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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home

Because They Need to Know


I don't remember where we were -- maybe the grocery store -- when Gobez, my nine-year-old son, adopted from Ethiopia, started throwing punches at me, trying to stir up a pretend boxing match. He was in that wild rumpus kind of a mood that grips little boys from time to time, and wasn't listening to my warnings to stop. I felt myself edging toward panic. I'm 5'2" and about 128 pounds. Although only in fourth grade, my son is approaching 5'1" and carries 100 pounds of almost solid muscle. I felt scared, but not because I thought Gobez would hurt me; he wouldn't. I was afraid that someone in the store would not realize that we were mother and son. That someone would misinterpret what was happening between a black boy and a white woman and call the cops.
I worry about my son a lot. I‘ve written about this before. Friends -- usually white friends -- have suggested that I obsess over race, racism, and racial profiling too much. In the store that day, when Gobez started acting like a wild man, I wanted to believe my anxiety was indeed irrational, because then the fear could be temporarily dismissed. Unfortunately, a news story I read the other week made me feel I'm right to be anxious.
Scott Henson writes about the Texas Criminal Justice system on his blog, Grits for Breakfast. A recent ugly encounter with Austin police prompted Henson to share a personal story with his readers. Henson, who describes himself as "stereotypical-looking white Texas redneck," was walking his five-year-old African American granddaughter Ty home from an afternoon of roller-skating when the two were stopped by a deputy constable. The female officer advised the pair that "someone had seen a white man chasing a black girl and reported a possible kidnapping."  
After questioning Ty and determining she wasn't being held against her will, the officer let the girl and her grandfather go. Moments later, nine squad cars arrived. Officers threw Grandpa into handcuffs and whisked the terrified child into a patrol car for questioning.  Henson was never arrested, but he and Ty were detained for at least 30 minutes in a traumatizing ordeal for which the Austin police have not apologized; in fact, they dispute Henson's account, even though this is the second time they've stopped him while babysitting Ty. One can hardly fault the police for responding vigorously to a kidnapping report, but it's clear that racial stereotypes and the notion that family members should physically "match" one another set off a disastrous chain of misunderstandings and mishandlings that could have come to a much more tragic conclusion.
As parents, we live in constant tension: how thoroughly should we prepare our kids for the ugliness that exists in the world? How carefully should we guard their innocence? After reading Henson's story, I decided it was time for another family talk. I told the kids the story of little Ty and her grandfather, and we talked about the questions our family might receive from law enforcement. I even admitted to Gobez that I'd been afraid that a stranger would wrongly report him for beating me up, and he laughed at the ridiculousness of it. I reiterated my admonishments to remain calm and respectful in any encounters with police. All in all, it was a good, productive conversation that I wish our family didn't need to have.
I want Gobez to respect police officers and value their service to society, but at the same time, both he and my two girls need to know what racial profiling is. They need to be aware of the kind of misunderstandings that can arise due to race -- or racism. Finding opportunities to talk about these issues in a way that doesn't provoke undue anxiety in the kids is a constant challenge. 

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Sharon, I think you make great points here. I have worried about this since the day my white husband carried my screaming black daughter out of a Walmart. She was calling “mommy, mommy” and I was just a few steps behind but people were starting to stop and look and I wondered if anyone would interfere. Who would blame them? What if that had been a kidnapping, right? 
One of the things we were told by an African-American neighbor of ours who has a little son was that we needed to teach our son how to respond to the police if ever he was stopped while driving. He said white parents don’t usually think about this but black parents think about it a lot. How you respond to police as a young black man, can make the difference between being arrested and not being arrested, is what he told us. This is not a comment about racial profiling or about the police at all. It is just about the fact that as transracial parents we have to think about certain issues that perhaps we would not have to think about in different circumstances.

By Gaby on Monday, February 27, 2012 at 11:28 pm.

Well said, Gaby. We are working on this for sure!

By Sharon Van Epps on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 12:42 am.

I appreciate both this post and the comments!  I am Caucasian, my husband is Indian and our son is Ethiopian by birth.  Based on my husband’s personal experiences, I wholeheartedly agree with Gaby’s comments regarding preparing to respond to the police if pulled over.  It is so very sad that we have to even think about this at all but we must prepare ourselves and our children.

By lesmem on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 8:18 pm.

Excellent, eye-opening conversation for all of us—even parents whose familes look like they “match.”

By Gayle.Swift on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 8:32 pm.

Thank you so much for these thoughts!  I live a bit naively and in a rural area where I would like to think that we don’t have to deal with racial profiling very much, but my children are 1, 2, & 5 and I never really thought about it much.  Thank you for the comments about teaching my African American sons about how to deal with police officers and about racism.  I admit, I never think about those ideas with my 5 yo Caucasian son but now I will certainly approach all these ideas with all my children.  And now, just more to worry about as not only a mother, but an adoptive mother:)!

By positivelyhappy on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm.

Great post.  I really relate to it.  We actually did have a situation where the police did get involved because they didn’t realize that our black son was ours.  (We are white.) 
:(  Hope you don’t mind, I included a link to this in my latest blog post since it inspired me to write it. smile

By the5parkers on Friday, March 02, 2012 at 7:07 am.

Wow, thanks for reading, the5parkers! I checked out your post too—that experience sounds so frightening!

By Sharon Van Epps on Friday, March 02, 2012 at 7:50 pm.

This happens in my family in different ways all the time—we were once stopped and ticketed for speeding with our two African American daughters in the back seat and the officer couldn’t stop staring at the girls.  Finally, he asked us if they were adopted (something I am quite sure you are not allowed to ask).  We said they were, and when the whole thing was over, spent the next 20 miles talking about possibilities for what we might have said.  No, kidnapped?  African American women on the street will, out of nowhere, offer to do my daughters’ hair (clearly, I have not braided it well enough).  I feel like we get it from all sides, although other people don’t have the power of the police.

By maggie b on Wednesday, March 07, 2012 at 9:19 pm.

Thanks for reading and commenting, Maggie B…as I was writing this post, I was also remembering a traffic stop our family endured a few months ago—and how grateful I feel to the officer. Instead of ticketing my husband for speeding, she let us go with a warning and a reminder “to slow down when you have your children in the car.” She didn’t question that we were a family. I hope we continue to have good luck, but it’s helpful to be mentally prepared for the bad.

By Sharon Van Epps on Wednesday, March 07, 2012 at 10:18 pm.

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Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps


I have recently adopted or am adopting from...
Ethiopia, India

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