Saturday, April 2, 2011

Can Compliments Be Racism?

I bet all transracial adoptees and parents can relate to this article at Adoptive Families, Too Much Attention:
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!"

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?”
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!


Anonymous said...

I think that there could be other reasons besides hidden racism for these compliments. I often interpret it as an indirect way for people to express their approval (or something) for the way our family was formed through adoption, without actually bringing that up. Whatever the reason though, I defnitely think it has an effect on my children. I also wonder whether people with very beautiful white children get these comments. I suspect some do, but for different reasons.
Sue (aka anonymous)

Sunday Koffron said...

I had a friend who asked me to watch her 3 year old son while she went to the dr., he sent her to the ER and we ended up “babysitting” (raising/co-parenting) him and for almost 3 years, because she was in heart failure. Anyway he is black, my husbands are white and blue eyed. We/he got a lot of the complements and people giving him things, like a sucker at the store and stuff. I was never sure if it was racism per se, or whether people were just curious, knew it would be rude to ask us where we got the black kid, I felt like some were just trying to buy time hopping they could figure it out or we’d tell.

I will say that when we had each our older two children we couldn’t go anywhere it seemed like without people giving them free stuff. With my oldest it was kind of freaky, to me. They both have incredible eyes, “your eyes are so pretty, here’s a cookie.” I just don’t get it.

1-2-TheeMotimes said...

My (white) son gets compliments on his "big baby blues" all the time - from people of all different races. So yes, the white children do get compliments and free cookies/candies as well (maybe just not as often?).

I don't think there is anything wrong with being 'different' (I'm not implying that the original poster thinks there is), but this is definitely something that parents of adoptive, as well as biological children should instill in their children. Being different or picked out of a crowd is often a good thing and it can sometimes be an advantage to stand out among your peers. We live in a country that is (mostly) dominated by white people, so it can be difficult to see the physical differences in everyone, which is why the compliments/comments about the 'different' child seem to be more frequent.

I also really think people are curious on some level. Multiracial families aren't necessarily the norm. in this country and people probably feel that making a compliment is better than asking a bunch of questions.

Sarah said...

I believe a compliment CAN have racist undertones. I dont think they are meant to be hurtful, but my sister and I just talked about this today. Our mom kept commenting about how beautiful these two waitresses (of color) were. "Don't they have beautiful hair? Aren't they pretty?" Then she told them such when they came to the table.
She has done this several times, but never ever to a white woman. I truly believe her heart is to be accepting, but when witnessing it, it "feels" awkwardly racist.

Elaine said...

It does feel awkwardly racist.

But I have to point out that my Asian girls get virtually no attention here in Indonesia - sometimes second looks at the white parents. While their beautiful blond, white skinned, blue eyed friends from Canada? Draw crowds. Get touched. And have been told they are beautiful and smart to the point that the youngest, who has never lived in North America, is developing quite a princess attitude.

Is that racism?

Anonymous said...

i think the last poster made a good point. if you DO live where multiracial families are the norm, your children will not stick out. my children who are the most adorable children on this earth (my opinion, of course) never get compliments.

however, when i had blonde hair (and i have blue eyes) in china people kept taking my picture and coming up to me to see my hair. was it a compliment that they liked my hair? sure. was it uncomfortable? YES.