My daughter was born with fair skin, rosy cheeks and strawberry blonde hair. As she grew her wide eyes turned from a soft grey to a beautiful hazel. Her hair grew out in honey gold ringlets. Early pictures of her show a child akin to Shirley Temple, except that unlike Shirley, my daughter’s curls are natural and need no pinning up during the night. To put it bluntly my daughter was and is absolutely beautiful.
Of course I ran the gamut of well-meaning, curious onlookers trying to figure out how a woman with my caramel complexion could have had this poster child for caucasian beauty. I went through the process of explaining that her father is Scotch-Irish with a big red beard and I’m half Irish-Nordic-German so combined our daughter is a strawberry McDermott beauty. Ahhhh they say. Ooooohhhhh how interesting they remark as though my daughter were a specimen under a glass. I’m immediately catapulted back to my own childhood when I was in the grocery store with my blonde, blue-eyed mother and having brought along my blonde, blue-eyed friend. All three of us were slowly making our way through the two sets of doors and after the first, my friend and I had stopped to evaluate the candy. My mother stood beside us laughing as we drooled over the sugary gummy treats, the lollipops and the chocolate, candy coated discs. It was then that a well-meaning, yet ignorant older woman remarked to my mother how beautiful her daughter was. It seemed a harmless enough comment until my mother said, “No, that’s my daughter,” pointing her finger at me.
“Oh, I see.” The woman said and continued on her way but not until after she spent a good amount of time staring at me, then staring at my mother then back to me. I could feel my cheeks under my brown skin getting hot and my tight, unruly curls that stood out in a defiant springing mass becoming even springier and more defiant. The woman finally left us be.
“Did you choose your candy Kimmy?” My mother asked. Suddenly my mouth was as dry as the asphalt outside. The brightly colored gummies, lollipops, chocolates and other sugary treats made me sick just to look at them.
“No, I don’t feel like candy anymore.” I replied, blinking back tears. My friend ended up with a lollipop and the smell of it sickened me. I followed my mother and her should be daughter through the second set of doors and into the store. That incident left me with two truths. White people were beautiful. White people like my mother, like my friend. Brown people were not beautiful. Brown people like me. And I didn’t belong. That night I prayed as hard as I could to God to make me blonde and blue eyed like my mother. I never wanted anyone to think I was someone else’s child ever again. To stare at me like I was some kind of mistake. I woke up the next morning holding my breath, squeezing my eyes shut and willing myself not to move. Finally I couldn’t stand the anticipation any longer so I ran down the hall to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. Of course I looked exactly the same. A single angry tear of betrayal slid down my cheek. I resolved to pray harder that night. And the night following. I’d pray until God heard me. Of course He never did.
My daughter has a different kind of experience. Everyone tells her she is beautiful all of the time. As she has gotten older her hair has darkened to a dirty blonde and her eyes are copper colored. She is still fair, however she is developing an olive tone to her skin and more of my features are showing themselves in her beautiful face. her hair is still wavy with ringlets when she lets me comb it. Otherwise it takes on a life of its own. She is four and 3/4 years old. I know when she is sixteen all bets are off. Multiracial children are beautiful, changeable beings. Their hair may go from straight to curly. Their skin may go from light to dark. Their eyes may go from blue to green to grey. Alice’s older brother Elliott had hair so straight it merely waved in the wind. On this latest Mother’s day he showed me a dark brown tightly springing ringlet on his head that I could not believe was there. “Look mom, I’m getting blacker!” He was so proud of himself. He was born with the biggest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen and straight honey colored hair, the lightest shade of brown.
My oldest son is the darkest of the three, with my complexion and my dark eyes and curly hair. He wears his ethnicity proudly, far more proudly than I ever did. I hope I contributed to that. People remark that we look practically like twins and of course I feel proud, considering I’ve experienced the opposite. I wish it were enough to take the sting out of the adoption jokes and the “maybe you stole her” comments but it’s not. People are far too stupid and its happened far too often. I’m just sick of it. I want to grab them around the neck and say “Look white person. That. wasn’t. funny.” Of course I don’t grab anyone. I do however stare at them until they start blushing, hopefully realizing they shoved their foot not just in their mouth, but all the way down their throat as well.
Having spent my whole life biracial I have heard wonderful things. I have also heard things I wish I could wash from my mind forever. You’d be surprised how many times the phrase “You’re really nice for a black girl” has graced my ears. Or the litany of racially insensitive jokes people tell when they can’t define me and therefore feel safe letting their ignorant flags fly. Sometimes I think if one more person asks me “What are you?” I’ll slap them. And then I’ll say “See? I’m a human being. Who slaps.”
