I am guilty of it myself, in so many ways that I don’t perceive. I wince looking back when I think about how I described some of the women in Ethiopia as having an otherworldly beauty. What I was trying to say is that I have never seen anyone who was remotely as beautiful as I found those women to be. It was intended to be a compliment, and I tend to wax poetic, but what I was also doing was “othering” them — treating them like they were literally alien to me. (I watch it with the hyperbole now, which is tough for me.) However, I’m sure in two years I’ll be wincing at something I’m doing now.
I try to be mindful of my words and actions. I remind myself my reality is not hers. We don’t have a shared perspective. I try to listen, listen, LISTEN. I try not to become too comfortable with what I think I know. I remind myself that my daughter’s journey is her own.
I also try to see more. I educate myself, and pay attention. I have a few blogs I try to follow in my infinite spare time. I do my best. But I’ve already learned something major about racism: I barely, barely perceive a tiny sliver of what my daughter experiences. I see next to nothing, just a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, but I need to keep looking for it, and I need to know that it’s there even when I can’t see it.