Just Talk

photo by Scott Von Osdol
Debra and Marie Monroe

In 1996, I was a white woman with no plans to marry, living in a small Hill Country town. I wanted to be a mother and started looking into adoption. I didn’t know that in 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers called transracial adoption “cultural genocide.” In 1972, I was a schoolgirl. I’d watched the civil rights movement on TV, and it seemed like a battle black people fought with manners while white people fought with clubs and fire hoses.

If I reconsider the national mood then, I realize only a hundred years had passed since white people bought and sold black people, babies included, a hundred violent years for anyone assuming that the rights and protections promised by the Reconstruction Amendments—but revoked by Jim Crow laws—still applied. Miscegenation laws had only just been overturned in 1967. Angry suburbanites still protested desegregation. It was too soon for interracial anything, so agencies didn’t do transracial adoptions, not even after 1994, when the Metzenbaum Act was passed to address the fact that children of color were overrepresented in the child welfare system. It was amended in 1996, making the denial of placement because of race unambiguously illegal.

I made my first calls to adoption agencies that year. Staff members asked warily if I’d be open to transracial adoption. Most staff members were white. During one call, when I said yes, the receptionist snapped: “Do you know what transracial means?” Her tone gave me pause. “I think so,” I said, parsing syllables, “adoption across races.” She said, “The child will be black!” Black was a whole other category of transracial, apparently. I ended up with an agency whose values seemed like my values: Its staff members didn’t tense up discussing race. I filled out paperwork. I underwent hours of training. No one told me the law had just changed. A happy accident, I think now, in that I didn’t see I’d be countering unsolicited conversations about race—conversations unearthing curiosity, uneasiness, and idealized visions of the future—for the rest of my life.

When I brought my daughter home, the color of her face, black and swaddled in pink, was news. The highway that cuts the country in half, I-35, separates the South from the Southwest. Demographically, the South is mostly white and black, and the Southwest is mostly Anglo and Hispanic. My town, a cedar-chopping village turned Austin exurb just west of the big divide, is firmly in the Southwest. There were few black people in town, so my daughter and I seemed remarkable there. People remarked. A stranger in a store cupped her hands around my daughter’s face and said, “This town is ready for you.” My daughter looked wary. A deputy pulled me over because I’d failed to dim my lights. He shined the flashlight from my face to my daughter’s. “Whose kid is that?” he asked, flustered. I went to a doctor for what turned out to be a blood sugar disorder, and he looked at my daughter and asked if her father was sick; he should order an HIV test, he added.

These might seem like three versions of one conversation, but they’re not. The woman in the store had waited a long time to prove to herself she was comfortable with black people, and a white mother with a black child was an opportunity she hurried to take. The deputy was so startled he forgot to give me a ticket. The doctor assumed I’d slept with a black man and engaged in high-risk behavior, which is racial profiling.

Note that in the conversations no one said the words “black” or “race.” Attitudes about race have changed a little.  But our language for talking about race hasn’t changed as much as it’s gone underground, turned evasive. We live in semantically cautious times. We use the phrase “post-racial,” and we hope it means we’re past racial distinctions. Instead, we’re almost past old-fashioned words for racial distinctions, but we still find new ways to encode old assumptions. Most of the attention my daughter received was surprised but kindly.  I fielded it, rarely saying the words “black” or “race” myself.  I wanted her to grow up knowing that being black is being the site of conjecture fueled by history, but I didn’t want her singled out. The small town felt like a tableau of attitudes past. I thought her future—in a city or another decade—would be different.

In the country, I sometimes met people who weren’t semantically cautious. One night in a restaurant, my daughter begged for French fries, and I said no. The waiter served fries to a couple at the next table, and my daughter said, “I sure wish I could have French fries.” The man offered her some, looked at her braids, and said, “Who does your fancy-schmancy hair?” No one’s more literal than a 6-year-old. “Nomie,” she said. “Do you like watermelon?” he asked. His wife shushed him. My daughter, holding out her hand for more fries, said, “Not the seeds.” I said, “Excuse me, but I’ve been teaching her not to talk to strangers.” I moved her to the other side of the table. When the man paid the bill, his wife rushed over and said, “You’re big-hearted, giving this girl a decent life.” She meant well. She also meant my daughter was innately disadvantaged and having me for a mother offset that disadvantage. I have white friends with white adopted children, so strangers can’t tell the child is adopted. When the fact the child is adopted surfaces, no one says what was continually said to me: How philanthropic of you. When a white family adopts a white child, people think the parents are as lucky as the child. People told me again and again my daughter was lucky. I corrected them: I was.

