Ever since Teddy arrived in our lives, we’ve been a conspicuous family. You can’t miss the contrast of his chocolaty hand in our vanilla ones. Over the 4th of July at our condo pool, one of our neighbors greeted Mike and said it was great we had moved into the building, to which he responded, “We moved in six years ago. When did you move in?” The neighbor was taken aback and said, “I’ve been here two, but I thought you were new here. I don’t remember seeing you before your Teddy.”
That sort of thing has happened several times. Two years ago, were just a boring, forgettable white couple. Now we are The White Couple with the Black Son that you just can’t miss. Everywhere we go, we get double takes and questions about our family situation. “Is he yours?” is one query I have to answer at least once a week.
But now that Teddy is mobile and runs ahead and behind us, we (and Teddy) get a new set of questions: “Is he with you?” and “Where’s your mommy?” when with a quick glance about, the concerned adult doesn’t immediately recognize anyone who would seem to fit the bill. The first time this happened was in the National Portrait Gallery atrium, where Teddy and I spend a lot of time because of the water feature inset in the floor. Teddy loves running down all three inlaid sections, splashing and shrieking. Sometimes I attempt to keep him to the section in front of me—and sometimes I don’t fight that battle. On the latter days, he can end up quite a distance from me. I’m keeping track of him the whole time (and I know he won’t leave the atrium through the double doors that swing open when he gleefully whacks the wheelchair button), but an observer near him can’t tell that. And when she casts about, looking for his mommy, I’m not the obvious choice, despite the stroller parked next to me—although that probably lends me credibility when I do claim him.
The next time I noticed that “Who does this kid belong to?” look, the three of us were in a museum—on the July 4 weekend. The museum was packed. I suggested we tour the rocks and gemstones exhibit since it’s usually pretty empty when I go with Teddy during the week, but evidently there is no such thing as an unpopular exhibit on a holiday weekend. Hundreds of people were milling around. This did not stop us from letting Teddy stretch his legs, though. At this age, the little guy doesn’t much care for being confined indoors in a stroller. (He’s totally content to chill in the jogging stroller for an hour when I go for a run, though. Go figure.) So we tag-teamed keeping an eye on him and reading the placards to learn about rocks ourselves. At one point, when it was my turn to corral Teddy, he ended up across a (small) room from me, with the edge of a large display between us. I wasn’t out of sight, but view of me was definitely blocked. And several people were milling around us. Because he’s such a social butterfly, he wasted no time “introducing” himself to a family gazing at the same rock he was patting. They all exclaimed over him, and I saw the mom look around, eyes by-passing all the white couples surrounding her. I immediately zig-zagged to my little future politician, and launched into my usual cheery, “Are you making friends, bud?” before scooping him up and joining Mike.
This past weekend, we got hit more than usual with this question because the black women’s sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, congregated at the Convention Center. So several times, Mike and I were out alone or together with Teddy and found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of black women heading to or leaving the Convention Center. And several of those sorority sisters were quite concerned about a little black boy running around. They did realize he must be with us, but they felt compelled to confirm it.
But by far, the weirdest example happened last Saturday. We were crossing the floor from the metro turnstiles to the escalator, and Teddy was alternating sprinting ahead of us and lagging behind. We were riding up the escalator when we saw a black woman in uniform huffing and puffing as she raced to catch up. She saw Teddy sandwiched between us and came to the logical conclusion that he was with us. But that hadn’t been obvious to her as she watched the three of us traverse the underground, and so, doubled over to catch her breath, she proceeded to confirm that we were indeed his parents. We just smiled and assured her we were.
Undoubtedly, one-race families experience this as well: their child strays too far, and a stranger looks to the parents to confirm they are together. The difference is, when folks are eyeing a crowd of strangers for Teddy’s parents, they’re automatically looking for a black couple or individual. I know this because in one particular situation a couple months ago, Teddy was about 10 paces from me in an office building while I was chatting with a friend when one black woman chased down another black woman heading the opposite direction, calling after her to ask about Teddy. My friend interjected before I could manage to, assuring the concerned lady that Teddy was with us. She blustered a bit, but I waved it off, unbothered.
This type of encounter infuriates Mike. Teddy feels just as much like a son to us as if he’d been born to us, and to Mike, that should be obvious to everyone. But I don’t really mind that kind of mistake. The similar but oh-so-different “Is he yours?” gets under my skin because it’s so unnecessary. Ask me how old he is and what his name is. Don’t ask me if the child I’m holding or pushing in a stroller is mine. Because when you do, I hear that you can’t quite believe that he could be. A white mother holding a black son just doesn’t jive with many folks’ worldview, so they have to probe to make sense of it. And I hate being pointed out as not normal this way. (Although I’m having an epiphany as I write this, and I realize I need to get over my sensitivity to this particular question: We’re not normal, and if I want to be part of making adoption normal, I can’t get all huffy at the opportunities I have to do so. )
But reactions like the guard at the metro and the woman in the office building and the family in the museum and the women at the conference, the way I see it, are grounded in concerns for safety. Adults are understandably anxious when a rambunctious toddler is dashing about with no obvious parents in sight. In fact, it is a testimony to the goodness of people that they see a little boy running around, especially on the sidewalk or train platform, and take the time to ensure his parents are nearby so that he stays safe.
So I will continue to allow my boy freedom while we’re out and about (within reason, of course), anticipate fellow pedestrians’ worries, and address them gracefully and gratefully. It takes a village, after all.