Saturday, February 10, 2007

A frank talk about race and adoption

I am not feeling charitable. For the first time since we moved to Ann Arbor, a retail clerk asked me if Ben was my foster son. This happened fairly routinely in Port Huron, but not here. It's taken eight months. You may think I deserve this, or it is an innocent question, or he meant well. All of that may be true on some level. My answer is, and will always be, "He is my son." No other answers will be given unless we know each other.

It made me think about how often people have reached out and touched Ben's hair, an overtly racial gesture which offends me. So I am passing this along. Maybe it will shock you, or offend you. I hope it makes you think, and spares some other little kid the sort of violation I am growing increasingly tired of.

My son should not have to be your teacher. You have lived to be 40, 50 maybe even 70. You are white. You say discrimination is bad, illegal, unthinkable, some of your best friends are black. You may even mean well. You have never touched a black person.

You have never reached out your hand and felt black skin under a rolling tear. You have never touched the dense hair that tops a black head. You have never seen the naked genitals of a black man or woman. If you are male, you might have, because your curiosity got the better of you and it seemed exotic. If you did so I bet you did so by being a patron of what we now call the sex trade, because you wouldn't have dreamed of being intimate with someone who wasn't your color.

Now, my son and I are seated next to you, on a plane, at a supper, at a lunch counter, in the bus. You do not know us, we have never seen you. My son is small, on my lap, defenseless. You reach across that barrier between us and you touch my son.

You feel his hair.

The tight curls touch your extended palm but it is not enough. You tip the heel of you hand up, and you pass through his hair again with your fingertips, applying pressure because you must feel it. It doesn’t feel like the "carpet" you taunted another child with in fourth grade. It doesn’t feel “nappy.” It is human hair, attached to a living breathing human, my son.

I want to slap you. Or better yet, I want to reach up to feel your chrome dome, or your hair spray laden coif. Run my fingers through it. The most intimate sort of touching one human does to another, and you feel free to do it to my small son. I want to inflict it on you. But I know what you would do. If I raise my hand to touch your hair you will move your head away. Because you don’t want a strange adult to touch you, but you will touch my son’s head of hair.

You would not touch a white baby, because you have touched white babies. You know how they feel. Maybe you touched your own, or your sister’s or your neighbor's. But because you have never welcomed a black person into your life, you have never touched black, African hair.

You feel free to do this because I am white and my son is black. You assume several things about me, and about Ben, and all of them are deeply offensive.

First, you assume that you may do this intimate thing because you and I are the same color. Brother or sister, you and I are a world apart. Because of Ben and what I have learned being his mother for three years, I think of myself as something other than white.

Next, you will assume I rescued him. Rescued him from the ghetto, or crack, or foster care. You don’t even begin to know what our reality is. I consider him simply and completely my son. No one rescued anyone, we love each other and we are a family. That is all.

You assume you can ask how I got him. My response to you is “ Do you know whose birth canal (or vagina, depending on how prickly I am feeling) YOU passed through? Would you care to tell me the circumstances of your conception and birth, please, here in this public place? Would you enlighten all of us on your kinship circle? Are you sure you are your Daddy’s baby?”

You think my son is lucky. He is not lucky. The family he was born to could not support him because of an economic system so squarely resting on the unpaid labor of generations of black people. That same system that handed you a privilege simply because you were born white took away my child's birthright to live in his family of origin. He is not lucky that he could not be raised with his half brothers and his birth mother, and his father and his half sister. Luck has nothing to do with it.

So, when you see us in public, my son and me, would you simply greet us politely, chat about the weather, and know in your heart that we are a happy family? And then welcome someone from a different culture into your life. Get to know them. Ask another adult what it feels like to live in his or her skin. Embrace someone who doesn’t look like you. Step outside your tight-assed little circle and live.

Don’t make my small son your social laboratory. Grow up. Get a richer life. Keep your hands and your questions to yourself. We are not your teachers, you are responsible for learning your own lessons. Get started.


Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to have found your blog. Every post is interesting. This post should be published where it will reach a wider audience. Bravo.

When my daughter was an infant I had strangers ask me if she was adopted (she wasn't, she looks like her dad). I remember being shocked at their audacity. But no one ever touched her. I would have been furious too.

Cynthia Bostwick said...

Dear Anon,

Thanks so much for your kind words. I am grateful for readers and even more grateful for intelligent responses.

Peace, shalom and salaam to you and your family.

Ben & Bennie said...

