A Mother Adopts, And Discovers Her Own Racism

Lisa Lerner, ColorLines Magazine, August 21, 2006

When I was trying to decide who and from where to adopt, I had a lot of questions about transracial adoptions, and most people responded to my curiosity with a subtle discomfort. I felt embarrassed voicing possible concerns to my liberal friends, because all of us were adamant that race made no difference to our choice of friends, lovers, or tiny babies up for adoption. But in looking around at these friends, they all seemed a pretty tribal bunch: when it came time to make a family, in nearly every case, like colors had stuck together.

The first photo I received of Vaishali showed her with fair skin. I was surprised, because from what my adoption agency told me, the child assigned to me would be much darker. After I got over that surprise, I had another: I felt relief. Suddenly—guiltily—it was a comfort to know that she would not look so different from me, and even more important, that her light skin would save her from a lifetime of prejudice.

But ah, the magic of flashbulbs. A few months later I received several more photos and gaped at them in shock. The baby was much, much darker. Worried that the child to whom I had grown unbelievably attached had been given to some other family, I sent a bewildered email to my adoption agency in Maine which then made a bewildered phone call to their trusted social worker in India, who assured us that she had seen the child on many occasions and all the photos were of the same girl. Phew, I thought, as long as this little girl is the same one I have held in my heart for three months, she is my daughter and I am going to bring her home.

I flew to Bombay and became a mother. For the first week, my new daughter Vaishali clung to me, terrified, and I sacrificed eating, sleeping and bathing in the service of comforting her. Over and over, I told her: Mama is here. You are my baby.

Back home, after a couple weeks had passed, I stared at Vaishali’s naked bottom—her darkest part—and tried to ignore the insistent whispers of fear. Instead of brimming with pride, I felt like a trespasser, performing ablutions on this private flesh with color so foreign from my own. It was one thing to swoon over her photographs for months, but now she was in my home; she was my family. How could this be my daughter? I looked at her and tried to find similarities between us, relieved that her hair was straight, her lips not too full. Just thinking these thoughts made me feel horribly ashamed. I tried to sort emotion from fact: was it the dark color of her skin that was making me uncomfortable, or just that she did not look like me? I ached to talk to someone about it, but I was too afraid people would disapprove, would doubt my ability to be a loving mother.

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I thought hard. What had I done, taking this helpless child from her native land halfway across the world? I chose to adopt from India because I felt a familial pull toward its people and its culture (there is actually a community of Indian Jews!), and because I learned that the babies were usually healthy and birthed by poor, unwed village girls who were not prone to ingesting any unhealthy substances. I wanted to give an infant girl all the human rights she deserved and every possible opportunity to find gladness at being alive. I wanted to make a family with a child who had none; I wanted her to feel wanted. But had I simply upset the balance of the world?

Very soon, my daughter will have a lot to process. She’s adopted, she’s the child of a single mother, she’s an Indian Jew by conversion. We spent the summer with my father in upstate New York, and she was nearly always the darkest child in music class, gymnastics and day care. In New York City, even Blacks and Indians in Vaishali’s and my social circle are lighter than she. Over and over I see how light skin equals privilege. Now that I have become Vaishali’s mother, I realize: We need darker friends.

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