Most Memorable: August 2014
Once, when my daughter was little, she got into a blowout argument with her older sister. When it was over and my younger daughter had clearly lost, she moved through the house in a low rage, snatching up paper and scrambling the kitchen drawers for a Sharpie and some tape. Now, this was not a child who liked to sit quietly and color. This was a child who preferred to be outside shrieking on the tire swing, or digging for bugs. When she stormed off to her bedroom with a paper and pen, it was unusual.
Thirty minutes later she returned and silently handed me a sign:
Free to good home: 8 year-old girl, loves animals and
socker. Neat, no trubble. Birayshul, not that it matters.
My three children, whom I birthed, look nothing like me, thank goodness. I am a six footer, WASP-y, with a long face, a crooked nose, and histrionic hair that won’t commit to a curl, but won’t lay straight. My skin alternates between rash-colored and paint-chip beige. I am markedly taller than most of my relatives, but it’s not just the height that stands out: my wrists are witchy, my neck is full of sinew, and I seem strung together in all the wrong ways. People who say tall is “elegant” have never spent half an hour in a room with me. Genetic knowledge should have steered me away from marrying another ectomorph – I could have balanced it out with say, a smoothly muscled, seal-like, fast-twitch wrestler, or somebody with heavier, more Neanderthal bones, but love does what it does, and I married a fellow who was, when we tied the knot, six-foot-two and about one eighty-five – not the kind of genes to cancel out my chronic gangle. He was black, with dark skin, deep brown eyes, which did offer some hope for balancing my patchwork pink face and chalky white fanny and toast-colored hair.
When I got pregnant, I feared for social problems our children might have, but not for racially-inspired reasons. I feared that they would end up like me – growing enormously tall far too early, coerced into joining basketball teams, being stared at in public, or spilling milk every third dinner because controlling arms as long as mine was like trying to control one of those roadside tube dancers that used car lots blow up on Saturdays to scare people when they drive by. I worried about their height, not their skin color.
They came out perfectly. They do not look at all like me. In fact, they ended up with the best of what their father and I could genetically combine: half white, half black, with a gentle, stunning beauty. They are proportional, with brown sugar skin and cherry cheeks and wild coils of hair that stand up and salute the sky. Still, they stand out, and we learned early on that the race issues my husband and I wished would go away simply because we didn’t believe in them, were roaring full-force, against our will, on a daily basis.
As multiracial families do, we opened a running dialogue about race as soon as the children were old enough to notice it, which frankly, was when they were in strollers, due to the regular barrage of comments from unintentionally insensitive people. I quickly learned that as a mother of biracial children, I would be straddling the line of scrimmage between both racial sides, and as horrified as I was that there were sides, I began to see that I no longer belonged on any one team.
When they were small, we rarely returned from an outing unmolested, even though I tried to stay under the radar. A relative on my husband’s side told me that, to appease the black people as a white mom, my children’s hair must be beautifully styled at all times. Messy, tousled or unkempt hair was a no-no, so I learned to do hair well. However, even when I executed competent two-strand twists, or soft, oiled afros, or geometrically pristine box braid hairstyles for my daughters, it didn’t seem to matter. Black women still offered me unsolicited hair advice, as if I didn’t know what I was doing simply because I was white, and that was often the only thing they ever said to me. They could liquefy my confidence in an instant; however, largely being shop talk, their comments were usually not hurtful or confusing to my children. It was comments from white women that I felt the need to shield my children from.
One white mother of biracial kids told me that I should “try not to look like white trash,” or else I would make “us all look bad.” I should dress nicely and not yell at the children in public. I should cover my tattoo. I couldn’t look broke, and more important, should try to look educated. I didn’t know how to execute that, exactly, because I was a college dropout, and as a young family with a stay-at-home mom, we actually were broke at times. Worse, white women with white children or no children often felt loosed to comment about my family situation.
“Oh, what adorable children. Are they yours? They are? How sweet. Are they adopted? They’re not? They’re different colors. Are they all from the same dad?”
