Putting the Pieces Together — Why People Stare At Mixed-Race Families

– Posted in: Family, Life is a Mystery, Mean People, Worst Mom Rants

The other day, I read an article in the New York Times about Heather Greenwood, a woman from a mixed-race family in Toms River, New Jersey. She basically described a life filled with relentless confrontation from strangers about her family. In the article, they recounted an incident when a woman in a store saw Heather with her daughter and asked, “How come she’s so white and you’re so dark?” and then — and this is the NYTimes describing it — “It’s just not possible,” she charged indignantly. “You’re so…dark!”
 
I know that words can hurt. I mean, let’s face it. I’m female. Girls grow up learning how to sting with a phrase as soon as they can string a few words together. And it’s not just the words we speak — it’s the tone and the pauses and the body language. We’re all about the  subtle turn of the cheek during a group conversation or the quick “up-and-down” look to make someone feel uncomfortable. It’s how we mark our territory (yes, very uplifting, I know…).

Anyway, as I was reading this story, it suddenly made me think — why do we naturally assume that people are trying to be mean?

I wanted to make sure to put in the “indignantly” and the exclamation point when I quoted the NYTimes article because I wasn’t there and I have no idea how this lady sounded. She very well could’ve been a complete, inappropriate jerk. True, the “It’s just not possible,” doesn’t do her any favors, but as far as tone goes, sometimes I think we hear what we go out looking to hear (and yes, I know you can’t see hearing — you people know what I mean).

My dad is of Chinese descent, and my mother’s family was German, Polish and Czechoslovakian. When were were kids, my mom was asked on multiple occasions if my brother and I were adopted. It was after the Vietnam War, and it wasn’t a completely ridiculous question because people were adopting Vietnamese kids and we really didn’t look anything like her.

My mom would tell this story all the time. But I never heard her tell it in a way that made you think she was pissed off about it. And now, with my blond-haired kids, I don’t get pissed off when people say, “Wow, how’d she end up with those blue eyes?” or “He must look an awful lot like his father.”

And the reason I don’t get pissed? Because I don’t think people are being mean. I think they’re intrigued. Physical traits are interesting, and when you combine different races, you get some really cool outcomes. Imagine this:

My brother and I, who have dark brown hair and brown eyes, are married to people with blond hair and blue eyes. His kids leaned more toward his looks and have dark brown hair (his son has brown eyes, his daughter’s are an amazing dark blue). But my kids leaned toward my husband’s looks and have light brownish/dark blond hair (my son has green eyes, my daughter’s are blue).

Incidentally, if you didn’t already know this, kids tend to look more like their dads so they won’t be killed. Because in the animal kingdom, the mother is positive the offspring is hers, but the father needs a little more conformation. Babies that looked more like the fathers tended to not be eaten or whacked. It’s just all evolution.

But moving on. When my family went out, especially in the old days when my mom was still around, I always wondered what people were thinking. Were my husband and sister-in-law somehow related to my mom? Were my nephew and niece actually my kids, or did my kids really belong to my sister-in-law? And at some point, wasn’t this all kind of sick or illegal? It was like one of those unsolvable brainteasers.

Anyway, I don’t know how things are for the woman in the NYTimes article. She could be surrounded by complete asshats who hate interracial marriage and think mixed-race children are the devil’s spawn. And I’ll admit that growing up in a basically all-white community, I had my fair share of moments when we felt very “stared at.” But maybe, just maybe, people think her family is just plain interesting. And her children are beautiful.

And the real reason they’re staring so hard or furrowing their brows is because they just can’t come up with the answer to that damn unsolvable puzzle.

14 Comments… add one

ginger October 16, 2011, 1:25 pm

I've got those mixed kids. My husband is Korean, I am white. My oldest, when she was born was so dark colored that I was asked all kinds of rude or interesting questions as to her "origin". I think, when you get questioned sooo much about your child, you tend to get defensive. Especially when it seems like it is constant with no respect to your privacy. Like it is your duty to inform the public about your child. "Where did she come from?" "What is she?" "What's her nationality?" "Is she yous?" "What's her Dad?" I have been asked all of these. It was rare to get asked politely or even correctly regarding ethnicity. My answers varied according how I was asked or approached.

