Shades of Brown

Charlie isn’t stupid.

He is seven years old.  He is kind of goofy.  He loves Legos and “Phineas and Ferb”.  He loves pizza.  He is African-American. 

He is not stupid.  He knew why the lady in the cloak room at the museum stopped her children from entering when she saw him.  He understood that the color of his skin made him part of the “them” that their Dad said that they shouldn’t talk to.  He isn’t stupid.

The boys and I are on spring break.  I took them to the museum at the University of Alaska Fairbanks this morning.  The boys were stoked when we got there because they were going to see moose and bears and dinosaurs.  We paid admission and went to the cloak room to hang up our coats.

Charlie was standing in the middle of the room while I hung up Eli’s coat.  A boy and a girl walked into the room followed by Mom and Dad.  Mom saw Charlie and grabbed her kids.  She pulled them to her and backed away from Charlie.  Charlie blinked.  “Hi,” he said.

“Hi,” said the boy.  He was shushed by his mom.

“Hewwo!”, said three-year-old Eli, all happy about seeing bears and walruses.

“Hello, cutie,” the lady said. She smiled at Eli while keeping an eye on Charlie. 

I picked Eli up and walked up to Charlie.  I took him by the hand.  “Let’s go, son,” I said.

“He’s with you?” the Dad said from under his “Skoal Bandits” hat.

“Amazing, isn’t it?”, I said on our way out.

One of the kids asked a question, but was cut off by Dad.  “We don’t talk to them.

Besides not being stupid, Charlie has pretty good hearing.  He stared at the ground and his shoulders sagged a little as we walked out.  I stopped.

I put Eli down and pulled Charlie’s chin up.  I looked into an amazing set of sad brown eyes.  “Who’s my man?”, I asked. 

He smiled a little.  “Me,” he said.

Great.  So we get to deal with this again.  I am not saying that every day for my family is an exercise in battling bigotry, but it happens enough to be a real pain ass.  The worst part is now Charlie understands.  Now he is getting hurt.

I have learned a lot about people in the almost eight years I have been Charlie’s dad.  I learned you never know what the person standing next to you thinks or feels.  Our family draws second looks.  I have no problem with that because we don’t look like other families.  Sometimes we get smiles.  Usually we get no reaction at all. 

However, sometimes a man will remove his Confederate flag head scarf and wave it at my wife while she is holding our son.  That happened once.  Sometimes two young men will see a brown baby in the store in a grocery cart and remark under their breath that somebody lost their “monkey” and maybe they should give it a banana.

Last summer I took the boys to a park and playground.  Charlie and Eli were running around and playing.  A man brought his daughter to the playground.  He sat on the park bench next to me and we watched the kids play.  After several minutes the little girl started playing with Charlie.  That is not unusual.  Little girls like Charlie.

The man saw his little caucasian girl talking to Charlie.  “Oh hell no,” he said.  He got up and brought his daughter over to the bench.  “I’m stopping this right now,” he said to me conspiratorily.  “I’m not having her bring home any half-breed grandbabies.”

I sat for a few moments fully digesting what I had heard.  After a while, Charlie came over to the bench for hugs and a juice box.  The man next to me was actually trying to become part of the bench.  I gave Charlie a kiss on his head and he ran off.  The man got up to leave.

“You could have told me he was your son.”

“That’s really tricky,” I said.  I explained that he had it easy because he hated Charlie based on the color of his skin, but it was harder for me.  “I didn’t know you were an asshole until you started talking.”

Prejudice comes from everywhere.  It even comes from unexpected sources.  The social worker in the hospital where Charlie was born initially refused to facilitate the adoption because the adoptive family was white.

Sometimes those things happen.  Most of the issues we have are more subtle.  At Disney World last year an employee asked Charlie where his parents were.  He was holding my wife’s hand at the time.

This situation at the museum was different because for the first time, at least as far as I know, Charlie was fully aware that somebody thought differently of him because of his color.  It was also the first time that somebody had reacted one way to Charlie and another way to Eli.  Eli is bi-racial.  He is very light skinned and has blue eyes and curly brown hair.  Actually, he looks kind of like me. A few strangers have looked at us together and remarked that he has his Daddy’s eyes. Charlie doesn’t have my eyes. He and Eli were treated differently based on their appearance. This is going to be tricky, not sure how to handle this one.  I am sure that hugs will be involved.

