India is in a stage where she is sorting and categorizing everything she sees. She likes looking at things in her world and pointing out the things that are the same, and then the things that are different. It’s a great skill for her to be developing at this age (and probably one bolstered by lots and lots of Sesame Street).
However. One of the things that she has been noticing, as of late, is the fact that she and Karis “match”, and she and Jafta “don’t match”. She comments on this fact with alarming enthusiasm several times a day. “Look, mommy! Karis and I have the same hair! But not Jafta! He doesn’t match!” “Mommy, Karis and I are lighter. But not Jafta. He’s darker. He doesn’t match us.” Every time she says something like this, I die a little inside. It sounds so cruel – and yet her intentions are not cruel. She is only making observations about color, hair and skin and eye color that do not hold the historial and familial weight that punches me in the gut every time she brings it up. For her, it is not an insult or an idictment about Jafta’s status in our family, or in the world. It’s just a little game of sorting, stated in the same wide-eyed curiosity as when she notices that her lunch box and shoes are the same shade of pink.
But for Jafta – sweet Jafta, her observations are hurtful. He pouts and slumps when she says it, turning to me and imploring, “who matches me?” with a quiver in his voice. Transracial adoption is always a learning curve, and over the past week I’ve wracked my brain trying to figure out how to curtail India’s observations in front of Jafta, without making her feel ashamed of talking about physical differences. She’s not doing anything implicitly wrong, but she is being unintentionally hurtful. In an effort to protect Jafta, I’ve tried changing the subject or talking over her, and also had several talks with both kids about how we match in other ways, and how skin color is just one of the many traits we have as people. We’ve pulled out books about racial differences, and we’ve tried to be more intentional with pointing out the similarities we all share. Most importantly, we’ve tried to be open to Jafta talking about his feelings, which often means squelching an overwhelming desire to minimize, defend, and deflect from these painful feelings for him. It’s not easy to hear, but it’s important. I’ve read enough experiences from adult adoptees to know that ignoring these feelings would be detrimental to him.
As we prepare to leave for Haiti next week, Jafta’s feeling of being “unmatched” in our family is a reminder of how much we long for Keanan to join our family. I never wanted Jafta to feel racially isolated in our family. It was always my intention that he have at least one sibling who he can relate to in that way. And he does . . . I guess? But they are growing up without each other.
And this, for me, is the hardest part about transracial adoption . . . to say to Jafta: I cannot be your match. I cannot look back at you reflecting your nose, your hair, your eyes. I cannot give you this small but significant part of family life that is so taken for granted by most families, this “matching” that would make you feel more secure. I can only offer you the most mother love that I can give – and it will not be enough to erase that pain. But hopefully it will be enough to soothe it.
This is a small slice of what Jafta encounters as he walks around in his world, because in addition to being a minority in his own home, he is also a minority in his community. I have some more thoughts on that, thoughts that I’m still sorting through, but there was a recent study that confirmed much of what I’m already observed about children and race. The good news is that children are not inherently racist. The bad news is that they are inherently prone to sorting and classifying and grouping. I’m hoping to write more about this later, but for now, I would really encourage you to check out this article. It’s long . . . but I think it’s important for parents to understand these dynamics, as we strive to overcome the racial tensions that still confound our country.