Our pale-skinned, biological children notice such compliments, as well. When they were younger, it was a puzzle. Why did their darker-hued sisters and brothers get all the attention? I recall seven-year-old John rolling his eyes at the bakery: "No one ever offers me a free cookie because of my pretty eyes!" And I remember seeing 11-year-old Sara shooting a disgusted look at her little sister: "Chengming gets away with murder on the school bus because she's so cute! The bus driver doesn't even smile at me!"I remember raising this issue on an adoptive parent discussion list once, and being treated like I was crazy! What could be wrong with people oohing and ahhing over how beautiful and "exotic" my daughter was? Well, THIS is what could be wrong with it!
What is happening here? Can a compliment not be a compliment? Our sprawling multiethnic and multicultural family wonders about this almost every day. All seven of our children are beautiful—at least to this foolish mother’s eye. So what troubles me about such praise? Are our darker-skinned children unusually attractive? Or is it possible these compliments mask a subtle racism?
* * *
No, it is not the compliments themselves I am assailing. My anguish is for my children, who quickly figure out why they are recipients of such extravagant praise. Will the mother of Emma Rose’s classmate, the mother who always rushes to comment on Emma Rose’s beauty, balk when teenage Emma Rose wants to date her son? My instincts tell me that that mother is overcompensating for a degree of racial discomfort. Reverse prejudice perhaps, but discrimination all the same. Emma Rose, now 16, tells us that over-the-top compliments, far from increasing her self-confidence, make her feel set apart from her classmates.
Becoming aware of this type of reverse racism does not mean we’ve become rude or hostile. We ask our children to accept compliments with respect and modesty. A muttered “thank you” and a smile will suffice. But in the privacy of our car or home we may ask, “How did it make you feel?” The answer is often, “Embarrassed,” “I wanted to hide behind you,” or, the saddest, “I wished I were white, so people would stop looking at me.” We also ask, “Why do you think that person said that?” and “How do you want to handle it?”
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