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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Seeing Color

I grew up in several diverse communities, among people of all races and faiths. My parents taught me from a very young age to do as Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated: to judge a person by the content of her character rather than by the color of her skin.

I always tried to do that.

When the Husband and I began discussing growing our family through adoption in 2003, we quickly turned to international adoption. Our reasons were complicated and many. Both the Husband and I expressed great interest in the global community. We'd previously lived as minorities within predominantly Asian and Pacific Islander communities - I in Japan and Hawaii and the Husband in Guam, South Korea and Japan. Also, between the two of us, we grew up with four cousins adopted from Asia. Most importantly, the Husband and I prided ourselves on being people who "didn't see" color.

After researching various countries' adoption programs, we selected China because of its highly ethical reputation.

We heard many comments from people during our adoption paperchase and wait. Most everyone offered an opinion about our decision. Some (bless them!) simply gave their support and offered congratulations. Some people applauded our open-mindedness for adopting a child not of our race. Some people, with great spiritual pride, stated that God called us to adopt these poor orphan children who needed to be saved by Christian families. Some asked us why we didn't "adopt American." And a few simply stopped asking us anything because they wished to avoid our soon-to-be multicultural family.

Very rarely did we feel comfortable with any of these conversations.

I experienced my first moment of overt racism just months before our adoption referral. The wife of an elder at our then-church and I joyously discussed the upcoming domestic adoption of dear friends of ours, SongOfSixpence and the King (although this time the baby was Blackbird rather than ThePie). Wife-of-the-Elder patted me on the shoulder, believing she consoled me, saying, "And they got a white baby."

Remembering her words still brings tears to my eyes.

We've been home over three years now. We still face racism on a regular basis. Over the summer, we heard a relative comment on our daughter's almond- shaped eyes and then say, "well, we think you're beautiful anyway." Last spring, the mother of a child in my daughter's preschool class discussed the surprisingly sudden closure of a local African-American bookstore. The woman commented, "well, maybe it's just because those people don't read." I can't tell you how many people have cooed over my daughter, calling her a little China doll.

While y'all may not know this, the term China doll carries with it a history of meaning that causes me to blush in embarrassment and rage. Don't use the term in reference to my daughter. Never.

Not. Ever.

The husband and I see little things as well... things that don't feel so little when they are directed at our daughter or another person of her same race. Most Caucasian-Americans don't label these "small" things as racist, but I disagree. Most wish to gloss over an event such as this because it doesn't appear overtly horrible, but I've learned to trust my instincts about prejudice in all of its forms. I think the vast majority of white America is where I was five years ago: proud of the fact that I "didn't see" color.

But it's a lie. It's also wrong.

To avoid seeing color is to avoid seeing the entire person. There exists a vast difference between acknowledging someone's race and judging her because of it. Race and culture intertwine so, so closely that most times to deny race is to deny culture altogether. This is why so many adult transracial adoptees find themselves adrift in their late teens and early twenties - the world expects them to be one way and they simply don't know how. They look Asian-American or Hispanic-American or African-American, but Caucasian-American parents raised them.

How confusing it must feel to many.

Most among our family and friends feel the Husband and I place too much emphasis on race and culture when it comes to raising our daughter. It's not that we judge other parents for doing things differently... this is simply what feels right for our family. We find ourselves wondering why our attendance at a weekly Mandarin language class makes others feel so uncomfortable. Why do we feel bombarded with subtly disapproving comments about our choice of church (a local Chinese-American church) or our family traditions surrounding Chinese cultural holidays? We do nothing that contradicts our personal faith nor our family values, so why does it bother others so, so much? Some family members tell us that our daughter is a member of God's family and THAT alone should be our emphasis. They disapprove of our decisions.

Fortunately, we realize that God chose us alone to be our daughter's parents.

And, after three plus years raising my daughter, I do know one thing: people see color. My husband and I plan to do our best to help our little Tongginator navigate this truth. We also hope to help others learn that race matters in our family. I don't want people to consider our daughter a pseudo-white person simply because my husband and I are her parents. She isn't, nor will she ever be, someone other than who she is. A large part of her identity centers around the fact that she is a Chinese-American adoptee. To deny that is to deny her.

Ignoring her race won't make it disappear. We've read the words of and spoken with too many transracial adoptees, now adults, who believe that the single largest area where their parents failed them involved forming a healthy racial and cultural identity. Seeing color, but not judging it, matters. That's what I'd like for my daughter to experience.

