Welcome, Mamma Crew! Today is Kiddos Tuesdays when I discuss issues related to the kids.
Despite the current controversies in our country, I had purposely stayed out or away from the issue of race in the podcast. But these things have a way of coming home, and they came home in a very unexpected way. And if I sound nervous and upset, well, it’s because I’m extremely upset. I can’t help it. It deals directly with my kids. It impacts my children directly.
I’m a woman of color in an interracial marriage. For all purposes and intent, my mother was a woman of color, also in an interracial marriage. And that means that genetics in our family are quite the crapshoot. My mother had incredibly white skin, light blonde hair (she was a dirty blonde), and light brown eyes. And she married a Native American from Mexico, who has dark skin, thick lips, and who, all of his life heard, that he was nothing but an indio, which is a derogatory term for Native Americans in our country.
My mother really struggled when I was a baby. Not because she didn’t love me — but because people often told her that I couldn’t possibly be her child. I mean, I was so dark and had such kinky, curly hair. Surely, she had to be taking care of somebody else’s child. That dark little thing could not possibly belong to her!
It got even harder for her when we moved to The United States because when we were in Mexico, at least she knew what to expect. She knew that people were gonna say, “Ugh! You married an indio. What did you expect? Your daughter looks like an india.” But here in The United States, people came at her from a totally different perspective, and she didn’t know how to cope with it.
People would ask her who did she married to have that child! Did she marry a Samoan? Did she marry a Hawaiian? Was it a Himalayan (my mother never traveled outside of Mexico and The United States — she didn’t even know what a Himalayan was)?
And this was made harder by the fact that her two other children were just like her — light skin, light brown eyes. And yes, people assumed they were white. They passed for white. Just like they assumed my mother was white. She passed for white. It always pissed off my mother. She was highly offended by it.
And she did everything she could so that I would not look different from the rest of the family. So from a very early age, she would put tons of chemicals in my hair to try to straighten it. She would cut it really short and then straighten it, and so I would oftentimes end up looking like a boy (but then, of course, she would put earrings in my ears and that was her solution to the problem)!
I was not allowed to wear any clothes that in any form were connected to an ethnicity because she was terrified that I was claiming that ethnicity. She wanted me to be a blank slate. The sad result is that all she did was destroy my self-esteem. Forever I saw myself as ugly. Forever I saw myself as different or not as good as my sisters.
But it wasn’t just my mother — I heard it from my family, too. In an ironic twist of fate, my mother married the oldest son in his family and her sister married the next son in the same family. And my aunt and my uncle, in that genetic crapshoot, got light skin, straight hair, light-eyed kids, who, yes, when they moved to The United States and till they opened their mouths, people assumed they were white.
And so oftentimes in our family, I would hear, “You’re not as pretty as your cousin.”Why can’t you be like your cousin? Look at her. She looks so elegant! You look like an india!” It was hard. It was hard looking the way I did in my family. It was a challenge, and I think that this was one of the reasons that despite all of the problems with my father, I still feel close to him because he had shared the same experience I was living.
He, too, looks incredibly ethnic in a family of mostly light skin, light brown eyes (green eyes are very common on his side of the family). And his term of endearment for me was “chocolata,” which is the feminine version of chocolate. And he would always tell me chocolata was his favorite flavor. So I had one place where I always felt special and beautiful and accepted. So I grew up with that controversy.
When we went to California — and I’m not saying by any stretch of the imagination that California was perfect when it came to interracial relations in the 70s or 80s — but it was more commonplace to see interracial couples and it was more commonplace to see interracial children. So when I was in a long-term relationship that lasted nearly 15 years with an Englishman, and I adopted his children as my own (a 9-month-old blonde boy with blue eyes and an 18-month-old, very, very pale girl with black eyes and black hair — and I say pale because that’s what she would call herself. That girl was whiter than white!), no one in California ever asked if they were mine. No one ever questioned it. It was assumed they were mine. No one batted an eye when they called me Mommy. Nobody batted an eye when they got in my car when I picked them up when I took them to SeaWorld, Disneyland, the park, the beach. Nobody said anything. Nobody ever made a comment. So like I said, 15 years later, that relationship was over and a few years later, I married my husband.