Stranger: What's her nationality
Me: American, yours?
Stranger:Is she yours?
Me: Why yes…(if they had their own kid) Is yours?
Stranger:Where did she come from?
Me: My Vagina or You do know how babies are made right? or "H Mart!"
Stranger: What is she?
Me: Human. Female.
Stranger:What's her Dad?
Me: Human. or if they were nice or the conversation lent to it…I'd give em what the wanted. "My husband is Korean"
Stranger: My friend's brother's roommate's cousin adopted.
Me: How wonderful for them.

With my first, all these questions got old real quick because I live in a town that has a high white population and a very large group that have adopted from Asia, and I was asked almost every day. I once went to a local park where an adoption support group was having a playdate. I was asked if I was new! It hurt that people were so insensitive. It hurt that no one could see me in my daughter. But, as she got older, it turns out she looks just like me…but with darker hair and skin. My second is surprisingly lighter in color. Her hair is my color, but she looks just like my husband. Not once have I been asked about her. Most people, I guess, see the two of them with me and realize that they are sisters and that indeed they came from my vagina. I get more sensitive questions: "They looked mixed, am I wrong?"

And I will totally admit without bragging that my kids are indeed beautiful. Even with the questions regarding what my kids are, strangers also stop me and tell me how beautiful they are. My number two gets petted all the time. In fact, I would rather have the questions over the stranger coming up and just stroking her arm or her head. My husband didn't believe me about it, until we went to Disneyland, and I kid you not, in lines, strangers would just reach out and rub her arm! And say, "She is absolutely beautiful". Creeps me out all the time. And it happens All.The. Time!

Humans are curious creatures and your business is their business.

Padded Cell Princess October 16, 2011, 7:14 pm

BBC is doing a series on mixed families and the history of mixed races. Recently they did an episode on mixed race twins where one twin is white and the other is black. They interviewed many different twins of different ages in which this was the case but one was really striking. There were 2 little girls about 11 years old. One girl was a beautiful shade of milk chocolate and twin sister was creamy white with the most dazzling blue eyes. Since they lived with their black mother and had another black sister, the white twin felt very out of place and ugly. It was so sad because she was incredibly uniquely gorgeous! He sisters were stunning girls as well but the poor 'odd' sister was also teased horribly at school and told she was adopted. I felt so bad for this beautiful girl with an incredible heritage to feel so out of place instead of wonderfully unique.
I have a cousin who was an adopted Vietnam baby (although is half white American and half Vietnamese) but even living in my pasty white family in my pasty white little town, I never realized he wasn't 'one of us' until I was older. My husband and I hope that down the line we will be able to adopt an African child. If that means getting stared at for having a child that doesn't look anything like either of us, then that seems like a small price to pay for extending love to an orphaned child.
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Laura October 17, 2011, 3:28 am

I have to completely and totally disagree. :) Sure, we get the "curious" people's comments, questions and stares and we get the "confused" people's comments, questions and stares and then we get the complete and total "asshats," as you suggested. And we get a lot of them. And the problem is, when you get that many, pretty soon the "confused" and "curious" get lumped together with the asshats because, frankly, it's intolerable.

We live in a (too) white area. We stick out like sore thumbs. We also live in a highly visited tourist town and I swear on all that's holy, I'm not sure some of these people have seen a black person. Of course, I know they have, but the manner in which they react would suggest the exact opposite.

I'd also suggest — and nobody like to say this and I'll probably upset some people — that people often react differently to mixed race families that are Asian and Caucasian than they do to mixed race families that are Black and Caucasian. I will argue that one to do the death. And I'd invite anyone to tag alone with me when I'm out with just my son (who is Asian) and when I'm out with my daughter (who is African). Of course, when we're all together, as we usually are, it's like high season on stupidity.

What Ginger said above…exactly. Just exactly.

Asking me how much my kids cost, where I "got" them, whether they are TWINS (remember, they're Asian and African), was I glad we "got" them, would I "get" more, "what" are they — that gets old. Telling me how cute they are then petting them like puppies, telling them how LUCKY they are to get to live here…

It used to be an irritation. Now it can be enraging. My kids understand so very much. They don't deserve to be treated that way. You know what's made it better? A puppy. We take our puppy out and nobody notices the kids. They notice the puppy. If that doesn't tell you something, then I don't think anything will.

