I am the textbook definition of a white guy. Beyond simply a scarcity of melanin, I have almost every other stereotypical characteristic that one might associate with my race – a general lack of rhythm, limited vertical leap, a “John Cougar Mellencamp” playlist on my iPod, an unhealthy relationship with ketchup, and a generalized ignorance of what it means to be in the majority… because I have never known anything else.
To paraphrase John Mellencamp’s famous ballad to another Indiana village, I grew up in a “white town.” My graduating class in High School had almost 700 people, and I would guess that 680 of them were white. (Even my ignorance of this number speaks volumes. I suspect that my classmates in the minority could tell me exactly how many people from their race were in our class… with the answer sometimes being “one.”)
With this as background, it may be surprising to learn that I ended up in a family that is 50% non-white. With the adoption of 4 Chinese children, I now have more Chinese people in my house than I used to have in my entire neighborhood. (It is a strange irony that I also have more Chinese kids in my house than 99.9% of the families in China.)
In the course of the international adoption process, my wife and I were required to take several hours of adoption preparation classes. One of the most common topics in those classes was on how to celebrate and preserve my adopted child’s native culture.
During one class, we were required to watch a series of videos. One of the videos featured adults who had been adopted transracially. When asked about his experience, one young man explained how important it was that his family lived in a diverse community where he could meet and interact with people who looked like him.
To be transparent (a reference to authentic communication, not the almost see-through nature of my pale skin), I was not open to this message.
A picture of our four Chinese kids on the first day of school.
I was not an opponent of having a diverse community or celebrating their cultural heritage, but I could hardly argue that I was a passionate advocate for it. Having grown up blind to the hidden privilege and omnipresence of my own majority status, I had no appreciation of the value of cultural identity. I would probably have argued that it was “good,” but I would not have called it a “critical” or “urgent” need for our family or my youngest four kids.
I mistakenly assumed that their cultural identity would shift when their last name and citizenship did. I thought I was being egalitarian in my assumption that their needs would be no different than those of my bio kids. From a cultural identity perspective, I mistakenly assumed that their membership in our family was “enough.”
I was wrong.
There have been a lot of examples over the last few years where my cultural competence and sensitivity has grown. I now feel out-of-place in restaurants populated only with white people, in contrast to an entire youth spent in precisely those same places.
But nothing has driven this reality home more than our recent school change.
Late last year, we felt led to look at some different school options. During our search, we came across a very small school just about a mile from our house. (That tells you how small it is… since it was a mile away and we didn’t even consider it before now.
This school is special in many ways, but any visit would highlight one of its most noteworthy aspects – only 30% of the students are white. Almost 50% of the kids are Asian. (For perspective, a professional photographer who visited recently described it as one of the first times he could photograph a “diverse” mix of kids without needing to stage the shot.)
A picture from Grandparent’s Day at the school. It may be hard to believe that the woman in the middle is the aforementioned grandmother (my mom)… not because she is a different race than the kids but because she could not possibly be old enough to have grandchildren.
While the diversity numbers were impressive to my wife and me, they were downright shocking to our kids.
For the first time in their life in America (outside of our local Chinese restaurant), there were more people that looked like them than there were that looked like us.
To be clear, both our church and our first school have Chinese kids… but almost all of them were adopted internationally. Their parents look like me. This is what led to the fascinating observation by one of my kids – “Did you notice that the moms and dads of the Chinese kids at my new school are Chinese?” (in a tone conveying far more shock than that seemingly obvious statement would normally merit.)
This was only one of several sobering and insightful quotes from our early days there:
- “Do you feel weird?” – One of our boys whispered this question to my wife at a school event where she was one of the only white people in the room.
- “He’s your kind. What are you called?” – A dinner-table response when asked to describe a new classmate. Based on the description and some follow-ups, we determined that the classmate is white.
- “Do you think that is what my tummy mom looks like?” – Our daughter’s question, tinged with both hope and sadness, upon first seeing a “Chinese mom” at the new school.
- “My Chinese words are sleeping.” – Our daughter’s frustrated response when unable to respond in Chinese to a question from one of the moms who, incredibly, comes from her same town in Hunan Province.
- “Oh, that’s great! We are Chinese, too!” – My Caucasian wife’s enthusiastic response when trying to connect with a “fellow” Chinese mom. It took her a while to explain after the long awkward pause.
- “Sorry about that. You white people all look the same to me.” – An Asian parent apologizing that he could not remember my name.
While I recognize how stupid I must sound in saying this, I never realized how important it was for my Chinese kids to be around other Chinese people… for my non-white kids (and all of us, really) to be part of a community that looks like them (or at least not 100% like me.)
Diversity matters to my kids. A lot.
A snapshot of diversity from a class “hay ride” at our new school. It is a shame that Will (orange sweatshirt) doesn’t seem to like it there.
It has been such a blessing for them to be around other Chinese kids and families. It has been fun for them to see us making friends with Chinese parents. They are looking forward to next week when we are going over for dinner with one of the Chinese families of a classmate.
My kids are learning a lot about themselves from finally having a place of their own where they are not in the minority, and I am learning a lot about myself from having a place where I am.
Some of the lessons for me are wonderful. It is hard to imagine something more beautiful than worshipping with the kids at the school’s weekly chapel service. Different kids from different families and different nations all united in praising God. I suspect that it may be as close to a picture of heaven as I may ever see here on earth.
It has been wonderful to get to know Chinese Christians. Knowing that the birth families of our younger kids are likely still in China, it is tremendously helpful to learn about what God is doing there and how we might pray more intentionally for their salvation… and for a reunion some day in heaven. In those discussions with Chinese believers from the school, our differences seem insignificant in comparison with what we share in Jesus.
Some aspects of the diversity have been challenging at times. I have had several occasions when I could not understand what a parent was saying because of their accent. I have stumbled more than once in trying to repeat a non-traditional name of a child. (Huge apologies to Ahninuh. After six times, I think he just agreed that I was close enough.) I have heard a student’s name and had no idea what their gender was. I confess some fear that the Chinese food at next week’s dinner will be more authentic than the Americanized versions I have come to appreciate.
But whatever ludicrous inconveniences or moments of discomfort I might face, they pale (no pun intended) in comparison to the benefits we are seeing for our kids. They love it.
I am not Chinese. (And regardless of what she may believe, neither is Anne.) And I am just now recognizing the loss for my Chinese kids that their parents do not look like them or share their cultural heritage, and the value of seeing and being in community – and in fellowship – with other parents who do.
I also do not assume that Chinese faces are the only ones that matter. I think there is as much to learn from a classroom of varied brown and black faces… and even a few kids that “look like me.” This is not about replacing one homogeneous environment with another. This is about REAL diversity… the messiness that comes from living life in community with people that are different than me – for the mutual benefit of all.
So there you have it. I am a reformed advocate of diversity.
What does this mean? It means I will no longer accept the status quo of homogeneity for my family. I will fight… in my choice of schools, neighborhoods, churches, doctors, friends, etc… to insure that my children live in a world with others who look like them and still others that don’t look like either of us.
We are a multi-racial family. It is my responsibility to insure that we are living a multi-racial life in a multi-racial world.
In retrospect, I think the great Hoosier poet Mr. Mellencamp may have understood diversity more than I originally assumed as one of his most famous song includes these lines:
I cannot forget where it is that I come from
I cannot forget the people who love me
Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town
And people let me be just what I want to be
Not bad for a white guy from Indiana…