Raising black kids in a ‘white’ state.

My girl

I sat down here this evening to share a recipe for a really nice pork and veggie stir-fry that I served my family earlier this week.  I will share the recipe later.  But now I’m totally waylaid by some thoughts perking around in my head after spending a good hour reading a blog written by an African American man who was raised by white parents.

We did a lot of thinking about issues of color before we first adopted.  In Idaho there are quite a few Hispanic people, but very few African Americans, and we wondered what it would be like for kids of color being raised in our community.  Honestly, it’s one of the reasons we decided to adopt more than one Korean child, and later, more than one Ethiopian child.

What we’ve found in the small circles that we inhabit regularly is that folks have gone out of their way to welcome our kids.  We brought our first Korean child home in 1998, and our first Ethiopian child home in 2004.  Each of their homecomings was just as celebrated as any child’s, and the adults and the other children accepted and welcomed our children very easily.

These days in our small church there are several other families with African-American kids. I love-love-love that thought that the little kids in our church, and our little grandsons,  are used to seeing kids of every color romping everywhere. That is as it should be.  It would be even better if there were African-American adults in our church, but that isn’t the case right now.

In the broader world–  Wal-Mart, Target, etc– folks sometimes comment on our kids’ hair or ask where they were born, which can be tiresome.  (Adoptive families everywhere weary of the repetitiveness of that line of questioning.) But the vibe that I get even from the questioning people 95% of the time is simply one of friendly interest.  From what I’ve seen and from what our older kids tell me, hostility is not a normal part of life here in Idaho for our kids.  But I do wonder how things may change as our children get older.

Once that I can remember, a man with a shaved head in a restaurant shot hate-looks at one of our kids of color. My child was a toddler at the time.  The man’s expression made my veins feel icy–and so glad that people like him aren’t the norm around here.  But that one horrid moment did serve to open my eyes to what lurks out in the world, what my children might someday encounter.

That’s why I read Kevin Hofmann’s blog with such intensity when I happened across it this evening.  I want to understand my children’s experience, and to be able (as well as a pale blonde girl can do) to help our children navigate life in a grace-filled way while also preparing them for the occasional jerk who seems intent on making them feel like they’re not good enough.  Tough, tough stuff.  Here are three posts worth reading, whether you have kids of color or not.  Guaranteed, you’ll come away with new insight and perspective.

The absurd town of Boysville —What does it feel like to be in the minority?

The power of my skin–what do our kids look for from others as they navigate the world?

Smashing fun-house mirrors– Will our minority kids be able to see their own worth as people?

I’d love to hear how you’ve hashed through these own issues with your children.  How do you prepare your kids for racism without leaving them with a chip on their shoulder?

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  1. Mary:

    Might I suggest that you include a black-American and Asian-American family in your social circle. I understand that they are not in your church, but what about a sister church? What about your local homeschooling community? The perspective of people of color who have grown up in this country might prove invaluable to you and your children. The Asian experience will be different than that of the black experience, so you need both. I’ve gotten that evil stare just walking through a Walmart, and I’ve been called nasty names simply because of the color of my skin. I remember my high school social studies teacher (ironic, I know) being very cruel to me because I am black, and my grades suffered in his class.

    • Excellent ideas, Denise. We have over the years gained a few Korean and Ethiopian friends. Since I love cooking, that’s been a natural way to spend time together, and they’ve taught me so much about Korean and Ethiopian cooking. But we tend to see them very sporadically– once or twice a year at most. We also occasionally attend cultural events in Boise. I haven’t quite gotten the courage to show up sometime at an African church in our area…am also guessing I’d get much heel-dragging from teens for whom it would be scary to step out of the comfort zone of our much-loved local church. But we probably ought to just try it sometime.

  2. Great article Mary and I’m glad you are actively thinking about this. I am not adopted, but am a woman of color. I’ve personally witnessed white mothers with black children avoid the subject as if something is wrong with it. They expect their children to just assimilate into the culture instead of them embracing the uniqueness of their child’s heritage. Knowing adult adoptees of color raised by white families, it’s one of the worst things you can do. The world is not always a friendly place and is not color blind. The best thing to do is talk about it and make it a normal part of everyday life.

