What is he? and other random questions from strangers

“He is SO cute! What is he?”

I looked at the woman blankly for a second. I had a feeling I knew what she meant, but I still asked, “What do you mean?”

She stared back at me with a smile on her face and eventually asked, “What’s his ethnicity?”

We were standing at the sink in the restroom of a restaurant where my family and I were just finishing lunch. We were looking at each other in the mirror as I hoisted up my son to the sink and held his hands under the faucet to wash them.

I stammered for a minute. “Oh. He…well…he’s adopted. His birth father is black and his birth mother is white.”

I think she said again how cute he was, as I muttered “thank you” and ushered my toddler out of the bathroom.

I’m never quite sure how to respond to questions like this, especially when I’m not prepared for them. And let’s be real here, my son is only 2. We are just getting started.

My family and I took a two-week road trip to the Midwest this past summer to visit with my husband’s family. That was the first time we encountered strangers commenting on the racial difference between my husband and me and our son. And it happened twice.

The first time, we’d been in Omaha all of a couple hours. We were at a grocery store picking up some essentials. I was off in another aisle by myself when my husband and son were approached by a (white) woman who asked, “Is that your baby or is he adopted?”

Jeff paused and thought carefully for a minute before answering, “Yes. He’s adopted AND he’s our baby.”

The woman had a black male companion with her who overheard my husband and said, “That’s good, I like that!”

The second time it happened, all three of us were in the laundry room of the hotel where we were staying. A mixed race man was in there (he would later tell us all about his racial makeup) doing his laundry, and he asked Jeff and me, “How did you two get a mixed kid?”

Reactions to our family makeup in the Midwest versus what we get here in Los Angeles are quite different.

We were in Omaha for all of 4 days this summer and got the two above-mentioned comments. Had we stayed longer, I’m guessing we’d have gotten more.

The one I received recently in the restroom here locally was, I think, the first time in the two years we’ve had our son that a stranger here in Los Angeles has openly commented on or asked about his race. I’m guessing LA’s huge ethnic diversity is the main reason why we’ve not had more.

But no matter where one lives, race can be a very touchy subject, especially when connected to adoption. And adoptive parents have a whole range of ways we might respond to these kinds of questions.

Many parents become immediately offended, assuming that their child’s obvious difference in appearance is a private matter that’s not something to be discussed with strangers.

One of my friends has an adopted daughter who is the exact opposite: she loves to tell anyone and everyone about her adoption story. She’s made it a huge part of her identity.

Here’s the thing. I can choose to be offended when someone makes a comment or asks a question like any of these, or I can choose to assume that they mean nothing by it or are just genuinely curious.

I would like to think that I would always choose the latter. That is, to be gracious.

I want to live in a world where we show more empathy and give people the benefit of the doubt, instead of automatically getting defensive or insisting people should just “know better.” What exactly should they know better?

The thing I have to be careful with is constantly bringing up the fact that my son is adopted to explain the difference in race between he and his parents. As he gets older and understands more, I want it to be up to him how much of his story and identity is in the fact that’s he adopted.

At the end of the day, adopted or otherwise, he’s our son. And I want him to know that’s the #1 way we define our relationship to him.

2 thoughts on “What is he? and other random questions from strangers

  1. My daughter once asked me why I didn’t refer to her as daughter very often (the word son rolls off the tongue easily). She, who has struggled with her racial identity, needed the reassurance of the verbalized word. You bet I have since made it a practice to refer to her as “daughter.” For her the given first name wasn’t good enough. And, of course, I always introduced her as my daughter in public.
    Your ability to extend grace is rare and I can’t stop smiling after reading your summary!


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