An Adopting Mother Confronts the Complexion Gap

A few weeks ago we discussed a new kind of camp for Indian children adopted by white American parents. Today, via a tip on the news tab, I came across an article on Alternet by a Jewish New Yorker who adopted an Indian baby as a single mother, and was somewhat taken aback by the darkness of her child’s skin:

The first photo I received of Vaishali showed her with fair skin. I was surprised, because from what my adoption agency told me, the child assigned to me would be much darker. After I got over that surprise, I had another: I felt relief. Suddenly — guiltily — it was a comfort to know that she would not look so different from me, and even more important, that her light skin would save her from a lifetime of prejudice.

But ah, the magic of flashbulbs. A few months later I received several more photos and gaped at them in shock. The baby was much, much darker. (link)

Lisa Lerner has, initially, a lot of anxiety to deal with about the gap between her skin tone and that of her adopted daughter (read the whole article for examples: the kicker is the diaper change). She gets over it, but is still often surprised by the fact that no one in her social circle — including her Indian and Black friends — is as dark as her daughter:

Very soon, my daughter will have a lot to process. She’s adopted, she’s the child of a single mother, she’s an Indian Jew by conversion. We spent the summer with my father in upstate New York, and she was nearly always the darkest child in music class, gymnastics and day care. In New York City, even Blacks and Indians in Vaishali’s and my social circle are lighter than she. Over and over I see how light skin equals privilege. Now that I have become Vaishali’s mother, I realize: We need darker friends. (link)

I’m sure there will be some folks who will be offended that Lisa Lerner is publicly stating some of these things she says in this article. I personally am not: she’s expressing the shock she felt along with her embarrassment about that shock, and describing how she got past it. Yes, her initial reaction to her baby’s skin tone betrays “racism,” but it looks to me like she’s recognized and dealt with it.

Still, I wonder what people think about the solution she outlines: “We need darker friends.” Is it really damaging to a child (the baby has grown up some now) not to be around anyone who physically resembles her? And wouldn’t it be slightly strange to seek out “friends” on this basis?

[Oh, and one more thing: the Times recently had an interesting article on the growing number of cross-racial adoptions in the U.S.]

625 thoughts on “An Adopting Mother Confronts the Complexion Gap

  1. to follow up on the egyptians issue, this does relate to my position on the use of the word “brown” as a catchall identity for south asian americans. my position is despite our shade of skin, whether we are fair punjabis or black bengalis, we tend to be perceived as one ethnicity by the general population. this is why i object to the importation of skin color prejudices into the american context, because it really isn’t super relevant to the our day to day experience with non-browns. yes, perhaps 5% of brown people can pass as white, but even light brown people are clearly brown. but, that does not mean that i think we should pretend as if genetic and physical differences don’t exist as a matter of objectivity. i have spoken to those issues on these boards, while at the same time holding that socially those differences are not particularly relevant. the case with egyptians is more complicated because most americans do not, obviously, meet egyptians in a day to day manner. saying egyptians are “black” because they have nubian admixture will not give educated americans the proper model of mental image of who and what egyptians were. as an objective matter egypt was a civilization and culture very distinct form its west asian or nubian neighbors, and egyptians seemed to be well aware of this and emphasized it in the extant literature we have. to repack egyptians into our own grossly simplified socially mediated categories in educated discourse is offensive. there is certainly bias and subjectivity is scholarship, but we should struggle against it, not accept it as the nature of things.

  2. Dharma Queen,

    It’s a damning indictment of your own character that you refuse to acknowledge the fact that you have seriously miscalculated matters on this occasion and, as usual, have decided to take the moral low ground by attempting to point the finger at me, even though multiple commenters on this thread — many of whom are long-time participants here — have told you that you are wrong.

    However, you have a significant track history of such behaviour on this blog. You repeatedly mix truth and falsehood, along with distorting and exaggerating both supposed “facts” and alleged “negative” behaviour by other commenters here. Your tendency to play silly mind-games in order to deflect attention away from your own mistakes is also self-evident. In short: You lie. All the time.

    Perhaps the reason you interpret other commenters’ statements as being motivated by ego and duplicity is because you yourself behave this way.

