Most people I know did something special to commemorate the year they turned 50. My friend Joanne went to Paris, Martha went hiking on the Appalachian Trail, and Linda bought herself a Mercedes. I decided to adopt a child. I was single, and had a very good job with flexibility, and my field meant that my knowledge of child development was extensive. Moreover, I had love to give.
I decided to stay in the public adoption arena, and because of my age, to seek a placement of an older child. After all, I did not want to be sitting at PTA meetings and dance recitals when I was on medicare. There are many children needing homes. And the majority of children awaiting adoption where I lived were African-American. So, I ended up with a nine-year-old African-American girl named Amanda. I was Amanda’s 14th placement.
There’s much I could write about the experience of being an adoptive parent. But here, my focus is the surprises – of what it means raising a child whose ethnicity is different than mine.
First of all – hair. Hair is a big deal among African American women. “Nappy” hair is very different than my kind of brown straight hair. It requires special moisturizers and shampoos. Many African American women get regular “perms” – which means chemical straightening, relaxing tight kinky curls.
But the bigger issue was the subtle racism I saw everywhere. Where I lived, people of color were well-represented. Thus, I had no problem buying the needed hair products. My African-American colleagues and friends were only too happy to recommend their favorite brands, and sometimes even help teach me -the honky mom – how to use them.
I enrolled Amanda in ballet. She loved it. When recital time came, her class was assigned a cute frilly tutu. The tutu was meant to look strapless from a distance and so there were spaghetti straps that were – beige. Yes, light, light beige. Why don’t these things come in a few color choices? I asked myself.
For the Christmas concert at school, my daughter brought home a notice saying girls needed a back skirt, white blouse, and pantyhose. The skirt and blouse were easy. Then, I went shopping for Amanda’s first pair of pantyhose.
I have always chosen my pantyhose a shade darker than my skin. I looked through all the offerings – and every color was “beige” or “nude” or “tan.” Where were the brown-colored shades of pantyhose? Where do Black women buy their pantyhose? So, Amanda went to the school concert in pantyhose the color of wheat flour.
I had been thrilled at Christmas when the toy store had one black “Barbie” doll. Whew! Lucky, I thought. But later, when the therapist was trying to address Amanda’s many developmental delays, she asked me to assemble enough dolls to make a family – a mother, father, and children. She’d use these in role playing family situations. So, I went shopping for a dark skinned “Ken.” There were none. The best I could do was a “Ken” with a tan – dressed in gaudy swimming trunks and holding up a surfboard. And so, I also bought a brown magic marker.
Yes, you guessed it. I sat there with a “Ken” doll and a brown marker and colored every inch of his body to make him brown. He was a bit streaky in places, but mostly, it worked well.
It still bothers me that in a region of the country with plenty of people of color, that I had such a difficult time locating appropriate products. It seemed to me to be a subtle racism. A carelessness on the part of manufacturers. Certainly, a lack of sensitivity.
That was 20 years ago. I hope things have gotten better. At least now the internet opens up vast shopping opportunities. I hope black dolls and darker pantyhose are readily available.https://archives.weru.org/esoterica/2020/02/esoterica-2-4-20-honky-mom/