Essays

 

Simone started asking questions about race when she was 3, so I knew Nadia would soon have questions of her own.

I should not be surprised by such questions. They just keep showing up when I am not ready for them. It was reading time, and we were all in the room. Simone was reading a book aloud, when Nadia spoke up.

“Am I black, Mommy?” Nadia asked, twisting her arm to and fro for emphasis.

I sat there stunned for a moment. I don’t want to tell her what color she is, and I couldn’t get my mouth to form the right words. So, I punted.

“Ask your father.”

“You can be anything you want,” he said.

Hmmphh, wish I had said that.

Two days passed before I asked Nadia why she wanted to know whether she was black.

She started telling a story in rapid fire. Best I can tell a classmate, whom she named, had called her “blackie” and other names with the same ending. I couldn’t fully understand the other words Nadia said. She talks well, but she doesn’t always speak clearly.

“Were they bad names?”

“No.”

I let it go until the next morning.

“If anyone asks you what you are, say you are biracial. Can you say that?”

“Biracial.”

“Say my Mommy is black and my Daddy is white.”

“My mommy is black and – What am I supposed to say?”

I chuckled. That is a mouthful for a 3-year-old.

“Say my Mommy is black and my Daddy is white.”

“Mommy is black and Daddy is white.”

This is the first of many lessons. I have no intention of taking up this matter with the parent or the preschool. First, I have a 3-year-old’s version of the event, which isn’t much evidence even on a good day. Second, and most importantly, I don’t think any irreparable harm was done.

One thing is for sure. Conversations like this one make parenting difficult. It is not the subject matter or having the conversation that concerns me. I am not even worried about children making distinctions at such a tender age. What troubles me the most is the waiting. Ken and I may have to wait a decade or more to learn whether we passed or failed this thing called parenting.

Race Cube
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nathangibbs

I was taking Simone and Nadia out of their car seats when a black woman in the car beside me rolled up with her two children and a cart full groceries.

“They are so pretty,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, continuing to unbuckle Simone.

“Are they mixed?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“Well, they sure are beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Tell me,” said the woman, tapping into my friendliness, “what are they mixed with?”

“White,” I said.

“Really?” she asked, looking like she didn’t believe me. “Because they don’t look white.”

“Oh, we get that all the time,” I tried to reassure her. “Some people think they are Asian.”

“Black children who are mixed with white usually have sandy hair,” the woman said, as if she were some kind of expert.

“Well, their father’s hair is brown and my hair is brown, so they have brown hair.”

The woman didn’t respond and I took the opportunity to tell the girls to say bye-bye. They waved their hands, and we went inside.

***

Later, I gave our conversation a little more thought. I think this is what the woman was really saying.

Translation:

I was taking Simone and Nadia out of their car seats when a black woman in the car beside me rolled up with her two children and a cart full groceries.

“Look at those high-yellow girls. They are so pretty,” she said.

“Thank you,” I said, continuing to unbuckle Simone.

“Those kids look exotic and they don’t look like they belong to you. Are they mixed?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

“Well, I knew that. They are beautiful.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Their father must be fine. Tell me,” said the woman, tapping into my friendliness, “what are they mixed with?”

“White,” I said.

“Well, they sure don’t look white. Are you sure you know who the father of your children is? I’ve seen white and black kids and these kids don’t look like they are mixed with white.”

“Oh, we get that all the time,” I tried to reassure her. “Some people think they are Asian.”

“Perhaps you should have a paternity test. Black children who are mixed with white usually have sandy hair,” the woman said, as if she were some kind of expert.

“Well, their father’s hair is brown and my hair is brown, so they have brown hair.

“Look, you can say that all you want to, but I am not buying it. You got with someone Asian and you know it, passing these kids off as black and white when they are clearly black and Asian. You should be ashamed of yourself. Hmmpfff.

A version of this post originally appeared on Singlikesassy.

our handsSoon after Simone was born, my maternal grandmother told me how she felt.

“You didn’t do nothing for yourself,” she said.

“Well, Mom was light-skinned,” I said.

“Light-skinned? That child ain’t light-skinned. She’s Caucasian.”

“Don’t you think she has my eyes and nose?”

“Nah, she is the spitting image of Ken, like he went, ‘puh,’” she said, making a spitting sound for effect.

“Grandma, don’t you think she will have curly hair like mine?”

“What does her hair look like now?”

“It’s straight,” I said.

“There you go.”

