This post is part of a series called Race Revelations. For more information please click here.
It happened again last week. On vacation in an unfamiliar city, my kids and I visited the local children’s museum. My youngest son, a tall, four-year-old wearing blue glasses and a green dinosaur t-shirt, frolicked in an exhibit explaining the laws of gravity using beach balls. A teenaged employee stopped my son D and zeroed in on him immediately. “What are you doing over there? Who are you with?”, the young worker demanded of my preschooler. I saw my child freeze with uncertainty. “He’s mine! He’s with me!” I rushed across the room to lay claim to my little boy.
I can understand the confusion. An African American child who seemed to be alone in a corner of this busy museum. Lots of families and groups of field trip students crowded the activities. I could see that it took a moment for the employee to determine if this dark-skinned child and this sun-burned blonde woman belonged together. But my son’s wail of relief – “MOMMY!” – quickly erased any doubt. As I hugged D tightly to my chest, I could feel how quickly his heart was beating. We’ve had these kinds of incidents before and I have no doubt we’ll have them again.
I became a mother nearly ten years ago. The process of being just another well-meaning, left-leaning white woman to being the mother of three children of color has been mostly wonderful. I don’t think of my children as defined solely by their race(s), but I do recognize the centrality of pursuing questions of identity. I’ve developed some standard answers to the insensitive queries we are asked about our family. I’ve read and written and talked and researched and prayed and struggled along this path of living within a transracial family. I’ve screwed up, I’m sure. I’ve been short-sighted and naive at times. I’ve learned the language of proper hair care. I’ve educated preschool teachers about things like the Mongolian Spots on my daughter’s skin and the difference between ‘Spanish’ and Hispanic. It’s been the defining journey of my life.
When my husband and I filled out our initial adoption paperwork in January 2003, we didn’t hesitate to check the “no preference” box in the section asking about race and ethnicity. My own family of origin includes both Native American and Asian American cousins. I grew up in racially diverse Phoenix in a pre-SB 1070 era. My husband lived in another country and culture for a number of years and is fluent in a few different languages. It just didn’t occur to place limits on the children intended for our family. Our dear friends and family members are almost universally supportive of our choices. We are very blessed in this regard.
In addition to my vocation as a wife and mother, I serve as the pastor to a small Presbyterian congregation. My pastoral work involves walking with those who seek to live and serve as disciples of Jesus Christ. Recognizing that we are each beings created in the image of a loving God is an essential message I strive to impart on a regular basis. So the moments when I see the future where my children will experience pain and prejudice because of their God-created bodies, I pause. The fire of mothering-passion and protectiveness that is kindled within me often makes me slightly ill with its force.
When our eldest son joined our family, I participated very enthusiastically in an online forum for transracial families. Over and over, I saw people with infants and young children brush aside concerns about how they would prepare their children for living in a world that still clings to racial bias. These well-meaning folks would say things like, “Love is enough.” But the more seasoned parents debunked that idea. Love isn’t always enough. I won’t always be present to help my children navigate the world. Evil exists. Misunderstanding and fear are powerful and seductive. This stuff is hard and my experience is limited.
My own experience of being white has changed as I strain to see things through the eyes of my children. I don’t believe we live in a post-racial society. I cried for weeks after the murder of Trayvon Martin; the complication and horror of his story fills me with dread. We talk candidly with our kids about skin color. We live in a neighborhood where white folks are the minorities. We seek out schools and situations were our children see people of color in diverse professional and personal settings. We engage in conversations about race and adoption and family that sometimes make others a little uncomfortable. Love means doing the hard work of approaching these issues head-on. Love means saying or doing the wrong things and trying to learn from those mistakes. Love means leaning into the troubling and less-than-perfect reality that is our family.
So we move forward. At this stage, I don’t have any grand conclusions or pithy advice. My spouse and I love our family and trust that the faith that has carried us to this place will continue to sustain us. Love isn’t the only thing we have for our lives, but it helps. It helps.
Alex Hendrickson serves as solo pastor at a Presbyterian church in the Pocono mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania. She has previously served PC(USA) congregations in Illinois, Arizona and Kentucky. Alex is a graduate of the University of Arizona and of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Alex and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Brett Hendrickson, have three young children, Thomas, Lily, and David. Alex is thrilled that her husband recently joined the Religious Studies faculty at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa.