What Do You Say?

On January 6, 2010, in Biracial, by Honeysmoke

The Indecent Question has piqued the interest of more than a few Honeysmoke readers, and I am wondering whether any of you would like to share how you address awkward situations.

My family endures stares all the time. Just a few days ago, I looked up from my plate and locked eyes with a man at a restaurant. I stared back, until he looked away. I do this all the time. I am not going to let someone else try to make my family feel uncomfortable in a public place.

At least once a month, someone asks whether Simone and Nadia are mine? In December, Simone, Nadia and I ducked into a coffee shop. I was looking for an inexpensive but thoughtful gift for a host, and Simone said she wanted some hot chocolate. The young woman helping us with our order was quite chatty, and I was not surprised. Simone and Nadia are charmers. Simone flashes her smile at just about anyone, and the girls always look like they are having a good time with each other. (I am not sure why such behavior does not occur on a regular basis at home, but I guess that is another post.) At any rate, the conversation turned to the girls, and the woman asked question after question. Simone chimed in telling the woman her name and age and then turned to her sister and did the same. Are they yours? the woman wanted to know. Yes, I said, cheerily. I, like most parents, think my children are the cutest ever, and I have no trouble claiming them as my own, especially when folks are making a fuss over them. (This may change, I am told, as they get older.)

Such questions used to anger me. At some point on this journey called Motherhood, I realized I was only hurting myself. I am sure in most cases the men and women — both black and white — who ask these questions do not give another thought to them. I do wonder, though, should I say anything else, somehow put these rude people in their place so that they never again ask such an insensitive question. I have heard one polite way to respond is to say, “What a curious thing to ask.”  I am so busy worrying about Simone and Nadia those words never have spilled from my mouth.

What do Honeysmoke readers say? How do you handle similar situations? I also know that several readers reside outside of the United States. I would like to hear from you and how such intrusive questions are viewed in your countries.

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  • http://www.under-the-acacai-tree.blogspot MM

    When asked, “is he yours?” I answer, “Actually, I am his.” It stops the inquiry right there. I’ve been asked, “are you his foster mom?” I’ve been asked, “who does he belong to?” Once a woman touched him and said, “look, little Obama.” I’m still working on how to prepare him for the publicness of this question and frankly I think saying “I’m all his” lets my son know he’s got me!

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      That’s an excellent answer. Good for you.

  • http://www.beadsbraidsbeyond.blogspot.com Nikki

    Luckily I have not experienced this. I would probably be rude right back though. I know they probably mean no harm, but asking someone if that is their child, or if they are the nanny, etc, is just plain rude!!

  • Shonda

    Great blog! This is my first time commenting, but I’ve been enjoying it for awhile. My children are biracial and there were two times when I was asked questions that flagrantly assumed I was not their mother. Both times I was alone with the kids and was so flummoxed by the question that it was clear to the questioner that they’d made an error. What’s funny to me is that–melanin aside–I think my children look a lot like both me and my husband. It’s weird to me that people can’t see that. I love the “what a curious question to ask” response. I wondered if any of you had read Does Anybody Else Look Like Me?: A Parent’s Guide To Raising Multiracial Children. The title is a tiny bit off-putting to me b/c it sounds like a special manual is required, but it’s a good book and talks a lot about how kids’ perceptions of these little incidents can be interpreted by them. I notice that as my son and daughter get older each is more vocal in expressing the hope that they’ll someday be like and look like my husband and me, respectively. They care when someone suggests they are not “like” us.

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      i’ll be sure to check out that book.

