Is That Your Baby? Growing Up a Child of White Parents

This was the 1970s and there weren't celebrities adopting children from African countries. White people couldn't understand what this Swedish woman was doing with two little Ethiopian children, and black people would be constantly asking her a thousand questions.
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One of the reasons I wanted to write my memoirs is that besides talking about food, the other thing I am most often asked about is adoption. The journey into adoption started for my parents, as it does with so many families: my mother and father desperately wanted to have kids, but they couldn't. I came into this environment where there was so much love, so much positive energy. I never heard my parents say, "We have adopted kids." The minute my sister Linda and I landed in Sweden, we were their kids. It helped that they had informally adopted my older sister, Anna, an eight-year-old foster child, born to a Swedish woman and a Jamaican man. But more than anything, it helped that they were who they were: Lennart and Anne-Marie Samuelsson, resolutely hard-working middle-class Swedes who weren't afraid to go their own way.

I like to say that my Mom and Dad were the original Brad and Angelina (if Brangelina lived in a small fishing town and made cabbage rolls), but in fact my mother's parents were the ones who first made blended families the norm. I had a Jewish auntie -- Anne-Marie's parents had taken in a girl from Czechoslovakia during World War II and raised her as their own. My grandparents were far from rich, but it was not strange for them to stretch their means to provide for others. And that's how it was for my parents; we didn't have money but we always ate well.

In my book Yes, Chef you can see old photos of them: my Mom with her beautiful, long hair and my dark blonde Dad, sporting a stylishly scruffy beard. They were so cool, so ahead of their time, without even trying. So many of our neighbors and my friends couldn't understand what my parents had done in adopting us, especially children from Ethiopia, but the impact on our extended family was immediate. I had Canadian relatives and cousins from Korea. If we got into fights at school, it wasn't because we were adopted. If we didn't understand what a word meant, it wasn't because we were adopted. My mother made sure that fact never creeped into conversation and she didn't let it define us.

But that didn't mean we were oblivious to the fact that Linda and I had white parents and my parents had black children. This one time we were visiting D.C. and my mother had to take us kids and leave the city. She had been so excited to come to America, to buy copies of Essence and Ebony magazine so she could learn how to comb our hair and buy the products she needed to tame our unruly afros. But she was getting it from both sides -- white people couldn't understand what this Swedish woman was doing with two little Ethiopian children, and black people would be constantly asking her a thousand questions. This was the 1970's and there weren't celebrities adopting children from African countries. I was about eight years old at the time and I can remember thinking Anne-Marie was most disappointed because her expectations of that trip were not met; how times had changed when I accompanied my mom to a conference for adopted children and their families in our nation's capital some 30 years later.

My father loved to take us on historical vacations and you should have seen the stares we received in East Berlin. We had just come from the West -- the people were so diverse and colorful -- but the eastern part of Germany was so gray and we stood out, my tall Swedish parents and their three small children with jackets, gloves and hair that put Michael Jackson and Prince to shame. Here, I remember the looks we got, but by that time our family had gotten used to it. We knew we had different skin colors and were from different countries, but that never stopped my parents from doing the hard work of parenting. My parents were there: in front of me, behind me, in the middle of my life at all times: reprimanding me, giving me confidence, teaching me valuable lessons, to help make me the man I am today.

A dozen times a week, easily, I am stopped on the street by someone -- most often a woman -- who tells me that she is the mother of an adopted child. More and more, over the past few years, these women have adopted a child from Ethiopia and they've read about me or seen me on TV and know my story. While I love to hear these stories, I always wonder when will be the time the "norm" will flip on its head again. Will there be black parents adopting white kids? I'm waiting for the moment when some rich Nigerian man decides he wants to adopt an Asian child. Is this happening yet and if not, what will it take to change the conversation? In an open-minded world, everything is a possibility.

When I ride the subway back and forth, sometimes I look at the other passengers and wonder if any of them are children who have been adopted or parents who have adopted. That clearly wasn't the case for me -- it was obvious we weren't Anne-Marie and Lennart's biological children. Not knowing and wondering how many people on that train might come from blended families gives me hope that in time we'll see a broader range of cross-race adoptions and it will seem as commonplace as a Swedish family adopting two siblings from Ethiopia seems today. And once we achieve that, we'll find momentum to start another conversation.

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