If I had a dollar for every time I was asked if my sons were adopted…It’s happened a lot. A complete stranger approaches my family, usually in a grocery store or some other public location, and compliments me on my family. “Your sons are so handsome,” the person will say, and by now I can almost tell what they’re going to say next. “Are they adopted?” “No,” I say, “they are my biological children.” The stranger looks bewildered for a moment. I can see she is trying to make sense of the puzzle before her, white parents, two black sons, one white son. What’s up with that? It doesn’t fit in the tidy categories this person has in her mind. Our brains are constantly making associations and categorizing information, and when something doesn’t fit, we try to make sense of it, even if it means making a fool of ourselves by asking a white mother, a complete stranger, if her black children are adopted or not.
There are other ways this causes confusion. A job interviewer receives my son’s resume, his Norwegian surname prominently displayed at the top, and then a black man shows up to the interview. What? No, he didn’t lie on his resume, but the effect is the same.
There’s no appropriate box in the “Diversity” section of a survey or census. “Mixed-race.” What does that mean? Afro-Caucasian? Norwegian/Northern European and Afro-American? At the end of the day, it means my sons are black. That’s the way the world sees them. Because of that, it means I, their white mother, viewing the world from my privileged, white perspective, am ill-equipped to raise my black sons. This was never more apparent to me than after the shooting of Trayvon Martin when I suddenly realized I had not had “the talk” with my sons. You know, I hadn’t told them how to handle being stopped by the police.
I will never know what it’s like to be a black man in the United States. There are certain things that, because of my white experience, I will never know nor be able to teach my sons. They may not look like me, but they are my sons, my biological sons, my flesh and blood, and I have tried to prepare them for the world the best I can with love, discipline, and humor. Sometimes, when a stranger asks if they’re adopted, I look at my sons with a smile and say, “No, we’re still trying to figure out who their mother is.”