When my husband and I adopted our newborn biracial daughter, I proudly snapped photos of her and pasted them to handwritten announcements I sent everyone we knew. I instantly loved this child. I vowed to carve out a world for her that was free of bigotry, including bigotry against gay men like her two dads. Her picture books showed people of every shade. We moved to Harlem so she could see tykes like herself on the playground. As she’s grown—she’s 11 now—I always thought I was succeeding.

But there was that bright, bracing autumn day two years ago, when she and I went on a hike in the Hudson Valley. Wet leaves plastered the ground, a breeze chilled our ears, and my daughter pushed her mocha-skinned Bitty Twin doll in a stroller, straggling several yards behind me as I ascended the trail. And then I rounded a bend and saw a tall black man walking toward me.

I froze. The back of my neck tensed. Adrenaline shot through my limbs. I registered that he was moving quickly. Separated from my daughter, my instinct was to protect her, to call out to her. But what would I call? “Careful, here comes someone else enjoying the scent of pine needles!”?

By the time my girl and the oncoming hiker reached me—simultaneously—my panic had subsided. He smiled at us as he passed, using both hands to wave hello, as if he were in a parade. Embarrassed, I greeted him with a nod.

During my childhood, my Armenian parents cursed the Ottomans of the Turkish empire that murdered all eight of my great-grandparents because of their ethnicity. Yet I was forbidden to play inside the home of our African American neighbors. My folks saw no link between their intolerance and the Turks’ ethnic cleansing.

Now, ambling with my daughter, I was overcome with shame. I hated that seeing a dark-skinned man had frightened me so easily, especially since my own child had a similar complexion. I’d felt the same split-second impulse as the men who shot Alton Sterling and Tamir Rice—one similar to “gay panic,” the urge to harm a queer person like me after perceiving a threat. And then I remembered: When the backpacker said hello, he’d raised his palms on either side of his head, as if to show he was unarmed. It looked like surrender—to me, his progressive, gay, urbanite aggressor.

When we adopted our daughter, I worried I wasn’t prepared for the challenges of raising a child of color. Still, we took comfort in the fact that we were enlightened, that we knew better—that we were better. Hell, I’d even studied racial identity in college. But none of that had inoculated me against racist hair-trigger fear.

My daughter and I paused to catch our breath under a canopy of maple leaves. I reached into my knapsack and handed her a bag of dried fruit and nuts. She put a cranberry to the lips of her doll, then munched on it herself. Breathing in the mountain air, I recalled a saying that likened racism to smog: Although sometimes hard to see, it’s everywhere. It’s my job to both recognize its presence and fight against it—day by day, step by step.

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