When I was in first grade, I had a conversation with my mother that ended with both of us in tears. I came home from school, convinced by my peers that I had been adopted. I told my mother that the kids at school had explained that she couldn’t be my real mom because her skin was white and mine was brown. My mother tried to explain that I was, in fact, her daughter, and that my skin was brown because my father (who lived almost 2000 miles away) was black. I refused to believe her, insisted that I was adopted, and told her that I would like to meet my real mother. Around and around we went until we were both reduced to tears.
The next day, my mother combined blobs of white and brown Play-Doh to show me how my skin color was a mix of both hers and my father’s. She taught me the meaning of the word biracial, and I proudly taught the word to my classmates.
But it was never easy to be biracial in a community that was predominantly white. My mother and stepfather were both white, and all of my friends were white. It didn’t take me long to realize that people felt differently about black people than they did about white people. The handful of black students in my class seemed to be punished more severely than the white students (a black girl was made to sit in the corner for saying libary instead of library), and my friends’ mothers would lock the doors of their cars when we drove through the black neighborhoods of our town. Still, I always felt I was treated the same as my white peers.
And then, one day in my 6th grade math class, the teacher accused me of cheating on a test. When I tried to explain that I had done my own work, she screamed at me and called me the n-word in front of everyone. I was completely mortified, but I was way too embarrassed to tell my mother. That night after I went to bed, the phone began ringing off the hook. I may not have told my mother what happened but every other kid in the class did, and all their mothers were calling to find out how I was holding up. And that night, I wasn’t the only one trying to stifle cries under the covers.
The next day, my mother took me to school early to talk with the principal about what had happened. The math teacher was brought in, and she apologized to me. But my mother insisted that she apologize again in front of the class- she’d sworn at me in front of my peers, and I deserved an apology in front of my peers. The principal was there to witness the apology and reported back to my mother. I never had trouble with that teacher again, but the damage was already done. Understanding and accepting my racial identity was something I would struggle with for years.
So, how does this relate to me raising twins? Well, when my twins were about 9 months old, my husband and I took our daughter to Children’s Hospital for an appointment. The receptionist who checked us in asked a series of questions, including, “What is the child’s race?” I told the woman, “She’s biracial- Caucasian and African American.” then turned to my husband, who nodded his head in confirmation. The woman gave me a look that seemed to say she looks white to me then continued on with her questions.
And that experience has made me wonder if race has more to do with how other people see us- our skin colors and facial features- than our genetic make up. Is Obama the first black president because black is what people see when they look at him? Or is he the first black president because he identifies himself as a black man? (I’ve never heard anyone, except my 11 year old niece, refer to him as the first biracial president.)
My children are roughly 75% Caucasian and 25% African American, so they’re pretty fair skinned. Does that mean they’ll be spared some of the discrimination that I’ve experienced and witnessed? Does it mean that they’ll have to explain their brown-skinned mother the way I had to explain about my mother’s white skin? How do I prepare them for that? How do I prepare myself for that?
Fortunately, this is not a topic that consumes my mind on a daily basis. Their experiences are already far different from mine. At the young age of just 16 months, their small circle of “friends” already includes several children of various racial backgrounds. Of course, they don’t care. Because to them, kids are just kids. And I hope that they’ll see it that way for a long, long time.