Coming from the era of little test boxes where you would be sitting in school and suddenly you were supposed to check a box labeled with your race. There was no choice to check more than one and when you gingerly walked your paper up to the teacher’s desk and asked her what to do she gave you an impatient/pitying look and said just choose the obvious one, implying the black one, hearkening back to the old one-drop theory wherein a single drop of “negro” blood rendered one a “negro.” My parents of course as I got got older always encouraged me to check African American for the scholarship opportunities. “Sweetie, they see you this way anyways. You may as well make them pay for it.” That just never felt right. It felt like a denial of who I was, who I am. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m a biracial being with a wholly new set of characteristics deserving of recognition. Because of our country’s system of identification I have always either felt invisible or far too VISIBLE never in-between. At forty-one I imagined I would have gotten used to being a circus attraction but no. One never does get used to that.
Things have gotten better for my children, although they are not perfect. The boxes have gone from other because they didn’t know what to call us, to one or more races which I’m actually happy with. One day the box will read multiracial and then I’ll know the walls are coming down. Other things are different for my children as well. When I was their age you did not see interracial families on television. No way. The families were one race, the children easily defined. It was daring to even have a side character that was another race on the show. Television was agony for me as a child because I didn’t identify with any of the families. The storylines were confusing, the way the people interacted was not the way my family interacted. And no one talked about the kind of bullying I experienced at school for being different. The only show that made any kind of sense to me was Star Trek. Star Trek was profound. Not only were there different races but there were different species and they all mixed. There were Multiracial humans and interspecies beings and everyone acted with a modicum of decorum the way my family did, not some stereotypical narrow set of behaviors the rest of the tv families seemed to portray. I spent many hours watching Star Trek with my father. He loved it, and now that I’m older I can see why. It was miles ahead of its time for so many reasons. One reason in particular that touched my heart deeply and gave me a sense of belonging the rest of the world lacked.
My daughter says she has cream skin. “I have cream skin Mama and Grandma has cream skin and so does daddy! But you have brown skin like Jaden right? What about Pop-pop? (Her name for her Grandfather. She used to call her Grandmother Grandmommy which was so cute while it lasted) Pop-pop had dark brown skin like dark chocolate right mama? what color does Elliott have? Is it darker cream?” I love how she is gentle and accurate in her observations. Her colors come from her box of crayons. She doesn’t understand the racial terms “black” and “white.” She doesn’t see one color as superior to the other and she doesn’t see anyone as fitting those descriptions. It’s beautiful, her state of mind, her level of development. It makes me wonder why that ever has to change. Why someone’s color has to matter SO much in this society. Why the colors can’t just mix and match into a marvelous rainbow.
My sons argue over who is blacker. I tirelessly tell them they are the same quarter African American. This does not satisfy them. “Jaden stole all the blackness and the tallness!” My middle son Elliott cries out. “It’s not fair!” He scowls at Jaden as if his older brother had any choice in his outward appearance.
“Dude, you need to chill.” Jaden gives his little brother his stock answer. Of course this is easy for him at sixteen, standing over six foot tall with caramel skin, naturally curly hair, a strong jaw complimented by Hollywood cheekbones, large dark eyes with a fringe of lashes and a gorgeous girlfriend.
“You will grow Elliott and you are just as handsome as your brother, you hear it all the time. You need to embrace your own version of beautiful. Look at those eyes. You know your eyes could stop traffic.” I’m not exaggerating. Elliott has a pair of the most beautiful eyes I’ve ever seen.
“But am I black enough to say the N-word?” Elliott asks this partly genuinely, partly to push my buttons.
“I would not recommend you use that word. I don’t think it’s good for anyone.” I tell him this knowing his favorite music is full of it and although my father was against its usage, these days things have changed. But still my multiracial son is fair enough to raise not only eyebrows but fists and for his safety I caution him to steer clear of that word. For his own good. “Out of respect for your Grandfather keep your language clean.” I tell my sons, knowing my daughter already uses the F word but luckily NOT at preschool.
I absolutely love being a mother. I just run out of steam sometimes and wonder if my children are secretly plotting against my sanity. I think it’s a mom thing. Perhaps we do lose a few brain cells along the way. They say what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I disagree with that. When you’re the mother of young children who turn into teenagers and then you have another young child, I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stupid. “Huh? I said I’d do what? Has anyone seen my keys? I don’t think I showered yesterday…or did I? Wait! Don’t throw that out, that’s my yesterday coffee! I know my shirt is on inside out, I’ll fix it before I go anywhere. I seriously think I forgot my kid’s middle name…” The list goes on. At the end of the day I congratulate myself that they are alive, well-cared for and they all know I love them. This is especially important for my boys who spend so much time in Oregon. I have to remind myself that the myriad conversations I have with their stepmother about them counts to a tremendous degree. Ultimately I know each and every one of my children was wanted, loved and meant to be. Their undefinable quality is part of their unique beauty, their multiracial identities are not a mystery for the rest of the world to solve but rather part of their own profound natures and their business alone. My kids are marvelous to behold, just by existing in the world, and they remind the little girl inside me that I’m not just some kind of mistake.