    Someone earlier said Indians were ethnically black. I mentioned that Africans would disagree, at least with regards to their opinion on the supposed ethnicity of much of the Indian/South Asian population currently residing in the United Kingdom. There is a sizeable West African community in particular here, and like many 2nd-Generation South Asians in London, I have socialised extensively with them so I can speak from direct personal experience of conversations regarding this matter. I also added multiple caveats, as Africans would not necessarily have this opinion about South Asians from other backgrounds or, indeed, to most of the population actually living in the Indian subcontinent. I subsequently also mentioned that I was referring mainly to facial features, not skin colour (although the latter is also relevant to a lesser extent), and I had assumed that this caveat would have been obvious to anyone with some common sense. South Asians on this side of the Atlantic are not obsessed with race or skin colour as much as some quarters of the North American continent obviously are, as indicated (for example) by the fact that such discussions are almost non-existent on British desi discussion forums and, indeed, by the fact that “brown” is not a term in usage amongst South Asians here as a slang form of self-identification. Our primary terms for identification (both “formal” and slang) come from geographical origin; fortunately, we have not duplicated the historical mistake originated by some Europeans (and people of European descent, in the case of the US) of thinking of ourselves racially/ethnically in terms of skin colour, a la “white” or “black”. It was a bad idea then and it is a bad idea now.

    That’s all.

    Now, if you want to opportunistically exploit such brief conversations as a way of pushing your own agenda and make all kinds of malicious allegations about the supposed “attitude” and “colour-obsession” of other people, you are welcome to do so. However, bear in mind that you are now coming across as a self-parodying, colour-obsessed version of SpoorLam. The difference being a) you’re not funny, and b) unfortunately you really do seem to believe what you say. Indeed, the colour-obsession lies in your own mind, as indicated by your hysterical, violent overreaction to any comments on the subject on multiple threads which, in your paranoia, you perceive to be driven by some kind of superiority-complex agenda. You seem to have a serious problem interpreting comments on this matter according to the personality of the individual making the statement and, more importantly, within the wider context of the overall conversation. Your pathetic “I’m watching your future behaviour” warning undermines you even further. I see that maturity and intellectual honesty are not your strong points, although there are numerous precedents for such behaviour by you on this discussion forum already. Don’t think that other people haven’t noticed this either.

    Some people do indeed have a superiority complex about their supposed “fairness”, and they do indeed have a disparaging attitude towards South Asians who may be darker than them. Multiple people with such an attitude have occasionally turned up on Sepia Mutiny. I have also berated such individuals multiple times for their insensitivity and arrogance, both here on SM and in real life. However, some topics also arise where there is a need to mention or clarify the physical appearance of certain South Asians (in terms of “sharpness” of facial features and, sometimes, skin-colour), within the context of the discussion on an academic level and due to a motivation for accuracy, not egotism or a desire to undermine South Asians who may be of a different phenotype. I think the problem is that, due to your own hypersensitivity towards the issue, you have serious difficulties distinguishing between the two situations.

    One thing is clear. Despite your efforts to charm your way back into people’s good books, you are actually quite a nasty piece of work and you have a seriously vicious streak when it comes to your attitude towards lighter-skinned South Asians, particularly men (and incidentally, I have never actually directly commented on my own skin-colour). You could have apologised for your conduct, but your ego and baggage prevent you from doing so. Fine; you are the one who has to live with your conscience, not me.

    It must be quite fun for someone who has nothing better to do than attempt to anonymously pick fights with complete strangers across the internet. Despite the fact that you have seriously undermined your moral credibility by your own unscrupulous actions, I hope that this has been a lesson to you. Unless you are absolutely justified, with no margin for error and with no flaws in your own logic, perceptions, factual knowledge and motivations, do not try to pick a fight with other people. Not only will you make a complete fool of yourself — which has happened here, despite whatever may be going on inside your own head — you will also end up with a metaphorical bloody nose.

    Unfortunately for you, you picked the worst possible “target”. If the compulsion really is uncontrollable, next time choose a more suitable scapegoat on whom to vent your own frustrations and neuroses.

  3. Meena,

    Perhaps spending too much time thinking about ‘desi’issues has made you see ghosts?

    Exactly. Thank you.

    Manju,

    but i suppose it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that he is slyly trying to inform us of his own “superior” color.

    Nope. What would be the point ? Kudos from admirers of lighter desis, condemnations from the darker contingents ? Not everyone is driven by ego, as I mentioned above.

    the problem is the reverse could be true. the critics of jai may be projecting their own hypersensitive color coded inferiority complex.