I feel your anger Cynthia. I want people to get to know my Ben for what he is and not what he isn't.

Cynthia Bostwick said...

Amen, friend. I am sure you and your family experience the same kind of idiocy from strangers. I suppose that comes with the category of being exceptional parents! Thanks for your comment, and for continuing to read.

A.J.Reams said...

I can't believe someone would have the nerve to touch a child like that! I am shocked!

I feel your anger. Even though I've never experienced a situation like that, I would be livid if someone reached out and touched my son or daughter...regardless of their reason.

I'm glad you posted your story. I hope more will read this and understand that this is behavior unacceptable.

I found your page by using the "random blog button" and I'm sure I'll be stopping by again.

cloudscome said...

This is a very moving post. I haven't had this experience with people touching my sons' hair, maybe because they are shy and make it clear to strangers that they don't want to be touched. I have had other kids touch their hair and that hasn't bothered me. From reading this I see it all in a whole new light so thanks . And thanks for stopping by my blog and giving your encouraging comments. You are right, we need to work together. A writing project sounds interesting...

Cynthia Bostwick said...


I never have a problem with kids' curiosity. We get that sometimes, "Are you his MOTHER?" and I am happy to explain. Adults simply amaze me. I'm not usually this angry, either, just needed to vent. The adoption journey has been amazing, and continues to impress me with how little I know. Yet.

jodi said...

People are strange, Cynthia, no doubt about it. This is a powerful and moving post, and one that ought to be required reading for anyone who lives in a bubbleworld where everything has to be just like they are.

I think you have a marvelous family, and I wish we lived closer.

peace, jodi

Anonymous said...

The whole world is a social laboratory. We are all constantly being scrutinized, judged, observed and stereotyped and the two of you individually or together as a family are no exception. I think it is a mistake to assume that everyone who is curious about Ben, that anyone who touches his hair, or inquires into your history together does so out of insensitivity, social stupidity or a sick need to experiment with him in a “social laboratory”. Are not your own comments prejudicial, equally presumptuous and judgmental? Are you not harshly accusing others of the very thing you yourself are doing?

My hunch is most of these people are well intended, kind and simply being friendly. You cannot walk around with a big sign warning people not to touch your son’s hair for the rest of his life. If you continue to make a battle out of every perceived social slight or blunder; if you continue to generate more anger within yourself and the world each time you encounter a seeming injustice are you not contributing to the overall collective problem which already plagues our world and ultimately your child?

Cynthia Bostwick said...


I guess I might feel better about your position if you had the courage to sign you name. That being said, you raise interesting points.

Have you, however, lived this?

I can assure you, several African-American people I know share my discomfort about the hair touching stuff. And I don't see it as my repsonsiblity to sacrifce my son's privacy in order to move our culture along. I see that as your repsonsibility to talk about those issues with another adult.

People may be well-intentioned, it doesn't make what they do right. One could say the Founders of our country were well-intentioned when they put in the Constitution that black people counted only as 2/3 a person: they were just trying to be fair to the states.

Thanks for reading. And I suspect, our debate will conitnue!

Peace, shalom, and salaam to you, whoever you are.

Anonymous said...

Dear Cynthia,

Thank you so much for your blog. I am also a mother through transracial adoption, and my heart connected with so much of what you said. I often times find myself frustrated with the idea that because we chose to grow our family through adoption, it is my families job to educate the world EVERYWHERE and ALL THE TIME.

Do not get me wrong, there is a time and place for education. In fact, I will be teaching a class this spring to counselors and marriage and family therapists about assisting families formed through adoption and foster care, I will not however, be conducting my class while in the grocery store or when I am attempting to do life with my family!

My husband and I were meeting with a group of parents through adoption, most of whom did not adopt transracially. It struck me that those in the group who have crossed those racial barriers understood this frustration, while those who had not seemed to see it as the rest of us being too sensitive and not recognizing the overall racism present in the situation. Anyhow, I could go on for days, but just wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts and feeling with us.

Would it be okay if I included your post in the readings of parents thoughts and experiences that I am compiling for my class?


Concerned Parent and Professional

Cynthia Bostwick said...


I'd be delighted to have you use my piece, but I would like your information--you could send info on your class, even. Because my blog is not anonymous, I would like to track, where possible, when things are being used. Please feel free to email me (address below).

Thanks for you comments. I was totally naieve about race issues when I adopted. Love does not conquer all, education does!

Peace, shalom, salaam--