Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Are YOU her mother?

Here's a post I originally published on Knoxville Mamabelle.
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Holding my newborn in 2007.

When I was pregnant, my husband told me he was glad I’d soon have someone close to me who looks like me. To be more specific, he said he was glad no one would question my relationship to her. Boy, was he wrong.
Though my husband is white, he does not have blue eyes, but my daughter has the deepest, bluest eyes imaginable—to the point that strangers stopped us to comment on a regular basis while she was a big-eyed toddler. Her skin is fair, about the color of honey, and though it’s darker than most Caucasian skin, it’s the subtle contrast between mine and hers that people notice and apparently that difference exaggerates in their minds. Her hair is still very “toddler,” short with a few curls in the back and a light brown/dirty blond color.
I’ve noticed that while her father holds her close to his face (such as on his shoulders), the skin color difference between them is also apparent, but a little more subtle than the difference between mine and hers.

A friend of mine with the same looking family has two children who both have brown eyes and dark hair, and she gets the same reactions from strangers. Since her children do not have blue eyes or light hair, it seems that reactions from strangers are mostly about skin color.

The first comment that bothered me came from a family member. The person asked, “have you gotten any comments yet?” Though I knew what the person was getting at, I asked, “about what?” The person repeated, “Have you gotten any comments… since you’re black and your daughter is white?”

Wow. So that’s what that person sees? Though asking that question wasn’t necessarily mean or wrong (though I suspect it was for the person’s amusement), I was taken back by the skin color contrast that the person “saw.”

Another person, a random cashier, asked, “Is that yours?” I thought she was talking about a piece of merchandise my child must be holding, but no, she was referring to my human child. And another stranger sent her daughter over to me in a play area to ask if I was my child’s mother. The girl wasn’t far away when she tried to quietly mouth the answer to her mother.

Mostly though, people are either better at masking their question or they are just being friendly or curious. They’ll say something like, “Oh, she must have her daddy’s eyes,” or they’ll just ask, “where does she get those big, blue eyes?”

And even if people do ask in a way that I deem rude, that doesn't mean I'm interpreting their actions correctly. I could be completely wrong. Obviously, it's a sensitive topic to me.

So I’m torn. Do I answer rudely or politely? Should I see it as a learning opportunity for the asker, or should I just leave them more confused than before they asked? The questions will probably continue for a while or maybe forever, and I need to be prepared. Because of all the questions I’ve gotten, I’m never completely caught off guard, but that doesn’t mean I always have something witty filed away.

Sometimes when they ask, like when a nurse did at a doctor’s office, I act startled and stunned that I’m being asked such a question.

The only witty responses I’ve thought of so far are:

Q: Is that your daughter?
A: funny, no one ever asks her father that.
A: no, I picked her up on aisle five.

I’m not the only kind of parent this happens to. A few parents like me or ones who have adopted children who look different from themselves may experience similar instances.

An example that comes to mind is from a passage from Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia.” A biracial character, who is light with straight hair, and her black father are playing in the park when the police arrive wanting to know what he’s doing out with this young “white” girl.

I know some parents might not think this is a big deal or that I’m overreacting. Or perhaps, some think I’m confusing regular “is this your daughter?” questions with rude ones.

Maybe the following will help: Imagine you and your child (no spouse present) are holding hands, walking in a park… oblivious to the world. You pause at a park bench, resting your feet and smiling at the stranger on the opposite bench. But the stranger looks at you, then at your child… then back at you, and continues with a furled brow. As you begin to wonder what’s going on, the stranger’s face registers full disgust, the stranger’s lips purse and out comes, “are you her mother?

I know the difference.

It’s not as if experiences thus far are as nasty as the above example, but hopefully it helps explain what I don’t like about the question—the possible racism hiding beneath. Another way to think of this—and all of the stupid questions from complete strangers I get (with “what are you?” being the most common)—is the wheelchair analogy a friend of mine thought of.

Imagine you are in the frozen food isle at Kroger, piling some ice-cream in your cart. Next thing you know, another customer rolls by. You wonder why the person is in a wheel chair. But, you don’t just wonder, you ask! The customer is just riding by and you turn, see him or her, and say, “no offence… uh… pardon me, but I was just wondering… why are you in a wheelchair?”

Seriously? Have you ever asked someone that? I imagine there might be some situation somewhere that someone can think of where it’d be an appropriate question, but…

So, why do complete strangers ask if I am my child’s mother? And, what is the best response? …keeping in mind that it is not my goal to hurt people, but nor do I necessarily feel an obligation to provide the answer they are looking for either.

The thing is, I do enjoy talking about these kinds of topics… just not with random strangers who might be asking because they are uncomfortable with my family’s appearance.

So, seriously, share your ideas & thoughts!
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Since I originally wrote this post, only one worse incident has happened. A woman in a store came up to me and my daughter and reached out to my daughter to "return her to her mother" who was obviously NOT me--or so thought the woman. I didn't react very kindly on that occasion.

No playdates in the works for now

I'm currently in the process of moving, so I don't have a playdate planned for this month. By next month, I hope to have everything set, though, so I'll pick a date for Feb and annouce that here when I do.