We actually had a good visit to the museum.  The boys ooohed and ahhhhed at the walruses.  Eli screamed and ran when he saw the gigantic brown bear in the entrance to the exhibit.  Both boys were very well behaved and respectful when we were in the Native Alaskan History section.  They were a bit sad after watching the whale hunting documentary, but understood that the whale would be used completely.  Eli said he would eat a whale “sammitch”.  Our acquaintances were always close, ironically enough.

The man in the Skoal Bandits hat was very vocal on how gross the process was as we watched the whale processing video.  He asked nobody and everybody at the same time, why on earth anybody would eat whale fat.

“I wonder how he would feel if somebody came into his house and heckled him while he was opening a can of SPAM and a can of pork and beans,” I thought in my internal dialogue.  At least I thought it was internal dialogue.

“SPAM?” Charlie asked.  “What about SPAM?”

“Nothing.  We have to go.”  I fell into the trap and I was upset as soon as I had the thought.  One of the key points to being Charlie’s Dad, in my opinion, is to never, ever let him see me react in this situation in a way that I would not allow him to react.  I pushed the limit that day in the park.  I crossed the line here.  Stupid internal dialogue.

We left the history exhibit and went to the art gallery.  Charlie’s eye’s lit up.  He loves art. He looked at each painting and sculpture.  He examined every article.  He giggled and covered his eyes when we came to a nude photo. 

“Boobies!” said Eli as he pointed at the photo.  “Boobies, boobies, boobies.”  He then broke into his favorite song, aptly entitled “Boobies” and sung to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”  Every word in this song is “boobies”.

While Eli sang his tribute to breasts, Charlie was looking at some Native Alaskan items.  There was a beautifully beaded caribou skin dress, a knife and some other items.  “Why are those here Dad?” Charlie asked.  “We saw those in the other area.”

“We did,” I said.  “But sometimes items like this are so well done and such a beautiful example of workmanship that they can be considered art.”

He looked up at me and nodded.  “So art can be different things?”

I nodded. “Absolutely.  Remember how we talked about how art is an expression of what is inside you?”

He nodded.  We encourage Charlie to express himself through art.

“Well, sometimes people who make ordinary items express themselves through those objects,” I said.  “When that happens they become art.”

As we were talking our friends walked by.  “Why do they put dresses and baskets in the art section?” asked the Dad.  “They belong in the native history section.  That’s not art.”

Charlie looked at an ordinary-looking knife in the display.  “I think that is art,” he said after awhile.  “I’ll bet the person who made it thought it was art because he needed a knife.”  He smiled his impossibly bright smile.

“It’s really cool,” I said.  “It’s just not real pretty.”

Charlie thought for a long time then looked at me.  “How something looks doesn’t really have anything to do with how valuable it can be,” he said.


Thanks for reading folks.  I’ll see you soon on This Side of the Diaper.






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29 Responses to Shades of Brown

  1. krispearson88 says:

    I am astonished that these things still happen! My heart breaks for Charlie, yet what wonderful parent’s he has! He will grow up to be a very wise and considerate man. And good for you for not falling to their level. Even if you slip up once in a while. I’m not sure I could hold back, but you are doing an amazing job! Big hugs to your beautiful boys…..both of them!

  2. Joe Baber says:

    Thanks for being a good role model for Charlie, Eli, and humanity!

  3. stephanie w says:

    Omg! How you and your wife hold your composure is a miracle. I wish i could say I’m shocked by such ignorance but I’ve experienced something similar as well. Your boys will grow up to be such smart and insightful men. I am sorry for the pain that people cause your family, it’s so blatantly ignorant!

  4. Beda Stoner says:

    Charlie will be just fine! He has wonderful parents who love him. I just don’t understand people. God made us all and we are all alike. So sad that some people don’t know this. God’s blessings to you and your family.

  5. I wish we could put our kids in bubbles filled with the people who are worth a damn. I know that some amazing people have come forth from hardships and struggles and I have no doubt Charlie and Eli will be the same. Worse case Eli with just beat the bad people up 🙂 Keep doing what you are doing. You’ve composed yourself better then I would have in all of those situations. My prayers are with you and your family.

