“So it’s gonna be biracial.”
These were my mom’s words when I showed her a picture of me and my future baby daddy.
These words could have been uttered with just about any kind of emotional inflection imaginable: humor, rage, disregard, antagonism. As actually spoken by my mom, they might have been about a trip to the supermarket or the day’s weather: “Oh, fancy that. Another cloudy day in Eugene!”
I told my mom drily, “Yes, that does tend to be a consequence of having a white mom and a black dad.”
That was it. That was our entire conversation on race before my mom passed away almost a year later. Frankly, it was a much more exhaustive conversation than I’d expected on the matter, which–knowing my mom–I hadn’t even realized would warrant note.
Much more important to my mom was the question, “How’d that happen?” When she asked these words immediately after I announced that I was pregnant, she wasn’t asking for a refresher on sex ed. She was asking, “How’d my presumably lesbian daughter end up pregnant?”
That I expected!
In retrospect, it’s unsurprising to me my mom commented on race. She always talked very openly about it when I was growing up, which left me feeling a little embarrassed as I got older. If race was proper discussion fodder, why weren’t other folks talking about it?
“Shh, Mom, we’re not supposed to be talking about that!” I’d either whisper this message fiercely or will my mom to pick it up via brainwave, depending on the situtation. As she always did when I proclaimed she was embarrassing me, she would shoo away my protests and plow onward with whatever she was talking about–race or otherwise.
Apparently, my mom had the right idea.
Around the time my precious Li’l D was born, I read an article about the importance of discussing race openly and calmly with children. One of the points touched on in the article was how minority families typically begin discussing race much earlier than do white families. A blog entry by Rebecca Bigler touches on the discomfort likely at the root of the white families’ silence:
I thought about that. “Honestly, despite everything I’ve read on this issue, it just seems so taboo─almost cruel─to call her attention to it. Isn’t it sort of confusing to a child to mention race, and then say race doesn’t matter? If it doesn’t matter, then why am I mentioning it? – Is Discussing Race With a 3-Year-Old Too Young? – Newsweek
This neatly sums up how I felt the first time I had to check off Li’l D’s “ethnicity” on a medical history sheet. I stared at the page and went, “Holy cow, there are other boxes, aren’t there?” Immediately following that, I thought: “But that’s so irrelevant!” (Yes, this was despite the fact my anthropology background informs me that certain illnesses are more prevalent depending on ancestry. I wasn’t thinking about that then, though!) I checked off a box for me and a box for Ba.D., then moved right along. My discomfort continued, as if by checking those boxes I was highlighting the fact that my son was (a) different than me and (b) something other than the most beautiful thing in the entire world.
Here’s a shocker:
My son isn’t me!
I know, I know. I should’ve asked you to sit down for that one.
In the year and a half since I first grappled with those checkboxes, it’s gotten easier for me to see the matter through my mother’s eyes. Sure, my son’s got darker skin than I do. He’s different from me in a lot of ways that don’t make me love him any more or less.
My little “mocha cub” has curly hair to my mildly wavy hair. It looks like he’s going to take after my very tall mom’s side of the family in the height department. It also looks like he’s got my ginormous forehead, but he’s got a gorgeous enough smile I’m hopeful most people will overlook the (potential) Frankenforehead. My son loves to climb, dance, and announce “HUG!” with each hug he gives. Describing each of those things that he is so far–tall, mischievous, mocha-colored–doesn’t change who he is. (In my totally unbiased opinion, this is summed up by the word “perfect.”)
Talk to your kids. Talk to them about these different colors, shapes and sizes people come in. Tell them all about how much more awesome the world is when it’s full of this magnificent variety. Help them see, as you do, that color is descriptive, not determinative, guiding them not to be “color blind”–impossible for the categories kids sort the world into–but instead to be color impervious. Look here for some good guidance for getting started down that road.
The first couple of conversations you have with your child(ren) might feel a little uncomfortable. Fear not, that’s an excellent reason to keep having them! Practice makes easier, so bear in mind that it’ll become a little less awkward each time. With patience and practice, you might find the discomfort fades so much that you’re as impervious to race–which should not be confused with culture or heritage!–as you’ve equipped your children to be.