I was not offended. My grandmother made a career of saying what she wanted to say when she wanted to say it. While it wasn’t fair to blame me for Simone’s complexion, even I was troubled by the color of her skin at first. By the time Nadia arrived two years later, I didn’t care what anyone said about my little girls and me. I am their mother, and they are my daughters. End of story.

This conversation was first published in an essay that appeared on The Root. You can read it here.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/this_is_ben
http://www.flickr.com/photos/this_is_ben

My mother loved to tell a story about a bath I took with a little girl I had asked to spend the night with me.

We were 4 or 5 at the time. This little girl — no one quite remembers her name— and I took cues from Mom.

“Don’t forget about your ears.”

“Make sure you wash your arms and legs.”

“Clean between your toes.”

A ring of dirty, soapy water clung to the inside of the tub. While we bathed, the little girl, who was white, checked me out. She noticed that no matter how many times I wiped the washcloth across my skin the color didn’t wash off.  For perhaps the first time, she had noticed how different we were. She was perplexed. So, in a way, she had to say it.

She just had to say: “I didn’t know you were that color all over.”

Her voice pitched high on those last two words, Mom told me, and the statement had all the sincerity of a child who didn’t understand the weight of her words.

Mom repeated the little girl’s words over and over again in her mind and then she laughed inside. I guess the little girl thought I was dirty, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to play with me.

Race is a social construct. All you have to do is talk to children or think about your own childhood to discover this truth.

beautiful hair By SpelHouselove

© SpelHouselove

A few years ago, I took Amari to a MLT info session in New York. Hubby came when he got off work to look after Amari as I served on a volunteer panel. As the Citi staff were setting up the venue, two women asked me if Amari’s dad was white. I said no, and then they asked me if his father was Indian. To that question I said no as well, and added that he was black to stop them from continuing down the cultural list. This was a first for me. I have always realized that Amari’s skin complexion and hair texture appear as though he is multicultural, but I didn’t realize that for the rest of his life when some people look at him they may ask, ‘What is he?’ To some people it is very important to racially determine which bucket a person fits into.

Nevertheless, my sons have a very different hair texture than mine, and I able to simply wet it, apply oil and go. We use Proclaim hair oil in their hair and it has worked for both of them since birth.

SpelHouselove is a blogger and mother of two. SpelHouselove describes relationships between Spelman and Morehouse college graduates. Visit the blog atwww.spelhouselove.com.

GreeceBy Karyn Langhorne Folan

© Karyn Langhorne Folan

I spent an hour or so yesterday completing the forms necessary for my family to travel on our Mediterranean cruise next week. The cruise line asks that you send in your passport information— as well as certain details like your travel plans, your emergency contact and of course, your credit card number for on-ship spending. What I hadn’t expected them to ask was for the primary racial identification of all of our travellers.

It’s funny, I had completed that section for my husband, myself and my older daughter without really thinking about it. White, black, black… and then I came to my baby, who is bi-racial.  I couldn’t call her primarily white any more than I could call her primarily black.  If she were old enough to ask, I would have written whatever she said.  Experts on the subject say that it’s normal for bi-racial children to bounce between racial choices: black at one stage of their growth, white at others. They may also insist on both– or neither, claiming themselves to transcend classification.  I’ve read enough literature to be prepared for Sommer’s choices as she grows older.

But right now, Sommer’s a little shy of 4 years old. At this moment, the choice was mine.  We’ve never come across this before: she goes to a private preschool where the question was never asked. Perhaps in a year or so, we may confront the issue again on some public school form. But this was my first time– my virgin moment– with racial classifications in my own family– and I was surprised my the conflicting emotions it brought up.

I re-read the form. This section was optional– the cruise line was only interested for marketing and consumer information purposes– but I hadn’t hesitated or even questioned the use of their data for the rest of my family. Sommer’s status made me re-think whether that was information that I cared to share– or at least whether the cruise lines marketing database was a good enough reason to provide it.  But righteous indignation aside, there will be other forms, more crucial ones. Medical forms, for example. What is the appropriate response for a child whose parents are of different races?

Organizations like ProjectRace.org have been focusing on this issue for years.  They have lobbied against boxes like “other” and argue that, in our increasingly multiracial society, forms should allows to “check all that apply” instead of being forced into a single category box. The wisdom of this approach seems obvious to me: it allows a person of mixed heritage to honor all of his or her cultural influences.

But the larger questions remain about why any of this matters so much outside of the medical context (where certain genetic markers may affect compatibility of treatments).  What does it say about our society when a cruise line collects racial information “for marketing purposes”? What does it say about our school system if racial heritage is  important information to tracking the performance of a student?