  6. Sue Skinner says:

    Pretty cool, Charlie. You are all of seven years old and you are wiser than most of the adults in this story. Sounds like you and your family are doing a fine job. Eyes up, chin up, heart aimed high.

  7. Jennifer says:

    Amazing writing, amazing father, amazing Charlie…keep up the great work. Sounds like you are rearing amazing little men. Parenting has endless challenges on a good day but coupled with navigating people’s ignorance and cruelty must be quite a task. It is sad enough that adults are not respectful of each other but to treat a child that way is just inexcusable. Those people should be ashamed of themselves. Your calm demeanor during these trying times is not only helping Charlie navigate a sometimes unfair world but you are hopefully educating these ignorant fools in ways their parents obviously did not. Keep up the great work!

  8. Pat DeMeritt says:

    Charlie’s statement “How something looks doesn’t really have anything to do with how valuable it can be” pretty much wraps everything up nicely, even the other dads as they are as much examples as we are, albeit maybe not our examples of choice for our children to see, examples all the same and a learning opportunity.

  9. I applaud your self control, sir. I am very glad that I don’t have kids for many reasons, but one of the main ones being that I do not think I would have the self control to avoid taking the lower path.

  10. libbylogic says:

    This makes me so sad. Not just for Charlie, and not just for you, but for the people who will let their prejudices from knowing people as wonderful as you both.

  11. sue garvin says:

    As the mother of an adopted biracial son, thank you for telling it like it is. Wait until he is a teenager and store keepers follow him around. Or the time he got pulled over by the police a half block from our house. They had him in hand cuffs! Yes, prejudice is still very much out ther

  12. Bethany says:

    It’s amazing to me that people can still get away with MAKING comments like that! Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up with a number of bi-racial or minority children in my school (two of whom are very dear friends of mine) or the fact that my brother’s wife’s brother married a black woman and they have the most adorable little curly-haired mocha babies…. but I think that mixed-race families (including adopted ones) are just beautiful.

    The way you speak to your children is wonderful, and they are clearly going to grow up to be intelligent and curious adults who love learning. Charlie seems like he’s going to be a very deep and insightful individual. He and Eli are both very lucky to have you as a dad.

  13. WOW! Just, WOW!!! You are an incredible dad and an amazing man!!! First off, I don’t think I could be so tolerant and patient as you! Charlie (and Eli too) are such lucky boys. They have a great dad to teach them what being a REAL MAN is all about. They will grow up to be fine young men, they have a great teacher! I felt, oh, I don’t know, proud, while I was reading this and I don’t know why!!! But just know they will always make you proud to be their dad!!!! I so loved this “story”, not the racial parts, but the daddy and son part and how you handled it all. WOW! Just really WOW!!!!

  14. Bekka says:

    Thank you for sharing this. My husband and I are in the adoption process with a 3 year old girl and 5 year old boy in Tanzania – we’ll be staying in East Africa for the next 3-5 years but plan to be back in the US after that. I’m already hurting thinking about them facing anything vaguely like this, but it’s incredibly instructive to learn how one amazing dad has handled it. I honestly don’t know how we will manage. If it weren’t for the schools, universities, and future job opportunities, we just wouldn’t.

  15. Liz says:

    I have to ask a brutally honest question (please, no attacks) that has weighed heavily on my heart for a long time. Being an adoptee is hard, in the best of situations. Trans-racial adoption is harder. Trans-racial adoption and growing up in a bigoted region…? How can we expect a child to thrive in and survive that? Is it really in Charlie’s best interest to be raised in that environment? I realize that maybe there aren’t any other alternatives. But I can see these overt and covert exposures to extreme bigotry causing real harm to a child.

    I am in the process of trans-racial adoption through the foster care system. I live in Chicago, where no one (not even law enforcement) would have the audacity to behave in the bigoted ways you described. I know our kids will be surrounded by people of their own culture and we won’t really stand out. I still worry if I can provide the best home for a child of another race. And I have to wonder if I would go through with this if I lived somewhere that my child would be “othered” every time we left the house. How do you weigh a loving home vs. a hostile environment outside of the home?