I want others to see her color, but I want them to judge her character.

Wouldn't you want the same?


*** Posted as a submission to September's Themed Write-Away Contest sponsored by Scribbit. The theme of this month is "Colors." The guest judge was Marybeth Whalen of Cheaper By The Half Dozen. This post was listed as a runner-up in the contest.

41 comments:

Peanut said...

That was wonderfully written and thought-provoking. I live in a culturally diverse area and can't believe the things people (who wouldn't consider themselves racist or prejudiced) say. We've come a long way, but we still have a really long way to go!

happygeek said...

What a WONDERFUL and thought provoking post.
"I want them to see her colour, but I want them to judge her character."
Wow.

Stonefox (otherwise known as Heidi) said...

This is very insightful and well written.

Living overseas as a "mixed-race" family is incredibly challenging. All of my kids are third culture kids, and each of them have to find their own identity. It is a mixture of their skin color, the culture they live in, and the culture we have as an American family.

I appreciate your insights and thoughts on this.

Ada said...

Excellent post!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and very much agree with your thoughts.

Ada

Scribbit said...

Interesting and well-written post. I've always found it very difficult to figure out what society wants from me. You meet people and you automatically acknowledge in your brain the physical characteristics so that you can remember the person later. You cannot help but notice a person's skin color just as you can't help but notice whether they're male or female. But then we're told we're not supposed to notice, we're supposed to be color blind. I sometimes feel like saying "So just tell me what you want me to think and I'll go with it" out of fear of being labeled bigoted or prejudiced. Am I supposed to notice the differences or supposed to be completely oblivious to them? You can't win no matter what you do. Then about a year ago I was thinking about one of the young women I work with at church who was getting married--she is African American--and it dawned on me suddenly that while I'd certainly noticed her skin color when I first met her, I'd forgotten about it soon after that. I'd simply come to think of her as one of the girls--but also to think of her based on her amazing leadership skills and her ability to get things done. She was who she was and while I'm sure her race was still a part of her identity she was much more than merely a girl with dark skin. I guess I've come to realize that noticing someone is different from you isn't bad, it's normal, and doesn't automatically make you a racist, it's what you do with that information that makes the difference. If noticing race leads you to draw conclusions before you get to know them, if it is a judgment (as you say) then that's unfortunate because you're missing out really getting to know the person for who they really are--race, character, personality and all.

Half Gaelic, Half Garlic! said...

This is by far, without a doubt, your best post!

You have raised so many valid points...most of us in this community can relate to many of the scenarios you have experienced.

It is sad, but true, so many people still judge on color, not character...and then have the nerve to provoke a conversation on the subject or give us their opinion!

TM...this was so well written....I hope your entry stands the test and comes out on top!

Thank you for putting this out there...

Lisa

Aunt LoLo said...

Thank you for writing this. You just answered SO many of the questions that I've been wanting to ask you...but chickened out, fearing I'd offend you. I know that our daughers' situations are different, but they are similar in many ways. I want SO badly for BBJ to feel like she fits in EQUALLY with children from Hong Kong AND children from {wherever we happen to be living in America}.

Lo Gung and I had a really similar conversation the other day, regarding "seeing color." We heard a girl on a reality show say that she didn't "see color", and never judged people by their skin color. That's ridiculous. Of course you see color! Every time I go to Chinatown, and ask for a "gai mei bau" (in Chinese) EVERYONE in the bakery SEES my color. The trick is to not judge, but to...deduct? For example, if you are a business man, it would be RIDICULOUS to go into a Chinese organization and try to do business EXACTLY as you would in America - the values are different. Not wrong, not bad, just DIFFERENT. There is so much more emphasis on "the whole" than on "the individual." (There would have been a lot fewer irate Mommies watching the Olympics if they had understood this simple fact about the Chinese.)

I feel like...I don't know. It's like noticing that a little Mormon girl wears a CTR ring (it stands for Choose the Right...kind of like the WWJD bracelets that were so popular a few years ago) and assuming that she won't drink the coffee you offer her. You deduct, you don't judge.