The man meant well, too, with his fancy hair and watermelon commentary, tapping into an appropriate-chitchat-with-black-youngsters repertoire straight out of the Old South, which is different from an appropriate-chitchat-with-white-youngsters repertoire. Why it’s different is a history lesson I had no reason to teach anyone. Needing to explain myself to someone, I recounted the conversation to my 20-year-old babysitter, who asked: “What did he mean about the watermelon?” What indeed? Liking watermelon is a character defect? She was too young to decipher the old caricature.

When racism is old-fashioned and spoken, I tend to my daughter first. I point out the difference between people who matter (people who give us love and respect we would give to them) and people who don’t matter. I insulate us from the latter, to protect her, to teach her to protect herself. Once this meant moving her out of a classroom, explaining my reasons to the principal, but not to the teacher. Not talking about race is my strategy, and in fact it’s the national strategy. Obama ran on a post-racial ticket, which means he didn’t talk about race unless forced. This might seem like cowardice, but it’s what works. The word “racist” is too blunt a term for some slights and assumptions, and people are sick of it because it’s been used honestly as well as manipulatively by now.

Avoiding talking about race means I’m not standing up for the collective good, but it’s best for my daughter and me. She doesn’t need to be a symbol. Besides, calling people out won’t change engrained prejudices. My job is to instill in my daughter a sense of pride, not a sense of perpetual victimhood. I told her just once, in age-appropriate language for a toddler, that some people are afraid of or make fun of people who have different skin color, and we don’t like those people. God doesn’t either, I added, or Santa Claus. She understood immediately. She doesn’t bother with people who make superficial distinctions about anyone. I’m bragging, but she stands out everywhere for being kind to shy, anxious kids, though she’s far from shy or anxious.

When the incidents are old-fashioned, politically incorrect and public, they’re easy. Other people, a school bus driver or the principal, are outraged on our behalf. They choose words carefully. I concur, offer thanks. Explicit moments happened more often in the country. But in the country and the city, assumptions about race are frequently tacit—the woman in the restaurant who felt my daughter was lucky I was white. Or a clerk in an Austin mall who shooed my now-adolescent daughter out of a store. “You’re loitering,” the clerk said. She thought I was a lone housewife, that my daughter was alone, perhaps poised to shoplift. True, my daughter and I were a few feet apart. We don’t look alike. But I don’t think the clerk would have spoken the same way to a white child.

I’ve been asked how I prepared myself for this life. I didn’t. I wanted a child. A child needed a mother. Skin color seemed irrelevant. People assume that, like a character in a feel-good movie, I stamp out prejudice one social encounter at a time. Yet I’m readying my daughter for her entire life. We don’t need zippy comebacks, but discernment: non-answers most of the time, careful, forceful answers at other times. I avoid the words “black” and “race.” To the store clerk: “I’m her mother. Is there a problem with having children in the store?” (At Target!) Pre-civil rights slurs and attitudes imbedded in them are rare now, but for the rest of us, there’s a gap when we talk about race. We don’t use words that dredge up the catastrophic past, and we haven’t coined new words for the present. We have no language for talking about race or—since my daughter and I have, as the word transracial implies, traversed a line—talking across race. When I answer, I try to see the person speaking as misinformed. I dig deep into my reserves of respect and tact. I hope my answer will turn a verbal fumble into ordinary conversation.

Debra Monroe is the author of four books of fiction and, most recently, a memoir about raising her daughter, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain. She lives in Austin and teaches in the MFA Program at Texas State University.  You can read more at Debra’s website here.

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Published at 4:33 pm CST
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