The Sunday Conversation
10:05 am
Sun January 12, 2014

Transracial Family Gets Double Takes 'Everywhere We Go'

Originally published on Mon January 13, 2014 7:16 am

Each week, Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin brings listeners an unexpected side of the news by talking with someone personally affected by the stories making headlines.

Rachel Garlinghouse and her husband, Steve are both white, and they've adopted three kids — two girls and a boy — who are African-American. "We get double takes everywhere we go," Garlinghouse tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "You have to look at discrimination in a whole new way" as a transracial family.

In addition to the stares, sometimes the family meets with more direct and offensive inquiries. "We have been asked, 'Were their parents on drugs?' " Garlinghouse says. "Those questions are very hurtful to our children, if not detrimental."

Garlinghouse and her husband are raising their children to understand race and heritage. "They need to know their history as African-Americans. They are not white and we should not pretend that they are white."

So the parents look for little ways to work history lessons in, taking advantages of opportunities in line with the kids' interests at the time. "My kids love transportation — the trash truck and the school bus and things like that," Garlinghouse says. "So we talked about Rosa Parks ... and what happened when she was discriminated against."

Garlinghouse says being humble and realistic are two essential elements to being a transracial adoptive parent. "I'm not black, I will never be black, and my children will never be raised with black parents. Therefore, there are certain things that we need to do to help supplement that." A retired African-American couple living nearby also has adopted children, and Garlinghouse sometimes turns to them for conversations about adoption and race.

They've also hired an African-American woman to mentor and serve as a role model for the children. "We wanted a successful black Christian female to have a close, tight-knit relationship with our girls," Garlinghouse says. She says both she and her children have formed close bonds with the woman. "Now I feel like I don't know what I would do without her."

Garlinghouse hopes her kids grow up "seeing themselves as a child of God who has a wonderful purpose for their life." But she knows they will face challenges, especially her son.

"He's going to be followed in a mall, where I've never had that experience. Or he's going to get pulled over, and we're going to have to teach him what to do in that situation," she says. "We're going to have to handle ourselves carefully, and we're going to have to educate our son in the best way that we can."

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Transcript

RACHEL GARLINGHOUSE: A lot of people like to tell us that kids don't notice race until they're much older. That's not true. My 2-year-old...

(LAUGHTER)

GARLINGHOUSE: ...when she had recently turned two had told us things like, I'm brown and you're pink. So maybe they don't notice race, but they definitely notice color. I mean children learn their colors at very early ages and they can see that we don't match.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That is the voice of Rachel Garlinghouse. She and her husband, both white, adopted three kids who happen to be African-American. Transracial, as its known, has been in the headlines as of late after MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry made a quip Mitt Romney's adopted black grandson. She later apologized for the remark. But the cable news kerfuffle drew new attention to the bias against mixed-race adoptions.

As the adoptive mother of three young black kids - ages 5, 3 and almost 1, Rachel Garlinghouse told me she has to make a real effort to fill in the spaces of her children's black identities.

Rachel Garlinghouse is our Sunday Conversation.

GARLINGHOUSE: My kids love transportation - the trash truck and the school bus and things like that.

(LAUGHTER)

GARLINGHOUSE: So we talked about Rosa Parks and how Rosa Parks rode a bus and what happened when she was discriminated against. So we take the opportunities we can based on their interests at the time. They need to know their history as African-Americans. They are not white and we should not pretend that they are white.

MARTIN: So because of that, I mean that's just the reality of your situation. As a result, have you recognized that there are limitations to what you can be for your kids?

GARLINGHOUSE: I think that part of being a transracial adoptive parent is being humble and being realistic. I'm not black, I will never be black and my children will never be raised with black parents. Therefore, there are certain things that we need to do to help supplement that. So, for example, we hired an African-American female Christian mentor for our girls. So she comes in, serves as a positive role model for our children,

And then we also have neighbors who are an African-American retired couple who have adopted three children when they were younger. And we use them as kind of our go-to people to talk about things like discrimination and just being adoptive parents in general.