The truth is, if I knew more about my own racial heritage, I could probably check every box on any form you give me— most of us probably could.  I know for certain there is white/Dutch ancestry in family, as well as English/Anglo Saxon blood.  But I’m certain there is a far more rich story that I don’t know and that that rich heritage is present for us all.

Perhaps the ProjectRace.org approach is the beginning: we check as many boxes as apply… until science and geneology make it possible for all of us to check all of the boxes. Only then will the necessity for racial categorization become unnecessary.

For today, I left Sommer’s form blank… and when back and erased the categories for the rest of my family. We’re a family travelling together and that’s really all the cruise line needs to know.

Karyn Langhorne Folan is the author of Don’t Bring Home A White Boy (And Other Notions That Keep Black Women Single) scheduled for release January 2010 from Karen Hunter Media/Simon & Schuster. Visit her websitewww.karynlanghorne.com.

daisy

A minister once told us we were “remarkable.” He wanted to know something about the couple he would marry, and we told him how two military brats had met in an Alabama newsroom, became friends, and then decided to live happily ever after. I remember thinking we weren’t all that remarkable. I mean, people fall in love every day.

I suspect the minister, who had been married as long as I had been on the Earth, knew what we couldn’t have known at the time. Marrying someone of a different race was nothing compared to all the challenges we would later face — buying a house, the death of my mother, the births of Simone and Nadia, getting new jobs, selling a house.

There’s no way to articulate what couples are signing up for when the decide to marry. If you could, I have no doubt many couples folks would not get married.

It is amazing we get through each week with both girls and ourselves intact. It’s not always pretty. We often pinch hit. Ken will start an appointment while I finish work and then I will relieve him so he can go to work. There are drop offs and pick ups, a slew of appointments, deadlines for four. When it all seems too much the girls do or say something, and we laugh at and with them. Now that is what I call remarkable. Maybe that’s what the minister meant all along.

 

table for twoThe hubby and I do not get out much without the girls, but every now and then we pull it off. Our “dates” do not always occur at night, and our latest happened during lunchtime. I will be the first to admit there is not much romance in lunchtime. We chatted, we ate. The food was good, the company was good. Then the check arrived.

“Is this together or separate?”

Most folks don’t give much thought to such a simple question. Waiters and waitresses must ask it — what? — a hundred times a day.

I used to feel the same way, until servers started asking about what I thought was obvious. When we are with the girls, it is common to see one of us chase a toddler around the restaurant while the other performs hand-to-hand combat maneuvers trying to get her sister to eat. I am exaggerating a bit here for effect. My point is, few people would eat out with children, unless they were emotionally invested in the situation. We show up together, we parent together, and we leave together. In other words, we are together.

The lunch waiter probably couldn’t tell the hubby and I were together. I will give him that. I could have been Ken’s boss, or his client, or his fill-in-the-blank.

That said, I have been thinking about how I should answer such questions. This time, I waived my hand in a nonchalant manner and said: “I’m married to him.”

black bird, white bird

I wish Simone had not made the observation.

Brown people, she told me, drive old cars. I looked at Ken with a raised eyebrow. He was not surprised because Simone had told him about her observation a few weeks earlier. When he relayed her message to me, I thought about one of my biggest fears — that some day Simone will identify herself as white and cast aside her black heritage.

Our observant 4-year-old takes good notes. Old cars are square; new cars are round. She has peered into cars and noticed most of the older ones are driven by brown people. She has made no mention about who drives the newer cars.

As her brown mother, I drive an old car, or at least it is older than her father’s car. His car is about a year old. When we purchased it, we decided he would drive it. His commute is much shorter than mine, and we wanted to put all of the miles on my then 3-year-old car. Besides, I love my car and all her dings and dents.

Simone, meanwhile, has noticed her father’s car has a few features my car does not have, and she has asked why. My response: His car is newer; my car is older. I should note that Simone describes me as brown, her father as beige, and herself as tan.

Until now, I have followed a long-held theory. Young children don’t understand the complexities of race; prejudice is learned. What we as parents should do — regardless of the race of our children — is expose them to children of different races, ethnicities, religions and socio-economic backgrounds, and then let nature take its course. Now after observing my own child and reading more than a few articles about the matter, I’m not so sure that is the best approach.