    Do it as a family. Don’t just make “the black experience” your child’s experience only. Learn the culture as a family. Try the foods, learn the language (if there is a different native tongue), understand the differences in people of color (yes, there are difference…some of us are of Caribbean descent, some of us have southern roots, we are not all just one….), keep books written by black authors on your coffee table, go out of your way to get to know people of color who can serve as role models to your child, so that the only images they see are not the negative ones in the media. Finally do like you did, read stories of others who have walked through where your child will one day walk.

    • Thanks for writing, Pam. It is so hard to decide how much to talk about race, esp before my kids have really experienced issues. I don’t want them to be hyper-sensitive and to imagine things that aren’t there. But I also don’t want them to be ill-equipped or to take it too personally when they do have negative experiences. I am so glad that God is the ultimate shepherd of our children’s hearts!

    • Bonita Timmons says:

      Hi Mary
      I was just wondering I read in your book a sane womans guide to raising kids
      that you spent an average of 15K per adoption. wow had did you get to do that for such an inexpensive price?? My husband and I are adopting for the second time domestically and our adoption is around 26K not including travel to another state

      we are an african american family and we will be adopting an african ammerican baby

      Thanks for you insight
      By the way your book is very helpful I have purschased your cook book as well very helpful!!!

  3. Mary,

    I have struggled with this myself as I am white and raising bi-racial children. When it is just me out with them, I have been asked on occasion “Where did you get them?” I try to answer graciously, although in my mind I am thinking “my uterus”. Anyways, we live in a very diverse part of the country, so the struggles they face have some differences from those you face.

    Having grown up in Idaho, I do understand what you are saying about being a white state. However, I would suggest it is more diverse than you might first think. Afterall, if I remember correctly Boise had an African American mayor a few years back. Also, I know in Twin Falls there was a sizeable Laotian community. So, you may have to expand geographically a bit (perhaps closer to Boise), but I imagine you could find some groups (perhaps through other churches) that would allow those connections. I agree with Pam that it should be done as a family, but perhaps once a month (or once every other month) going to a church whose congregation represents one of those communities. Another suggestion would be to get in contact with the Student Affairs office at BSU about any contacts they have with the different communities. They would probably have some to help students plug into.

    Blessings to you as you continue to raise your family. I truly admire the way you work to make sure your children are getting their needs met.

    • HI Rosita,
      Yes, over the years we have driven to Boise quite a few times to attend various cultural events within the Korean and Ethiopian communities and have felt very welcomed. Haven’t quite figured out how to integrate such contacts on a truly regular basis, however…
      I am glad that the Boise area is gradually gaining more people of color. This may sound silly, but when I am erranding in Boise, I’ll often shop at a Winco where there tends to be a lot of immigrants, just so my kids can look around for a few minutes and see more brown faces… Some of my teens have expressed the desire to live in a more racially diverse area when they are adults, and I completely understand why.

  4. I’m curious. I have had various people give me harsh and “dirty” looks. I have some on my street that do it regularly and I don’t know why they hate me. I can even say that getting “looks” that can be “open to interpretation” is common. People get irritated with each other, have bad attitudes, etc. Sometimes they are just in their own little world and it isn’t a happy place. We just happen to get inline with their unhappy gaze. When I was the only young “white” woman working in the hospital in a neighborhood where people predominantly had browner skin, though, there was only one time when the look came with a comment that was overtly directed at my skin color. Isn’t there a risk of going around thinking all the “looks” are due to the wrong things? At what point do you just say “people are people and it’s work to get along a lot of the time?”

    • I’m not sure how likely our kids are to receive negativity because of skin color, and I certainly don’t want kids to *expect* slights all the time. But since I haven’t lived the African-American experience, I feel we can gain knowledge from hearing what folks of color have to say about being Black in America. Then of course, pray and ask God to guide us in parenting and equipping our loved ones as they mature….

  5. Thanks for posting this, Mary. Oh my goodness. This is a massive question for us, especially in our community, which is profoundly divided around issues of race and class.

    To be honest, we don’t know what to do, except to avoid “color blindness” as much as possible. We talk about race. But I’d love more tools for this…

  6. Still hashing. THANK YOU for the links.

  7. We are so blessed to attend a church in our VERY white state that’s in the same town as an ivy league college. The black, hispanic, and oriental people in our church are far and away the most intelligent and articulate in the church 🙂

    • Rebecca, I think the term ‘Oriental’ is not generally used anymore, for what it’s worth.

