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Dear Care and Feeding,
I (32 F) was adopted at birth by a white family, and grew up with the understanding that my birth parents were Italian American. I have dark hair and eyes, and olive skin. I now have a 1-year-old daughter who has pretty clearly darker skin than I do (my husband is on the pale end of white, so it didn’t come from him). If you were to see her with zero context, I think most people would assume she is mixed with a Black parent.
After a pretty tumultuous first months of motherhood, dealing with some PPD and my husband questioning if our daughter was really his (she is and we now have the DNA test to prove it). I decided that I wanted to do a 23 and Me test to hopefully track some biological relatives and find out more about my ancestry. I hit a dead end (at least so far) in terms of family members, but according to the results about a quarter of my background is from Africa. It feels inappropriate claiming heritage based on DNA results, but my daughter is not white-passing the way I am, so I feel like I need to raise her to appreciate/understand her roots, as well as with an awareness of what it means to be Black in America.
Obviously, there are people such as adoptive parents that raise kids of different races, but this feels different to me. Am I Black? It feels like it’s wrong to claim it, I wasn’t raised Black, and do not face the issues that Black people face in America. But if I don’t claim it, it feels like I am telling my daughter that being Black is something to be avoided, or that I am trying to distance myself from that part of her.
My family and husband think I am overreacting and that we can just claim she is “Italian” as well (even though just months ago she looked so dark everyone thought I was cheating). Honestly, their insistence that I drop this and that we can continue the line about being Italian makes me wonder if my parents knew I had mixed ancestry all along and just thought it would be easier to claim I was white. They say the information about my birth parents came from the adoption agency, but I’ve never seen any forms or anything that back it up.
I just have no idea where to go from here. Any time I try to talk about this with my family, it’s seen as this unhealthy obsession I have, and that I am going to raise my daughter to have a complex. It’s gotten to the point that even things that in my mind have nothing to do with her being Black or white are made out to be me going overboard and PC. I was reading her Corduroy the other day, and it turned into a huge fight about if I was only going to read her “Black books” now, which is crazy to me because it’s not like the book centers or even mentions race. I don’t know where this is all coming from because before this I never would have thought of my family as racist, but I don’t recognize the things they are saying anymore.
I want my husband and I to go to counseling or talk to a therapist, but apparently that’s another sign that I’m blowing this all out of proportion. It feels like I’m living in this alternate reality from everyone else. What do I do?
— Who Am I?
Dear Who Am I?,
Before you can discuss racial identity with your daughter, you have to process the recent discoveries you’ve made about your own racial identity. Give yourself space to feel a full spectrum of emotion around finding out that what you’ve been told about your own ancestry isn’t accurate. You deserve time to work through that. It isn’t an obsession or an unhealthy fixation; it’s new information that is already impacting your marriage, your experience of parenting, and your interactions with those closest to you. It will continue to impact you from here on out. Right now, you need a network of support, not a Greek chorus of gaslighters. Your spouse and family may think they’re being helpful by trying to convince you that nothing significant has changed, but you already know that that isn’t true. Everything’s changed. Set out on a path toward reconciling that, whether your husband does or not.
You’re right to recognize that your daughter’s experience as a browner-skinned person will be different from yours. Before she’s even old enough to be aware of her skin color, her complexion has already resulted in contested paternity. It’s thrown her mother’s fidelity into question. It will continue to be a point of conversation for her, as the child of two white-looking parents. You say that if anyone were to see her with “zero context,” they’d assume she had a Black parent, and many will. But first and foremost, let her know that she isn’t obligated to answer questions about why she’s darker-skinned than her parents.
No one is owed that information. Except her.
When she’s old enough, explain to her that, though you grew up believing you were white with Italian ancestry, you learned after her birth that you weren’t. In fact, her birth is what led you to discover it. Black ancestry is something the two of you share; it gives you a unique and independent opportunity to bond. Be honest about how being raised by white parents and navigating the world as an adopted white woman for most of your life makes it challenging for you to give her guidance on how to show up in the world as a Black girl. Figure out together how you want to proceed, in terms of cultural education. Give your daughter the honesty you were denied, but don’t expect to teach her how to be someone you weren’t raised to be. Find resources and communities that can be instructive for both of you. You’re learning about this for the first time together.
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