    My point exactly.

    sometimes it’s best to take someone at face value especially when we are discussing a sensitive subject theoretically fraught with “hidden motives” on all sides.

    Agreed. Thank you too.

  4. Gabriel is coming over; he’s standing now and coming from the sky is a very strange – looking instrument, like a horn. It’s a long tube – like golden instrument, like a horn. It’s a long tube – like golden instrument, with a wide circular base. Now Raphael is coming over. And he’s now touching the shoulder of Gabriel. He’s saying to Gabriel, I can hear them:

    Raphael – “My brother, the time has come to blow your horn.”

  5. p.s. i think in hindsight the reason that people are lumping me with jai (with whom i respectfully disagree with in regards to semantics) in regards to color is that i bring up genetic & anthropological data. sorry folks, but i don’t do this to “show off” (as some have suggested in the past), i think that whatever normative differences we have, we need to have a firm factual bedrock. as a point of fact, jai is correct that punjabis are genetically and physically different from tamils. but, as a point of fact, they are genetically closer to tamils, on average, than iranians. as for physical appearence, that judgement is a gestalt perception, but facts like mean skin reflectance can at least set the parameters for our differences. i have told this anecdote once, but i will repeat it again. in the 1980s an ethnologist was visit a hui (chinese muslim) village. they spoke the local chinese dialect, and pretty much looked chinese aside from dress. but, the locals introduced them to an old man with a long nose, and round eyes, and declared “this is a true hui man.” the point is that the exemplar of what these people looked like did not match what they, on average, truly looked like. i think something similar obviously goes on with brown people. and, though there are many near white skinned punjabis, i think they are less numerous than the rich brown punjabis. though there are punjabis with blue or green eyes, they are a very small minority. but unless we can quantify this, the discussion will simply feed off miscommunication.

  6. think that whatever normative differences we have, we need to have a firm factual bedrock. as a point of fact, jai is correct that punjabis are genetically and physically different from tamils. but, as a point of fact, they are genetically closer to tamils, on average, than iranians.

    Razib, it would be a great service to the subcontinent and all browns if you could write up an accessible entry on one of your blogs substantiating these assertions.

  7. JAI! stop trying to steal my thunder! CG and I had the record! But it’s not over, Ok? Did you say “over”? Nothing is over until we [or the mods] decide it is! Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Hell no!

    CG. Come out of the woodwork and lets show em how to really hurl cybermud.

  8. Manju,

    i agree w/ DJ Drrrty Poonjabi, very impressive list by Meena, especially since she’s like 16 years old or something (she mentioned in an earlier post). So that’s 3 Tom Waits fans on SM, I’m shocked, but the guys so eccentric he’ll probably do a bollywood themed album next.

    cough 19 ;)

  9. Ok Razib, I’m not going to continue this debate… mainly because I think you rely too heavily on statistics and numbers without really dissecting the results. No scientist works without preconceived notions and its impossible for humans to be completely objective.

    So your numbers may tell you that present day egyptians are predominantly X, but you walk in with the assumption (and it is an assumption) that the people who live in Egypt now are the same people who built the pyramids. And you believe this even though history shows a variety of people going in and out of Egypt over many thousands of years. And thats what gets to me. You claim to want a scholarly debate, but you don’t consider areas of academia outside of genetics… in this case social history. It’s not just DNA that determines what race people are these days.

    You also have a tendency to talk over certain topics by introducing information that no one can really negate without extensive research. I’m not saying whether you are right or wrong, because I honestly don’t find racial genetics as interesting a topic as you seem to. But you are not the authority on genetics, and I’m sure there are many geneticists that disagree with you.

  10. No scientist works without preconceived notions and its impossible for humans to be completely objective.

    of course not. biases are important to keep in mind, but, they do not negate the reality that scientific consenses exist, and that those consenses do not map randomly onto reality. science is imperfect, but it is the best we have to go on for many topics.