There's a huge lack of respect for what I believe should be societal norms – norms that dictate that just because we think something or want to know something, that we say or ask it. KIDS are allowed to do that. The little boy in Chuck E. Cheese who looked at me with a puzzled face and said, "Is SHE your daughter?" and when I said yes, responded, "But she's black and you're white!" He was allowed to do that. He's learning about the world around him. Adults who point and say, "Look at that black girl with that white lady!" loud enough for my daughter to hear. That's not okay. It's not okay when they then approach and ask where we got her. Because my little girl deserves to be treated with respect, not like a puppy. It's not her job to fulfill others' curiosity.

I could write stories here all day long. A favorite was the lady who asked how old my kids are. I told her. (They're 18 months apart.) She then asked whether they were twins. I wonder how a Vietnamese child and an Ethiopia child who are 18 MONTHS APART could be twins. She argued with me in the grocery store. She told me it was possible. I wish this was isolated. It's not. Another was the lady who was looking to be a racist b*tch. http://www.anuncommonfamily.com/2011/02/07/dont-t… You can read it.

I might have agreed with you when we just had our son, had things remained somewhat mild. But if you could spend a day with us now that we're very mixed and hear the things we hear, I think you'd understand.

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Laura October 17, 2011, 7:12 am

I'm glad you responded! And then tweeted me to tell me. :) I really do think it's a solid half asshattery. I was Suzie Sunshine in the beginning. I answered too many questions, was too accommodating to people's stupidity, and often went with it. It wasn't until we had Molley and it hit a new level of insanity that I had enough. That, and the fact that my kids just keep getting older. Very little gets by them these days.

I almost said that I'd guess that things were different with your mom. Stupid people have always existed, but there is a HUGE lack of filter — or even an expectation of one — in so many situations these days that didn't happen long ago. Then again, there was probably more overt racism years ago, so… who knows.

What I do know is that I can usually parse out within 30 seconds the people who really do want to learn about adoption and the asshats who couldn't care less, who will learn NOTHING from what I tell them and who just want to satisfy IGNORANT curiosity.

I can tell who really wants to learn and who thinks we're interest/neat looking/different/a freak show and just wants their curiosity satisfied 99% of the time. For those who actually care, they usually make that apparent by saying something very telling right off the bat. If I have any doubt, I say, "Why do you ask?" Best question ever.

I think you and I might come at this from different places, too. I've ultimately settled on the position that I cannot educate ignorance. So my standing there talking to some jackass – like the woman at Ikea I wrote about in my blog post – would accomplish exactly nothing, other than to degrade my children in public, piss me off and satisfy her completely ignorant passing interest in something that looks different to her. She would NEVER walk away more educated. I'd bet my life on it.

I think there's also an added layer to my family's situation, in that my children are not only racially diverse, but they were adopted. There is a HUGE amount of protection I OWE and will always provide them on that front. They can talk about their adoptions until they're blue in the face or they can say nothing. But I will not – never, ever – take it upon myself to betray that privacy to someone in the grocery store or at the park. They have a history of loss and pain and things that nobody outside of our immediate family will ever know. And nobody has a right to ask about those things. And for us, race and adoption are tied together intimately. So talking about one usually involves talking about the other.

Also related to that – that makes my family a little different than yours – is my lack of sharing any sort of racial similarity with my children. I cannot relate to how they will feel being a minority. I've lived a "white privileged" life. As a mom, I will feel the sting of words said to them and it will probably break me into a million pieces, but I will never personally understand or relate to their minority status. I'm very cognizant of that when people ask things like, "Is it hard having a black kid?"

Also, I long ago took the stance that my kids aren't the poster children for adoption. Should they choose to be one day when they're old enough — great. We'll go with that. But until they're old enough to decide for themselves, I'm not making them that. It's not my job to educate the world. People can do what I do when I see something different or strange or interesting – the can go home and Google that shit.

