A piece I wrote for Be Bold or Go Home, my blog for Adoptive Families Circle, called An Ugly Conversation, recently got picked up by Huffington Post, where it's generating a steaming pile of negative comments.
In case you missed the post, here's the gist: My Ethiopian son turned 10 last month, and I took him out for a special birthday lunch. When the couple at the next table started talking loudly about the Trayvon Martin case, I wondered if the sight of my big-for-his-age African son had prompted their conversation; it certainly felt that way, though of course I couldn't prove it.
The couple had every right to discuss a prominent criminal case in public, BUT they only picked up the topic once I was in the restroom and my son was left sitting alone next to them. I felt incredibly upset at the time, perhaps because the encounter was so unexpected; generally, our family moves about the world without incident, but for some reason, maternal alarm bells went off for me in that restaurant. Although I've always had an intellectual understanding that some people are going to view my son strictly through a racial lens, that particular day I felt it more deeply than I ever have before. But was it all in my head?
The majority of HuffPost commenters thought so, to say the least. Here's a sampling of their reactions:
Hey Sharon, if you OVERHEAR a conversation between two people about the topic of "time", do you assume that conversation started because they noticed you wearing a wristwatch?
If you are afraid of what you might hear in public. Don't go out. Or better why not use this as a learning experice why not tell you son what happen an tell him if he is ever in the same situation. To hang up with you girl friend call the police and start running till you get home.
Everything in this world is not about race! We have a mixed family - thank goodness we aren't "race watchers." We don't go looking for "those racists."
I believe that you went out that day looking for something to write about and since the child didn't want oreo ice cream, you invented a story about the restaurant. BTW, why didn't you adopt a child from the United States?
I despise the way liberals LOOK TO BE offended
You my dear just "profiled" a white couple for their views, and they were innocently sitting there having a conversation. Get a grip.
How do you even function because if something like this upsets you so much I can't imagine you not being afraid to go into public for fear of a nervous breakdown. You should get a psychiatric evalution.
If you think it would be such a horrible blow for your son if Trayvon Martin did provoke the altercation, you better start teaching him differently right now. The vast majority of black murder victims are murdered by other black people, and sooner or later, your son will find that out.
I don't know what the writer expected when she adopted a child so different from her.
Don't worry, the HuffPost comments haven't left me sobbing in a darkened room. While it's possible that I am little thin-skinned when it comes to my kids, when it comes to myself and my writing, I'm tough. Some of the commenters made me see where I could've done a better job describing the experience so more readers would get it, BUT the bottom line is, I'm out in public with my son every day, and 98% of the time I don't get a bad feeling from strangers the way I did that day in the restaurant; this experience was different. Was it different because the woman seated next to us had unfriendly feelings toward my black son, or was I just in an extra sensitive mood at the time? Or both?
That combination of potent discomfort and uncertainty about what really happened (i.e. am I crazy?) is at the heart of microaggression. I have to thank writer, adoptee and adoptive mom Jillian Lauren for introducing me to this concept on her blog in this post. I've since learned that the term was coined by American psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce to describe these kinds of racialized experiences:
“brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.”
An article on the American Psychcological Association website describes microaggressions as racism so subtle that:
"neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on."
The microaggression concept has been extended in the psychiatric world to slights based also on gender, sexual orientation or disability. The Microaggressions Project offers a look at the hostility that's out there on its Tumblr. If you're an adoptive parent, an adoptee or a parent who placed a child for adoption, you've probably experienced your share of microaggression on the adoption front. The much talked about adoption "joke" in the recent film The Avengers is one example. Some took offense, others argued it was no big deal.
I'll never know if I misinterepreted the actions of that couple in the restaurant on my son's birthday, but one thing I know for sure: microaggression is alive and well in the HuffPost comments section.