Classmates were teasing Betsy Berne's adopted African daughter for being "different"—but now her mother has suggested the perfect comeback.
I can usually handle the teasing. I'm willing to reach across the aisle, as they say, and so is Brookti. All kids tease, Brookti included; it's part of growing up. And really, the teasing has only become problematic in the past few months or so, since kids younger than 6 don't usually engage in this kind of "nuanced teasing," shall we call it—that is, teasing with a very deliberate, not-so-hidden agenda.
I've never been part of the species of overprotective, helicopter, whatever you want to call them, modern mothers who pounce over the slightest provocation. I let Brookti fight her own battles. And fortunately she is no slouch, which I suspected the moment I received my first picture of her five years ago from the AFAA (Americans for African Adoptions) foster home in Ethiopia. Dressed in, or rather swallowed up by, a gigantic mismatched T-shirt and shorts ensemble, her tiny, elegant head held high, Brookti stared at me with insouciance, her perfect mouth set in a pout, as if to say, "What's it to you?"
Indeed, she's been a diva since she touched down on American soil, barely able to walk and completely unable to speak English, or any language, for that matter, although "talk" plenty she did, with dramatic gestures to drive her many points home. Suffice it to say, she is even more of a diva now: She walks with a strut and teases with Hannah Montana–inspired impunity. Brookti is a member of the proud Tigray tribe, and it shows. She carries herself ramrod straight, like the queen she is possibly descended from (unlike her Jewish "older parent" mother, who hails from a different tribe, Eastern European peasants, not so royal but just as proud, in their own hunched-over way).
But the teasing is starting to get to both of us. The other day a classmate of Brookti's who's seen us together for over a year asked me if I was Brookti's babysitter. I held my temper, looked her straight in the eye, and said, "I think you know better than that." But when the little girl persisted and asked me again, not once but twice, I had to walk away rapidly so she wouldn't hear me cursing under my breath.
A few months ago, Brookti was fiercely proud to be from Africa (she can't really pronounce Ethiopia, so we generally stick with Africa), fiercely proud to have "two countries" just like the man in the newspaper I was always talking about—Obama. But then, after one particular teasing bout, she made me promise not to tell anyone she's from Africa or that she has two countries.
A few months ago, Brookti didn't mind talking about being adopted, but then she made me pinky-promise not to tell anyone, and when I told her more stories about Obama, she interrupted anxiously to say, "Are you sure he's not adopted, too?"
A few months ago, she didn't give her brown skin or my white skin a whole lot of thought. We talked about our different colors all the time, but she was perfectly fine with being brown. The other night, though, she started sobbing, just as I was applying lipstick in the mirror before going out, and through her tears, she blurted, "I want white skin, too!" I said, "Brookti, are you crazy? You have the best skin color! White people would much rather have brown skin; look at them—and me—in the summer trying so hard to get brown skin like yours!"
As the tears kept coming, I told her yet again that, yes, she was different from a lot of other kids but it was a great thing to be different. I said, "You have to be proud to be different." Try telling that to any kid who is 6, when your greatest goal in life is to fit in. So I tried a new tack. I told her that I, too, was different because I didn't have a husband, but I didn't care; I was proud to be different. (To which she replied—bless her loyal heart: "Mommy, I'm glad I don't have a daddy!")
Now, in the wake of the inauguration, I tried yet another tack. "Brookti," I said, "when white kids tell you your brown color is yuck, you answer, 'Well, our president is brown'—and see what they say. When brown kids tell you that I can't be your mother because I'm white, you answer, 'Well, our president is brown and his mother was white'—and see what they say. When kids tease you about being African because Africa only has wars and poor people, you answer, 'Well, our president is part African and he's proud of it'—and see what they say. When kids tease you because you don't have a daddy, you answer, 'Well, our president had a single mother'—and see what they say."
And here's something I haven't told her yet, but I will. I'll say, "Hey, Brookti, tell the kids it's a whole new world out there now, things are going to change; we should be proud of our differences and what we have in common, and we should celebrate them, just like our president—and see what they say."
Betsy Berne, author of the novel Bad Timing, is working on a memoir, Single White Mother.