Can Family Be Harmful?

This past week we’ve been visiting family in the south. We live several hours away from both sides of our family and don’t get to see them very often. We spent most of the visit with my family—my parents, aunts, uncles, cousins—who all adore our son, J. In many ways it’s so nice to be there—to have babysitters whom you know are enjoying their time with J as much as we’re enjoying our time away (just for a few hours, of course).

 But there are things that concern me about prolonged visits with our southern family members. None of them has the understanding of adoption and racial issues that my husband and I have gained during the last four years. For example, one day my mother was talking about a couple that are customers at the business where she’s employed. “She’s Asian, Vietnamese, I think,” my mom said, “and the husband is American.” I quickly debated how to handle this and decided as an ally I had to say something. “It’s likely that she’s American too,” I said. My mother paused for a minute, I guess thinking about what I’d just said, then replied, “Could be” before going on with her story. She seemed a little put-out with me for the next few minutes.

 I know what my mother was saying; the husband, of course, was Caucasian, and I know that Mom didn’t mean any harm or slight in saying what she did. In the past, I’ve worded things in a similar fashion, meaning white or that people of color aren’t seen as “only American” but saying “American” instead. Now I make the effort to clearly distinguish between race/ethnicity and nationality.

 Sadly, though, I think this confusion between race/ethnicity and nationality is a common mistake, especially one made by Caucasian Americans. I think our education and up-bring conditions us to see the United States as “our country,” with “our” being God-fearing, white people. So where does that leave everyone who doesn’t fall into one or all of those categories?

 My mother’s comment—and others made by our families that are racial in nature—makes me wonder how J will process such things as he grows. My first thought about this recent comment was that someday our son will hear such things and may think that he’s not “as American” as those who are white, although his adoption papers say differently. Will he then think that he’s not as much a part of our family because he’s not white? I don’t know, but that thought scares me.

 My mother is beginning to understand and acknowledge how the early losses of adoption do, and probably will continue to, have an impact on J. But other family members think we’re making up his struggles so we have an excuse not to help out family members. And even those who are beginning to understand adoption trauma and loss don’t understand the impact that even “seemingly benign” racial comments (at least in the eyes of white Americans) can have on a person of color, especially if they are coming from your family.

 I know I can’t protect J from everything as he grows. He’ll have to learn the attitudes that prevail in America. But the thought that he’ll learn those hard lessons by hearing comments from family members makes me so sad. And it leaves me in the conundrum of what is best—living closer to family and seeing them more or living far enough way that the impact of such attitudes is minimized, as least for now.

1 Response to “Can Family Be Harmful?”

  1. October 31, 2010 at 8:22 am

    Excellent post. I’ve wondered the same thing, is it better that we’re just not close to my family right now? My siblings married Hispanics and still my family does not 100% accept by biracial daughter because she’s Hispanic and African American. For now I think I’m glad we moved so far away from my family.

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