Discovering Prejudice Within the Family

"How dark is he", she asked?
By Donna Barnes

donna barnesThey crossed an ocean, got used to unfamiliar customs, language and foods. Raising six children, they struggled through cold winters, scarlet fever and land that was as much rock as soil. After coming to America, my mother and father-in-law managed to overcome most every challenge except pronouncing "w" and "j."

After a nice Sunday dinner, grandpa would put his hand on grandma's shoulder and say, "Yah, momma, that vas a good dinner!" She would smile, turn to her grandson and say, "I made chocolate cake yust for you, Yeff."

My husband and I gave them three grandchildren with whom they could share their Norwegian heritage. When our youngest was eleven, however, we made a decision that impacted all of our lives, especially grandma and grandpa. We decided to adopt!

We did not make this decision lightly and thought that we had considered all the "what if's." Grandma and grandpa were somewhat quiet, but we didn't read anything into it. After all, we hadn't consulted with them prior to each pregnancy, so why would this be any different?

When the news came that a five-week old baby boy was ready to be part of our family, we thought everyone . . . just everyone . . . would share our incredible joy. The fact is that we were incredibly naive. Not everyone was happy about the news.

Wrapped in our excitement, we braved dangerously cold temperatures and crossed a state line to reach the place "where he lay." Anticipation mounted as we came nearer and nearer to Social Services. My heart still skips a beat as I share with you the moment we first saw him. Eight pounds of precious life sleeping in a maple cradle. His little wrinkled nose, dark hair and "toasted" Indian skin was in stark contrast to the white eyelet pillow he lay on. This was more than a "Kodak moment"; it was living proof that God's hand is found in all creatures great and small.

Our trip home was absorbed with his every move. Each of us had a turn at holding, consoling, or feeding him. We were anxious to get back and to show him off to our family and friends. And soon, they arrived, one by one, to take a peek, touch his nose and tickle his toes, to hold him and coo soft words. They said how precious he was. Conspicuously absent from our visitors were the new grandparents. In fact, they didn't even call to see if we had gotten home safely from our long trip. One week passed, two weeks passed, then three. Still no call or visit from my in-laws. My husband was hurt. This was not what he had expected from the loving parents he had known all his life.

We tried to be too busy to notice. Then, one day the phone rang. It was grandma. Her first question was, "How dark is he?" We suggested that she come over. She did, but she was unsure of herself and her feelings. After looking at him for some long moments, working up her courage, she asked to hold him. Babies, as you know, have great power over grown-ups. This tiny bundle of love worked a little magic on his new grandmother. She didn't completely melt as we expected, but before she left, she looked up and said, "Well, I guess a baby is yust a baby after all!" Grandpa remained at home.

We decided that we had two choices: (1) To make an issue of it (2) try explaining our philosophy of life (3) give them time to get used to the idea. We opted for giving these otherwise loving people time to adjust. And time did help – at least for a little while.

Fast forward to one year later: Our family grew in a direction that grandma and grandpa were absolutely not prepared for. We adopted a black infant daughter. Silently they questioned, "Wasn't one enough?" We knew, of course, that it wasn't numbers, it was color.

Knowing that this would likely be a problem for them, our conclusion was this: These children, short-changed in the beginning of their lives, needed parents to love and nurture them. They could, if necessary, get along without grandparents. We were ready to make the sacrifice to ourselves and our family if it came to that.

This time, grandma was polite, but quiet; apparently realizing that she had lost control over the family profile. Yet, her unspoken words were clearly heard. . . "Why you, my son, why did you have to get involved." Inwardly, she was worried about what the "church ladies" would think. Grandpa, on the other hand, was openly and stubbornly resistant. He simply refused to acknowledge that his adorable black granddaughter was even in the same room with him. His solid Scandinavian background simply could not accommodate such a drastic change. We pretended not to notice his struggle.

Again, we didn't preach, but opted for time. We understood that grandpa and grandma hadn't known that they were prejudiced. After all, they had never been "tested"; never before interacted with any person of color on either side of the ocean. My husband and I agreed that it was his parents' problem and that we wouldn't let it become ours. Since the children were small and unaware, we attended family events as if we didn't notice the grandparents' discomfort. We were, however, prepared to cut off relations if the coldness continued to where our children would notice it themselves.

Two years passed and Christmas loomed ahead. I had an idea. Among other gifts we gave to grandpa and grandma, we included a little thought-provoking book written by Angie Walsh Angland. Its title: "What Color Is Love?" Inside the back cover, we pasted head shots of all our children (their grandchildren) bio and otherwise, black, brown and white. It was a turning point.

Shortly thereafter, grandma was approached at church by some of the ladies in her sewing circle. They were full of accolades telling her how wonderful it was for her son to take in those "poor children." Another turning point. Not long after that, grandma was overheard saying, "I yust don't understand how people can be so narrow!"Silently, we smiled in our hearts.

And grandpa? Well, eventually he warmed up. The tiny toddler with ebony eyes and African curls slowly exposed the fallacy of his fears. Finally, one day, in his broken English, he called her to his side and took her hand in his. Even though he couldn't pronounce his new granddaughter's name to save his soul, we didn't fuss.

While grandma and grandpa's "journey" into the world of color had been long and difficult, they emerged on the other side either enlightened or resigned (we were never sure which). Eventually, we adopted two more brown-skinned kids without creating a ripple or rift in the family.

Our adopted children grew up loving their Norwegian grandparents, never knowing of their struggle with racism. Grandma and grandpa each died loving all of their many-flavored grandchildren.

The author is a birth, adoptive and foster parent, and co-author of "The One and Only Me" Life book and "The Real Me" teen life book.