Back when Christina Stucki and her husband struggled with fertility treatments and reached out to adoption agencies, she held true to the one feature her future children had to have.
“I wanted somebody else that looks like me in our house. I don’t want to be out with our kids and have people ask them the same kinds of questions they’ve been asking me my whole life,” said Stucki, 36, who was adopted from Korea by a white family. “I just wanted people to look at our family and knew that we belonged together, that there was no question about it, and who was whose kids.”
Now the mother of two young children, Stucki remains keenly aware how striking differences in appearances can raise curiosity – and suspicions – among strangers and cast doubt among innocent parents.
That’s why she was horrified when she read about the case involving “Maria,” a young blonde, blue-eyed girl taken by Greek police from a Roma couple accused of abducting her. Police took the girl because she didn’t look like the couple, who claimed to be her parents. DNA tests proved they weren’t.
Just days later, news broke about nearly identical cases in Ireland, where authorities separately took two Roma children from their parents because of similar suspicions. The Irish children were quickly returned to their families after genetic testing confirmed the kids belonged to their Roma parents.
Having questions raised about children who don’t necessarily look like their parents at first glance is something Naomi Guinn knows about. She is the mother of four young boys who have a black father.
“When my husband is with me, nobody asks any questions. He’s very dark skinned and he’s black, and it’s like, ‘Oh, they’re kind of a happy mix,’” she said.
But when she’s alone, strangers often can’t get past her children’s darker skin and wavy hair to spot any resemblance she has to them. They begin to openly question her relationship to the boys, and sometimes, their curiosity borders on offensive.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put kids or parents in that awkward position where people feel the need to ask, ‘Oh, are they your kids?’ Why does it matter? Why can’t we just be a happy family, enjoying our day? Why do you feel the need to stop me at the grocery store and question the authenticity of my family?” said Guinn, 23.
Terry Keleher is familiar with what it’s like for strangers to question his family’s relationship just because of physical appearances. Keleher is white; his son is black.
“I’ve been stopped by people demanding to know whose kid I had with me. And my son was stopped by a concerned resident who wanted to know if he was talking to a stranger – me,” he said.
Keleher believes racial profiling played a role in the story of the Roma girl, Maria. Although he knows authorities continue to unravel her case, he is “saddened and angered” that police removed the girl from her environment “in the absence of any clear danger or known facts that would support such a drastic action.”
Keleher understands many people feel the need to act when it comes to concern over a child’s safety. He said black strangers are more likely than whites to ask him direct questions like, “Whose child is this?”
“I know they mean well and are often just ‘looking out for one of their own’ so I don’t take it personally,” he said.
But sometimes concerns raised by strangers get annoying and intrusive. More than once, he and his son have been questioned at airport security checkpoints.
“I know they think they are doing this for public safety reasons. But it seems like another form of counterproductive racial profiling, where they use benign appearance alone as the basis for added scrutiny or suspicion,” he said.
Keleher said he used to get more stares and questions when his son was an infant.
"I think people feel more license to make comments about babies," he said. That's changed as his son, now 9, has gotten older. "I think most people assume that there’s a legitimate reason or relation for us being together," he said.
That’s the case for Jessica Seldin, whose two daughters are adopted. Her older child is a Roma from the Ukraine, and her younger half-black daughter was adopted domestically.
“When they were babies, it was more of an issue, people would be looking for the parent,” said Seldin, who is white. “People would ask, ‘Where’s her mother?’ Or just not acknowledge me as their mother.”
That has lessened as her daughters, now 14 and 10, are older.
But Stucki said some assumptions she faced as a child have stuck with her through adulthood.
“I would think in this time, people would be used to seeing blended families where not everybody just looks the same. Even in step families, people don’t necessarily look like their parents or stepparents,” she said.
Keleher said having a black president from a mixed-race family is an indication of progress, although society continues to have a hard time when confronted with families that don’t fit into the image many still consider to be the norm.
“If a simple Cheerios commercial depicting a mixed race family in 2013 still generates a lot of controversy and backlash, it means we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.