    • Thanks for the honesty. Perhaps we should have this conversation in a couple of years. The reason I say that is we felt very comfortable with a transracial adoption, in large part, to how diverse our community is and how tolerant it is generally. Bigoted region? I didn’t think so and I don’t really think so now. I won’t let a few experiences take away from what I think of our community. Keep in mind that not all of our negative experiences have happened in our home town.
      I love Chicago and I have found it to be incredibly diverse. However, at some point you may run into an individual that doesn’t conform to that model. I hope you don’t but you might.
      My wife and I believe that, given Charlie’s options at birth, we were his best opportunity for the best home possible. At least one African-American woman agreed; Charlie’s birth mother.
      Again, thank you for your candor and good luck.

    • I live near Chicago myself, and I see plenty of bigoted things done. Even by police. You would be surprised how prevalent. And we live in the suburbs, where supposedly, people are more educated. Ha. Before you complete your adoption, I highly recommend you open your eyes a bit and see how much more prevalent and insidious this is than you obviously think it is.

    • codychrome says:

      Hi Liz –
      I don’t know what happened to my reply since I thought I sent it before. At any rate, this is Charlie’s mom. Thank you for asking the honest questions and for being brave enough to do so. I have to say, though, that I am a little bit concerned about your view of where you live. Or where any of us live, really. We live in a very racially diverse area. Multicultural and transracial families are not uncommon. Families created through adoption are not uncommon. The type of experience that my husband relayed is NOT common but it is not foreign to us either. When we chose to adopt a child of a different race, we were aware that the road would not be easy for any of us but particularly not for our son. When we discussed our decision with Charlie’s birthmother (she chose us to raise her son) we had some very pointed discussions. What I will share with you is that the places where we have had issues – while rare – have most certainly generally not been in our home community. Our family gets noticed. Most of the time it is because our boys are stunningly beautiful and generally polite and well-behaved. We get smiles. We get questions – most of them are good questions. Sometimes, rarely, people make inappropriate, negative or rude comments. While I hope that your view of your town is on point, I am worried that it is not. You will not truly know how your family/your children will be viewed until you have them. You will not fully understand until your children are out in the world – in school, on a playground, in a store, in a coat room 10 feet away from you – and someone treats them in a way you have never been treated just because of the color of their skin. I promise you that it will hit you and it will hit you hard. You are right, no one will have the audacity to say these things TO YOU because you are not judged by the color of your skin. I urge you to talk to people who have been through this process. People who have adopted transracially and who are parenting children of color. While I hope your experience is different please know that those of us who have been through it are excellent resources and are here to help. Best of luck on your journey.

    • Bekka says:

      That’s a good question. However, I think it is deeply naive to think that Chicago is a place where no one would behave in an overtly bigoted way. I have personally witnessed overt bigotry in Connecticut, in Boston, in all kinds of places you’d say it simply couldn’t happen. In the middle of East Africa. Minimizing the frequency of these encounters is absolutely a worthy goal – but expecting them not to happen is going to let your child down.

      • connieledlow says:

        .Absolutely agree Bekka. Racism exists everywhere and you have to prepare your children, no matter what color, to deal with it. I hate calling it racism as I believe we are all the same race, the human race, and we just come in a variety of shades.

  16. Charlie, you’re a very cool kid. You are going to be a great artist !! Dad- it shocks me that this kind of ignorance still exists, you handled it beautifully.

  17. Alison says:

    My husband and I are white. Our 8 year old twins are African American. We live in the Bay Area, which is more of a melting pot than other parts of the country. There generally is an “anything goes” attitude here. My kids’ friend on Martin Luther King Day asked their parents why we celebrate that holiday because of course you would be friends with someone that looks different than you. They couldn’t understand why anyone would care. Amen!

    We have traveled to Mexico, Central America and in several states in the U.S. as a family. I must say that I sometimes don’t pay attention to what is going on around me, so I may have missed a few side-ward glances or under-the-breath comments.

    But I have only had one time that I felt uncomfortable, and that was in Florida. People were not necessarily mean – just ignorant or unaware of the fact that families can look many different ways. I am an adult and can “take it,” but people don’t realize or care about the hurt they can cause little, innocent children.

    We have many conversations with our children about the subject of prejudice, and when we are asked questions about our family (which most times are people who are just curious with no ill intentions)… I always ask if they want to answer, want me to answer or we decline. I’ve empowered them that they can choose to engage or not in whatever way they are comfortable with – humor, sarcasm, sincerity or not at all.