My husband comes from strong, German stock. He’s a big, wide teddy bear, okay? And it never occurred to me –, I never thought of — that my children would not look like me, okay? I thought that when we gave birth, my children would look like me. Uhhh… well, I got the same kind of surprise that my mother got.
So here, my sisters (that people think are white) gave birth to very brown babies. Me — jet-black hair (okay, when I don’t color it. And now it’s mostly turning white!), thick lips, very brown skin, who still get questions about my ethnic heritage. Me, I gave birth to very white twins. As one of them likes to say, God made her pale, yes he did. She is whiter than white. They both are. They both tan incredibly well. They both have very white skin and one of them has blue eyes!
So here I found myself in my mother’s position. But hey! I was an educated woman. I have lived with this kind of racial ambiguity of life, I was certain that I would be able to handle it so much better than my mother did. And I have lived it! I had two white kids for 15 years! There hadn’t been a single problem — but then I moved from California to… okay, I won’t mention the state because it’s not fair to everybody in the state so I’ll just say that I moved… to the east of the country in the north! How’s that? And my husband still had a job commitment, I needed to start my job, and I had always been a strong, independent woman so when he said, “Are you comfortable with me returning to California and finishing my 30-day commitment?” I said, “No problem. Go back. I can handle one-year-old twins by myself. It will be fine.” And I did have a live-in nanny.
But one day, I decided to go to a superstore in the town where we were living in and one of my twins was fussing. I picked her up, had her in my arms, and my other twin was buckled in her seat. Now she wasn’t more than two steps away from me, sitting in the basket, playing with her toy. I picked up a shirt (it’s funny how you can remember every detail of the worst experiences of your life). It was a gray shirt that had a big red heart with white letters that said: “I LOVE MOMMY.” And in the corner of my eyes, I caught a white woman picking up my child from the shopping cart. And I whipped around and I said, “What are you doing?!”
“Oh, I’m taking this child to the manager.”
“Uh, no, let my child go!”
“She can’t possibly be your child.”
I can’t begin to adequately express what a cold bucket of water that was. Because my brain, as my heart was thumping out of its sockets, was wondering exactly how I was gonna prove that this very white child, white skin, blue eyes, flaxen hair (at the time) was mine! Even if I took out a birth certificate! How does that prove anything?! And why do I have to prove that she’s mine?! We live in a racially diverse country! It is not acceptable to pick up other kids, other people’s children. And it’s certainly not acceptable to assume that they don’t belong to that person!
I was absolutely terrified! And I didn’t want to let go of my other child but that’s exactly what I did! I sat her on the floor and I snatched my baby from this woman’s hand and I said, “She’s mine! What are you thinking!?” But just like today, perhaps even worse, my voice was cracking because how was I going to prove to the manager, the police that this child was mine?! And it wasn’t until then that I realized there was not a lot of racial diversity in that town. Later I was to find out how little diversity there was, but it wasn’t something I thought about — I was from California! It’s a different experience there. Again, I am not claiming that there are no racial problems in California — just that diversity is more common than it is in other states.
So I take my baby and my purse and I start leaving the store with this woman yelling at me, “Come back! We need to go to the manager!” I ran out. I ran out as fast as I could with both of my kids, latched them in the car, went home, locked the door, called my husband, and I said, “You either get your ass out here immediately or I’m going home!”
I needed that job. I needed that job so much, and we needed that medical insurance even more. My husband got on the plane and for the next few years, I refused to go out without him. There was absolutely no way I was taking my kids out without him. Because when we were together, people assumed that the kids belonged to both of us. It was only when he wasn’t there that people assumed that the kids didn’t belong to me.
Now that was probably the scariest experience I had but it was, by far, not the only one. The first time my kids noticed there was any kind of a difference was at the ice rink in this town. We have a rule in our household: if we pay for lessons, our kids have to finish the lessons. There is no “I change my mind” in the middle of this. Or “It’s too hard.” They have to finish their lessons.
