An unexpected question
I thought the most difficult thing my son could ever say to me was “You’re not my real mom,” but the question that really threw me for a loop was something completely different. We were driving to daycare when out of the blue, my brown-skinned, afro-haired, almost five-yearold son said innocently, “Mommy, I was white when I was a baby?”
“Um, what? No! Huh?” Tire screech, deep breath. I figured I had about five seconds to organize my thoughts and say the right thing.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because white skin is beautiful.”
Deeper than skin
One of the many reasons I love open adoption is that Victor never has to wonder where he comes from or why he looks the way he does. When he looks in the mirror, he can see elements of his birth parents, siblings, and grandparents staring back at him. Every part of his physical being from his tight curls and long nose to his smooth brown complexion and muscular frame came from people related and known to him.
I typically describe Victor’s birth parents as “the most beautiful people on the planet.” They’re objectively jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and Victor takes after both of them. As my hair gets greyer, my physical abilities decline, and my youth vanishes, he’s on the upswing: stronger, more handsome, and more accomplished with each day that passes. We frequently tell him how beautiful he is, paying particular attention to his coffee-coloured skin, awesome curls, and big brown eyes. I’ve actually worried that we were laying it all on a bit thick, given that one morning he said matter-of-factly, “Mama, I am the cutest kid ever!”
When we adopted Victor, we felt prepared to take on the challenge of transracial parenting. One of the big things we had going for us was my husband’s skin colour. While his ethnicity doesn’t match our son’s, his
skin colour does.
When Kevin grew up in Vancouver in the 70s, he was one of a handful of non-white kids in his school, back alley, and playground. He identified strongly as “the other,” and his own relatives told him to stay out of the sun lest he get “even darker.” We hoped that the suffering my husband endured as a child would mean that when Victor experienced racism, he could go directly to Dad, and Dad would take it seriously and know exactly what to say.
So when I asked Victor why he thought he had white skin when he was a baby, I wasn’t expecting him to say because “white skin is beautiful.”
Of course, I started by reiterating that his brown skin is beautiful, but I suspected that his apparent love of white skin was related to my being white. Even though he knows exactly whose uterus he grew in, on some level, he still wishes it were mine. I think there’s a disconnection between how he feels about me internally and the way we look externally.
Talking openly about difference
So I opted for a facts-of-life conversation about where he came from, based on something transracial adoption consultant Dr. Lisa Gunderson calls the “ethnic audit.”
I pointed out to Victor that he was brown-skinned as a baby because his birth parents have brown skin, and he looks like them. This is an immutable biological fact. Then I asked him to list everyone he knows who has brown skin. We started with Daddy and then he reeled off his birthdad, birthmom, birth aunties, and birth nana, as well as a slew of friends and neighbours. It was a long and varied list, including kids in his swim class and on his T-ball team, as well as other adoptees. We had a lot of fun coming up with names and then having Victor determine if indeed they were brown enough to make the list. Some were deemed “sort-of brown.”
Just as I pulled up to his daycare and our conversation was fizzling out, I threw in one last point: that it’s important to be caring and kind, because true beauty is about what a person’s like on the inside, not the outside.
If I learned anything from our conversation, it’s that I can’t be complacent about difference, whether adoptive or racial or both. It’s easy for me to see a happy, confident, beautiful boy and think everything is fine. But we need to talk about colour and race and adoption and beauty all the time and not stop even when everything seems normal. Luckily for us, we have two birth parent visits coming up, just in time for Victor to see just how beautiful brown skin really is.
Charlotte Taylor is a mother in an open adoption with her son’s birth parents.