It was just a question. The kids always listened to the adults. They'd heard, then wondered. What did the adults mean when they said that one of the Smith girls was adopted?
Seven-year-old Mary Ann knew what adopted meant since she'd adopted her cat Socks from the British family who left town and couldn't take the cat with them. It was the other part of the question that puzzled her, the part about one of the Smith girls.
To the experienced eyes of adults, there was no question. The Smith parents were blue-eyed Americans with wispy fair hair, just like the two oldest cookie-cutter, biological daughters. Gringos from tip to toes in every sense of the word. No one ever mistook them for being from Ecuador. As for the youngest Smith daughter, her dark eyes and the jet black, thick hair were distinct clues to her indigenous ancestry.
As for Mary Ann, she only saw her three best friends. The three girls she played and swam with, confiding in them late into the night at sleepover parties at each others homes.
So which one was adopted? she finally asked her mother. What could a mother do, but give a heartfelt, beaming smile?
What had wrought this miracle of tolerance? Was it in the water of Guayaquil, Ecuador, along with the amoebas? Hardly, it just was that we all lived in a small expatriate community where everyone was a foreigner. In our daughter's class of 16 kids, 25% were named some derivative of Jennifer and carried 8 passports among them.
What's the big deal, right? Living as outsiders with other outsiders was like a booster shot of tolerance for the other, since we were all others.
After 7 years of living abroad, we returned from the land of multi-flavored expatriates to the vanilla world of suburban America. It was then that I learned how diverse diversity had been abroad.
In the liberal enclave of Westport CT our adolescent daughter first encountered not only racism, but anti-semitism too in a town of 25,000 with two synagogues. As for our elementary school aged son, he was shuttled off to speech therapy for a slight--rather charming I thought--Churchillian-lisp. We were also told he needed speech therapy because "he has an accent."
An accent? My English-speaking, American passport-carrying child who'd grown up in Rowayton CT, Ponce; Puerto Rico; Willemstad, Curacao; and Guayaquil, Ecuador had an accent? He can quote stats about baseball AND football, how American is that?
So much for my expectations of tolerance in educated suburbia.
Diversity was a fashionable by-word in Connecticut in those days, given the State had been pressured by the courts to diversify. In one small program at my daughter's high school, to teach the experience of diversity the teacher passed out M & Ms. As the treats were handed out, the kids giggled and joked until the moment when it was announced, those who had red M & Ms were to be ostracized by the rest of the class.
People pulled their chairs away from the others, lifetime friendships were withdrawn. Kids were crushed for less than an hour, a first for the (mostly) white privileged children.
Apparently the lesson didn't sink in I learned the day my daughter was busted for calling out the racism of a classmate. Our daughter's leadership skills came to the fore though as she enlisted a gaggle of girls to write on the walls of the girls' locker room that so-and-so was a racist.
My colleagues at Save the Children cheered when I shared the news, I did not. Though she had made the right call to out the racist, the graffiti was the wrong action in those pre-Banksy days.