      Mary, thank you for posting this. We are struggling with both sides of this issue in our extended family: my husband and I have two children adopted from Ghana in addition to two biological children and my sister (adopted from Ethiopia) and her biracial husband have adopted a Caucasian child domestically. It’s always at the forefront of my mind and I have never appreciated more the diversity (especially from Africa!) of our hometown of Minneapolis. Good, solid food for thought.

  8. Great post Mary! Just from reading your blogs on a regular basis, I know that you have already done a good job implementing many of the suggestions from the responses. I am so blessed to live in a very diverse metro area. Our church has black, Asian and Hispanic families and lots of children adopted trans-racially. My children don’t really think in racial terms because their friends come in all colors and from many backgrounds. We recently visited a church in another part of GA and my husband leaned over and said….” this is the most homogeneous group of people that I have been around in a long time (all white).” For us…. this really stood out.

    Unfortunately, we do have to venture from time to time into places where the attitudes, prejudices and behaviors are nothing like our norm. This is what we have to prepare our children for. It is a reality that is uncomfortable but very real. We have to realize that cruel people exist and race is not the only issue that brings out the worst in people. I recently had a 400 lb white woman pour out her heart to me about the horrible things people say. Another friend with a severely autistic child gets cruel comments and stares too. Our world can be a very cruel place.

  9. I love reading these remarks and comments. Thank you so much for sharing.

  10. This is something that I think about a lot. We’ve tried to make the best choices we can in our town as far as which schools and summer camps will be most diverse. We get together with other groups of mixed-race families every couple of months.
    One place I have struggled is actually making lasting connections with African American families in our town. It seems strange but this town is still kind of segregated and there is not a lot of interaction.
    The other end of things to consider is not just how other people will treat our kids, but how our children are developing their own sense of self identity in a world in which they are so largely the minority. This is the part I probably worry about the most, actually.
    Next year my oldest daughter will begin middle school where her elementary school (more AA) friends and her sports( more white) friends will merge. She fits in much better with her sports-friends and I am afraid that her elementary school friends will hold that against her. Although she is excited for the merge, I am nervous about how it might highlight the different parts of her and her life.

  11. We also live in a predominantly white city, so we have had to be absolutely intentional about making sure our children have black adult role models in their lives. Yes, it is uncomfortable to walk into a mostly black church, but it’s a small taste of what our children of color feel on a daily basis in a white community (especially as they get older and the ‘cute brown kid’ morphs into the ‘threatening black male’). For us, it was an absolute necessity that we make ourselves, two introverted white parents, a fixture in certain black communities in our white city.

    The reception that we’ve gotten has been amazing. We have joined a majority-black church, one that has set as one of its primary goals to be racially integrated. The families in this church have become our friends, and it’s now a normal for our children that we socialize with other families of color in each other’s homes (not just other adoptive families).

    About the fear of making our kids have a chip on their shoulder: this is a tough one, I guess, and the consensus I’ve gotten from our black friends is that open communication is the key. We *must* prepare our children for the reality of racism that is very alive and well in our country (Trayvon Martin could be any of our sons) and how, unfortunately, black adults operate within a different reality than white adults who benefit from white privilege on a daily basis. The point is to make sure our kids feel comfortable telling us *anything* and that they know we will not discredit their experience because the fact is that, as hard as I try and as many black friends I may have, I will NEVER understand what it means to walk this world as a person of color. I must listen to my children. I must. And if I don’t have the answer, I will bring in one of the aunties or uncles in our life who can walk beside us.

    • I think the last lines of your comment sum it up so well–since we as white folks will never truly know what it is to be a person of color, we’ve got to be willing to listen.

    • Well said Lori. I am “Aunt Pam” to several of my friend’s children. I applaud them for reaching out and initiating a friendship across color lines knowing that one day their child may need me or my husband to talk to. And it’s always nice to get extra gifts on birthdays and Christmas from “Aunt Pam.” Who wouldn’t want that? 🙂

    • Great Lori!