A recent Newsweek magazine article speaks directly to what we have noticed in Simone. She has been making lists and trying to make sense of them. That’s what kids do; that’s how they learn. We teach them their colors, their numbers, their shapes. We teach them to make distinctions. So, why wouldn’t they make distinctions about themselves and others?

The article is an excerpt of “NurtureShock” by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. It turns out Simone is not out of the ordinary. Children as young as 6-months-old judge others based on the color of their skin. Even when researchers have found willing participants to discuss race, many of them didn’t follow through and dropped out of the research.

A quick summary on how we think about race and children has changed:

Then: We assumed children didn’t notice race until we pointed out to them. Now: Evidence shows children identify racial differences much like they see the differences between pink and baby blue — two colors often used to distinguish girls from boys.

Then: Like me, many parents figured children would get the diversity point after we exposed them to different races and cultures. Now: Researchers have found the more diverse the environment, the more likely children self-segregate.

Then: Parents kept quiet about race even when children discussed it. Now: Conversations with children about race should be explicit and put in terms children understand.

Then: Children often told about discrimination were less likely to see the relationship between working hard and achieving goals. Now: Black children who repeatedly hear messages of black pride are more interested in school and more likely to connect their success to their hard work and persistence.

What are parents of a biracial children to do? I have decided to teach more, a lot more. Sure, I told Simone it may appear to her that brown people only drive older cars but that plenty of them drive new cars. I also know we will be discussing why in the not-to-distant future. I have tried to stay out of the way when it comes to race, let Simone come to some of her own conclusions. I am learning, though, she is going to force Ken and me to talk about race more than we previously thought, or had planned. In our case, we can’t simply drop out of the study because it uncomfortable for us to confront the issues.

Four years down, a lifetime to go. To be continued.

Watch the video and then read on.
Much like the airplane above, an airliner I was riding in Nov. 8 attempted to land at Tampa International Airport and touched down on the back wheels, before the pilot aborted the landing and took off again.
The maneuver is called a touch and go. I had seen U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy pilots perform the exercise during airshows, but I had no idea a commercial jet could do the same.
Tropical Storm Ida was in the Gulf of Mexico, kicking up winds and making it quite difficult for airplanes to land. Inside the cabin, I was in front section of the plane sandwiched between a husband who favored the aisle and his wife who preferred the window seat.
The plane tilted back and forth as we approached the runway. I was not worried. I had been on a flight more than 10 years earlier that experienced much worse turbulence during the landing and had been just fine. This time, though, the nose didn’t come down. There was a jolt and suddenly we were airborne again.
The woman seated next to me grabbed my arm, and I clutched her husband’s leg.
As the plane circled the airport, I tried to make sense of what had happened, and the woman next to me criticized the pilot.
“He has an accent,” she said. “Our pilots were trained in the Air Force and Navy, and they know how to fly a plane.”
“Hispanic,” her husband replied.
I scrambled to offer a coherent response that would not lead to a fight on the plane that had just aborted a landing and was being flown by a pilot who sounded Hispanic.
When someone spouts such nonsense, I always tell people to say something, anything in response, or the person who just uttered the xenophobic remark will think you agree with her.
In the most nonjudgmental tone I could find, I said: “Well, you know, he may have been trained in the Air Force or the Navy.”
The woman didn’t say a word. Her husband, though, agreed with me.
Maybe she will think before she speaks next time. Maybe.

closed mind

The Louisiana justice of the peace who refused to marry an interracial couple some 42 years after such marriages were legalized in the United States resigned Tuesday.

Keith Bardwell could only muster one sentence in his resignation letter to Louisiana Secretary of State Jay Dardenne and gave no explanation.

“I do hereby resign the office of Justice of the Peace for the Eighth Ward of Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, effective November 3, 2009.”

What took so long?

Certainly Bardwell realized before now that his thoughts, feelings and actions were out of step with mainstream America. Certainly he knew his reasoning about protecting the children rang hollow. Certainly he knew that even if President Barack Obama identifies as African-American, the Commander-in-chief is the product of an interracial union.

Beth Humphrey, who is white, and her husband, Terence McKay, who is black, was not the first interracial couple Bardwell had turned away. They, like untold others, obtained a marriage license and a list of people who could perform the ceremony from the parish clerk of court. After Humphrey called Bardwell’s office Oct. 6 to schedule the nuptials, Humphrey said Bardwell’s wife told her the justice wouldn’t sign their marriage license because they were a “mixed couple.”