    You claim to want a scholarly debate, but you don’t consider areas of academia outside of genetics.

    yes i do. i’m a history buff, i know very well the history of egypt and the numbers of arabs or greeks who are assumed to have settled in egypt based on the sketchy censes we have or social histories. those numbers are like the numbers of aryans who settled in india, trivial. are the egyptians of yore the egyptians of today? are the arabs predominantly derived from immigrants or arabicized? are the english mostly anglo-saxon or celtic? these are questions have investigated in pretty thorough detail because demographics interests me. from what i have seen from various angles (history and genetics as well as archeology), the peoples of the middle east are predominantly the way they were 3-5 thousand years ago biologically (obviously not culturally), with a non-trivial proportion of recent “arab” (in the sense of arabian) and especially sub-saharan ancestry.

    here is a paper whose abstract is pretty stratightfoward, and you can follow the “related” links if you are interested: mtDNA analysis of Nile River Valley populations: A genetic corridor or a barrier to migration?. note the last setence, you can draw whatever inference you want in regards to our dialogue.

    and I’m sure there are many geneticists that disagree with you.

    how can you be sure?

    my general attitude toward you is the same one i’ve had with hindutva types on this board: you may disagree with the consensus in field X, but, do not pretend as if that consensus does not exist (in the case of the hindutva types they simply reject modern philology because of max mueller).

  11. one last thing: until the past few years the norm in history has been demographically anti-diffusionist. most historians have generally concluded processes like arabicization or transition from celtic to germanic speech was purely cultural. it is the geneticists who are quantifying whether this is true, and they are pushing some models back to the demographic “replacement” models beloved of white nationalists and afrocentrists. that is the case in england, where it does look like some replacement of celts by germans did not occur. but not, in general, for the arab world, wehre arabicization was a process of elite emulation (but the historians new this, there are written records which show the assimilation of aramaic speaking christians into an arab muslim identity, for example).

  12. From the abstract:

    To assess the extent to which the Nile River Valley has been a corridor for human migrations between Egypt and sub-Saharan Africa… Proportions of northern and southern mtDNA differed significantly between Egypt, Nubia, and the southern Sudan. At slowly evolving sites within HV1, northern-mtDNA diversity was highest in Egypt and lowest in the southern Sudan, and southern-mtDNA diversity was highest in the southern Sudan and lowest in Egypt, indicating that migrations had occurred bidirectionally along the Nile River Valley. Egypt and Nubia have low and similar amounts of divergence for both mtDNA types, which is consistent with historical evidence for long-term interactions between Egypt and Nubia. Spatial autocorrelation analysis demonstrates a smooth gradient of decreasing genetic similarity of mtDNA types as geographic distance between sampling localities increases, strongly suggesting gene flow along the Nile, with no evident barriers. We conclude that these migrations probably occurred within the past few hundred to few thousand years and that the migration from north to south was either earlier or lesser in the extent of gene flow than the migration from south to north.

    I think you’re trying to point to the italicized part, but am I misreading the bolded parts? Because they seem to favor my argument.

  13. nope. you bolded the right parts. egyptians are probably more genetically similar to nubians today than in the past, probably because of the slave trade during the arab period. just as middle easterners are more genetically similar to sub-saharan africans because of the slave trade.

  14. to be specific, there is evidence of increasing sub-saharan admixture into the egyptian population via female slaves (detectable via asymmetry in male and female lineages), and probably concomittant with an increase of population nubia. when two populations border each other genetic exchange is proportional to the relative sizes of the populations. ancient egypt was probably far larger in size compared to modern egypt and sudan. egyptians have gotten somewhat blacker, not whiter. but they were never white in the european sense either.

  15. to be specific, there is evidence of increasing sub-saharan admixture into the egyptian population via female slaves (detectable via asymmetry in male and female lineages), and probably concomittant with an increase of population nubia. when two populations border each other genetic exchange is proportional to the relative sizes of the populations. ancient egypt was probably far larger in size compared to modern egypt and sudan. egyptians have gotten somewhat blacker, not whiter. but they were never white in the european sense either.

    This thread is getting f-ing obscure

  16. Razib and One-up –

    I’m currently reading “India and Egypt, Children of Kham/Sun” by Sudhansu Kumar Ray (former junior field officer of the crafts museum in New Delhi), written in the 1950s.

    He writes; “It was for the first time in the Census (1951) Report for West Bengal that I had to prepare an illustrated note on the Bengali traditional crafts and I got an opportunity to show relations of Bengal with ancient Egypt that were displayed in the common artifacts of both the countries. All these used to be explained as the result of ancient commercial relations that existed between the two countries in the past, but further research and study in the field of folk arts of Bengal revealed to me somsomething more, something which no Indian or Egyptian scholar ever imagined. That was a conquest of Bengal by the hertic kings of Egypt of the XVIIIth dynasty who were driven out of Egypt by the orthodox School of Amon worshippers some time between 1358 and 1355 BC.”

