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Adoption Blog: Be Bold or Go Home

An Ugly Conversation

Two weeks ago, my son, Gobez, adopted from Ethiopia, turned 10. His birthday happened to fall on an early release day from school, so we went out for a special lunch, just the two of us. We opted for our favorite Thai restaurant, mostly because of its proximity to the fabulous gelato shop where we planned to indulge in giant scoops of Oreogasmic afterward. Quality time like that is rare in our busy family of five, and, I have to admit, I was feeling pretty good about making it happen.

Inside the bustling restaurant, the hostess seated us at the only available table for two, located just a foot away from a middle-aged white couple. I didn't want to be so close to another party -- what if Gobez chewed with his mouth open or cracked a fart joke? And then there was the odd way that the woman looked at us as we sat down. She didn't seem hostile, exactly, but she'd noticed us, and her look made me feel on notice. We had no other seating options, so I tried to brush away my discomfort.

We placed our order: Pad Thai for Gobez, Spicy Chicken with Eggplant for me. Meanwhile, our neighbors chatted about work. We were so close, it was impossible not to overhear. I needed to use the restroom, so I handed Gobez my phone so that he could play a quick game of Pocket God while I was gone.

"Turn off the sound," I reminded him. "You don't want to disturb other people."

When I returned a few minutes later, my son appeared deep in an online game stupor. I sipped my water and tried not to listen to the next table's conversation, but there was no escaping it.

"He had gashes on the back of his head. He was bleeding," I heard the woman say.

"The 911 operator told him to stand down," said the man.

"What's he supposed to do if he's attacked?"

"If you start a bar fight, you know you're gonna get punched."

It took me a few seconds to process the exchange, but then it hit me: They're talking about Trayvon Martin. I'd seen the latest news photos of a bleeding George Zimmerman, the man accused of shooting Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Zimmerman's lawyers claim these injuries prove their client acted in self-defense after the teen attacked him, but the boy had clearly been minding his own business until Zimmerman started trailing him out of suspicion through a suburban Florida neighborhood.

"Sounds like the kid threw the first punch." The tone of the woman's voice told me that she blamed Trayvon Martin for his own death.

I felt sick. Why were they talking about this with my son right here? Had the mere sight of my big-for-his-age African child sparked the ugly conversation?

I looked at Gobez, still seemingly engrossed in his game. Had he heard? Did he understand?

Although I talk to my kids about how to deal with racism, they're still young enough that I try to shield them from violent and sensational stories in the media. We don't watch TV news at home, though Gobez did catch one CNN report on a pizzeria TV when the case first broke. As far as I knew, that story had been his only exposure to the details of the tragedy, but who knows what he might have heard at school or at a friend's house? And so I faced a dilemma: Should I probe my son about what he might have understood about the restaurant conversation, souring his birthday, or convince myself that he hadn't heard a thing?

The waitress delivered our food. Inexplicably, she patted Gobez affectionately on the back as she left, almost as if she'd heard something awful, too, and wanted to comfort him. We began to eat, and I felt a rush of relief as the conversation next to us turned to fishing.

"Mom," Gobez said after awhile, "Can I get a fish for my birthday?"

I took a deep breath. Just because he's listening now doesn't mean he was listening earlier. My mind whirred with the insanity of the situation, even as the usual "No, you can't have a fish/parrot/lizard/pit-bull" speech came out of my mouth. I wondered if the couple next door was now eavesdropping on us. I silently screamed for them to GET OUT of the restaurant, but they took their time.

After our lunch plates had been cleared, Gobez declared himself too full for ice cream. I can count on one hand the number of times my son has been too full for anything but broccoli -- he typically eats enough for two grown men -- and I worried that he'd lost his appetite because of our neighbors' conversation. Then again, I consoled myself, he'd certainly cleaned up the Pad Thai.

At home, we rolled into our afternoon routine of homework and chores, and in the evening, more celebrating and lots of gifts. My son seemed happy. Normal.

I never said anything to Gobez about what happened in the restaurant. I couldn't even bring myself to tell my husband for several days; the shock and pain felt too deep. Even now, as I write this, I don't know how to put my pain into words. I know some will read this and think I overreacted, saying that couple's conversation had nothing to do with us. But I know better. Sometimes I wish I didn't.