  • http://john1verse12.blogspot.com/ AB

    I’ve been on all sides of the fence here. I like to reach out to those around me, and often see strangers as friends. I ask questions to connect with people, not to be “in thier business”. I am usually looking for something we have in common. Whle in high school and college, I was a babysitter/nanny. Many, many, times, people mistook the child I was caring for as my own. I would rather they have asked me up front if it was my child, because we usually ended up going down some long road of conversation, until I ended up having to mention it myself, after the poor person I was talking to had been working from that assumption for a while. I have two children that were adopted, and two that are biological. One child is a wheelchair user, and one child is bi-racial. We get our share of questions. Usually, I can tell when someone is just being friendly, or if they are asking in disdain. I joyfully answer questions about our adoption experience, and my children do as well. We joyfully share our experiences with disability, and my daughter does as well. Questions may be poorly worded, but I don’t see why they are necessarily rude if the person’s heart is in the right place. If I was a mom trying to connect with another mom (which most people asking these questions are), I wouldn’t want to find out that I had been chatting with the babysitter for half an hour. Your answers may encourage someone who is considering adoption, or considering raising a child with special needs, or wondering what kind of challenges their own inter-racial relationship may face in the future. It’s when you respond snippily or with sarcasm, or when you shut people down, that your kids pick up on a vibe that there is “something wrong” with this part of their life. If something was truly personal, I wouldn’t answer the question. There are boundaries. But I don’t draw the line at “Are they yours?” I assign positive intent until convinced otherwise. Your answers may change someone else’s world view- or even their life.

  • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

    “Your figure seems almost too fit and too trim to have borne children.”

    You are too kind. That said, I think you’re right. Some women looked at me after I had Simone and figured I had not just had a baby. I didn’t gained about 30 pounds and lost it quickly. I credit Simone and Nadia for my shape. They keep me busy. ;)

    You also bring up a good point. My and other people’s children can HEAR these questions. That may be something I take into account — and possibly address — in the future. I don’t want my girls to see/think Mommy asked such questions over and over again. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Simone started answering for me or asking a few questions for herself. That will be the day.

  • Blanc2

    We live in the Twin Cities of Minnesota. There are a large number of biracial children here. The area is known for its high percentage of biracial families and children. We don’t get a lot of public staring. Some, but not a lot. I’ve been a lifelong irreverent iconoclast and mold-breaker anyways. Those looks, when they do come, don’t phase me.

    I do think that in most cases the “are they yours” kinds of questions are innocent. After all, they usually arise when a stranger is obviously charmed by the children and is gushing over them. We live in a day and age where complicated blended families and cross-cultural adoptions are normal. I believe you live in LA, where kids during the day are often as not accompanied by a caregiver as by a parent.

    I’d note also that, based on your board photo, you don’t have the figure loss that some women experience after bearing children. Your figure seems almost too fit and too trim to have borne children. This might be the source of some of the curiosity — a latent jealousy that you could have borne multiple children and still be in such good shape.

    At the same time, I think that the comments here about adoptive parents are very pertinent. Kids pick up a lot. They would certainly pick up the fact that it is common for strangers to put mommy and/or daddy into a position of having to say “no, she’s adopted.” As if that would be something pejorative.

    I like the “what a curious thing to ask” response — with nothing further. I think I’ll use that if it ever comes up.

  • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

    oooh, “from God” is an excellent answer.

  • b.

    “Where’d you get them?”?????? Daaaaaaaaaaang. That is ridiculous. Really ridiculous. As a God-honoring person, I think I’d say “From God” and walk away. But I don’t know; I’m not a parent (yet) and I’m in a marriage with someone of the same ethnicity. Even so, genetics can be a funny thing and I won’t know what my future children will look like until they arrive. And I don’t know yet whether we’ll adopt.

    Even with the scenario I presented earlier, my overall consensus is this: Unless you’re on a need-to-know basis, you don’t need to know. Thanks for having this discussion, Percola. I like your blog.

  • http://www.happygirlhair.com Joyful Mom

    It’s interesting that for me, “where did you get them?” comes exclusively from other mothers who I have been casually chatting with at the playground or swim lessons. They aren’t people I’ve exchanged names with.

    When absolute strangers stop us on the street, it’s “Where are they from?” We always answer with “We’re from X American city” if we are traveling, or “Oh, we’re from here.” if we’re in our city. Sometimes, they’ll ask again and indicate the girls. We just repeat our answer and walk away.

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      Good for you, Joyful Mom.

  • http://32candles.com/ Ernessa, author of 32 Candles

    To clarify, I was asked the “Is she yours” question several times while on vacation.

  • http://32candles.com/ Ernessa, author of 32 Candles

    Wow, I think the “Where did you get them” question might make me more angry than the “Is she yours” question. Having just come back from vacation, where I got asked that question several times and where my husband and I were often not perceived as being together, I’ve decided to just not care. People are rude and insensitive, that’s all. If they weren’t offending me with these questions it would be something else.

