The mall. It really is equally appalling and appealing. In one building you can find so many strange and tempting things: the overpowering smell of cinna.bonn (yum) mingled with the watery eye, allergy inducing air fibers of new clothing, the soundtrack of tapping high heels and children screaming in the indoor play area topped off with a hint of musky cologne samples. Fake light, fake smells, fake food, fake playground. Real people.
Prior to adopting I never looked at my fellow shoppers. I am usually an in and out by myself, get it done, seek and destroy shopper. Once in awhile I am the shopper who brings a friend to try on expensive dresses neither of us can afford. Either way, no eye contact with fellow stranger shoppers and definitely no chit chat with salespeople.
Ariam and I have been alone to a mall twice together since arriving home. (This post really applies to being alone with her as adding another person changes the dynamic completely. The time I brought my friend Alima everyone thought we were a lesbian couple with a domestically adopted daughter.)
During both of our alone mall visits it's like I've had blinders removed and I can suddenly see race everywhere. (I know I know, a very WHITE thing to say.)
But seriously. Walking in the mall my internal monologue is something like this:
"African American man. Twelve o'clock. He sees her. Eyes widening slightly. He is wondering, he is wondering. Wonder if he is staring because she's so lovely? (glance at Ariam tells me that this is probably not quite the reason given her super grump expression, dried formula on her chin, and shoeless feet propped on the front rung of her stroller.) "
"Ethiopian! Ethiopian man four o'clock. Ethiopan man wearing traditional shirt! Oh! he sees her. He is looking. Should I smile? Should I nod? Should I stop? He's not smiling. Why not smiling?"
"AA woman next to us. Next to us looking at C.arol's Dau.ghters products. I am a good mama. I am paying a lot of money for good hair products (insert more self affirmation of my ability to mother an Ethiopian baby.) I smiled. Should I comment knowingly on one of the products? I did it! I did it! But no more. No more HAIR talk. That's not cool. No more hair talk Amanda. You are so WHITE."
Sitting at table eating frozen yogurt, feeding bites to Ariam who is a. grumpy because mommy is hauling her around the watery eye allergy inducing mall and b. wants yogurt shoveled into her mouth at a faster pace than I can manage: "Ethiopian man. Handsome Ethiopian man. Approaching. Approaching. With a friend. With a stroller. Here they come.Careful now - are they friend or foe? What do they think about adoption. Act pleasant! No, act confident! No, act humble!!! Aaaccckkk!"
I internally obsess over Ariam's dry legs. "Her legs are so dry. If I don't look, maybe nobody will look. Is that dry or is that something I can brush off?? Okay, guess it's dryness. But WHY? I swear I am using Shea butter. I will swear this on my life to any woman who asks me. Maybe I should duck into a store and sneak some lotion onto her. Wait. No shoes. She isn't wearing shoes. Why didn't I put her shoes on? She looks so pitiful with her barefeet and long toenails. OMG. What am I doing in this mall? We are not coming back until I have mastered the hair products, remembered to shoe my child, and fed her enough yogurt to keep her quiet."
And on it goes. I have lost myself. In a good way in general. But in a muddled way in large public group settings. I don't know who I am in the context of who I am with Ariam yet. I can't just "be myself." Where is myself? Myself is some other woman who left for Ethiopia childless. She's back there still. Gone for good thank God. But who is this new person in her place? This new me is still often amazed to be parenting miss wonderful. This new me doesn't always feel so deserving. This new me is so very very conscious of all of the ways I could stumble.
Other adoptive mothers are too quick to smile and greet and ask questions like we are all in some giant mommy club just because their 7 year old Chinese son and my 1 year old Ethiopian daughter are both adopted.
White mothers are quick to compliment. Everywhere we go it is "look at her eyes. no, her lips, no! her hair!" from white people. Never from a person of any other race. Why is that? It seems normal to NOT comment on someone's child. And yet the comments from white people are making the lack of comments from everyone else seem odd.
I wish mall aisles were wider so you didn't have to pass SO DARN CLOSE to people who like to look and comment. Or look and NOT COMMENT. I wish I didn't have to roller over everyone's toes in those teeny tiny aisles inside baby stores. I wish Ariam wouldn't frown and look so darn angry the whole time I am shopping with her like I've just kidnapped her.
Race is so hard. In the peace of our own home and neighborhood and circle of friends I am often blinded by Ari's beauty and light. I have become color blind (yes yes, not a good thing I know - but don't we all become blind to most things about our own children?) I just see her as Ariam whom I love. Nobody around us stares or acts strangely or asks intrusive questions.
But the mall reminds me of why it's dangerous to become too comfortable. Because real life awaits. Real people with real thoughts, perceptions, judgements, and stares await.
Dangerous to be too comfortable. Dangerous because as she gets older, if I can't be the person to talk race, identity, and ethnicity with her then who will? At some point she will select someone in her life who can do that for her. I want that someone to be me. A better me. A rational, calm, well rounded, able to educate not just through my words but through my actions, me.
It's a good thing she can't read my scattered mall thoughts.
I really put this race talk on the back burner in the whirlwind of travel and homecoming and getting settled. And then of course there was the blinding aspect of Her.
But she will grow older. And she will see what I see, maybe from a different point of view or maybe in a similar way, and for a little while she will look to me. I will just have that little while to prove to her that I can handle it. That I know how to navigate the mall that is life.
Scary stuff. I feel about 14 today.
We all know how 14 year olds act in the mall.
So I am going to need to seriously buck up and get it together on this topic of race.
(This is J's hand. I don't have man hands.)
PS. I simply don't know how to navigate. I am a white mother with a black baby. It has completely changed who I am. The mother part has changed my internal life and the white/black part changed my external life. Still reeling. In so so many good ways.