Unsolicited Comments: Responding with Grace

I’ve written before about some of the things we’ve experienced as a transracial family in the deep south. I wish I could say that I always responded to these situations with grace, tact and an open mind, but that would be a lie. Sometimes strangers catch me on a bad day, and my response has been little more than a sharp glare and a big sigh of total annoyance.

We all have experienced those moments where a stranger says something hurtful, offers their unsolicited advice, or challenges us as parents. What I am learning to embrace in motherhood is the fact that I can’t change how other people act, I can only control how I react in these moments. I had an experience earlier this week that put things into a new perspective for me and made me feel really conflicted about the times that I’ve been less than graceful in challenging interactions with strangers.

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I went to pick my little man up from daycare so I could cart him off to his long list of autism-related therapies. I had already worked 2 jobs, been awake for 9 hours, I was in desperate need of some coffee, and we were running late. When I got there the kids were just waking up from their nap and they were preparing for their early afternoon snack. When my son sat up on his mat and saw the grape juice and crackers on the table, he decided he needed to sit down and eat. We don’t have time for this-I thought to myself. I told him I had a snack in his bag and we could eat in the car on the way to our next stop, but no- he needed to eat the snack there. So I put his bag down and waited patiently in the corner with my arms crossed. While he was munching, a little girl in his class approached me. “Jo Jo has brown skin, not tan skin like his family” she blurted out with zero tact in just the way a 4-year-old can. I bent down to her level and told her that she was right and very observant. I explained that even though we looked different that Jo was still part of our family. We had an age appropriate discussion about adoption and then I started pointing out all the ways that Jo is actually very similar to me and my husband. He has brown eyes like my husband, he likes to read like me. And she started jumping in too- noting that Jo and I both have short hair. It was a simple interaction, a brief opportunity to teach a little girl about adoption.

For some reason that interaction really struck me. It was easy to respond with grace and tact because the person I was interacting with was a small child who didn’t know better. But the words she said were not all that different than words that an adult might say to us. Sure, an adult should know better and should act more appropriately than a young and filterless child, but ultimately this little girl and the adults we encounter in the world that offer their unsolicited opinions are often coming from the same place- ignorance. They simply don’t know any better. It’s not an excuse for their behavior, but it does allow me to see it in a new light and react accordingly.

I’m not saying that every interaction has to lead to a meaningful conversation or that intentionally hurtful behavior is acceptable and should be condoned, but I am saying that every interaction like this should require me to at least consider from where the other person is operating. Even though the words they use might be hurtful, they might not have intended them to be so- they may literally just not know any better. And recognizing that ignorance might be the fuel behind hurtful words gives me an opportunity to meter my response accordingly.

Had an adult said something to point out that our son was not “tan” like us, I might have been tempted to respond with sarcasm- thanks, Captain Obvious. But isn’t that sometimes exactly what people are saying  behind words like “white people shouldn’t be raising a black child”? They are pointing out difference, ignorant about the ways in which we love our son so well and are teaching him to love and embrace his whole self- including his blackness. They assume that we are blind to the complexities of race and the challenges associated with transracial parenting. They are making a comment because they don’t know us, they don’t know the details of our lives, and they simply don’t know any better. And while it might be tempting to roll my eyes thinking what an idiot and move on, what good does a response like that do? What if instead I responded with, “well tell me about what makes you think that”? And then I really and actively listened to the response. What if I gave people like this the benefit of the doubt instead of assuming that they are just mean and hateful? What example am I setting for my son when I totally disregard others’ opinions or respond to their hurt with more hurt? I want him to be able to hear people- even people he disagrees with. I want him to learn to engage in meaningful discussions with people about difficult topics without thinking or behaving as if it’s a personal attack. I want him to have a lot of grace and tact. The best way I can teach him these things is to model the behavior.

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So I hope that the next time I feel compelled to roll my eyes and sigh that I will instead pause and consider the ways in which I can respond with grace, tact, hope, and dignity. And if I find that I can’t respond appropriately, I hope that I can learn to just ignore the person and walk away. I’d rather come off as standoffish than contribute to the hurt and the negativity.

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