One of the things parents can easily miss in raising their children of color is racism. Children of color experience it much earlier than we might think. The curious preschooler often experiences differences among each other as a novelty, something to celebrate. Somewhere around age 5 or 6, however, celebration can turn to taunting. Every day, the media bombards us with confrontations over race, religion, orientation and other polarizing differences. These events may seem very distant from your neighborhood, but smaller confrontations are happening every day right in your community.
These smaller confrontations have a name: microaggressions.
You could be right alongside your child and not notice the sneer that only takes milliseconds to cut to the quick or the penetrating stare drilling into your child as you walk by. If you have ever visited a school playground at recess, you know there are a multitude of opportunities for microaggressions – name-calling, exclusion from games, pushing, tripping. Although these microaggressions are certainly not limited to children of color, when they are directed toward children of color because of their race, a deep core of shame develops about something that they have no control over.
Our adopted children often don’t have the words to describe what they experienced. Suddenly their behavior may change — and dramatically so. Adoptive parents may respond with consequences for the behavior and not question what might be driving the behavior. Because aggression based on skin color is outside of many adoptive parents’ experience, it often doesn’t come to mind as a reason for a behavior change in their child. If their child came to them and told them what was happening to them, they would naturally rally to support and defend their child. But when adoptive parents have not sanctioned talking about racism in the family by modeling it, most kids will keep it to themselves. These microaggressions can accumulate and fester — eating away at our precious children.
In families of color, parents are very aware of racism and typically teach their children about it. They may talk about it while driving or as they are eating dinner together. They teach their children skills about how to handle racial confrontations or microaggressions they might encounter while shopping, driving, playing with other kid, or talking to authority figures. Racism is very much a part of the family’s fabric. They live and breathe it, protecting and supporting each other. Parents of transracial adoptees need to learn to provide this specialized education and skill development for their children as well. Caucasian siblings also need to learn all of this also so they can come to the aid of their sibling of color when and wherever needed.
Now that you have this information, have a talk with your children or call a family meeting. You may be surprised and saddened to learn of the racism they have already experienced. Let them know that your family has zero tolerance for racism and you are there to support and protect them. Every summer, during Holt Adoptee Camp, Holt staff members take the opportunity to teach adoptees a racist response curriculum called FIT. It teaches three different ways to respond to racism:
- Funny: make a joke and pass by the comment or question. This is a way of defusing or deflecting the power of the statement. But it still hurts and no matter how skillful your child may become at using humor as a shield, s/he will need someone to talk to about the hurtful feelings these comments engender.
- Ignore: overlook the comment or question. But never ever tell your child that the comment or question doesn’t matter or not to let it bother them. Of course it bothers them and they need to know that you get it.
- Teach: inform the person more about adoption, race and/or stereotypes. Both you and your child need to understand that not everyone is open to being educated. Teach your child to test the waters but be prepared to get shut down. Practice with your child how to educate someone. It can be as simple as saying, “I was born in (birth country), but I was adopted here.” You will have to practice each response with your children multiple times. It takes a lot of practice to be able to remember a new skill under stressful circumstances. You the parent should be practicing right along with your kids. This is a simple but powerful curriculum that you can even introduce to your children’s teachers. The more adults in your child’s world that understand this curriculum, the more support and understanding your child will experience.
There is more to preparing your children than what can be contained in this article. A great resource to check out is the book Different and Wonderful by Darlene Hopson, Ph.D., which guides parents of children of color in building self-esteem and teaching skills for responding to hateful intrusions. A good book for your young children is The Skin I’m In: A First Look at Racism by Pat Thomas. For middle schoolers, you might consider The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake. There is also a discussion guide available for this one, and there are many used versions of these books available online for as little as $4.00 including shipping.
I strongly encourage you to invest your time, money and most of all yourself in giving your child the tools to respond to the hateful and ignorant aggressions they will inevitably encounter.
Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member