My daughter and I were in the produce section when it happened.
“What a beautiful baby!” Pause. Eyes flick up. “Is she yours?” My jaw clenched. I felt awkward, angry and, weirdly, embarrassed. I was so floored that all I could say was, “Yes. Thank you,” with a smile that didn’t reach my eyes.
My daughter and I do not look alike at first glance, so I guess it’s a fair, albeit rude and intrusive, question. I’m mixed race* (black dad, white mom), with curly dark hair and brown eyes and skin. My husband, Mike, is a blue-eyed white man. Simone, 22 months, is fair-skinned with blue-grey eyes and straight hair, while our son, Theo, 4, is darker-skinned with big brown eyes and curly hair. Neither of my kids look black, and I do. I know this. But I never considered the optics until that day in the grocery store — which, considering how I grew up, was perhaps naïve.
My older brother and I were the only mixed-race kids I knew in our predominantly white, mid-size suburban town. My parents always told us, “You have the best of both worlds,” and I took it to heart. I loved eating my Polish Babcia’s perogies just as much as my Bajan dad’s coconut bread. I danced polka around the living room with my Dzia Dzia and wined to calypso and soca with my large Caribbean family.
Only one time do I recall anyone questioning if my mom was my birth mother, and it didn’t bother me. I was about 9 or 10, changing out of my leotard in the stuffy dance studio dressing room. A white girl asked if I was adopted, if the woman who had dropped me off was my mom. She was genuinely curious, a feeling I was used to having directed my way. I distinctly recall shrugging and saying, “Maybe. Or maybe I’m a princess or a changeling. I could be anyone.”
My instinct was to embrace the difference between my mom and I, to turn it into a story, to make it enviable, even. I don’t recall what the girl’s response was, just that I felt totally OK and unsurprised in that moment. So why did a similar question almost 30 years later throw me so off kilter? I decided to talk to someone who had surely experienced the same thing, asked herself similar questions: my mom, Wanda.‘Mummy, am I white?’ What I’ve learned from raising biracial children
Surely an interracial couple raising kids in the ‘70s and ‘80s encountered some polite or not-so-polite inquiries, sidelong glances, turned-up noses?
“You know, I really can’t remember anything like that ever happening,” she says to my surprise. “I’ve tried to think back if anyone ever questioned me, but no.” She looks thoughtful. “It was a different time. The music was all Motown, soul and disco; it was all about funky feelings and loving each other.” She smiles.
I try a different tactic: “Did you and dad ever actively talk about what you would say to your kids about race?”
Again, she’s calm. “No, we never did, you know. Even after the graduation [her 1971 nursing graduation, where my grandparents physically tried to take her home with them after she told them she was going to marry my dad], when they were carrying on, saying, ‘What’s going to happen to your kids?’ and that kind of stuff.” (Here, she looks irritated.) “We never said we weren’t going to have kids, but we never really talked about it — if kids come along, OK, we’ll just deal with it and we didn’t really think about it.”
It’s a fascinating response—one I didn’t expect. While I’ve talked about race politics with my dad ever since he started telling us we had to “work twice as hard” to get the opportunities white kids had, my mom and I have never really dwelled on it. We share a love of old movie musicals, books and British TV, but her whiteness and my blackness just never came up. It wasn’t until I became a mother that it occurred to me that we had this in common — having children who look racially distinct from you. And it wasn’t until that day in the grocery store that it really gave me pause, and it hasn’t left me since.
I have never felt more black than I do in this current climate. It’s a state of mind I’ve grown with since becoming a mother in 2013 and realizing how much representation matters and how important it is to me that our kids be exposed to all cultures, yes, but to my blackness in particular. Perhaps this is why it jarred me so to hear someone question my connection to Simone. She is of me, as is her brother. Someone questioning our connection felt like a dismissal of her blackness.
My paternal Bajan side, my maternal Polish side, my family’s immigrant experience, the minority experience — all of these things make up who I am and I have a desire to make sure our kids comprehend it all. But it’s my blackness that I have come to see as crucial. Theo and Simone will grow up with white privilege due to their appearance, just as I have privilege as a light-skinned woman of colour. So I want them to feel connected to their black roots, through music, food, stories and traditions.
I’m glad my mom lived in a world that made her choices feel safe, welcome and accepted. That’s all I hope for Theo and Simone: for my husband and I to be their safe haven, without shielding them from the world’s harsh truths. To encourage them to stand up and speak up for people whose voices aren’t typically heard, because even if their blackness can’t be seen on the surface, it can never be denied.
*I use mixed race in this story to describe myself as a person with a black parent and a white parent, with the full understanding that there are many ways to be “mixed.”