“Little Girl, are you lost?” I grabbed at my mother’s skirt to show the supermarket clerk that I belonged to someone. “No. This is my Mommy.” I told her. She looked stunned, apologized and then walked away. That was my first awakening to America’s color obsession and my first realization that my mom and I didn’t “look” like Mother and Daughter. My mother had auburn hair and stunningly fair skin. I was an exotic, ethnically ambiguous cinnamon girl with thick, black hair. Growing up ethnically mixed during the 80’s and 90’s was no picnic. Even though I grew up in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area, people still focused on our color differences. We were bonded in the truest sense. We were as close as a parent and child can be. Yet, she soon endured diaper changes where I kicked at her and told her she was not my Mother. Maybe this was painful for her or maybe she wondered where it was coming from. I guess I was hoping it was painful at the time, so I could show her the angst I was feeling that we didn’t match. I felt unnatural.
Fast-forward 26 years later. This cinnamon girl married a full-bred Russian man with white, ruddy skin and green eyes. A year later, I had given birth to a strawberry blonde boy with porcelain skin and hazel eyes. He’s 9 months old now. Here we are in 2016, still in the progressive San Francisco Bay Area and we receive a lot of puzzled looks, especially from the older crowd. When we go for walks in the more affluent areas, there is whispering accompanied by the stares. I make a lot of jokes about it to make myself feel better. I question when someone will ask if he’s lost when he’s standing right by me. I wonder when someone will ask me which family I nanny for. It secretly rips at me a little now and then. When it does, I eventually fear the day he kicks me during a diaper change and accuses me of being a stranger, an imposter, wondering where his red headed porcelain Mommy is.
I’m not sure where all the confusion lies, especially with well-educated adults. Genetics is no longer the abstract that it once was. People are spitting into tubes in the comfort of their living rooms to find out their ancestry or their risk for certain diseases. Heck, you can take your rescue dog to the vet and they’ll tell you what breeds your prized mix is made up of. So, those recessive genes you learned about in middle school seem pretty basic in this day and age. However, this all seems to change when people are faced with a stroller coming at them. I call these, “stroller expectations”. You see it play out on their faces, the thought process as they glance mother to baby, baby to mother. We don’t always get the smiles that other mommy baby pairs get. That’s because their expectations were not met and this can be unsatisfying.
I don’t think these people are racist. I don’t even think they really care. It’s likely an unimportant, mindless observation they are making to themselves and each other on a relaxing stroll mid-day or a rushed supermarket trip after work. I get it. I do it, too. However, these subtle social cues and judgments that we make towards complete strangers in our daily lives can have real, harmful implications, especially where children are involved. I know that one day my son will have his realization that we don’t “match.” It may not affect him as profoundly as it did me as a young child. However, how he has that realization is very important to me. I want it to fascinate him and show him how special it makes him. I want him to ask the question “why?” and for us to have a trip around the world explaining his four ethnicities. I want to teach him about genetics and how important science is in our self-knowing. I want him to know that we look alike but in other ways. I want to explain how color is an unimportant blip in the human genome. I want to explain hybrid vigor and Mendel and his peas.
Most importantly, I want him to know he belongs to me and to the world. We don’t match but we complement. No, our family pictures aren’t an amalgam of white faces or brown faces but a speckled map of beautiful faces with love in their eyes. Our family is a woven tapestry of love, color and vibrancy. We have rich stories from old, ancient cultures that he will learn and pass on. He is special and profound in his very existence. Frankly, it’s pretty cool to think that he maybe the only Russian, East Indian, Armenian and Scottish strawberry blonde kid in the world. He is a baby of the future, the most vigorous of hybrids and he belongs to me.