To make matters worse, Bardwell, who is white, acknowledged he routinely declined to marry interracial couples because he believes children born to them are not embraced by either race. When interracial couples asked to be married, he said he referred the couples to other justices of the peace, who then performed the ceremony.

“There is a problem with both groups accepting a child from such a marriage,” Bardwell said in an October interview with The Associated Press. “I think those children suffer, and I won’t help put them through it.”

He could not be more wrong.

Children born out of love thrive. Yes, biracial and multiracial children may have to form their own racial identity, but that does not mean, in any way, they don’t deserve to be born or that anyone should decide whether their parents should marry.

Bardwell should have known better. Certainly he realized couples do not have to be married to have children. Certainly he knew 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. Certainly he knew no one had appointed him, one justice of the peace in Louisiana, with the burden of looking out for the interest of children.

Even if he did not know those truths, he understood the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-miscegenation laws on June 12, 1967, and Chief Justice Earl Warren delivered the opinion in Loving v. Virginia.

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law. The Fourteenth Amendment requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.

It doesn’t get any clearer than that. Bye, Bardwell.

I spotted this at Fierce and Nerdy and just had to share it with Honeysmoke readers. This post reminded me of when Simone and Nadia were infants. (Yes, time goes by very fast.) For this mommy and her beautiful daughter, race hasn’t come up. Color, though, has been an issue. Take a look.

Is it me, Mr. Giraffe, or does my future look awfully bright?By Ernessa T. Carter

© Copyright 2009

So by far one of my most popular posts has been “Raising Biracial Children,” which I wrote before I had any actual Biracial children living outside my womb or the gleam in my eye. I suspected as I was writing it that my perspective would change once I actually had said child, and I have to say that I was pretty much right about that.

I think what has been most surprising is how little I think about Betty being biracial. Beforehand, I thought this would be a subject that would stay on my mind 24/7, but in reality being a new mother eclipses all issues of race. For example:

Day 1: Oh my God, she turns red when she cries! Is that normal? (I am assured by my white husband and Betty’s doctor that it is).

At 1 week: I’m not thinking about the color of her skin, I’m thinking about the color of her poo. What’s up with the green tint?(Doctor says it’s the formula we’ve been supplementing her with for the jaundice.

At 2 weeks: Oh no, not diaper rash!

At 6 weeks: Yes, let’s talk about Betty’s skin. Seriously, what’s up with this baby acne all over her face, back, stomach, and neck? That can’t be normal. (Doctor once again assures us it is and it goes away in 2 weeks.)

3 months: Look at Betty’s gums. Do you think she’s teething early? Also, Betty seems to get a little confused when my sister comes to visit. (Though she doesn’t really like strangers at this point, Betty decides that she digs this Sorta-Looks-Like-Mommy. This will kick off a trend of her being extra smiley with dark-skinned black women. Funny.)

4 months: I love this baby fat! In fact, I just made up a crunk song called, “Do the Chubby Leg.” Do you think we should record it for YouTube? (CH just laughs and shakes his head. Not sure if that’s a yes or a no.)

As you can see, race hasn’t really come up with Betty yet, but let’s not sleep, we know it  will eventually. So over the next week I want to explore these questions:

1. Special, Lucky, or Confused? Do we really need to spin biracial?

2. How responsible are you for your child’s views on race?

3. Protection vs. Prevention vs. Preparedness.

So do come back  and weigh in on all of these topics. Til then, if you want to hear more of my thoughts on pregnancy and new motherhood, the kind folks over at Mommie2Be have made me their October Mommie of the Month, and I answered a bunch of questions on both topics.

Oh, and one more announcement. I decided to dedicate the last week of our Month of Minefields to Feminism. Like Religion, this isn’t a topic people asked me to write on, but I’ve been having so many discussions about it lately, I thought it would be a good one to bring to the table. Hit me up in the comments if you have any thoughts on subtopics for this one. I’m open.

100% Best,

etc

Ernessa T. Carter is the daughter of Betty and Ernest Carter and was born in St. Louis, MO. Despite hating when people decide that they are slashed careerists (i.e. She promptly ends conversations if anyone says with a straight face “I’m an actor/director/writer/producer”), she is nonetheless a slashed writer — a novelist/playwright/screenwriter, who enjoys blogging and writing too long sentences in her spare time. Some days she’s more fierce. Some days she’s more nerdy. But she’s always fierce and nerdy, and therefore somewhat chagrined that she actually wrote an entire paragraph in the third person. Please forgive her. Also, she lives and works in Los Angeles with her wonderful husband, CH.