“Is their father a professional athlete?”
“Mixed children are the cutest ones.”
“Some of my best friends are black.”
“Guuurrl, look at that hair! Can I touch it?”
I don’t know why white women felt loosed to try out their Ebonics on me, but they slipped into it, as if talking to me was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I learned to deflect people with noncommittal blank stares, or overly polite, closed-lipped smiles, but other opinions were worse. One white woman warned me that my children would have trouble finding mates; another told me that I was irresponsible for having biracial children, that they would experience a lifetime of rootless identity and would one day blame me for their unhappiness. There was worse than that: often falsely enlightened pontifications about the lack of racism between whites and African-Americans in the United States, the words “African American” whispered in the way that only white people can do it, the idea that racism has been alleviated stated proudly in the way that only white people can believe. Occasionally I was kindly reminded that thirty years ago I would have been arrested for marrying a black man and my husband would have been lynched. This was usually prefaced by an assurance from the commenter that she, herself, was “not a racist.” However naïve and unintentional, this was hurtful stuff. I tried to deflect comments like these by not chatting with strangers when my children were present. I shielded them from what I could, but it remained a regular occurrence in our lives.
One morning, when my children were still young enough to require significant time outside or they would gnaw through the furniture, I took them to a new playground in a different neighborhood. They were not quite on auto pilot yet, but just old enough me to leave the majority of them alone for a few minutes without them risking a Darwin Award by falling on their heads off the jungle gym, or flinging themselves face-first down a slide into a pole, or wandering into a strange van where they would be dismembered by a psychopath. I believed in a level of benign neglect and that it is important for children to practice making decisions. Plus, I was exhausted. I disengaged for a few minutes and sat on a bench in the shade to let them blow off steam. A white woman walked over, released her two children to the playground, and set up juice boxes and snacks on the bench next to me. A few minutes later, she said, “Look at those little black kids.”
I looked up. She was pointing at my children, who were clutched in a scrum, gripping each other and hollering. It initially appeared that my two daughters were enacting a judgment of King Solomon and splitting their brother in half. My middle daughter, who was about five, had my son from behind in a chokehold, with one bicep under his armpit, and one elbow crooked around his throat. The seven-year old was at his bottom end, trying, with great valor, to grab his feet. In the crook of her neck was one of his sandals, and on the ground next to them was his other one. My son, who was three, kicked and howled. Although it appeared that they were beating him to death, I could see that they were trying to put on his shoes and my son was simply being a brat. My obedient daughters had been taught to keep their shoes on at the playground, and as girls who were also trained to not tattle, they handled the situation themselves.
“Look at them fighting,” the woman said. “Do you think we should do something?”
“Not really,” I said.
“They’re so violent. Where is their mother? Typical.” She was huffy.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I put my book down and looked at her. Wait for it, I thought.
“I mean, I’m not a racist or anything, but they don’t exactly parent the way we do.” There it was. I said nothing. By this time, my son’s shoes were on his feet and all three children were back to playing. I let her comments hang in the air.
A few minutes later, my children ran over, out of breath and sweaty, cheeks blooming. I handed them water, glanced over at the woman, and smiled. As the realization came over her, her face went from shock to embarrassment. After they ran back to the playground, she said, “Are they yours?”
“Are they adopted?”
“Oh, they’re mixed! Mixed children are the cutest ones.”
“Cuter than badly parented, jet-black babies, huh?” I asked her. My anger had flared and she saw it.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” she said.
“But you’re not a racist or anything, right?”
“Of course not,” she said. I was silent. A few minutes later, she said, “I didn’t mean any harm.”
“I know,” I told her, but she still packed up her things and moved to the other side of the playground.
I had always told my children that race doesn’t matter, that their skin color doesn’t matter, which they would echo back like baby birds when they were little. I overheard one of them telling a neighborhood child, “Your skin is freckles, mommy’s skin is pink and yellow, and daddy’s is dark brown and mine is like coffee with milk. That doesn’t matter, though because we all are the same inside.” Atta girl.
