“Dad, did you feel weird in Africa?”
The question from my 12-year-old son, Yosef, caught me off guard. My face must have told him so.
“You know,” he continued, “because you were white?”
Maybe it was because I was jet-lagged and tired of chasing my 2-year-old daughter around the gate area during our flight delay. Or, maybe it’s because I rarely think about race even though my son is black and the rest of our family is white.
We adopted Yosef nearly 11 years ago from Ethiopia, and our recent trip to visit my wife’s relatives in the nation of Senegal would be his first back to Africa since.
Although we weren’t going to Yosef’s home country or connecting with his birth family (we hope to do both some day), I assumed our trip would be emotional for him. However, I never gave the racial elements of our journey much thought.
While others might notice Yosef is black and his family is white when they see us, in my mind, I’m just Dad and Yosef is, very simply, my eldest son. Questions like the one he asked, though, confirm that the issue of race weighs on him more than me.
His question was serious, and I was unprepared to answer. I pulled out my classic trick – I questioned the questioner to buy myself some time.
“What do you mean, buddy? Do you think I acted like I was uncomfortable?”
“No,” he said. “It’s just that you’re never in places where there aren’t more white people than black people. I just wondered if you felt different. I dunno.”
As his voice trailed off, I said the only thing that popped into my exhausted head: “At first it was different – not bad, just not like home. But, I got used to it and, by the end of the trip, I don’t think I much noticed.”
Yosef flashed his signature, toothy smile. “That’s what I thought,” he said.
I nodded, gave him a fist bump and headed toward the escalator to — again — retrieve my rogue 2-year-old.
From the instance I walked away to now, weeks later, I have regretted my answer to Yosef that day. Boy, did I miss an opportunity.
Yosef, I’m sorry.
After all, it’s easy for me to be dismissive of race. I was able to leave the awkward feeling of being a minority behind when Delta flight 407 left Dakar, Senegal, at 1 a.m. on March 28. That was it – back to home and normal for me.
But Yosef can’t do that. When he is home with us, his family and friends, he’ll never be able to.
And, even scarier, he’s turning to me to help deal with that through curious questions that I choose to answer only at the surface.
Worse yet, my answers might suggest to Yosef that eventually he won’t even notice that he’s black – that the best defense may be simply getting used to it.
Yes, I failed.
But, I will not give up.
So, how do I get better?
I could go back to all of the things our pre-adoption classes taught us about raising a child cross culturally – surrounding them with acquaintances of the same background, finding mentors and participating in events aimed at his cultural heritage.
These things are easy. They only require more effort for us to put into practice. I got that!
There is harder work to be done, though.
I need to change my mindset. I need to be more sensitive to racial issues that will always surround my house. I should welcome conversations with all of my kids about race. I need to coax Yosef – who’d rather be playing Xbox than having a heart-to-heart with me – to talk about times where he feels different more freely.
I plan to do that hard, sometime uncomfortable work.
It’s my job to make sure Yosef is comfortable in his own beautiful, black skin.
And, as we more openly talk about the colors of our home, we’ll acknowledge the disparity between our skin tones while focusing on the absolutely uniformity in the color of blood that runs through us and the heart that allows that to be.
That same heartbeat transcends our surface-level differences, compels us to action and provides me the second chances I need when I screw up.
I did feel differently while in Africa and, I’m glad that Yosef’s question made me take notice.