Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Are YOU her mother?

Here's a post I originally published on Knoxville Mamabelle.

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!

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.


michelle said...

Thanks to Google Alerts, I found your blog. I can relate to your post completely. Questions like this with regard to me and my daughter prompted me to start a live weekly podcast called "Is That Your Child!?"

People can be down right rude to moms of color and their mixed kids. Most times it catches you off guard so you can't even think of a response other times, you are almost tense with the anticipation that someone will intrude with their stupidity.

My new line is "May I ask you why it's so important for you to know whether or not she's my child?"

momma zen said...

OH, now I see what I did. I posted over on your other blog by clicking the link.

I can't believe someone was about to take your baby from you under just an assumption. That is absolutely nuts!!!

Anonymous said...

Wow, just wow!!! Let's face it, some folks are just plain rude. My two little ones look like myself and my hubby, but have straight, wavy hair. My son is much darker than my daughter and we get some of the rudiest comments about how 'dark' he gets in summer. And it's said in such a nasty tone. "Ohhhh, he is SOOO dark!" Ummmm, hello? His mom is black! I've also had people, strangers, go up to my daughter and touch her hair. Umm, what are you doing? Hands off weirdo!!

My kids are older now and since I homeschool the comments have moved from race to education. I guess what it boils down to is that some folks will never be respectful to your personal space. Or they feel like they need to validate their perceptions of what they think of you and your family.

I learned, as you will, not to let other rudeness or perceptions bother you. Some folks are just plain ignorant, so why waste your precious time.

Anonymous said...


Well written!

I am "white" (half Brazilian half Caucasian North American) My husband is black (part Jamaican, part Scottish and part-lived in North America since age 10)

I would so much like to be part of such a group and be part of providing a positive environment for our children!

Lovemychildren - KnoxMoms.

Anonymous said...

I also found your blog through a Google Reader search. I live in Iowa and am the white mother of 3 biracial children. My oldest two have very course hair and golden skin; my youngest has curly hair and lighter skin. Neither my husband nor I look like our children, but they all resemble each other closely. I have received similar comments and questions about whether or not they are mine--and so has my husband. The worst comment I got was from a doctor. I didn't have childcare and brought all three children with me to an appointment. My doctor asked, "Do they all have the same father?" I could not believe it! I explained, "Yes, my husband and I have been married for 6 years!" He got a little sheepish, but never did apologize. Needless to say, I never went back to that doctor's office. It is now 9 years after that incident and the number of mixed race families in our city has grown a lot, but we still get comments and looks; but to be honest,the kids are so active and we are so busy that I don't have time to notice them anymore. When someone approaches and asks me something that seems ridiculously racist, I try to remember that I am in Iowa--and except for small, urban pockets, it is not a very diverse state. I make it my responsibility to teach them about my biracial children since they most likely are just uninformed.

Mamabelle said...

Michelle, I like your come-back, and thank you for posting about my blog!

Momma Zen, I wondered what was going on! :) I enjoyed reading your thoughtful response.

Yvonne, Someone was just touching her hair a couple weeks ago at the store. It was SO awkward! What is with people? She was talking about curls and talking to my three-year-old, saying, "how did you get those blue eyes?" on and on...

Amy, I've set up another date/time! Hopefully, it'll work out with no snow! I agree completely, I'd love to get a group going. Though we have IR families here, the chances of forming friendships randomly with each other isn't statistically very likely, which is why I decided to form a group.

Jen, I have, unfortunately, heard of that before from someone. The sterotype that white women with biracial children must obviously be sleeping around is so ingrained in our culture that an educated, supposedly intelligent person who has other patients too?! would say that! It's just insanity. My skin is toughening, but something about becoming a mother--I wasn't ready for the reactions (even though I've had ample practice with negative or weird reactions to my own existance).

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is such an intersting post. I'm in the same boat. I have 2 biracial sons. My oldest looks just like me, but is much lighter and has curly/wavy brown hair. My youngest looks like my husband, and is actually paler and has the bluest eyes. My husband does not have blue eyes. He has hazel eyes. My family asks where do his blue eyes come from. I was told by a friend I have one black child and one white child. If a stranger asks me if my kids are mine I wouldn't know what to do. I would be very angry.

Anonymous said...

I know how you feel. You would think in this day and age people would be less stupid. I have two bi racial kids and its ridiculous the things people feel they have a right to say to you.