I'm babbling. Discussing these things with Lo Gung, and other "bi-racial" friends that I have, I've discovered a big bad world of prejudice, racism and teasing that often went on right under my nose. I don't know many people who CONSIDER themselves prejudiced or racist...but it helps so much to have someone like you simply SPELL OUT what offends you, and why, so we can avoid it. I will never call your daughter a China Doll again. Ever. If I have, I apologize. I always used it as a reference to a beautiful little doll given to me by a Japanese exchange student when I was a small girl. Whenever a see a little girl with a straight bob cut and straight bangs....I think she looks like a China doll, because of a doll from China!

Mom to 5...Daughter of the King said...

Amazingly, we had a social worker (!) tell us we were racist b/c we were adopting from China and not adopting a black child!

Krista ~ Bits and pieces said...

SISTER GIRL~ I am blown away by words of truth and in the conviction that they brought to me. I have said many times "color does not matter" ~ and where it counts it doesn't but to say that I do not see it is also false (though I have said and thought it as well). Every aspect of a person matters, it matters to them, it matters to me it matters to God. So to say I don't see color, is to say I don't see all of the person~ so beautifully written!!!

Thanks for blowing me away this afternoon!!!

Hugs,

Krista

McEwens said...

First, I hope you win.. not only the contest, but the war on people seeing color! GOOD grief, when will we ALL come to realize we are children of God? I am sorry she will have to see rasicm. I am glad YOU are her mom, and will raise her to know better than to judge another on the basis of color!

redmaryjanes said...

Amazing post. I agree with your thoughts and share some of your experiences.
I hope that I too will be able to instill a solid sense of self in my daughter and that she is proud of who she is as our daughter, a Chinese-American adoptee.

mommy24treasures said...

have to agree with what has already been said.
Wonderful post.

Heather of the EO said...

Oh lady, I just like you more and more. This is truth. Love it. Thank you for sharing it in such a courageous way.
People have often boasted "color blindness" around me, saying they don't even notice. That gives me the impression they're trying to sound super cultured and the opposite of judgmental or prejudice. Those are good intentions, but I've always been confused by that. I've always known all different people of all different races too. But I could still SEE them for exactly who they are. I would imagine saying you don't see something about a person might make them feel a bit invisible.
Excellent post.

Janet said...

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I was chastised by someone recently for calling my children black. Um....they ARE black. How is that insulting? It's JUST a colour. I didn't say they were bad, stupid, whatever. I just said something about them being black. And BTW, BLACK people call themselves black too. Because....they're black. I'm white. HOw's all this insulting? LOVED this post. You're completely right. We do see in colour. We just happens to like lots of different colours. :-)

prechrswife said...

Very well-written!

Jennifer said...

I am so glad you found my blog so that I might find your blog! I love the idea of adoption... regardless of race! And, as so many have already commented, you have articulated thoughts brewing in my head about the subject of multi-cultural adoption far better than I ever could. I'll be forwarding this ling onto some friends who adopted a Chinese girl recently...

CC said...

Exquisitely well written! I was just thinking the other day how much I've seen your writing blossom over the last few months. This just proves what a great writer you are!

and I have to put it out there... I feel so badly that we cannot give our kids more Korean culture. And language lessons and things like that are so expensive :(

Mamatini said...

It's been a while since I stopped by (just been busy!) but I was so thrilled to see this as the first thing on your page today.

As a first-generation American, who grew up in a diverse community, including several stints abroad, I think you really hit the nail on the head. We are different, beautifully so. And to ignore that, or to blur that, is to muddy the vibrant tapestry that exists in this country.

One of my favorite quotes is from Rainer Maria Rilke: "Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky."

Briana's Mom said...

This was a great post!

I worry about Briana and what she will face in the future - but I am going to make sure I keep conversations completely open with her as much as I can. I just hope she will come to me with her thoughts and concerns.

I want Bri to be proud that she is a Chinese-American adoptee. I applaud how you are intertwining your culture and your daughter's culture.

Sharie said...

AMEN!

Gabrielle said...

There is beauty in truth and beauty in color....I agree with you when people deny or just leave out such a strong part of who they are as it relates to culture and heritage that it creates confusion and to continually weave it into her outer life and her inner life is a beautiful way to embrace who she is for her as your child and you as her parents...great post!

Dawn said...

This is an excellent post. I wish everyone could read it.

All Rileyed Up said...

Great post. I don't know why anyone feels it necessary to disapprove of what your're doing - raising a healthy stable child in a family full of love sounds great to me.