    I took a weekend seminar on being an inner-ration family, and the biggest take-away I got from it was the way you most help your kids identify with their race and deal with prejudice is to empower them – empower them to love themselves, empower them to know they are amazing, empower them to know love and kindness is stronger than hate. Teach them to hold their heads high – where they belong. It’s sounds like I’m simplifying the issue, which I’m not. It will be a lifelong lesson.

  18. Angela says:

    It makes me sad that there are still people like that in this day and age. (it makes me sad that there were EVER people like that!) You sound like an amazing dad and your boys sound ridiculously cute and Charlie seems like a very wise child. I do hope that he grows up knowing that while there are some beyond stupid people out there, that not everyone is so moronic and that he doesn’t let the bad people harden his heart. (with his parents and his early love of art and being able to see the beauty already, I don’t see it happening 🙂 )

  19. Pleased to have found your blog (via link from Portrait of an Adoption on Facebook). My brown baby is 22 months old, his older brother (biological) very caucasian. We also draw second looks constantly, but Maceo is still small enough that we haven’t had anything awful like this happen — and he is still too young to understand bigotry. Our times will come, I’m sure. Thank you for sharing this story — tucking it away in the back of my mind as context. Hopefully I can react with as much grace and tact as you do. S.

  20. Great job, Daddy! I love it. Give smooches to Eli and Charlie for me.

  21. kyoodled says:

    12 years ago I fostered a few wonderful children. The first was Isaiah. He was the first person ever to call me mom, and he has the most beautiful smile I have ever seen. I live in far Northern California. One of his first days with us, my now ex-husband and I took him to the local exploration park, and we were having a great time in their Paul Bunyan playground. A woman walked up and said point-blank in front of him, “He is so cute. Is he adopted or a foster kid?” I still thank my ex for looking her, smiling, and saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.” Isaiah was three and most certainly not deaf. A few days later, I took him to the local Walmart, and I was loudly called a n***er lover. I smile and responded that yes, I suppose I am. The rest of the eight months he lived with us (while we waited for the interstate paperwork to complete so that he could go to his forever family in another state) was exactly the same. Yet a couple years later when we fostered a beautiful girl who was African-American and Polynesian, no one ever said a word. I often wondered if the jerks were threatened because Isaiah was a male? I’ll never know.

  22. Is it a co-incidence that two locales in this thread, Chicago and Florida, are featured prominently in the book I wrote about a bi-racial adoptee? I suspect not. In 1966 Chicago’s south side was called by Dr. Martin Luther King “the most racist place (he’d) ever been – including Mississippi”.

    I was there last summer and though I spent most of my time in the southwest suburbs, I still heard – in 2012 – the “n” word used by white, educated men of AARP age with not a shred of compunction.

    At a book signing event in L.A. for ORFAN, (which is unkind in its characterizations of certain residents of South Florida for similar bigotry), an attendee who was born and raised and educated there told me that my depiction of racism in South Florida in the 1980s was inaccurate. He was vehement that “Florida isn’t like the rest of the south.”

    Then Trayvon Martin was killed last year for being young and black in Florida.

    I have spoken to many university and college students during the last year about the issues of race in my book and especially as it pertains to a bi-racial adoptee. Most would like to deny that such racism is still common, but I think that it is extremely dangerous to deny that such racism exists. Sadly, I doubt that it will ever be completely extinguished because mindless hatred will be stoked by fear and ignorance and there is always plenty of both of those.

    It is tragic that you have to be ever vigilant on behalf of your children, but I think that you do. They will need lots of information and constant reminders of their inherent worth to counter the bigotry and stupidity that they will draw from the environmental elements that you cannot absolutely control. It is not enough to be color blind. You have to make sure that your kids are smarter and stronger than the bigots and the bullies and it looks like you are doing a good job of that already.

  23. I’m the adoptive white parent of 4 black children, all of whom are now in their 20’s. They grew up in a very diverse area (Prince George’s County, Maryland). I know lots of people (including my beloved children) who experience racism as an every day part of life, in both overt and covert forms. They would not have the shocked tone of this article. I hope you have many adult adoptee role models for Charlie, as well as African American male and female role models, plus African American adoptee mentors. These all made (and continue to make) a big difference in their lives. The search for identity can be a lonely, rough journey.

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