News & Politics

A Mother Adopts, and Discovers Her Own Racism

A white mother who adopts a baby from India confronts her shame that her child's skin is dark, and realizes she needs more diverse friends.
When I was trying to decide who and from where to adopt, I had a lot of questions about transracial adoptions, and most people responded to my curiosity with a subtle discomfort. I felt embarrassed voicing possible concerns to my liberal friends, because all of us were adamant that race made no difference to our choice of friends, lovers, or tiny babies up for adoption. But in looking around at these friends, they all seemed a pretty tribal bunch: when it came time to make a family, in nearly every case, like colors had stuck together.

The first photo I received of Vaishali showed her with fair skin. I was surprised, because from what my adoption agency told me, the child assigned to me would be much darker. After I got over that surprise, I had another: I felt relief. Suddenly -- guiltily -- it was a comfort to know that she would not look so different from me, and even more important, that her light skin would save her from a lifetime of prejudice.

But ah, the magic of flashbulbs. A few months later I received several more photos and gaped at them in shock. The baby was much, much darker. Worried that the child to whom I had grown unbelievably attached had been given to some other family, I sent a bewildered email to my adoption agency in Maine which then made a bewildered phone call to their trusted social worker in India, who assured us that she had seen the child on many occasions and all the photos were of the same girl. Phew, I thought, as long as this little girl is the same one I have held in my heart for three months, she is my daughter and I am going to bring her home.

I flew to Bombay and became a mother. For the first week, my new daughter Vaishali clung to me, terrified, and I sacrificed eating, sleeping and bathing in the service of comforting her. Over and over, I told her: Mama is here. You are my baby.

Back home, after a couple weeks had passed, I stared at Vaishali's naked bottom -- her darkest part -- and tried to ignore the insistent whispers of fear. Instead of brimming with pride, I felt like a trespasser, performing ablutions on this private flesh with color so foreign from my own. It was one thing to swoon over her photographs for months, but now she was in my home; she was my family. How could this be my daughter? I looked at her and tried to find similarities between us, relieved that her hair was straight, her lips not too full. Just thinking these thoughts made me feel horribly ashamed. I tried to sort emotion from fact: was it the dark color of her skin that was making me uncomfortable, or just that she did not look like me? I ached to talk to someone about it, but I was too afraid people would disapprove, would doubt my ability to be a loving mother.

Worse, what if (since I had only been awarded guardianship and the adoption would not be final for another six months) some Indian official found out how I was feeling and took her back?

Finally, I got up the nerve to confide in a friend who has two biological children, both white, as well as an adopted Indian toddler with skin the same shade as Vaishali's. "After a while," she said, "you don't really see what your children look like. But every so often it's like returning to your home after a long vacation, and you can see it again for the very first time." Surprisingly, she confessed that one day she'd realized how dark her adopted daughter is and started comparing her to others: Is she lighter than that Black man mowing his lawn? Darker than that Indian woman at the mall? Once she'd said it aloud, I admitted that I had done the same thing, and it had shocked me. I adored this little girl, and every single day my heart pounded stronger with love. What was I so worried about?

I thought hard. What had I done, taking this helpless child from her native land halfway across the world? I chose to adopt from India because I felt a familial pull toward its people and its culture (there is actually a community of Indian Jews!), and because I learned that the babies were usually healthy and birthed by poor, unwed village girls who were not prone to ingesting any unhealthy substances. I wanted to give an infant girl all the human rights she deserved and every possible opportunity to find gladness at being alive. I wanted to make a family with a child who had none; I wanted her to feel wanted. But had I simply upset the balance of the world?

Very soon, my daughter will have a lot to process. She's adopted, she's the child of a single mother, she's an Indian Jew by conversion. We spent the summer with my father in upstate New York, and she was nearly always the darkest child in music class, gymnastics and day care. In New York City, even Blacks and Indians in Vaishali's and my social circle are lighter than she. Over and over I see how light skin equals privilege. Now that I have become Vaishali's mother, I realize: We need darker friends.

I can't help but worry -- I'm a Jewish mother! -- and yet so far, our non-traditional family has been met with a surfeit of loving acceptance. My fears about disapproval from the Black community for adopting a dark-skin child seem laughable now. Before, riding the subway, I received no special response, but now, Black men and women offer me and Vaishali warm smiles; they give up their seats. Do people just, as a friend hypothesized, love babies? Maybe, but this never happened to me when I toted around my equally adorable niece, nephew and godson, all of them white as snow.

It might just be Vaishali's vibe. Certainly her tiny size, enormous charm and extroverted nature would draw in anyone with a beating heart. As her mother, I am constantly on my knees before her, big-eyed with happiness at her intelligence, dead-on comic timing and fearlessness. She is so curious and ecstatic, so engaged with the world in ways I never was as a child, and rarely can be as an adult. Still, I wonder if her same spirit were encased in a lighter shell -- who would her admirers be? In the six months we have been together, my fears for my daughter have not disappeared, but I'm betting that in the battles ahead, my own good sense will prevail. Note the matter of sunscreen: two specialists, one in infectious pediatric diseases and himself half Black, the other a famous, white dermatologist, both assured me that Vaishali's dark pigment is enough of a natural sunscreen.

Vaishali's current pediatrician, a mocha-brown Indian, counter-advised me to put it on her. In the park, I approached the Black parents of a toddler the same color as Vaishali, and apologetically asked them for counsel.

"We put it on our baby and ourselves," said the mother. "Black people wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer. We worry about our baby's skin the same as any one else." And more, I wanted to add, but I just thanked her. It became suddenly, ridiculously simple. I am my baby's protector, and I'm not taking any chances. I whipped out the SPF 45.

Reprinted with permission from ColorLines magazine.
Lisa Lerner is the author of the novel Just Like Beauty.
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