On a side note, I'm half Filipino and my husband is Caucasian and when I got pregnant for the first time, a certain family member kept saying she was so excited "for our little Chinese baby." I kept telling her that I wasn't Chinese, but for some reason, the information didn't sink in...

ZenMama said...

I thought I was doing it right by teaching my kids NOT to *see color.* Thanks to your post I have had a paradigm shift. Of course race matters. Silly of me to try and pretend otherwise. I have been trying to teach my children fairness and compassion and equality - no matter what the color of someone's skin. That is important - but so is not pretending there is no difference.

Of course kids *see color* - but kids don't make judgments because of it - I don't think that even occurs to them - they judge for the right reasons. I think that was the message I was trying to give them - and one they already had - they, like all children, knew it intrinsically. Thanks for opening MY eyes to it all. When we know better, we can do better.

Zen Mama Wannabe

Fawn said...

I don't know how I got so lucky, but growing up I really never experienced much racism. (I'm half-Chinese and half Caucasian.) There were occasional comments here and there from classmates, but the intent was really never malicious. I never felt uncomfortable in my skin; well, not from a racial aspect, anyway.

My sister, on the other hand, remembers feeling ashamed at times that she is mixed-race. Being only a year younger than me, I can't fathom why our experiences would be so different.

All you can do is to do your best to instill confidence in your girl. And know you're doing things just right.

Awesome post! Congratulations on the honorable mention.

Mean Mommy said...

Wow! Well written!

I have to admit that I have used the term China Doll to compliment a new baby (although, ironically, she wasn't Chinese- she was white). I used it because in my mind, within my realm of life experiences, it meant perfect doll-like beauty, dainty features, delicate complexion, etc. I had no idea of the ugly stereotype implications behind that term. Thank you for educating us about it. But please keep in mind that the information must be given before you can justify being angry with an individual who means to compliment your child in love, and does not intend to be hateful.

I have three boys who are of mixed race- white, Alaskan Native, Russian, and Japanese. They are blond haired and blue eyed, so it is hard to guess by their color what their heritage might be. Because of this we have seen the ugly truth inside many hearts of people we have met. Some have openly displayed prejudice, bigotry, cruel jokes for the people/culture of my husband's family (hence my own children), not knowing that they are speaking directly to the targets of their hatred. I once confronted someone about a very racist joke when my husband was too taken aback to do it- and the man apologized up and down. Even upon meeting him at later run ins, he still apologized. It caused him to rethink his biases towards other races and cultures. I often wonder why so many people don't just speak up for others, even when they aren't the target of the joke.

Sorry to ramble on! Excellent job- and excellent PARENTING!!! Your little girl is surely blessed.

Michelle said...

Wow, TM!! You have blown me away. This is such a well-written post.

And I must admit that I have used the term China doll, intended as a compliment for the same reasons that MM mentioned. Thanks for creating awareness of a term that can be interpreted as offensive.

Daisy said...

"To avoid seeing color is to avoid seeing the entire person." You are so right. The "colorblind" society isn't so, and really shouldn't be. Valuing and understanding each other's culture and color is so much more important.

Christine said...

Beautifully written. And something we, and our kids, need to be reminded of all the time.

jubilee said...

I have to echo what others have said and say thank you. This is a subject that has always been fuzzy for me and you've helped clear it up.

MoziEsmé said...

Very well said. So often in the past I've prided myself on my colorblindness when it comes to skin color, but I believe God created all the colors and that our differing cultures are to be celebrated, not overlooked.

planetnomad said...

What a wonderful post! I'm raising my kids as minority whites in Arab North Africa, and for a while we had an African foster child. Our family's culture incorporates bits from all the places we've lived; although on the outside we look American, inside we're not entirely typical. I think your post has broader applications, to my own TCKs. I'm excited to see in your sidebar that you're hoping to add to your family as well! (What is LID?) Good luck and God bless.

mom huebert said...

I, too, feel that it is okay, even good, to "see" color, just not okay to judge color. After all, there ARE differences between races, and if we deny those differences-- skin color, cultural identity-- as you said, we deny a part of who they are. It's all part of being a family, whether a small family unit, or the whole human family: we celebrate both our differences and what we have in common. Our commonalites give us unity, our differences give us our individuality.

mom huebert said...

