Not Applicable
March 22nd, 2012

I’ve made mention here before of the fact that GAP and I intend to adopt.  Well, now that we have our two biological children we have set out on the path toward adoption.  It feels a wee bit crazy to be starting this next parenting adventure before the most recent addition is even sleeping through the night.  But when you consider that the process takes about two years it makes a bit more sense.

We submitted our application a few weeks ago and right now the name of the game is: paperwork.  And lots of it.  Forms, forms, and more forms.  Most of them are fairly predictable – employment verifications, tax returns, medical exam results, and so on.  One form, however, is more of a doozy.  We each have to fill out a 16-page personal information form that addresses everything from our parents’ marital status to what we might do if our adopted child wants to seek out his birth parents.

Not surprisingly when it comes to international adoption there is quite a bit of focus on the racial aspect of things.  We intend to adopt from Asia which means that, by definition, our adopted children will not have the same fair skin and blue eyes that our biological sons have.  The adoption agency – quite rightly – wants to know how we will help our adopted kids deal with any discrimination they may face as minorities, and in that vein asks about what discrimination we have faced in our own lives and how we coped.  One such field requested: Talk about a time when someone made an assumption about you based only on how you look.

I was stumped.

I called my sister and she knew exactly why I was at a loss.  I’m a completely normal looking white woman.  I am of average height and build.  I grew up around people who look largely like I do.  I currently live in an area where most people look largely like I do.  I imagine people have made all sorts of assumptions about me based on my appearance, but none to my detriment.  And that is almost certainly what the adoption form’s question is trying to unveil.  And I wonder about the effect this has on how I go about my way in the world.

Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to sit here and say, “It’s too bad I’ve never been misjudged or discriminated against based on appearances.  My life would really be a lot more colorful if I had some experience in this realm.”  I should be – and am – incredibly grateful that I’m struggling with this question.  But if I am to answer it with a true story (which I will, some way, somehow), I’m going to have to dig to come up with it.

As I talked through it with my sister she told me about a friend of hers.  This friend was from an affluent community in the mid-Atlantic region.  She ended up attending Prestigious University A for undergrad, but amongst her other applications was Prestigious University B.  Prestigious University  B’s application asked her to describe a time when she had been discriminated against based on her race.  In her teenage naiveté she wrote, without a trace of irony, “Not applicable.”  The story is funny now because as adults we all understand that this is the kind of question we are supposed to answer with nuanced empathy.  But a part of me applauds her response for its candor and honesty.  For truly, if you’ve never experienced discrimination of any kind, isn’t it insulting to those who have to pretend that you know anything of what they’ve legitimately endured?

I think what the adoption agency wants to learn is how I will empathize with and support my adopted children when they are  on the receiving end of ignorant and hurtful assumptions based on their race (as they almost certainly will be at some point).  And the fact of the matter is that no matter how genius a response I dream up for my personal information form, I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever experienced what my children will.  When it happens I will listen to them.  I will explain that some people are ignorant, and judgmental, and bigoted.  I will ring up GAP’s brother or sister (both of whom are Asian and were adopted in the mid-’80s) and ask for their perspective and guidance.  And I have confidence that GAP and I together will chart those waters successfully, if imperfectly.

I think it’s a shame that I can’t respond to the form’s query honestly.  A lot of people in this world have lived through real, painful, and damaging discrimination.  And it feels a bit disingenuous for me to claim that I, in any way, am one of them.

2 Responses to “Not Applicable”

  1. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I’ll be fascinated to follow along with you on this journey, Gale.

    Like you, I don’t have much (if any) experience being discriminated against because of my race. I did teach for two years in a school in which all of my students were non-white, but many of the other teachers were white so I didn’t feel so different.

    Our dear friends (both white, living in central Indiana) adopted two brothers from Ethiopia two years ago. They have had a few interactions in which strangers have asked them about the boys – some insensitively, most just curiously. I’m sure that you will find the same grace that they do in responding to strangers and to your child when it comes to these sticky questions.

  2. Gale Says:

    Kristen – I think that people are more acquainted with kids adopted from Asia. We too have friends who have adopted from Ethiopia, but all within the past couple of years. Nevertheless, I’m sure you’re right. We will be privy to some awkward moments, some innocent and some insensitive. And we will all learn from each of them. In the meantime, I will continue to be thankful that this is unfamiliar territory for me.