Monday, February 20, 2012

Baby-Sitting While White

A cautionary tale for all transracial adoptive families, from a blog that doesn't usually do adoption (I read it for opinions on Texas politics and criminal justice matters) -- a police encounter for the white grandfather of a black child (and not the first time), suspected of kidnapping because they didn't match:
A few years back Grits posed the question, "Is babysitting while white reasonable suspicion for police questioning?" after my granddaughter and I were detained and questioned at length in my neighborhood on suspicion of some nefarious deed (it was never quite clear what). In that incident, the police were pretty clear I was stopped solely because Ty, like her mother (who came to live with my wife and me when she was a child) is black, while I'm an almost stereotypical looking white Texas redneck. At the time, Grits was amazed that three squad cars were dispatched to question me for walking down the street with a child of a different race, detaining me for no good reason and scaring the bejeezus out of then-two-year old Ty.

Last night, though, Ty and I got the full jump-out-boys treatment, making our earlier interaction with Austin PD seem downright quaint. It could only have been more ridiculous if they'd actually arrested me, which for a while there didn't seem out of the question.

* * *

Our story began at the Millennium Youth Center in central east Austin, which is a city-owned rec center just a few blocks from my home of 22 years. . . .

Perhaps at 7:40 p.m. or so, after she'd had her fill of skating (if the event were put to music, the appropriate theme song would have been "Slip Slidin' Away"), I asked Ty if she'd like to walk home.

* * *

Our interaction with law enforcement began after we left the Millennium Center on foot, with the giddy five year old racing ahead and me trotting along behind admonishing her to stay out of the parking lot and stop when she gets to the sidewalk, don't run into the street, etc.. She was in a good mood, obeyed, and we held hands crossing the street and as we walked down the bike path toward Boggy Creek and back home.

Then behind us I heard someone call out, though I couldn't make out what was said. We stopped to look back, and there was a dark silhouette crossing the street who Ty thought was calling out to us. We waited, but then the silhouetted figure stopped, crouched down for a moment, then took a few steps back toward the rec center, appearing to speak to someone there. I shrugged it off and we walked on, but in a moment the figure began walking down the path toward us again, calling out when she was about 150 feet away. We stopped and waited. It was a brown-suited deputy constable, apparently out of breath from the short walk.

* * *

 "Do you know this man?" the deputy asked. "Yes," Ty mumbled shyly, "he's my Grandpa." The deputy couldn't understand her (though I did) and moved closer, hovering over the child slightly, repeating the question. Ty mumbled the same response, this time louder, but muffled through a burgeoning sob that threatened to break out in lieu of an answer.

The deputy still didn't understand her: "What did you say?" she repeated. "He's my Grandpa!," Ty finally blurted, sharply and clearly, then rushed back over to me and grabbed hold of my leg. "Okay," said the deputy, relaxing, acknowledging the child probably wasn't being held against her will.

* * *

Ty was angrier about this, even, than I was. "Why is it," she demanded a few steps down the path, stomping her feet and swinging her little arms as she said it, "that the police won't ever believe you're my Grandpa?" (Our earlier run in had clearly made an impression, though she hadn't mentioned it in ages.) "Why do you think it is?," I asked, hoping to fend her off with the Socratic method. She paused, then said sheepishly, "Because you're white?" I grinned at her and said, "That's part of it, for sure. But we don't care about that, do we?" "No," she said sternly as we walked across the bridge spanning Boggy Creek just south of 12th Street, "but the police should leave you alone. It's not right that they want to arrest you for being my Grandpa." More prescient words were never spoken.

* * *

As soon as we crossed the street, just two blocks from my house as the crow flies, the police car that just passed us hit its lights and wheeled around, with five others appearing almost immediately, all with lights flashing. The officers got out with tasers drawn demanding I raise my hands and step away from the child. I complied, and they roughly cuffed me, jerking my arms up behind me needlessly. Meanwhile, Ty edged up the hill away from the officers, crying. One of them called out in a comforting tone that they weren't there to hurt her, but another officer blew up any good will that might have garnered by brusquely snatching her up and scuttling her off to the back seat of one of the police cars. (By this time more cars had joined them; they maxxed out at 9 or 10 police vehicles.)
Is this something you worry about?  Early on in the adopting process my social worker advised that it was always a good idea to have proof of parentage on you at all times when you and your child's race didn't match.  She suggested I always carry a recent picture of the two of us together, so I could show it as proof that I hadn't just snatched my child.  Of course, none of these tactics would prevent the initial police encounter, but the thought was at least you could avoid arrest as a kidnapper. . . .