Around the age of twelve, when middle school culture parted races like sides of the Red Sea, my first daughter stopped buying it. She became angry. At first she was angry about hair, about the politics of it – natural hair versus relaxed hair, big hair versus obedient hair, wearing your hair in a way that God made it, or pounding it down to fit some narrow, Europhilic model of beauty. She searched the internet for reported instances of racial prejudice regarding natural hairstyles in the workplace. She found plenty of examples which only made her angrier. She felt compelled to straighten her hair, which sent her on a pendulum ride of emotion from relief, to frustration, to disappointment in herself and the lye-based relaxing products that burned scabs into her head and left her hair looking like it had been blowtorched. She didn’t fit in with the white kids or the black kids. She was angry at how much navigation she had to do as a biracial child to find her place in her society, which, frankly, was filled with a healthy mix of white, American black, Haitian, Cuban, and Central and South American.
“You told me skin color didn’t matter, and you were wrong,” She said. “Only a white person would say that.” She was right. I had been idealistic.
“It’ll get better,” I told her, hoping that it would.
During high school, both of my daughters were chronically annoyed with the question, “What are you?”
They would say:
“I’m a person.”
“Yeah, I know, but what are you mixed with?”
“Sugar and spice and everything nice.”
“No, I mean it.”
“You know what I mean. What are your parents?”
“I know but, like, what are they?” And so on.
This bothered the nosy strangers, but it bothered my daughters more. Their father and I had divorced some years before and we lived in different states, so we were almost never together in public with them, which would easily have explained “what they were mixed with” without having to saying a word. Moreover, they were also getting older, and often went out without me and my whiteness, which would have at least offered strangers one mollifying clue and kept them from asking questions.
One of the problems I struggled with as a teen, and still do today, was the intrusive, thoughtless questions strangers asked about my height. Do you play basketball? Do you have trouble finding clothes? Do you have trouble finding men? I hated those questions. They meant that I stood out as abnormal in most people’s eyes, abnormal enough, it seemed, to be stared and pointed at by strangers, as if I had no feelings, as if I were a sideshow attraction. These are the interactions that have, depending on my PMS levels, made me want to respond unkindly, such as kick a grocery bagger in the balls, knock over a little slack-jawed kid who looks up at me in horror, as if I were a yeti striding though the library, or punch a short, curvy, cheerleader-looking mom in the teeth. These comments still get a reaction out of me, though I have learned to just breathe through them, the way I would through a cramp. As glad as I was that my children were not “freakishly tall” as one grocery checker called me, they have not been spared the public comments, nor were the spared the conversations they were privy to as uncategorized kids.
When my younger daughter was in about tenth grade, she asked, “Why do white people include their race of a black person in a story that has nothing to do with race?”
“Give me an example,” I said.
“A kid at school said, “This black kid got on the bus.” How come he didn’t just say “this kid got on the bus?”
“I’ll tell you why,” my older daughter said. “It’s because white people think the world revolves around them and anything that isn’t white is abnormal and they exclusivize their world view.”
“They what?” I asked?
“They ‘exclusivize’ it. I may have just made that word up, but it means they point out everything that is not white as unnatural, like it is something so very opposite them that it is wrong. And they use “black” to mean “less than.” When I marry, I’m marrying white because I don’t want my kids to feel the pain of being black in this society.”
“And white kids don’t feel pain?”
“Not from being white, they don’t.”
And this is where my heart started to break a little. I said, lamely, the same thing I had told them their whole lives: “Your skin color doesn’t matter.”
“No, mom, your skin color doesn’t matter. You’re white.”