MARTIN: You hired a mentor. What were those conversations like? How did you explain it? What did you want?

GARLINGHOUSE: I mean I think that we did it purposefully because we wanted successful black Christian female to have a close, tight-knit relationship with our girls. And in order to make that happen, we did have to hire someone. It's not like most people have a lot of free time to just come hang out with our family. But it's just been so positive because not only have I made a friend but my girls have developed a close relationship with this young woman.

I pray she stays at school close to us for many years to come because now I feel like I don't know what we would do without her.

MARTIN: Has it ever been frustrating for you and your husband at the beginning of this process, perhaps when you realized that you alone are not sufficient as parental figures?

GARLINGHOUSE: I think at times I feel my childs'(ph) loss for the biological family members. At the heart of it, of course, you never want a biological family separated. But when it happens, you do the best job that you can. but I'm not their biological parent so we've just tried to embrace the fact that we have three open adoptions. It's complicated. It's bittersweet. But it's been well worth it.

MARTIN: What's the town like where you live? You live in the Midwest outside St. Louis. Is it a racially diverse place?

GARLINGHOUSE: Yes, it is. We have a university in our town, a large university. So it brings a lot of diversity to the area. We're also a traveling family so our kids have been to the Civil Rights Museum, things like that. So though people may argue that our kids are a little young for those things, we again, want to normalize those activities within our household.

MARTIN: Did you go to a lot of civil rights museums before you had these kids?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean, how has this changed your own life, your own experience in how you see the world?

GARLINGHOUSE: I've always been interested. I was an English major, so I've always been interested in African-American literature and African-American experience. But what's changed dramatically for us for certain is that now when we go somewhere, we get double-takes everywhere we go. Because people try to figure our family out. Why are these two white parents out with these three black kids?

You have to look at discrimination in a whole new way because maybe, myself, I've never been completely discriminated against because of my race. But now because we are a transracial family, we face more discrimination. So it's an interesting position to be in and every day is a surprise, really. We never know what's going to come our way.

MARTIN: Can you give an example of that, of a time when you have felt, as a family, discriminated against in some way?

GARLINGHOUSE: Sure. Absolutely. We were traveling once and we stopped at a restaurant to get some food and every single person in the restaurant was staring at us. And I don't even remember specifically where we were, I believe somewhere in the South. And Steve and I felt incredibly uncomfortable. And our children didn't really notice. We only had the two girls at the time and they were just eating and being children. I just thought I really don't know how to react.

Or we get a lot of questions about stereotypes, maybe surrounding African-Americans. So we have been asked were their parents on drugs, for example. So those questions are very hurtful to her children - if not detrimental to them.

MARTIN: What do you hope for your kids? They're going to get older. There's going to be, I imagine, more situations that are challenging for them where they think about their race in relationship to you, as being different. How do you hope that they see themselves and are able to manage those situations?

GARLINGHOUSE: I mean I hope that first and foremost, any person sees themself(ph) for themselves. We are a Christian family so I want them to see themselves as a child of God who has a wonderful purpose for their life. Whatever that might be, I hope they're able to fulfill it.

I do anticipate that we're going to, as the children get older - especially my youngest, who is a black boy, who is going to be a black man - that I'm very fearful of what he is going to experience in his future. But I also know that we will remain strong as a family, continue to utilize our resources and hopefully, they will grow up to be strong, confident black people.

MARTIN: Can you say more about the specific fears you have for your son?

GARLINGHOUSE: I'm, of course, fearful that, you know, just the things of he's going to be followed in a mall, where I've never had that experience. Or he's going to get pulled over and we're going to have to teach him what to do in that situation. I think anyone who watches the news or is a family of color, as we are, knows that those fears are very, very real. And we are going to have to handle ourselves carefully. And we're going to have to educate our son in the best way that we can.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Rachel Garlinghouse, she's the author of "Come Rain or Come Shine: A White Parents Guide to Adopting and Parenting Black Children." Thanks so much for talking with us, Rachel.

GARLINGHOUSE: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.