I've never been doubted as a parent to this degree, though I wished I had followed my social worker's advice when the clerk at the pediatric opthamologist's office wanted to see my adoption decree for Maya (yeah, that's what all kidnappers do, take the kid to the pediatric ophthamologist!).  But I'm sure familiar with a more benign phenomenon -- the kids are racing ahead of me toward a store, shopper exiting the store looks around for the parents of these Asian kids, and the eyes skim right by me, looking for the matching set of parents!  You can just feel this potential Good Samaritan trying to figure out if she needs to intervene to corral these apparantly-unparented children.  You call out, "Zoe, Maya, wait up!"  The kids stop, the shopper relaxes, we all go on our way. . . .

Have you had similar experiences? How do you explain it to your children?


Joy said...

I was asked to bring proof of adoption of our son to the dentist. Three of our other children had already been to this dentist and I was not asked for proof. The difference was our son was new here and I mentioned it so they would know he might have some trouble while being examined. I flat out refused and told the clerk if they did not ask EVERY parent for proof of parentage, they could not ask me. She said she would ask someone and get back to me. I told her again that I did not have to show her anything. She called back and apologized profusely for her misstep. She was educated that day.

The only time I would step off my soapbox and show proof to a doctor would be in an emergency / life and death situation, if they asked.

I carry a packet of copies of documents when we travel out of town by car. I don't want to get pulled over in hickville and have my kids taken. When my parents have my kids, I send the packet with them.

When our first daughter was very young, she was raging in WM one day as she was walking along behind me. A lady stopped her and asked her where her mommy was. I turned around and said I was her mommy. Not such a big deal, just a concerned lady.

What we get most now is strange double-takes from children when we are out in public. Sometimes it's even little friends who have not met me yet, who do not know my girls' mommy is Anglo.

This only bothers one of my girls so far. She doesn't like the staring. I explain to her that people stare because we are a different kind of family (we have five Chinese kids, no others), not because there is something wrong with us.

Anonymous said...

A similar issue (African-American adoptive father of white little girl) was discussed in Newsweek a while back and the intro reads:

Several pairs of eyes follow the girl as she pedals around the playground in an affluent suburb of Baltimore. But it isn't the redheaded fourth grader who seems to have moms and dads of the jungle gym nervous on this recent Saturday morning. It's the African-American man—six feet tall, bearded and wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt—watching the girl's every move. Approaching from behind, he grabs the back of her bicycle seat as she wobbles to a stop. "Nice riding," he says, as the fair-skinned girl turns to him, beaming. "Thanks, Daddy," she replies. The onlookers are clearly flummoxed. As a black father and adopted white daughter, Mark Riding and Katie O'Dea-Smith are a sight at best surprising, and at worst so perplexing that people feel compelled to respond.

Sharon said...

I'm writing a post about this right now. I don't worry about being challenged as a parent by a doctor etc, but I do worry about a bystander misinterpreting a situation because parent and child don't "match", which is what happened in Austin.

Anonymous said...

Just once and it happened like this: we were finishing up some shopping at a big box store and our little guy ( Asian ) was getting tired and out of sorts; the check out lines were horrendous so my husband offered to take our guy out to the car while I checked out, etc....

For no reason other than he was 11 months and tired and probably getting a bit hungry, he started to wail just as my husband exited the store....he was reaching back, towards my direction and his cries became louder.

My husband stopped and was retracing back to me when a store security guard leaped out and demanded proof of parentage. I was able to hustle right over and flash several family photos and everything was resolved.

But it rattled us....on the one hand, glad someone is watching but had our son been white? I'm not sure we would have warranted such scrutiny.

Reena said...

We have yet to be questioned about our parentage. When we take the girls somewhere busy (museum etc.)I do tell both of my daughters that they need to stay close so we don't get lost and I explain that most people will not realize that I am their mommy because we do not look like each other.

LilySea said...

ckywoI've been telling my children, since they could talk, that they need to stay near me in public places but if we are separated, they are to say to any adult who asks, "my mom is white." I explain it straight-up that most people in families together have the same skin and because we don't, people might think we don't belong together. When she was two, I used to hold my hand next to my daughter's and say, "what color is this? what color is this? They are different, so people think we don't belong together, we have to tell them we do."

I don't worry as much about it now that my kids are older. They would pretty much tell off anyone who tried to suggest they didn't belong with me at this point.

My father and brother (both white, while my kids are Black) have been taken by surprise by the assumption they don't belong with the kids when they've been out alone with them, though. I think it's somewhat worse for men, because men with children often draw suspicious attention anyway.