What's in a Name?

Monday, January 16, 2012

I've mentioned that I'm white, right? Middle America, German heritage? And I've mentioned that my husband is Black ( his preferred term)? Detroit raised, black panther parents?

Yep. We are.

This makes our daughter bi-racial, which is our preferred term for her heritage. Please don't make the mistake of calling a bi-racial child "mulatto", which is a term laden with historical baggage of slavery, rape or otherwise unequal power relationships. And no, she isn't "high yellow", which was another less than kind version of the same thing. Or "mixed". Or "light-skinned"

She has two distinct racial heritages. She is bi-racial.

The problem ( such as it is)  is that she is also Black.

As her mother, I have to recognize and prepare her for the reality of living in our society. She will be viewed as a woman of color - specifically a black woman. She will never be able to assert her whiteness, for it is visually clear that she is not white.

Were she to walk into a room filled with white people and announce "I'm white", she would receive puzzled and angry expressions. Were she to walk into a room of black people and announce "I'm white", she would be accused of trying to "pass" as white, or worse denying her black heritage.

What does that leave her? What does that leave me, as her mother? Do I teach her to downplay my cultural background to save her the problem of explaining her parents marriage and her birth?  Does she grow ashamed of being white in a society which can not and will not recognize her as being part white in a positive manner?

Emily has the great fortune to have been the planned only child to two well-educated parents who were fully aware of the issues facing children of bi-racial heritage. We considered if we would be strong enough to equip a child with the tools he or she would need to face the institutionalized racism inherent in our society. We decided that we were. We decided that our extended family was strong enough to lend any child the support they would need. We have carefully taken steps to expose her to as much cultural diversity as we could find in our corner of New Hampshire. She spends summers with her grandparents in Detroit to soak up the culture of her father. She knows that the families of her friends are made up of loving parents, even same sex parents.

(* a moment of Mommy pride? When Emily handily refuted a playmates assertion that everyone had to have a mommy and a daddy - which Emily said wasn't true cause her friend Zoe has two mom's!)

To my knowledge, the worst racial "name" Emily has been called was when she was told that "she was black, so she didn't have any friends." I am not so naive as to think that this will be the only comment she will encounter, but it was damaging enough in the context in which it was delivered to her.

My family talks about the issue of race and culture in America every day. We have to. Our daughter's self image and self esteem depends on the manner in which we prepare her for the external societal experience.

Can you do me a favor? Can you start talking about this in your family too? Cause someday, my daughter will be out there - with your children.  I want her to be accepted and comfortable in her skin. I want your children to see Emily, as she is - not a label, not a name-  but as a beautiful whole person.

Originally published May 18, 2006 at The Gimlet Eye

Having lived in Montreal for nearly six years, I can safely say that Emily has known "cultural diversity" in so many ways - Ethnic, Religious, Language - that I now worry about our return to the US.

Even here, she has been told she is not Black...since her friends see her as possibly First Nations, or of Latin descent. She has had friends from India, much darker skinned than she, call each other black and tell her she was not black. During one trip to New York City, Latinas would constantly come up to us and begin to speak with us  - admiring Emily. They believed that her father had to be Hispanic, and since Terrance was not with us at the time, there was no identifiable partner to my White-white-girlness.

Last year, she had her first incident of having a dark skinned girl dislike her ( and verbally disparage her) because she was light skinned with "good" hair.  Don Lemon's opinion piece on CNN still holds a great deal of truth in many black american families and communities. It still takes only one drop for many people.

Yesterday, I was showing her pictures I have been scanning in of her as a baby. At her second birthday, we had invited a friend of hers, from child care, over. Brandon was, like her, biracial - with a white mom and black dad.

Emily looked at the pictures and was shocked. She had forgotten Brandon, and certainly forgotten that he was like her, biracial in an extremely white state.  In her surprise, she blurted out, "He's coloured!" - which was her brain mixing up words and concepts and even languages.

Her father freaked out.


As he barrelled into my bedroom yelling "WHERE DID YOU HEAR THAT WORD?! TELL ME RIGHT NOW. DID ONE OF YOUR FRIENDS USE THAT WORD?", Emily's mien was that of one confused person. She had no idea what she had said that caused such an intense reaction in her father.

I had to put my hand out and stop him - remind him that I don't think she had a concept of that word as derogatory, given our many years here in Montreal, where racism isn't encountered in the same forms as it lives in the US.

(Racism is alive and well in Montreal, don't get me wrong, it just lurks in different forms. "Mulatto" is still a term used here, as it has a different cultural context, not to mention we are in  French speaking province)

After I had calmed him down, I explained to her that "coloured" was a term of prejudice, used in signs and language of segregation that existed in the not terribly distant past. That her father heard that word as one of disrespect, of racism.  That his instinct remains that of a man who was born in 1961, a year when our marriage would have still be illegal, and before the Civil Rights movement.

So do my family still talk about issues of race? Yep. Nearly Everyday.

I suspect we always will.

3 Baleful Regards:

Teena in Toronto said...

She's lucky she has two races to be proud of.

Anonymous said...

It might be easier for her, back in the States, than you imagine. I'm in Boston, and my (half Black, half Puerto Rican) girls have so many half-this and half-that cousins and friends at school I can hardly believe it. It's funny because my oldest daughter's two closest friends are half Black American/half Jewish, and half Senegalese/half Irish American respectively. The three of them look like sisters when they're together but their backgrounds are completely different. It's wonderful.


Anonymous said...

I would not worry too much - she is beautiful on the outside and you are seeing to it that she will also be beautiful on the inside - good job!

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