Friday, January 8, 2010

People Ask the Darndest Things

Many Senegalese will unabashedly ask us about Dessi's parentage. If it's just either Eric or me with Dessi, they'll ask, "Is she yours? Is she Senegalese?" And then a slew of inane follow-up questions. If it's all three of us together, I will be asked, "Is she yours?" (I nod.) Well, but who is the father? (I point to Eric.) Yes, but, who is the FATHER? She is black, you are white. Who is the father? Etc.

It sorta goes on and on. They don't notice my discomfort or take the hint about minding their own B-I Business (which, I don't even know what that means, really). Nothing short of a complete explanation will make them leave, although I haven't yet tried, 'It really doesn't concern you.' (I don't know French well enough to be snotty with it.)

It is odd to compare this situation -- where everyone assumes at least one of us is the bio parent -- to the response in Whitefish, Mont., where people see me with a black baby but never consider that I could be married to a black man. So that the first question they ask, when they do ask, is, Where is she from? Or, less appreciated, Where did you get her?

Last week in a Whole Foods (WHOLE FOODS!) in Tampa, Florida, a woman in the bathroom said, 'She has such an unusual face, do you mind if I ask, What is she?' (I looked confused. Stunned, I am sure. I looked away. I looked for the door.) She continued, 'I mean, What is she? Is she mixed?' (I nodded. I have had a mind to start telling people in America, when they ask where I got her from, to say she is my biological child, just to make them feel the same way that they sound. But since that's hardly taking the high road, I haven't done it yet.) Anyway, the woman said, Because I'm mixed and so I was just wondering if she is mixed or ... what is she?'

I said, "She's my daughter." And I picked her up and left while the woman sort of looked stunned and said, "OK. Uh, OK," and shrugged her shoulders as if to say, 'Look, it's no big deal to talk about this.'

One week later, and the question still seems crass to me. I know she must have just worded it wrong, but it suggests Dessi is defined by her biology. It's sad to me that sometimes people seem to note first that Dessi's black versus that she's friggin the sweetest cutest funniest smartest child ever. I guess that wherever we live, and no matter how old Dessi gets, these questions aren't going to stop.

I thought living in Africa would help us bypass all this -- that we'd be less conspicuous. There are tons of blended families and faces from all over the world here. But really, we are only somewhat less conspicuous, and there are far more nosy people here, so it all evens out to Difficulty For Me.

Which brings me to, It's not supposed to be ABOUT me. But here come the I's.

I get mad and I am helpless and I feel inept that someone's putting my child in this position yet again. I am protective and defensive and I feel superior and egoriddled. And I am mad. To be fair, I just want to protect Dessi. But if inside I'm bristling, if I cannot release my aversion to this apparently unavoidable situation, then I'm not protecting Dessi at all, and she will ultimately be the one who takes the hit. She already knows that the questions are about her; my tenseness and terse replies will intimate that she, or at least our varying skin tones, are a distress to me.

That being what it is, I am seeking ways to shut it down while celebrating diversity. Next on the list is to point into the distance while exclaiming, "Hey look, an owl!" Then walking away when they turn their heads.

OK, not really. I don't know the French word for owl.

But should I be making this into something FUN for Dessi and me? If the goal is to protect Dessi, then it's notable that, at least for the moment, she doesn't really seem bothered by it at all. What if she never is? Then all my fretting and contracting will have been for nothing. What if we just right away said, "Yes, she is adopted from Ethiopia. Isn't she a peach?" And then let it go. It is not lost on me that the way Eric and I feel about these random invasions probably will dictate the way Dessi feels about them.

My current approach of avoidance also involves looking somewhat unapproachable when I suspect we're being noticed (I perfected this look during my high school years.) And that's just wrong. That's not where I want to be. My meditation teacher (Tara Brach) spoke once about how tiring it is to avoid someone at a party. You can look like you're having a great time, socializing and laughing, but you're not really free because you've always got one eye on that person and are maneuvering around the room to avoid the 20' circle of space around him or her. Tara used it as a metaphor for the things we repress in our consciousness or the things we don't want to talk about, but ultimately the outcome is the same: We're not free.

Maybe... I mean, probably, I have a right to feel annoyed. (I'm right and they're wrong! Say it with me!) But it's worth asking: Do I want to be right, or do I want to be happy? And after all, I have said plenty of things in my life. Maybe even some ignorant things. Maybe even some hurtful things. (Don't tell anyone.)

Maybe I don't have to spend 10 minutes with anyone who asks, but if I could shift to compassion and release my feelings of, to be honest, what might amount to some condesention on my part, and if I could deliver a sentence that is kind and that cuts it short ... well, it would be a mighty good day for me.

I will work on this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You articulate this so well. Hmm... right vs. happy. I know which one I want to be a lot of times! :-) I think it's okay to have numerous strategies for answering nosy, rude, ignorant or simply curious people. I'm going to have to remember the "Look at the owl!" one when our children come home. Love it.