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I’m sorry that happened
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By carolrn on Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 6:55 pm.

Thank you for sharing that story.  I’m also sorry that happened, but not surprised.  I don’t think you are overreacting in the least—and my guess is that not too many African Americans would think you did.  Trying to figure out the best way to handle an “ugly conversation” is complex but also ripe for learning.  As a white adoptive mother of a Black girl, my stance is generally to assume that she is hearing whatever I am hearing, or noticing the looks I am noticing.  She’s still very young, but I try to say something along the lines of “I didn’t like when that boy kept asking if I was really your mom, but I think it’s because I’m white and you’re brown.”  It gives her the chance to say, “I didn’t like it either,” or to confirm, “You are my mom!” or to ignore me.  I wonder if there’s something similar you could’ve said to Gobez, even just “That was a really ugly conversation going on next to us.  It almost made me lose my appetite.”  If he didn’t hear it, no harm done, but if he did, it opens up space for him to talk or ask about it. I’m guessing that the worst things my daughter is going to hear are going to happen out of my earshot, so I’m trying to give her practice in ways she might handle it or even think about it. When she has to deal with the pain of racism, I don’t want her to think she has to deal with it alone.  Thanks again for sharing your story.

By MamaTanya on Sunday, June 03, 2012 at 6:41 am.

This blog takes me back many years We adopted our first child at seven months, and he’s now 42 years old. He wasn’t born in a hospital, so there is no record although he was born (and left to be found) in a city in the USA. We eventually had a family of 5 boys and 2 girls (all African American, all domestic adoptions and one white bio).

We lived through some very challenging years. Now we have seven wonderful grand kids. Time flies!

By Sheilanne on Monday, June 04, 2012 at 3:27 am.

Oh, Sharon, my next post coming out Monday, I think, deals with similar feelings about my now so cute 4 year old black son. I am thinking about life with him as a teenager and the challenges we will experience. This had to have been difficult for you! I like to read about those of you who are journeying ahead of me and learning from your reactions and insights.

By Gaby on Friday, June 08, 2012 at 5:26 pm.

I’m back again—

I just skimmed through several of Gaby’s posts and enjoyed reading about another family’s interesting lifestyle.

When we started our family, the Internet was a thing of the future, and our support system did not include blogs. We lived in the Minnesota when we welcomed our first child, and we have remained in the Midwest although my husband and I both grew up in the Northeast. I think our problems raising our kids were more related to the fact that four of them joined our family when they were school age. But, of course, race was a factor in some of the issues that surfaced.

All seven of our grown-up kids keep in touch even though several live far away. They have enriched our lives! They have such different interests and lifestyles! When we have family gatherings, I love listening to them banter. They all seem to have grown into adults who are very comfortable in their own skins—no matter what the color.

I started checking out some of these blogs while searching for magazines and bloggers who might be looking for books about adoption. I’m an author/illustrator and several of my books feature kids who were adopted. My books are fiction, but, I think, they are “true” depictions of kids’ lives.

By Sheilanne on Friday, June 08, 2012 at 6:32 pm.

People amaze me! My daughter and I went to the library last week (we recently moved to a new town) and one of the staff said as we turned around to walk away “That’s that adopted kid I was telling you about!” My daugther is 8 almost 9 and is a little adoption advocate herself she just smiled at me but I wanted to turn around and tell her off! Every time we go in there she has to ask questions and then on top of that a younger kid heard her asking questions one day and he looked at my daughter and said “So you was an orphan?” I have been an adoption advocate for years but some people just can’t grasp it. I know she is curious but she is at least 50 years old! Another story was onetime I had my daughter at the dentist and on her file it had marked she was adopted (we have no medical history) and the lady looked at me and whispered in from of her “Does she know she is adopted” of course my daughter over heard her and I said “WELL she does now!” to which my daughter said OMG I’M ADOPTED with a wink at me. We love getting people like that! smile

By MandyJoCampbell on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm.

Reminds me of some of the stories my wife tells about her experience in 1970s Rochester, MN.  To a large extent, it’s changed there, but so sad that some things seem to never change!

By Brad, co-author of Songs of My Families on Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 11:56 pm.

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Meet the Author

Sharon Van Epps

Sharon Van Epps


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

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