P.S. I also meant to add that after reading your Wikipedia link I feel blessed to have never kept up with movies and popular books! The stereotypes that were mentioned seemed just that: STEREOTYPES; that have no bearing on reality. Maybe parents who care about this issue should monitor their children's (and their own) intake of media propoganda. (Maybe that's a strong word, but that's what it ends up being, doesn't it?)

a Tonggu Momma said...

Thanks so much everyone for sharing your thoughts and also your kind words.

Planet Nomad, thanks also for sharing our excitement about our upcoming adoption. An LID (log-in date) is a China-adoption term that signifies the day we "got in line" (so to speak) to adopt from China. Currently people with mid-February 2006 LIDs expect an adoption referral this month, so - if the rate of referral remains fairly consistent - our turn should occur sometime in the next year to 18 months.

Marybeth said...

I truly loved this! If you read the entry I just wrote, you will see that I struggled to pick just one winner-- yours was so, so good. Glad to see here that it touched others as much as it touched me-- keep up with your writing! And keep me posted on your adoption, please!!

heather.pnr said...

I have nothing to add to this wonderful post except, "AMEN"!

Juliette said...

I've visited your blog often but never commented. This time I have to.
Family and friends often question our choices to try to bring as much Chinese culture as we can to Maëlle and acknowledge her roots and first family and country. Like you we think denying that would be to deny her.
Thanks for a wonderfully well written post on a very important subject.

luna said...

what a wonderful and eloquent post. thank you for sharing it.

ChineseAmericanDad said...

Hmm, what an interesting approach to handling the race issue! I basically believe what you believe in handling the race issue. Both wife and I are Chinese immigrants. Our kids are American born. We are Christians. We used to go to a Chinese Christian Church but after many years we switched to an all-American subburban church. We made the switch for our kids and for various reasons. We believe our kids should be American first and foremost. Chinese is their heritage not their culture. If we want Chinese culture, we will need to move back to Asia and live in China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore. I guess for you to join a Chinese church and for me to join an all American church is practically the same approach in instilling two "cultures" (for lack of a better word) in our kids. If I have to pick on your post, I would challenge you to think about the differences between culture and heritage.

Like you I walk a very tight rope in parenting our kids. But I am confident that the result speaks for itselt. My kids are confident, happy, athletic and well-rounded. Compared with most other Chinese American kids whose parents don't ever reach out to non-Chinese friends, mine stand out as the best among their Chinese American peers at our Saturday Chinese Language School.

You are exactly right about the fact that people do see colors. But teach your kids to make sure that other people's prejudices won't inconvenience them. How? Help them to use their God-given talents to become successful individuals in life. A few years ago we decided to join a small group in our church. We were the only Chinese couple in their room full of couples our ages (maybe 50 couples) trying to hook up with a group. It wasn't a comfortable feeling, but I was so used to it (people's superficial judgment) and thought I should have fun later with those superficial people. No groups accepted us that evening after an hour of social and mingling. Later the church hooked us up with a group that still needed two couples. I imagined they probably would never have wanted us if we had met at the social? People can be very superficial. People already have a preconceived notion of what you are even before they know your name, your background, your job, etc. Long story short, we joined the group. We met in different homes. After a month or two, the group met at our house. Seeing the size of our house and the price of the houses in our neighborhood, several group members started asking what I did for living. Then they noticed that our kids were in an excellent college prep school. We are not showy with our material success, though. We had great two years doing life together as a group. We learned so much from each other about life. They were interested in my view regarding wealth and on how to accumulate wealth. If only more people could hear it! Some of them wouldn't be in the financial mess as they are today. We still remain friends with some of them.

Over the last 20 years living in America, I have learned an invaluable lesson on race and prejudices. That is, do your best to be successful. Then other people's prejudices will never inconvenience you.

Jaggerfan1 said...

i just think that it's ridiculous that some see race and don't look at the the bigger picture. My parents raised me to not see skin color, etc. And I never have, in fact it surprises alot of people that I have a very avid interest in Asian culture, all the little customs, traditions and everything related to it!

I just think that it's bullcrap that someone would say bad things about someone because of who they are or do bad things, like stretching your eyes with your fingers and saying you're Asian, that's not right, and it's not funny despite what they think. Because in high school, I was surrounded by people who thought it was funny to make fun of others because of race, etc. It's not right. As fas as I'm concerned, everyone is the same on the inside, we just come in different packages, it's what makes us unique and stand out in a crowd.