“Are these your parents?” A U.S. Border Control Agent peers into the backseat, where I, age four, am sitting. My white parents (one biological, one non), both swivel their necks to look at me as I answer yes. At the time, I didn’t understand why someone would ask that. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that the fact that my dark skin and my dark features don’t match those in my immediate family was at all odd or suspicious.
I’ve relived that moment many times in my life. Mostly because life has a funny way of repeating itself, with small changes. Every supermarket, parent’s day, family and friend outing I went to, there was racial confusion. Well-meaning check-out clerks asked my pale, blonde mother if my similarly fair friend was her daughter and seemed surprised when she replied, “No, this is my daughter,” motioning to me.
Now in my 30s, I thought I had come to terms with my race. I am a mix of many things, a person of color. And that was all fine until I had my daughter.
As I push her stroller toward the beach on her 9-month birthday, there is no shortage of old ladies who want to stop and fawn over my girl. She beams back at them, her light eyes sparkling with delight at all of the attention. “Such a beauty! Like a little doll!” they tell me.
And perhaps, in those brief encounters, when I wear the cloak of invisibility that so many mothers of young children do, they truly don’t notice. But then comes the seaside and my little baby’s white arms are reaching toward me, asking to be taken out. She wants to explore. And of course, I comply.
“Take some photos!” I tell my husband.
The images are stunning. We look happy to the point of radiance. We also look absolutely nothing alike . . . and that terrifies me.
I didn’t realize it bothered me until my weekly support group session. It’s a peer-led group, and I expected my check-in to be easy. It’s only when I open my mouth that it all poured out, “My baby looks nothing like me.” “I’m worried.” “I feel so dark.” “I’m avoiding the sun more this year.”
One participant wrote a message to the group: “internalized racism.”
Yes. I know it’s true. But as the knot tightens in my throat and my tears threaten to spill over, I’m still surprised. Wasn’t I past this? Wasn’t I comfortable in my POCness? And yet the fear is there, deep within my bones, that questions will be asked. That people will think I’m the nanny or a babysitter—or worse. What if some well-meaning Samaritan decides to call the police one day, confusing my motherhood for kidnapping? Already I field the question, “Who does she look like?” more often than I can count, and I’ve started making the “She was born at home, so no risk of her having been switched!” joke in advance, owning the pain rather than waiting for it.
I always knew there was some chance my child could be fair, and yet, now that she’s here, it’s still hard to wrap my mind around. I know children change so much as they age—the last nine months have shown me that first hand!—and I also know I have the strength I need to face what lies ahead, whatever color my bundle of joy ends up being. And as much as I wish we looked like those matching mother-daughter pairings in magazine ads, I also know the world is changing, opening, becoming more aware.
So as I look at the photos we took that day at the beach, my brown arms wrapped around my daughter’s little white body, I choose to see the divine and to be thankful that whatever road we’re on, we’re on it together.