One of my children is a daughter adopted 22 years ago from a little known orphanage in Pune, India. She joined our family at six weeks and became a US citizen before she could speak. Her pre-adoption history -- as are so many other adopted children's -- is a maze of facts and fabrications and we will never be able to weave together the complete truth about her origins. Her identity is the one formed as she grew up as part of our American family. She walks and talks with an all American athletic flair. In high school, one of her most memorable moments was to crew at the challenging Head of the Charles -- a most all American event. Summers, she earned spending money working as a lifeguard, teacher's aide, an administrative assistant and a sales person at a local boutique. We taught her the American work ethic that with hard work and perseverance, she had a good chance of achieving her goals. Color was never to be used as an excuse to not do her best.
When I am with her, talking, cooking, arguing, I only see my daughter and I am colorblind. When I look at photographs of the two of us, I am often stunned at the stark contrast in our looks. It is only then that I see what the world sees. Her luminescent deep bronze skin, large dark eyes and exquisite long dark hair is sharply contrasted with my own green eyes, short blond hair, and pale white complexion. Sometimes it takes me a moment to recognize the two of us and to absorb the visual difference we present.
Helping her come to grips with her Indian looks in a Caucasian family has taken awareness on her and our family's part. When she was eight, I took her on a pilgrimage to India. I wanted her to know her heritage and to be proud of it. Young and still unsure of whom she was; she was concerned about how they would know she was American. Without thinking I answered, "By the way you walk." Not totally trusting my response, (which turned out to be true) she insisted on wearing emblematic blue jeans the entire time we were there. I worried that those who saw her would think she was not well cared for. I was embarrassed and wanted her to wear a dress. She won, and made sure she flaunted the uniform of her adopted country for all to see.
Now in her third year of college, she recently transferred to a university that is far from home, located in a city that is less cosmopolitan and international than her hometown of Washington, DC. It has a smaller international student body than she is used to, and at least in her eyes, more blue eyed females with long straight blond hair than she is accustomed to going to classes with. She has always been aware of being a minority, but before September 11th, she had experienced few ugly incidents related to her country of origin. If anything, she was developing a comfort level as "an attractive rare bird" valued by those of all skin shades.
Parenting always means walking a fine line between protecting your child and setting him or her free to learn on their own, how to manage life's downs and ups. After the September 11th attacks, I had to do something that I am sure many parents had to do and no parent in America should ever have to do. Sad and determined, I called my daughter. "Hon, I said, I don't want to worry you, but I have to tell you something. Times have changed and you need to be careful. I want you to live your life as usual, but stay close to school, go out in groups and think carefully about where you go at night. And, please, when you party or shop, take care and don't go alone." She listened quietly. "Mom," she said. "I didn't want to worry you, but I was in a Seven-Eleven and some guy got nasty with me. He asked my religion and wanted to know if I was Moslem. It was scary. I was with my friends and we left." Painful memories of Jews, Japanese, Tutsis, Armenians, Blacks -- other racial, ethnic, or religious groups
under siege -- flooded my brain. "You did the right thing, I responded. Just use your "street smarts" and you'll be fine." I hung up, feeling helpless, angry and heartbroken. The safest, most liberal country in the world was no longer safe. Not for my daughter, not for those of dark complexion, not for anyone who looked Middle Eastern or stereotypically Islamic.
I believe she will never again be as safe as she once was. I brought her to a free country where color shouldn't matter. As many ethnic groups know all to well, it does. And, after September 11th, I fear it will matter more. She is my daughter. I love her and my love is colorblind, but not everyone else's is. September 11th brought ugly unfounded prejudices once again to the fore. In the past, it has been other groups that think, dress, or who look different who became the recipients of hate. This time it is Moslems.
We are a diverse nation. Tolerance is our strength. Each of us has an obligation to be vigilant and to not let ignorance and evil prevail. Now, it is my turn to worry about my child. Next time it could be yours. My daughter is an American. She shouldn't ever have had to face discrimination and concern for her safety. Now she does. September 11th has presented us with a new American Tragedy. We cannot let the evil of prejudice prevail.
This column's for you,
DR.D. Dorree Lynn, PH.D.