It started when my oldest daughter (now 2.5) was about 4 months old. During the day, I’d take her out to the mall or grocery shopping or for a meal, just the two of us, and I began to notice a pattern. People liked to stop me and comment on how cute, or chubby, or stoic she was, and 80% of the time, white people, women in particular, would follow it up with, “Is she yours?” I didn’t think much of it at first – maybe they think I’m her babysitter, it’s an easy mistake… right? I assumed it happened to everyone.
Once she was in a forward-facing stroller, looking out at the world, the questions and comments started getting more brazen.
“She’s beautiful, is she yours?”
– “Oh, I just love mixed babies!” They wax poetic over how perfect “mixed skin” and “mixed hair” are, they tear down their own self-image, and they talk about their own children who weren’t as fortunate in those areas. It’s bizarre, and wildly uncomfortable. I just smile and try to keep moving.
– “Wow, she’s SO white!” Yep. It’s magic… or, you know, genetics. I smile and say, “Yes, Daddy is very white.”
– “Oh, now I see, she looks just like you!” This is just proof that people don’t think before they speak. Objectively, both my daughters have many of the same facial features as I do, but people come up to us with their preconceived notions, make googly-eyes at the girls, and don’t bother to look up at the face of the black woman pushing them around. Once I confirm that yes, they are mine, they raise their gaze to verify, to find resemblance, something to prove I’m not lying. Then they find it, and they can move on. They’re actually pleased with themselves. They’re satisfied then, they got a cute baby fix, they’re going to move on with their day. And I ruminate.
I decided I had to start investigating outside of my own experiences. A few weeks ago, I asked my husband for the first time if he ever gets the, “Are they yours?” question. Nope, not once. Do they ever comment on how beautiful your “mixed babies” are? Not to him, because he’s white, and they’re just tan. They have a lot of his features too, so people who know us tell us how much they look like an equal blend both of us. I’ve had white friends and babysitters take them to the park and have other parents just immediately assume they were Mom though, so I get the impression people aren’t looking too closely.
A good friend of mine is in the opposite situation; both her girls got more of dad’s melanin, and she likes to describe herself as “as white as they come”. We’ve been friends since we were pregnant with our firsts, and since then she says she’s only been asked if they’re hers once, by a child, whose mother was mortified and made her apologize. “I told the mom it was totally fine, then I talked to the little girl about how I’m their mom, and it might be confusing because we have different colored skin, so it’s ok to wonder. Her mom was pretty upset, so I told the little girl, ‘Ok, maybe your mom has a point. Next time, if you have a question about a family, you can ask mom first, and then ask the mom or dad.'”
“Wow.” I said. “Why do you think you never get asked?”
“Honestly? Because I’m white.”
“I guess, with two decades of getting used to white people adopting black kids, yeah, it’s been normalized.” That I know about all too well, unfortunately. I wonder if she’ll eventually start getting the, “So, where are they from?” question.
It’s sad, really. The majority of off-colour, poor-taste comments aren’t even malicious. People just don’t think. They don’t think about the power their words hold. They don’t know when it’s the fifth time that day that I’ve been asked if my beautiful babies are mine… but they don’t take that split second to catch themselves.
I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t scare me, too. With racial tensions ramping up around the country, I’ve heard more and more stories of multiracial families being harassed in public. I heard a story about a black woman out shopping with her young, lighter children, when a woman stopped her to tell her that the kids were cute, but that she’d soon be deported, being their black nanny and all. In the back of my mind, I wonder what might happen when one of my kids decides they don’t want to leave somewhere and turns into a screaming, spaghetti-limbed goblin, as some kids do, requiring me to pick her up mid-flail and carry her to the car. Will people see a black woman carrying a hysterical white child and think, “Is she hers?” And what could that lead to?
I think the easiest way to avoid putting someone in an awkward situation is to just not ask about parentage. There are so many different family structures, it seems ridiculous to demand someone explain theirs on the street to you, right then and there, while they’re trying to go about their day. What happens when the answer is, “Oh, I’m their older cousin. I just had to drop out of college to look after them because their parents died last weekend.”? How mortifying would that be? But truly, multi-racial, gay, adoptive, trans, single-parent, poly, foster, guardianship, military, three-parent IVF – there are numerous types of family structures that may not be “conventional”, all of which are still valid and full of love. When you press someone to explain their family, you could be pushing on a very sensitive issue.
So, the next time you see a baby you want to compliment, tell the person caring for that baby that the baby looks happy, healthy, and cute. If they want to talk about their family, they will. They also may really have to pee, or get the grocery shopping done before epic baby meltdown occurs, so if they seem in a hurry, just let them go.