So here we were at the outer edge of the ice rink and I was telling one of my girls that she needed to get inside the rink. And she was telling me it was too hard and she didn’t want to fall and she didn’t want to bruise. Now we went through this song and dance every single time we return to the ice rink and every single time after I got her on the ice rink, I couldn’t get her off. She loved it, she really enjoyed it — up into the next week when I had to get her back in the ice rink when she didn’t want to go in. So I’m telling her, “We paid for the lessons, you need to get into the ice rink. You know the rules, blah, blah blah blah blah…” and this white woman who is standing next to me says in front of my child, “Stop being such a bitch!” I didn’t know anybody at the ice rink so no, I didn’t assume she was saying it to me, so I continued talking to my child. And this woman pushed her way in front of me and said to me in my face, “Stop being such a bitch! You’re just the nanny! You don’t need to be so nasty.” My child grabbed my hand and said, “Mommy?” I’m sure she was wondering, “What’s this about you not being my mother?” And I looked up and I said to the woman, “She is mine! Do you need to see my C-section scar to certify her birth?!”
The woman looked so shocked. And indignant because, oh, that’s the wonderful part about this — somehow, people can say the most offensive things to me when it comes to race and ethnicity, but I am supposed to be “understanding” and respond by “taking the high road.” I don’t know what the hell they mean when they say “the high road.” Because oftentimes, when they talk about the high road, it makes me feel that they just want to walk all over me and I’m supposed to accept it. And guess what? I don’t. I don’t accept it. It is not okay to say that to a mother in front of her child.
Six years later, many of these little incidents pepper my memory, we were finally in a financial position that I could leave my job in this location, where I did, and I want to say this: in all fairness, I met some wonderful people. But the lack of racial diversity meant that I faced some real painful experiences. So we moved to Florida. It’s also full of racial diversity. I’m told that there are some sections in Florida that are not like that, but I certainly haven’t been in them so I can’t speak to that. My experience here with my children has been really good. No one questions whether they belong to me or not because, as my daughter is so fond of saying, God made her pale.
But now my daughter is being challenged. Is she a woman of color or is she not? Well, here is the reality: one day she’s gonna bring a boyfriend to meet mom. Is that boyfriend going to be shocked when he sees me? And how is the future husband going to react when he realizes that he could have a child that looks like me? How is his family going to react? Because next week, I will share some of my special experiences regarding that subject matter. And let me tell you, there’s plenty of negative reactions!
So in this kaleidoscope that is race, in this crapshoot that is genetics, my child, her child, my great-grandchild, could have a baby that looks like me. And that’s what makes my daughters’ women of color. It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside, it’s genetics and experience. Now I have to admit to you that for the longest time when I was living in that state (that I won’t mention), I did wonder — with all the negative that we were having — if my children would one day be embarrassed of me. If that they would be concerned that they could have a brown baby. Because I’ve heard from other interracial couples that their children do have some mixed reactions to this. And it’s not the children — it’s how the environment. That social environment.
But no. No. My children do not suffer from those types of racial biases. They think the rainbow is beautiful — the racial rainbow, the sexual diversity rainbow, the cultural rainbow. And right now, they’re very pained by what they see out in society. And they often ask, “What can we do to make it better? What can we, as a family, what can we, as individuals, do to make these situations better?” Such an easy question to such a complex problem.
And now I’m faced with a new challenge with the additions to our family — their brown skin, their dark eyes, their very Hispanic features. They come from a country in which they were the majority. They were part of the accepted majority. They didn’t have to face racial discrimination. And they really haven’t had to face it yet because we homeschool. So they have been in a protected bubble but our choice to spend more time in The States and not as much in the Caribbean (though we still have our home there — we plan on spending time there) means that they are going to be facing a new
and challenging perspective that is the cultural kaleidoscope of our country. Cultural, racial, ethnic kaleidoscope that is our very complex country.
And I know that day will come when both my daughter and my son are going to face overt, blunt, brutal discrimination or prejudice. And my heart will break and it will tear and I will have to figure out a way — a better way — to deal with their place in this world. And to show them that despite the fact that some people still feel that way about racial differences, there are a lot of people that do not. That we have a place in this world — an equal place. A place of value.
I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I know from other mothers in my position and our many conversations that it’s not something you can deal with or plan for — until it happens. Because regardless of what you think and your educational background, it’s always a trial by fire. That’s when you know — when it happens. How you will react (and you have to learn how to forgive yourself when you don’t react as well as you would have hoped) and you push yourself to be better. A better parent. A better mother. Every single second, every single day, not just on the subject, but on everything that has to do with our beautiful children.