Several pairs of eyes follow the girl as she pedals around the playground in an affluent suburb of Baltimore. But it isn’t the redheaded fourth grader who seems to have moms and dads of the jungle gym nervous on this recent Saturday morning. It’s the African-American man—six feet tall, bearded and wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt—watching the girl’s every move. Approaching from behind, he grabs the back of her bicycle seat as she wobbles to a stop. “Nice riding,” he says, as the fair-skinned girl turns to him, beaming. “Thanks, Daddy,” she replies. The onlookers are clearly flummoxed.
As a black father and adopted white daughter, Mark Riding and Katie O’Dea-Smith are a sight at best surprising, and at worst so perplexing that people feel compelled to respond. Like the time at a Pocono Mountains flea market when Riding scolded Katie, attracting so many sharp glares that he and his wife, Terri, 37, and also African-American, thought “we might be lynched.” And the time when well-intentioned shoppers followed Mark and Katie out of the mall to make sure she wasn’t being kidnapped. Or when would-be heroes come up to Katie in the cereal aisle and ask, “Are you OK?”—even though Terri is standing right there.
Is it racism? The Ridings tend to think so, and it’s hard to blame them. To shadow them for a day, as I recently did, is to feel the unease, notice the negative attention and realize that the same note of fear isn’t in the air when they attend to their two biological children, who are 2 and 5 years old. It’s fashionable to say that the election of Barack Obama has brought the dawn of a post-racial America. In the past few months alone, The Atlantic Monthly has declared “the end of white America,” The Washington Post has profiled the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s struggle for relevance in a changing world, and National Public Radio has led discussions questioning the necessity of the annual Black History Month. Perhaps not surprising, most white and black Americans no longer cite racism as a major social problem, according to recent polls.