When A Stranger Asks Questions About My Daughter’s Racial Background

“She’s cute,” said the woman in front of us in line at the grocery store the other day. She was talking about my daughter (in photo above, left) who is 4 and undeniably cute. (I don’t feel I’m boasting; she in no way looks like me.) And then the woman asked, “What’s her mix?”

This is a question I’ve heard before and one I always find intrusive. I'm sure the woman and other people who have asked were simply curious. But for me, there are so many more layers to it.

As we were going through the adoption process, the agency urged us to keep the kids’ history their story. They should be the first to learn their stories, at an appropriate age, and they should decide what to share with people, especially strangers. I don't feel my daughter is ready, at age 4, to make those decisions for herself. I’m definitely not going to volunteer details about my daughter’s birth and why she ended up in foster care; her racial background is also not something I feel I need to divulge to anyone or everyone.

The woman didn’t ask my background – maybe I should have volunteered my Canadian, American, English, Scottish and Germanic heritage – but my racial background was just assumed. And, presumably, assumed to be not very interesting, for I am never asked this question. Do non-white adults regularly get asked what their background is and made to feel different? Is that considered uncouth? I think of ages: children are asked all the time how old they are (Isn’t it adorable to see them answer?) but it’s not something we usually ask adults walking by us at the mall or sitting beside us on public transit. Though maybe we should start: “Oh, aren’t you cute! And how old are you? What’s your background?”

Perhaps the woman was curious about who I must have mated with in order to produce such a child, if she indeed assumed I was the biological father. Still: intrusive. And again, context counts for a lot – I don't want to have a discussion about race or adoption in line at the grocery store.

As a good Canadian, I don't want to appear defensive or rude, and I believe there are times for engagement and telling our stories. Raising awareness of our families and how we came to be is important, but again, while I'm trying to pay for my weekly groceries isn't necessarily one of those times. A simple answer wouldn't be enough. I also need to decide exactly what point I’d want to make − about courtesy, race, adoption or gay families − and how.

When asked before about my son’s or daughter’s background, I have sometimes said, “We don’t know." That answer often breeds confusion − which can be quite enjoyable to watch − but I don’t think it serves my children well: I don’t want my daughter to get the sense that her background is a mystery or something to hide and be ashamed of.

How to find the right balance between answering a seemingly innocent question and educating people more deeply? How to share a random friendly moment between strangers while still maintaining our privacy? And how do I figure out if I’m being sensitive to the race question or oversensitive? 

Posted by John Hart

John is a writer who was born and bred in Toronto (a rarity, apparently). He met his partner in 2002 and they started the adoption journey together in 2007. He enjoys reading, traveling and sleeping – passions he's also trying to instil in the children.

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