Having a Mixed-Race Child, I Needed to Learn How to Deal with Some Pretty Surprising Questions
By Peggy Orenstein
THE FIRST time it happened, I was on my maiden voyage with my 4-month-old daughter, Daisy, flying alone with her to Minneapolis to show her off to my parents. I was sure I was prepared for the trip: My carry-on bulged with six changes of clothes, twenty diapers, an industrial-sized box of wipes, a stack of baby books, three Whoozits, four puppets, two teddy bears, and her favorite bunny rattle. I’d nursed her on take-off to ease the pressure in her ears and planned to do the same on descent. For a first-time mom, I thought I was doing pretty well.
Then, while I was jogging in place in the galley trying to lull Daisy into nap (and, as a side effect, working off the pregnancy weight), another passenger noticed us. “What a beautiful baby,” she cooed, and, before I could even smile in acknowledgement, added, “Where did you get her?”
Let me be clear: Adoption is a wonderful thing, a great gift to both parents and children. As it happens, however, Daisy is not adopted (though the question would be equally ill-worded if she were). She simply inherited the golden skin, dark hair, and eyelid fold of my Japanese-American husband, while I have blonde ringlets, blue eyes, and a complexion the color of library paste.
“It’s a natural question,” my father said, when I told him about it at the luggage carousel. “I mean, look at her. Look at you. People are just curious.” Maybe. But why did that curiosity leave me feeling sucker-punched?
Over the next year, what I’d come to call The Question became a regular feature of my life as a mother. It took a variety of forms: “What a beautiful baby. Is she from China or Korea?” “Oh, how cute. Where is she from?” Once even, “How old was she when you adopted her?” I began to anticipate the reaction, tensing up when strangers approached us or prying eyes stared too long. I noticed I was more relaxed, more friendly, when we were out all together as a family and Daisy’s provenance was obvious.
I began to wonder: If I found the attention to our racial difference upsetting, how, some day, would she perceive it? And if I didn’t know how to respond to it, how would she? After all, she’ll probably spend a lifetime hearing, “Where are you from?” Or, “When were you were adopted?” or “What are you?”
I’d often contemplated how to raise a daughter with a healthy sense of female identity, but I’d believed matters of race were my husband’s job â€” he, after all, was the person of color. I was wrong. For my child’s sake, and my own, I needed to understand what it meant to be a multicultural family in a world that doesn’t always see the shades of gray among the shades of brown. I needed to know how to answer The Question.
“YOUR DAD is right, it is a natural question,” said Donna Jackson Nakazawa, mother of two multiracial children and author of Does Anybody Else Look Like Me. My heart sank. When Daisy was born, a friend had sent me Nakazawa’s book, considered a kind of Bible among parents in racially mixed families. I figured she’d be the perfect person to call for advice. Now I wasn’t so sure. Until she added, “It’s natural if you still think of people as only coming in five flavors: Caucasian, African American, Asian, Latino, and Native American. That’s what we all learned growing up. But that’s not how it is any more.”
In fact, according to the 2000 Census â€” the first to collect multiracial data â€” over 7 million people identify themselves as mixed race and, so far, they come in 57 different “flavors” (take that, Baskin-Robbins!). Their ranks include some of our most celebrated movie stars, recording artists, and sports heroes: Kate Beckinsale, Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Norah Jones, Tiger Woods, Apolo Ohno, Derek Jeter. Increasingly visible at universities, they’ve formed “Hapa Clubs” (hapa is the Hawaiian term for a person of partial Asian or Pacific Islander heritage) at such schools as Brown, Columbia, UCLA and Stanford. The upshot: When one includes trans-racial adoptive families, there are an unprecedented number of white parents of children of color. Parents like me.
