“See, this is us, together,” I explained. “They’re adopted.”
The African American woman’s eyes shifted from me and my husband, down to our two daughters — one a toddler, the other an infant. In front of her she thought she saw two strangers, white men in their 30s, hurrying down the street with two little girls, one African American, the other apparently mixed-race. I could see her trying to do the math. How could we equal one family? When it finally added up, she graciously apologized. She explained the sight of me tugging my daughter by the hand down the street as she melted down during a terrible-twos tantrum had raised her suspicions. “You can’t be too careful,” she said. I thanked her for her concern and thought to myself, she’s right. You can’t be too careful. From then on, my husband and I carried copies of our girls’ birth certificates in our wallets.
That experienced helped me empathize with the woman who was asked to prove she was the mother of her 1-year-old biracial son at a Denver airport ticket counter. It’s the type of incident that has been unfortunately all too common for nonwhite people who are sometimes questioned or confronted in public spaces. It’s also not new or unusual for families who are or appear to be of different races to experience these encounters. I myself am actually mixed-race but look white. My mother, who is black, faced the same suspicious looks. But what is unusual is that this is happening at a time when our country should be more accustomed to seeing American families who are diverse.
A Pew Research Center analysis of Census Bureau data shows that 1 in 7 U.S. infants (14 percent) were multiracial or multiethnic in 2015, nearly triple the share in 1980. That diversity is consistent no matter how families are formed. The proportion of adopted kindergartners being raised by a mother of a different race or ethnic group rose by 50 percent between 1999 and 2011. And more and more LGBTQ couples and individuals are choosing to have families both biologically and through adoption.
Yet insensitive ticket counter agents and well-intentioned nosy strangers continue to ignore what’s staring them in the face. Their stereotypes are telling them they live in one type of world, one where families have to look like a 1950s version of Ozzie and Harriet. That monochromatic view of the world forces diverse families to look over their shoulders and worry that someone will question the legitimacy of their family.
After my husband and I adopted our daughters, we quickly became aware that our little modern family would attract attention. As we moved through airport concourses, across crowded playgrounds and into preschool parent gatherings, I could sense the subtle shift of eyes in our direction. It was okay for people to stare a little, I told my kids. It’s natural for people to be curious. But I wanted my children to grow up feeling confident and not embarrassed about their family. I wanted them to hold their heads high.
That’s partly the reason my husband and I left New Orleans and moved to the District in 2011. We moved to the very diverse, inclusive and progressive community of Takoma Park, where I was sure our nontraditional family would be welcomed, and most of the time, we have been. Yet even here, I’ve had to prove we are a family.
Since 2015, strangers have twice called law enforcement on us. It’s the kind of shameful experience that no interracial family or LGBTQ family should ever have to endure. One encounter happened in a strip mall parking lot. Our oldest had now grown from a toddler to a preteen. Brooding about an expensive watch she wanted but couldn’t afford, she had stalked back to our car, crying “Leave me alone” as she slammed the door. We sat in the car for about 10 minutes, comforting her and talking about something else she might buy. As we got ready to leave, I looked up to see two older women hovering uncomfortably near our car, one of them talking into her phone. A short time later, a car with amber-colored flashing lights pulled up behind our parking spot, blocking us in. It was mall security.
The most recent incident happened in downtown Silver Spring, Md., as our entire family sat inside a popular ice cream parlor. The three police officers who showed up there, wearing bulletproof vests, pulled my husband outside for what they called a quick chat. To me and my kids who sat there, wide-mouthed, as ice cream dripped down our hands, it looked like an interrogation. The officers explained that someone had seen two white men and two black teen girls walking arm in arm down the street and thought something didn’t look right.
I want my girls to grow up as I did, free from the fear that someone might question our right to be a family. I let them see popular depictions of diverse families on TV shows such as “This Is Us,” “Modern Family” and “The Fosters.” I hope they take heart at the sight of Prince Harry and his wife, Meghan Markle, and know there are other families out there who come in all colors and configurations. Unfortunately, they’ve come to learn that we live in a world where some people’s reaction to seeing a family that’s different is to automatically believe that something is wrong.
It will take time for the melting pot of American families to face more acceptance and less questioning and to become more visible in our communities and not just on TV. For now, the only solution for my family and families like ours is to continue to put ourselves out there and proudly say, America, this is us.