    I wonder as a fellow ex-journalist if this question surprises us even more, b/c we know how easy it is to get answers to our questions without offending people. Often times, I want to say, “You know, just have a conversation with me. If you really want to know if I’m the nanny, then it will come up after the simplest of non-offensive questions.” Sigh.

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      Ernessa, you could be on to something. As a journalist, I know how to be silent so that someone else will fill that void with words. It really doesn’t take much to get someone to tell you their story. Almost everyone has a story to tell and wants to tell it. I agree the “where did you get them question” is simply inappropriate. Joyful Mom has an excellent way to deal with those folks.

  • http://class-factotum.blogspot.com/ class factotum

    Yeah, about the sharing. I was work friends with a guy who used a wheelchair. I knew him for two years before I asked him what had put him in the chair and that was with his prompting. He asked why I had waited so long to ask why he was paralyzed and I answered that I didn’t think it was any of my business. Not to mention it was irrelevant to our friendship.

  • http://www.happygirlhair.com Joyful Mom

    I rarely get the “are they yours?” question anymore, probably because of my twins’ near-constant chorus of “mom, mom, mom.”

    I do however get a question from other moms I meet that I consider even ruder. Once I’ve talked to a mom for a bit, she often feels it’s okay to say “Where did you get them?” Like maybe they came from the store or something. Most acknowledge the rudeness of their question as they ask it. Many say something like, “That sounds awful, but I don’t know how to ask.”

    I appreciate that they know how offensive that sounds, but I’d like to know why they need to ask at all. I usually answer with, “In the future, you can ask where they were born. My girls were born in Ethiopia.”

    But I’ve recently learned that doesn’t go far enough. In the future, I think I’ll reply with, “If you really need (emphasis on really need) to know, you can ask where they were born. Or ask if they were born in the US.” And then I’ll sit back and see if they ask nicely.

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      I agree. That is terribly rude and insensitive. I’ve learned from others that asking where someone is from or where they were born before fully getting to know them also presents a problem. I will step out on a line and simply say these mothers don’t need to know this information. Now, if the two of you are friends, I imagine this will come up naturally. I know this blog has nothing to do with interviewing, but sometimes the best interviews don’t require a lot of questions. I wish people would listen more. I really do. If I am friends with someone, they will surely know I am married to a white man pretty early on in said relationship.In other words, you don’t have the right to know until the person who you are talking to feels comfortable enough to share something with you. That’s a lot less awkward. The one thing that concerns me is why do they feel the need to ask. In your case, if you say they were born in the U.S. or Ethiopia, there certainly will be more questions to follow. I try to keep my questions to a minimum. I wish others would as well.

  • http://class-factotum.blogspot.com/ class factotum

    Percola, even if someone wants to know your role, why is it their business? I just asked my husband what he thought. He asked what if we adopted a child from China. Would she not be “ours?” Why would someone ask such a question? It’s rude, period.

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      That is true. It is not anyone’s business, and I think I would fall on this side of the argument. The other side, though, is that we are a sharing society, and we tend to be free with basic information. I don’t think it should matter if I’m the mother, aunt or cousin of the girls. I mean, it takes a village, right? I believe as long as I am taking excellent care of them, no one should intrude with any questions. Of course, I have to realize we live in a world where people make things their business, where folks go on talk shows every day and spread their business and someone not forthcoming may be met with suspicion. There are so many more things people will ask of someone today that they would not have thought about asking five, 10, 15 years ago. There are no right or wrong answers here. Let’s keep this discussion going.

  • b.

    My husband and I don’t have children. As a young single woman, I used to wondered about people who saw me with my nephew and whether or not they thought I was yet another unwed young mom. (Much love to the single moms…I’m just addressing the perception others may have.) I was never approached in a bad way, but I remember those moments when I see other young women sans wedding ring with kids in tow. Are they moms, or watching someone else’s kids?

    I say that to say this…sometimes, people ask b/c they do not know whether you are the mom…not so much b/c of color but b/c…well, you may be the aunt. Or the neighbor. I know better than to assume that in each case, but every blue moon that may be all there is.

    Personally, I presume the child belongs to the person I engage with unless/until they tell me otherwise. However, I keep in mind that the presumption may be incorrect. Sorry I didn’t answer your question directly, but the story came to mind and I thought I’d share. Nice blog!

    • http://www.honeysmoke.com Percola

      That’s a good point. I could be anyone, and sometimes people just want to know my role.