Pride or Prejudice: Hollow Compliments…

Paid to Children in Multiethnic Families

When is a compliment not a compliment? One family struggles to find the answer.

  • “Who is your real mom?”
  • “Why didn’t your mom want you?
  • “Couldn’t your parents have their own children?”

All of us who have built our families through adoption have faced such insensitive or intrusive questions. When we adopt interracially or internationally, the questions can become even more pointed:

  • “Why aren’t you the same color as your dad?”
  • “Why are your eyes slanted?”
  • “Are you American?”

But there is a more subtle form of racism that also affects our children of color. When those outside our family often make references to the beauty of our African American daughter, or repeatedly comment on the good looks of our Chinese children, a warning bell goes off inside my head. Of course our children are beautiful — all our children are handsome or pretty or comely — at least to this foolish mother’s eye. So what troubles me about such praise?

When is a compliment not a compliment? Our family is struggling to answer that question. Our lovely African American daughter, Emma Rose, has become weary of frequent compliments from strangers at stores, parks, school, and church. Frequent praise about her “gorgeous hair,” “lovely eyes,” and “glorious smile” have begun to make her feel uncomfortable. Why? Our children from China — JinJin, MeiMei, and Shen Bo — contend with similar emotions: an embarrassment at always being “noticed.” And how does it feel for their white siblings, Brendan, Austin, John, and Sara?

As Emma Rose has grown older, such attention has made her squirm time and again. The special focus that she receives from outsiders, unlike her “white” siblings, embarrasses her: “Why are people always saying those things to me? Why don’t they ever notice John or Sara?”

Standing in a grocery store line, JinJin flushes a deep red. He is embarrassed again when a store clerk praises his beautiful eyes. Is he simply shy and awkward because of such admiration? “Make them talk to Brendan next time — his eyes are prettier,” he whispers quietly.

JinJin, age six and recently adopted from China, has taken to wearing a baseball hat pulled low over his eyes rather than face such sweet comments — for a time he even added a scowl to foil admiring strangers! Why such sensitivity over simple flattery?

Our family is multiethnic and multicultural. My husband and I have eight children — of many colors. All of them are beautiful and talented in their own way. Emma Rose is African American and loves to write stories. Shen Bo and JinJin are from northern China and have nut-brown complexions; they are masters at constructing Lego castles. MeiMei is also from China, but she has a paler, rosy complexion. She spends hours caring for her little baby dolls. Brendan and Sara have olive skin tones from their Spanish father. Both of them enjoy the computer. John Patrick and Danny have pasty white skin like me, their Irish mother. John has a collection of tin soldiers he can play with for hours. Austin is fair-skinned and blond. His soccer skills are amazing to watch.

I have written the children’s names in that particular order for one reason — the sequence is in direct proportion to the number of compliments that they receive. Am I just an oversensitive mother? Are the darker-skinned children unusually attractive? Is it possible this represents a type of racism?

I believe it does represent a form of racism, though perhaps not in a way we commonly understand that term. I do not accuse these kind and gentle strangers of race hatred. I do not mean that the comments stem from some powerful prejudice. Nonetheless, I feel some fear and anger. Will the mother of Emma Rose’s classmate — the one who excessively praises Emma Rose’s beauty — will that mother be the same parent who balks when my future teen-age Emma Rose wants to date her son? My instincts tell me that this parent is overcompensating for some degree of racially motivated discomfort. It feels like prejudice — a reverse prejudice, perhaps, but discrimination all the same.

I do not resent any and all compliments regarding our children. I understand our children attract a great deal of attention simply because their ethnicity, their skin color, is uncommon in our small town’s population. Some remarks are natural and generous. Strangers may be searching for an opening to discuss adoption further; a nice compliment is a careful way to start such a dialogue. Indeed, I myself have sidled up to another African American and praised their hairstyle or type of braids in my own attempt to learn more about how to care for Emma Rose’s hair.

But the other type of compliments — the kind Emma Rose calls “embarrassing” — feel different. Our own children can sense that something is awry. Emma Rose was quite aware of general racial distinction; from her first days in public school four years ago: “Mom, there are only four other brown kids in my whole class, but none of the other kids can tell us apart! I am tired of being called Amber or Sheandra! Why do they say we all look the same?”

Two years ago she came home with a different complaint: “Everybody kept saying how pretty my hair is — nobody knows about hair extensions, Mom. The kids keep wanting to touch my hair and play, with it. Just cut my hair short; maybe then they will stop giving me compliments. I hate it!”

As Emma Rose has grown older, she seems more ware of these “false” compliments. It also seems to trouble her more. “Can you make them stop telling me how pretty my cornrows are? I feel like crawling into my desk! Why can’t I just look like everybody else?”

JinJin has dealt with a similar over-abundance of praise. Even his teacher flattered him: “Chinese boys are so handsome; you must just love showing him off.” Our youngest son, Shen Bo, whispers to me while, we wait our turn at the dry cleaners: “Why am I so pretty?”

What is happening here? Why do my children hate being praised? Emma Rose has already begun to feel that these compliments isolate her from her white classmates. Such constant comments do not increase her self-confidence; instead, they make her feel different.  It is not the compliments themselves I am assailing. My anguish is for my children, who quickly figure out why they are such frequent recipients of praise. For them, something doesn’t feel right about such constant flattery. Watching me carefully, Emma Rose said to me this year, “People keep saying how beautiful I am — I think it’s because I’m brown.”

“Maybe I make them nervous. Maybe they don’t know how to talk to me.” Her voice dropped even lower. “Maybe,” she whispered, “they really think I’m ugly.”

Another example happened the time I found JinJin staring in the mirror one day after school. “What are you doing, cutie?” I asked. Continuing to gaze in the mirror, he replied, “Trying to see if my eyes are really prettier than John’s eyes. I think we look the same; it’s just his are green. Haven’t they seen any Chinese eyes?”

Our pale-skinned, biological children notice these comments as well. For them, there is a puzzlement of a different sort. Why doesn’t anyone ever compliment them? Why do their darker-hued sisters and brothers get all the attention? At the bakery, John rolls his eyes dramatically: “No one ever offers me a free cookie for my pretty eyes!”

Sara gives a disgusted look at her little sister, MeiMei, and says, “MeiMei gets away with murder on the school bus because she’s so cute! The bus driver doesn’t even smile at me!”

Completely misunderstanding the hidden racism in the compliments of strangers, these children come to believe they are plain or ugly. Oh, that I could guard all of them from such pain! But how can we help them deal with such an issue? How can we offer protection — without overreacting?

For me, recognition of this subtle issue was the first step. If I couldn’t discern such hidden racism, I would never have understood my children’s discomfort. “How did that make you feel?” is a frequent refrain in our house. Often, in the case of compliments, the answer is: “It made me feel embarrassed,” “I wanted to hide behind you,” or the saddest: “I wished I was white and everybody didn’t keep looking at me.”

This last comment was uttered by eight-year-old Emma Rose on more than one occasion. She is not growing up in a family of one culture, one color. She comes home to siblings and parents who are white and in the majority. JinJin, MeiMei, and Shen Bo are just starting to become aware of their differences as well.

by Marybeth Lambe. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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