Very rarely to get I get angry. That woman in Ikea? She did it to me. But that's rare. If you knew how often we deal with comments and questions and whatnot, you'd realize that if I allowed it to get to me regularly, I'd be angry all the time! I'm not. 99% of the time, I brush it off and carry on. But it does get old and it would be nice if it would stop. And not for me, but for them. I'm an adult and I made a big-girl decision to create an interracial family through international adoption. My kids? They didn't have a say. They were taken from their first families for reasons beyond their families' or their control, taken from their cultures and countries and put in an entirely new life where they don't match their parents. That in and of itself is huge. We're going to raise them the very best we know how and do our best to be the parents that they need. But right now, when it comes to the interracial issues and the asshats at the grocery store – well meaning or not – I'm not interested. They are so young and deserve to have a somewhat protected childhood. I don't need every curious tourist to chip away at that, one comment and question at a time.

Thanks so much for inviting me over to be a part of this discussion. I really do appreciate your viewpoint and I love hearing it. I think the world will be better off with more people like you to balance out those like me! :-) Sincerely. xoxo
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Tammy October 17, 2011, 6:38 am

So I actually hunted Laura down and asked her to come by to read this, precisely because I wanted to see what she had to say. Her family almost sets up a perfect sociological experiment to ask so many questions. Plus, from what I've gathered about her so far, she's not crazy (so far…).;) Incidentally, just to clear things up, both of her children are adopted.

I have no doubt that a lot of people react differently to the Asian/Caucasian vs Black/Caucasian mix. I think we'd all be kidding ourselves to think otherwise. And like I said in the post, maybe all of these people really are just asshats. And, point well taken, adults should have much better social skills than children and be able to pull it together in public. SHOULD.

The problem is, we're dealing with a population that can't figure out 15 items or less lines. And thinks Snooki is an appropriate commencement speaker. And ketchup is a vegetable. And Rick Perry should be president.

It sucks, but to some extent, people like Ginger, Laura, probably Padded Cell Princess some day, and I have to take it upon ourselves to do mini-educating whenever the opportunity arises. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me what my nationality was and I said, "You mean ethnic background?" and then sort of launched into a family history that probably made them so sorry they ever asked…

But, Ginger and Laura, I'm not living your guys' lives, so obviously I have no idea what you're experiencing. I wish my mom were still around so I could really sit her down and ask if it bothered her. It was a different time. Maybe people were — oddly — less offensive. But I do want to say that I think sometimes we do assume that certain things have more to do with whatever we're touchy about than they really do. Clearly the "she's black and you're white" stuff is without subtlety. But I have friends with adopted kids who look just like them who get asked how much they cost (clearly not the best wording, but adoption is really expensive, so sometimes people want to know how much the "process" was), where they got them (from the county, was it private, or foreign), and would they get more (again, bad wording for would you adopt again, but it's kind of the equivalent of would you "have" more). And, again, if I had a dollar for every time I've been asked "what" I am… but usually it's by someone I sort of know and who just does it in a really ham-handed way.

I have a friend with twins — boy and girl — and she's consistently asked if they're identical (so see — people are just stupid). And when we weren't walking with our dog (who always stole the show away from the kids), my number two was like a little magnet. She had people ooh-ing, ahh-ing, and patting her everywhere we went. I just figured it was because she looked freakishly like a baby doll.

I guess I'm just saying that sometimes we see what, as parents, we feel most vulnerable about. Just today, I had this stark realization about my son. You guys know that he was diagnosed with autism at 3. When he was 4, we moved into our current neighborhood, and I remember how pissed off I was at these older boys who were so mean to him when he was trying to talk to them (he pretty much sucked at conversation at that point). They rolled their eyes and gave him the brush off. They were sarcastic and snotty. I just about wanted to go over and smack them. I remember being so upset because he was trying really hard to interact with them, and all I could think was, "He's autistic, so he's acting weird and they're being mean to him because he's acting weird, and kids are mean, and why does there always have to be bullying, and he's going to get bullied his entire life, and oh my god this is just going to suck."

Then today, we had a 4-year-old over. My son is now 8. The little kid was trying to talk to him, and my son was pretty much acting like a stand-offish, sarcastic, impatient jerk. It was jarring. I had to remind him that this other boy was younger, could use some help, and needed to be included.