And here’s where I started thinking I had failed my children, not for giving birth to them, as a terrible stranger once told me I had done, but by blowing a key biracial parenting move that I didn’t even know was in the playbook, perhaps displaying an attitude I didn’t know I had, or not having enough black friends, or implying something racist by accident or by omission, though I believed I had done an extraordinary job raising them. I bought books on being biracial and read essays aloud to them. We read black authors and followed black politicians, and artists and dancers. I pointed out famous “halfies” as my daughters liked to call themselves: Malcolm Gladwell, Lolo Jones, Booker T. Washington, Maya Rudolph, Dorothy Dandridge, Etta James, and many others. I sent them to schools with balanced racial demographics. We had a black pediatrician. I joined natural hair care forums and we set aside time each week so I could take the time to lovingly condition, and braid and twist their hair. When they started to hate their very kinky hair, and envied the “white girl flow,” I felt I had failed them, because I had loved, championed, treasured their beautiful, soft, springy hair since the day they were born. I stopped talking about my own hair for several years, because I suspected that they envied how much less time it took to take care of it. I wore my hair, which is very frizzy and thick, as big as I could wear it, which incidentally, only made my face longer and thinner and more horsey.
As they developed a stronger, more adult sense of self, they began to talk about boys a little bit, whom they would marry, if they should date white or black. If they marry black, would they be too culturally white to fit in with their spouse’s family? What will their kids’ hair be like? Will they be the family’s token “redbone?” Will it matter? If they marry white, will they be subject to the subtle prejudices I had seen throughout their entire childhood?
“Marry the person you fall in love with,” I told them.
“That’s easy for you to say,” one of them said. “You skipped blindly into it, assuming that we’d all be living under a rainbow of unicorn farts because you were caught up in being in love. You and Daddy didn’t think about what this would do to us.” This was not true. We had thought carefully about raising multiracial children, but when we were starting out, we thought people would think like us: We’re not thinking about race. We’re thinking about raising good kids. I, at least, thought that racism would go away, or at least continue to improve as time passed. I, at least, didn’t leave room for the subtleties that would present themselves nearly all the time.
I wondered where I had gone wrong, though it was likely not my fault and was simply a stage they had to go through to work out their place in the world. My oldest daughter was full of anger. My younger one still did not date. Both girls admitted that they plan to marry white because they don’t want their children to have to deal with “black problems,” such as hair, discrimination in the workplace, and presumptions made about them based on their skin color, even though they look down on the racism they see coming from white people. It was sort of a conundrum that I believed would only be solved by time. I’m waiting.
I’m not black, but like my children, I know something about white people that many white people I have encountered won’t admit, or don’t actually know, about themselves. I also walk a careful line between black and white, though no one sees that I do it. To most people, I’m just another white lady. However, raising biracial children has allowed me to see a very small part of the subtle racism that black people have to deal with – the sort of phantom racism that white people tend to deny, the racism that confuses white people when they are accused of using it, because they don’t consider themselves to be racists. After all, they have black friends. It’s not all white people who disappoint, but it is some of us, and my children, being part of this, and also being the recipient of it, truly are caught in the middle, and even more so than me, walking the scrimmage line between both sides. All of this complicated stuff that I didn’t expect was out there, this race-based decision making that I thought was over when my husband and I fell in love and started a family, it weighs on me, and it weighs on my children, too. It didn’t go away because I thought it would, and it’s going to take time and experience for my children to work it out, though I wish it wasn’t so.
At 20 and 18, my daughters are still young. They have no real wisdom. Their brains aren’t even finished cooking, and won’t be until their mid-twenties, the scientists say. I get it. When I was 18, I developed a crush on and pursued a man who was so effeminately gay that he could have been a Rockette and I had no idea whatsoever. When I was 20, I dropped out of college and moved across the country to develop “Cheesecake on a Stick,” an invention that I was sure would make me a millionaire. Not wise, but time repairs a great many things.
I hope that my patience will help steady this ride my daughters are on. I hope they will rest on the foundation they were given, and that they will once again, one day, be able to describe themselves as “biracial – not that it matters,” because hopefully, one day when they are secure in themselves – it won’t.