    The book seeks to prove by various methods, an ancient cultural, genetic and linguistic tie between Bengal and Egypt.

    He says, “Imposition of foreign administrative forms, mass initiation into unfamiliar religions, officialisation of unknown languages and introduction of unaccoustomed art forms by the foreign conquerors from time to time on the local structure of the government, religion, art and specifically on the language of the indigenous people, have brought series of “corruptions” between the modern Bengalis and the ancient dwellers of Bengal. As a result, we are now unable to remember our past history and recognise our true racial identity. Haraprasada Shastri rightly said, ‘Bengalis belong to a reace whose identity is now utterly forgotten.’ “

  17. That was a conquest of Bengal by the hertic kings of Egypt of the XVIIIth dynasty who were driven out of Egypt by the orthodox School of Amon worshippers some time between 1358 and 1355 BC

    made up.

  18. p.s. anyone wonder why so many groups want to claim descent from jews, greeks, or egyptians? they get an ancient history for free! nothing new here. europeans did it too for a while (descent from the house of david, or trojans, or whatever was a common ploy of royalty). if there nations without a proud past, make a grand present.

  19. Jai,

    Samples of your statements: ‘You lie. All the time.’ ‘You are a nasty piece of work.’ ‘You have a seriously vicious streak.’ These statements, speak for themselves. It is you who have undermined your credibility. If you were really taking the moral high ground, why on earth would you need to voice such ridiculous things about a perfect stranger?

    On the two occasions on which we’ve sparred (I do not know how you can have possibly racked up such a long and nefarious record against me, I’ve only been a semi-regular from March/April onward), I have noticed how very easy it is to get you incredibly riled up by simply pointing out the chinks in your moral armour. If you were so certain of your integrity, why on earth would you get so angry? This is only cyber-land, after all.

    Both posters 615 and 621 have noted the same tendencies in you as I have. I will refrain from making any comments about your character (and note that the only thing I’ve said about you on this thread is that you seem to be obsessed with colour) because, frankly, I’d prefer not to mimic your paltry example. That said – your bullying and blustering simply don’t phase me. If you need an ideological kick in the pants, dear Jai, I’ll be standing right behind you.

  20. And I’ve been to Jatt weddings, desi ghettos in Birmingham, Leicester (in UK) and Malton/Brampton in Canada and everyone looked real brown to me. Real brown. These are Jatt heavy areas and I saw very few people that resembled Middle Eastern actor Jai posted to. Talvin Singh, Tjinder Singh (Cornershop), the cast of Goodness Gracious Me, and Paminder Nagra are much representative of “North India” than Bollywood. You can lable me a darkie trying to bring Panjabnation down…but I’m trying to speak objectively. At heart I understand Jai’s frustration…I share the same when I get told by Indians I don’t look “South Indian” or I get told by firangis I don’t look Indian. I want to scream that I look exactly like my father and his father before him. But perhaps I have to expect I look atypical…and the Darmernders and the Bollywood Kapoors of the world do too!

    Brah, and I use the Brah to bond with you, if you’ve been to weddings in which Jatts are there, I hope you noticed most of the people were too busy hugging each other, dancing, and having mock fights that last all of ten minutes to think about the color of the people there.

    I know your point, but as with any other group of people, Punjabi people are not on display and “we” don’t hold just one set of views.

    I don’t think you were really trying to pin my community to a wall as to what is supposedly believed in the Punjabi commmunity, but there is really a tendency at times to stereotype Punjabis as if any old comment people want to make will fly.

    I think it is the same tendency that lets the Sardarji joke run wild in the Desh.

    I know, I think, what you’re saying about Colorism being Ill Communication. I would also like to say, stereotyping Punjabi people as fun-loving/hard-drinking/arrogant/belligerent/farmers/hard-working/rude/ect. ect. ect. is all the same thing; stereotypes. I am brown. middle, Desi, brown. Peeps in my fam are on both ends of the spectrum. I am not part of the quarrel as to what is going down regarding color, other than, I love being Punjabi. But not at the expense of being a person first, not an ethnicity.

    I am not coming down on you since, the friend of my friend is my friend…and you’ve been to a Punjabi wedding and I can’t be mad at that! ;-)

    its all good!! this is rambling, but I hope it does also make a point.

    Stop stereotpying my People!!!!

  21. for the record, again, I am Punjabi and I am brown!!!!. brown. and proud. and brown.

    sorry this convo is getting me loopy.