Anyway, I swear I'm really trying to make you guys feel better, not disregard or downplay (or whatever word that is that I can't seem to think of right now) your pain. Because obviously it's real and chips away at you. And you're both awesome women and awesome moms, and it makes me sad to know that the asshats get to you at all. XOs.
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Tammy October 19, 2011, 7:52 am

I think the world would be a better place if the asshats would stop asking stupid question about your kids. I think my final conclusion in all of this is that you are a sensitive, open-minded person. And if you get the feeling from a person — from their tone, body language, etc., like I said in the post — that they aren't coming from a place of genuine interest and that they're just busy-bodies or judgy Mcjudge-a-lots, then you're more than likely correct. And, unfortunately, based on your reporting, that happens more often than not. Which frankly makes me very sad.

Anyway, thanks for the double novel. And the great discussion. I feel like this should've been a whole blog post. And sorry for the delay. I wasn't avoiding you — just feeling like crappity crap.:)
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Sun February 7, 2014, 2:13 am

Disgusting pieces of trash. ALL of you.

As a YOUNG man (European) I’m ashamed that people like you exist making us a minority flushing the very “diversity” you claim to hold dear.

Of course people are going to assume they’re not your kids you retarded bimbos. Most (sane) people date within their “race.” As such, people assume children look and share resemblance to their parents you idiots. You do it ALL the time, even with animals (cats and dogs). Physical phenotype are connected to identify kin relations.

Stupid race mixing trash.

Tammy February 7, 2014, 10:50 am

Sun, you’re clearly young. And angry. And a sad, sad little man.
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Cheryl S. February 10, 2014, 5:39 am

Young (European) man,
Two things come to mind from your reply: 1) Europe is so embarrassed to have to claim you, and 2) the words of Dan Aykroyd from SNL, “Jane, you ignorant slut.”

You, “sir,” are what is wrong with America. You are a blight upon our land. I know that you are a troll, and don’t deserve a response, but respond I will…because I have nothing better to do for the next minute or two.

Odd that you mention cats and dogs in support of your pathetic, weak argument. Litters will bear out the cross-breeding that has been done, and rarely do you find puppies and kittens (unless in pure-bred lines) that match their parents identically.

It’s surprising that you claim Europe as your heritage. Have you ever been to Europe? Or even out of your cave? Because Europe is about as mixed up race-wise as you can get. Everybody’s got a little something-something thrown in. That’s why they say EUROPEAN. Because they can’t be bothered to list all the nationalities that combine them.

What you should claim to be is an asshole. Because that you are, in spades. A racist douchebag with strong traces of idiocy.

Also, learn some punctuation. Please.

Laura February 7, 2014, 10:56 am

INTERNET TROLL! I’d feel for those who have to encounter you when you leave the dark recesses of your mom’s basement and venture out into the real world. Except it’s probably no big deal because people like you only behave this way behind the anonymity of the computer screen.

Gina February 7, 2014, 11:11 am

You’re right, they’re not always being mean. But for some children it’s hurtful to have strangers constantly ask about them & their origins while not asking about their siblings’ (in our case, both bio kids of one race and adopted kids of another race) Also it’s just nosy and not *actually* any of their business, so depending on my mood when they say something to me, or the tone of their voice, my response can vary wildly.

Polly February 7, 2014, 3:34 pm

Sun, if you want to be an idiot, be an idiot. But please don’t throw around big words you don’t get, like “phenotype”. Are you that scared of being a “minority”?

Martha Willis February 7, 2014, 4:53 pm

I am sad that clowns like Sun feel the need to share their convoluted version of reality with the rest of us. I am mixed race and thought it was cool my mom and dad were different from everyone else because , in my eyes, that made me special.

Cheryl S. February 10, 2014, 7:09 pm

Funny thing… we are white mutts, or “European” as some would say. Everyday my husband drops off my daughter and our neighbor, Treyviel. Every afternoon I bring them home. Trey is not white. Yet everyone assumes both kids are mine. Other kids assume it. Nobody cares. And I live in a very non liberal area. But they don’t care because IT DOES NOT MATTER. Families are families and love is love.

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