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When Will We Stop Side-Eyeing Relatives Who Don't 'Match'?

The children of the Ruseva family — at the heart of a story about a Roma child suspected of being kidnapped because she had blond hair and blue eyes — might not read to many as relatives. But they are.
The children of the Ruseva family — at the heart of a story about a Roma child suspected of being kidnapped because she had blond hair and blue eyes — might not read to many as relatives. But they are.

Last week, folks told us that that they found odd resonances in their lives with the stories of several Roma children in Europe who'd separated from their families. Like those blond, blue-eyed Roma children in darker-skinned, dark-haired families, people said that their own familial bonds had occasionally come under suspicion from strangers, who thought there was a "racial mismatch" between parent and child. When people see adults and children with different skin color or eye color or hair texture — the features we tend to think of as racial signposts — they still assume that there's something weird going on even though there are many explanations for why that might be.

This morning, I talked with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep about some of these instances of racial mismatch. (You can listen to our conversation above.)

After the previous thread, several folks chimed in with more stories about when the assumption of racial mismatch became more than annoyance and began to feel more like a threat.

A Georgia woman named Lauren Ware told us a story about a trip to McDonald's with her father when she was very young. A police officer who pulled her father over for speeding noticed that Lauren and her dad looked very different: She read as black, but her father, with his very light skin, green eyes and curly black hair, did not. "Do you know this man? Are you supposed to be with him?" the officer asked her. It didn't occur to her why the officer was suspicious about her relationship to her father until she was much older, she said — she just wanted some french fries.

A commenter named Lita Davis told us that her blond, blue-eyed cousin was briefly thought to be the missing Lindbergh baby in the 1930s — even though her cousin was a girl and black:

"I had a cousin who was an exact match for the missing Lindbergh baby back in the 1930s. Blonde, blue eyed, same age around 20- 24 months, hair and facial features... Was outside playing with other kids and someone called the cops because why would a blonde haired blue eyed kid be in a black neighborhood yard? Thing is, her parents were fair-skinned black people (who were obviously mixed with white). Then the Feds got involved and the local cops whisked HER off dragging her parents along as kidnappers. Yes, that was the big difference Charles Lindbergh's missing child was male, and yet no one stopped to ask questions — they just took her away. What happened was absolutely insane, but it was back in a time when black people had little to no representation in legal matters... Her parents were livid and scared all rolled up into one. Luckily since she was a toddler there was no permanent trauma for her. She went to law school and had a pretty good life."

Earlier this year, the police showed up at the door of a white Virginia man who had been seen at a Wal-Mart with his three young black girls; someone in the store thought something was amiss. The man and his wife — who is black — were taken aback. The three girls were their daughters: a 4-year-old and 2-year-old twins.

" 'Well, the customer was concerned because they saw the children with your husband and he didn't think that they fit,' " the wife told a local news outlet, relating what she had been told by someone from the store when she called to get an explanation. "And I said, 'What do you mean by they don't fit?' And I was trying to get her to say it. And she says, 'Well, they just don't match up.' "

But does the perception of racial mismatch ever tip anyone off to actual wrongdoing? We talked to Nancy McBride, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, who told us that they'd rather people err on the side of being wrong and make the call than for a suspected missing child to remain missing. (She pointed to the Elizabeth Smart and Shasta Groene abductions as cases that were solved after strangers felt suspicious and called authorities.)

As well as the faulty assumption that the child is not related to the person he is with, there's another questionable idea undergirding that one: that the profile of an abductor is someone who is a stranger. Although McBride said they didn't keep demographic numbers on abductions — that is, the race of the supposed abductors and their abductees — the past several years of reports on AMBER alerts showed that few abductions are committed by true strangers unknown to the kidnapped child. Most abductions are committed by family members.

But what do those family members look like? You'd be hard-pressed to guess. According to the Pew Research Center, 15 percent of all new marriages in the U.S. are interracial.

In another survey, Pew found that 4 in 10 Americans said they had at least one step-relative — a family member to whom they're not biologically related.

The federal government's big study on adoptive families found that most adopted children in the U.S. are children of color, but nearly three-fourths of those kids have white adoptive parents.

And there's research that people with multiracial backgrounds are choosing only one identifier on the U.S. census — the way President Obama notably did — meaning that multiracial people may actually be undercounted in the official data.

As these phenomena become more common, how long will it take for our perception that members of a normal family will "look like" each other to catch up with the way American families really look?

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.