I’ve often thought that there is nothing that makes a man a feminist faster than becoming the father of a daughter. I suspect a similar dynamic is at work here. I’d certainly witnessed the small, corrosive slights my husband, Steven, faced in his daily life, but they didn’t cut me as deeply. Early in my pregnancy, though, a park ranger stopped to chat with him while we were hiking up Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County, California. “Where are you from?” He asked. “Berkeley,” Steven answered. “No, I mean where are your parents from,” the ranger responded. “Los Angeles,” Steven said, less amiably this time. The ranger acted as if Steven were simply being willful. “OK, so you don’t want to tell me.” Steven glared at him a moment. “I did tell you,” he said, then stalked away. Imagining my unborn child navigating that exchange hit me right in the belly. “What gets to you is the everyday ignorance,” Steven would tell me later. “It’s being constantly made to feel like the ‘other.’ ”
That was it. That was exactly what bothered me about The Question. It was a reminder, even when offered under the guise of a compliment, of my daughter’s “otherness,” of our mutual “otherness.”
“Understanding where those comments come from is the first step,” Nakazawa advised me. “But next, you have to be clear about your goal. And the goal is: You don’t want that track to start in Daisy’s head every time there’s an incident, the one that says, ‘I’m different, I’m different, I’m different, and people don’t think she’s my mom.’ You want to be a buffer for her. You want to make sure that she knows what’s wrong is out there, not inside of her.”
Great, I thought. So how do I do that? Of course, the process starts at home. We’ve always talked proudly to Daisy about her joint cultural background and have a tonal rainbow of Groovy Girls as well a slew of baby face books that feature lots of mixed race kids. Nakazawa suggested as Daisy grows older that we pull out a map and discuss how people from all over the world migrate to this country; by age 8 or 9 we could even talk about the African origin of the human species.
That helped, but it was really outside the home that I felt vulnerable, where I feared I was letting Daisy down. I was falling short, both as a buffer and model. “One way to avoid those comments is to become super interactive with your daughter in public,” Nakazawa suggested. “A mom I know reads to her baby and talks to her with such focus that people don’t interrupt. It’s like being buried in a book on an airplane: It discourages the chitchat that makes people feel they have permission to ask. And there’s the bonus that it intensifies your relationship with your child.”
But what happens if someone breaks through that force field? I still needed a ready retort to “Where did you get her?”, something so automatic I wouldn’t even have to think about it. “You could try deflection,” Nakazawa said. “When people start with, ‘Your children are so beautiful,’ I just cut them off and say, ‘All children are so beautiful, aren’t they?'”
Nice, but not quite what I was after. “Okay,” she tried, “How about something like, ‘Yes, she looks like my husband but she has my sense of humor?'”
Still not my style.
“Well,” she said, “One woman I know says, ‘From my uterus.'”
From my uterus. I loved it. It was insouciant, surprising, and it stopped further conversation in its tracks. Best of all it works. Every time. Where did you get her? From my uterus. Is she from China or Korea? From my uterus.
I almost look forward to saying it. Each time I do, I smile brightly and the person pauses, uncertain, long enough for me to make my getaway. The best part is, though Daisy may not know it yet, that I’m teaching her an important lesson as a person of mixed race, as a woman â€” heck, as a human being: Stand up for yourself with grace and wit and then to move on along.
DAISY TURNS 4 this summer. As she’s grown older I’ve fielded fewer inquiries about how we fit together. Maybe that’s because her hair has lightened to chestnut and the wave in it is more pronounced. Maybe it’s because it’s a lot easier to objectify a baby than a hyper-verbal preschooler. Or maybe it’s because, despite our superficial differences, she really does look like me. There’s something indefinable that emanates from her â€” an attitude, a gesture, a style â€” that shocks me when I see it, like unexpectedly catching myself in a mirror.
Just because The Question has stopped, though, doesn’t mean the teaching should. I want my daughter to understand â€” I hope all children will some day understand â€” that the world comes in an infinite variety of flavors. And how much richer we are because of that.
Now if I could just figure out a snappy comeback to the new round of busybodies who won’t stop asking me, “Are you only having one child?”
Â© Peggy Orenstein. All rights reserved.
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