      I get so excited when I see a transracial parent who really gets it!! I know it’s hard to voluntarily put yourself in an environment where you are the minority but the insight in to your child’s world that you can gain from that is invaluable.
      The fact that you acknowledge that there is inequality in society and you teach your children about it is encouraging and it means when(not if) they experience prejudice they will come tell you and they won’t shoulder that burden alone walking away feeling they are less than. KEEP UP THE GREAT WORK!!!!

      PS. Mary, Thanks for the get plug in your blog.

  12. Try putting yourself in a situation where YOU are the minority. It is an eye-opening experience and gives you a new perspective on race, class, culture, and what is like being in the minority.
    Every year we attend Indian Pow Wows in our area where my children and usually one other family are the only people there not Native American.
    And have children who have traveled all around the world and lived in places where they are the only white person for miles and miles. They have never had any problems and people seem most interested in their blonde hair than in anything else.
    I also have two grandchildren who are half philippino who have absolutely no problems and neither does my daughter-in-law living in the rural area of the country we live in.
    At some point you have to get past the idea that people are starring or making comments because of your race or color of your skin and maybe are just making comments about something else entirely.

  13. Allison says:

    As an adoptive mom I love answering questions that are asked in kindness. I think it allows others to learn about adoption and that is always a great thing. I remember before my first adoption I saw a lady with a Chinese child in a children’s consignment store and I questioned her. She was gracious and gave me such good information (even though our adoption was not from China). I am grateful for those that answered my questions and am always willing to answer others. There is however a line that sometimes is crossed and at that point I give my standard answer of “that is information that is only for our family”. I have never had anyone respond negatively.

    I realize this post is primarily about race but I wanted to give my two cents anyway.

  14. Thanks for starting this conversation — our daughters will have kids who look like them at our school, and our doctor is also Indian, we have two Indian restaurants and an Indian grocery store in our city. But I feel for my girls when they are old enough to go to the mall, etc. on their own . . . I dread the first times they have to encounter racism on their own. We will do our best to prepare them, but I know we can’t prevent the bad experiences.

    In our school, there’s lots of ethnic diversity, many different religions, etc. The tough part for us as white parents is that the different communities are pretty tightly-knit; various groups get together exclusively with people like themselves (Muslim-Indian, Hindu-Indian, etc.). I have made a few friendships with Indian moms, though, for which I’m very grateful. On my to-do list is asking one of my friends when/how she has experienced racism.

  15. I have been thinking of this issue more and more lately. I’m the mom of Caucasian, Asian, African-American and two Hispanic boys. The oldest is 14 and the youngest is 3. Aside from the funny looks we get when we are all together, we haven’t really encountered any negativity. They go to a small private school where they are almost the only minorities. The boys’ friends just accept them for who they are right now. But, I do get concerned when I think about the future…When it comes time to date, will the girls in their classes be allowed to go out with them? Will they be discriminated against or stereo-typed when it comes to academics or sports? These are the things I think about as we decide if they should continue where they are or if we should try to find a more diverse school.

  16. Being the husband of an Ethiopian woman I have had the opportunity to live in an interrational marriage in Kansas, Idaho, and California. Idaho was, by far, the best total experience for our family. People in Idaho treated my wife like gold.

    I think one of the biggest keys is that my wife didn’t sit back and wait for people to treat her well. She showed herself friendly, and invested herself in her new community. I think it took her all of about 30 seconds to create new best friends. When we left Idaho I think it it fair to say that my life long friends were sorrier to see her go than me.

    It is important for all people, but minorities in particular, to surround themselves with a strong circle of friends/allies who can vouch for them, and will go to bat for them at a moments notice. Building a good reputation takes a long time, but I believe character goes a lot further than color. That has been the expreience for my sons, ages 18, 15, and 11. Only the 11 year old looks like the young picture of Trayvon. The older two; 5’10” 235 pounds and the middle 5’8″ 150 pounds are loved and trusted by our “white” neighbors, and have built a great reputation in our area.

    Where we live now in California is much more dangerous after dark than in Idaho. Hoody or not, I don’t let my kids out on the street after dark, because there is a lot of stupid running around, and I don’t want my sons to get caught in the crossfire. There is nothing my boys need at the 7-11 that is worth the risk.


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