Several weeks ago, Mike and I watched a special by Soledad O’Brien, one of a series about being Black in America. This one focused specifically on colorism—discrimination based on skin color—within the black community, how black people with lighter skin tones are seen as superior to black people with darker skin tones. The documentary followed two young women of lighter skin tone, one of whom identified as black; the other didn’t identify as black in the beginning, but by the end seemed to have come to embrace that culture.
The whole thing was fascinating—and well worth your time—but a couple things struck me as I watched Soledad interview people to share a story of colorism and identity issues in the black community. One is that Teddy will inevitably have color-related issues to deal with: Not only is he adopted, he’s a black child with white parents. So he will at some point struggle to determine whether he identifies more as a white person or as a black person. And he will likely have people from both communities claim he doesn’t fit with either.
But something one of the two young women said really resonated with me. She is Egyptian and so has a lighter skin tone than people from southern or West Africa. She mentioned that when she’s out and about, doing her daily business, she will get into conversations with strangers who will ask, “What are you?” or “Where are you from?” Because her cultural heritage is not immediately evident, people can’t easily put her into a box and label her. And because they can’t, they find it difficult to move on in the conversation. She said, “It’s like they think they will sleep better at night once they figure me out.”
And she was annoyed by this.
When I’m out with Teddy, people will often exclaim over what an adorable child he is and then immediately follow up with, “Where is he from?” or “Where was he born?” I’ve written before about my struggle with this, and while my mother had the excellent suggestion to answer that our family is from all over (I was born in New York; Mike, Nebraska; and Teddy, Maryland), I have to admit it feels awkward at this point to answer that, since I know they don’t care where I’m from. And that’s where my own annoyance comes in. I know they don’t care where I’m from. So why do they care where Teddy’s from? Why can’t they simply note how cute Teddy is, make a comment about how fast this time goes and to appreciate every moment of it, and then wish us a good day?
The answer is, they know where I’m from. Between skin color and accent, I’m easily labeled. Teddy doesn’t seem to fit that label. So they have to make sense of that before they can move on.
One comment in an adoption forum suggested inquiring of the questioner, “Why do you ask?” Not sure what this would accomplish, though. I’ve never tried it, but I assume the person asking would say something like, “Oh, just curious.” And where do you go from there? Satisfy their curiosity? Smile brightly and just leave?
The suggestion reminds me, though, that these types of conversations happened all the time when we lived in London, but there was a key difference with those situations: The questions were reciprocated: Everyone wanted to know where everyone else was from. When asked where we were from, we answered and then turned around and asked the same question back. We were all in the same boat of being from somewhere else and comradery was formed as we learned the answers to our questions.
So maybe until I either get comfortable deflecting the question or get over my annoyance with it, I should just answer and repeat it back. After all, it’s DC. Everyone could very well be from somewhere else.