What Strangers Shouldn’t Say to My Interracial Family That Doesn’t “Match”


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By Alicia Barnes, liciabobesha.com

When I was pregnant, I felt sorry for my husband. I knew our child was going to be brown, lighter than me but still brown like me. I knew he was going to have thick curls that turned into an afro before he could even hold his own head up. I felt bad because my husband would be the fair face in all of our photos and that it would be hard for him not to have his kids look like him.

Then I gave birth, and had I not given birth at home, and had the baby not look so much like my husband, I may have doubted he was my own:

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To my complete surprise, I was the parent who didn’t look like the child, and I was right to worry it would be hard for D because when families don’t match people’s expectations, they can say awful rude things to strangers under the excuse of curiosity.

So the photos from the recently released book, A Beautiful Body Project  have been flooding my facebook wall. The project is a collection of photos focusing on the real bodies of mothers without airbrushing out the stretch marks, sagging skin, wrinkles, fat, or any perceived imperfections. A noble cause that speaks to many women, yet the comments I saw about this photo made my heart sink:

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“Adopted?”

“I don’t think any negative was meant by the adopted children comment. I too assumed they were adopted as they look a different race than the mother.”

Let me say this as clearly and directly as I can, birth is not a qualifier for motherhood. A photo essay about mothers should rightfully include adoptive mothers, or mothers as I call them.

Also, shared race is not a qualifier of being a mother to a child. In the photo in question, I saw a mother and her two daughters. When I looked at their faces, I saw the mother’s eyes and nose present in her daughters. Unfortunately, too many people never get that far.  They never look at the faces or into eyes. They never see people. They only see that the skin is different, and suddenly they are vocally in public calling into question someone’s parenthood.

Some of us birth kids who don’t look like us, and it’s hurtful for people to question our status.

It’s upsetting that people’s minds more easily go to adoption than to interracial relationship to explain a photo like that even when there’s physical resemblance.

It’s upsetting that even in 2014, it’s not even in the realm of possibility in some people’s minds that these kids are biologically hers and they automatically assign her the role as adopter while minority moms with fair kids are too often assumed to be the nanny.

I know it’s hurtful from the mom perspective. I can’t imagine it’s nice from the children’s perspective to have strangers seeming to question the validity of their families. I know people are not meaning to be malicious. I’ve had people use it as a conversation opener to tell me about their family members who don’t look like they belong, but the fact is by bringing it up, you’re telling someone you think their family doesn’t belong together, at least visually, and that’s no good.

Because I know most communities are still very segregated and homogenous, I am writing this post to say, what someone’s family looks like is not polite conversation, and while you may just be curious, your curiosity is not an excuse to tell people their families don’t match. It’s not ok to ask people where they got their kids from. It’s not ok to ask people if their kids are adopted if you’re only looking for confirmation of why their skin doesn’t match. There are ways to have kind conversations about race and adoption that aren’t based assumptions that insult people’s families. The key to me is to first realize they are people and they are families and to ground your comments and questions in that knowledge. By doing so, any simple curiosity questions of matching disappear because matching is irrelevant, and you’ll realize what you probably want to say is oh look at that beautiful family.

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I am not the only voice in this conversation. Here are other people’s stories to consider:

What Adopting a White Girl Taught One Black Family 

As a black father and adopted white daughter, Mark Riding and Katie O’Dea-Smith are a sight at best surprising, and at worst so perplexing that people feel compelled to respond.[…] And the time when well-intentioned shoppers followed Mark and Katie out of the mall to make sure she wasn’t being kidnapped. Or when would-be heroes come up to Katie in the cereal aisle and ask, “Are you OK?”—even though Terri is standing right there.
“I’ve never felt more self-consciously black than while holding our little white girl’s hand in public.” He used to write off the negative attention as innocent curiosity.

***

10 Things You Should Never Say To The Parent Of A Mixed Race Child

7. “Is he yours?”

This only happens when my husband and I are together. He’s clearly black, I’m clearly white. There is always a pause and a quizzical look when I introduce him or he introduces me. Now, this could be just because of the different family dynamics that exist in our world today – maybe it has nothing to do with the fact that we are different races. But I can’t help but think that it does. I think we look like a family and I’m not quite sure why this confuses people sometimes.

***
NOPE! I’M NOT THE NANNY, JUST A BLACK MOM, THANKS

Is that your baby? The question, though not intentionally malicious, implies, of course, that I am more likely the nanny, not the mother. But it cuts deeper than that. It’s actually asking me to claim my child, to prove that I am the true owner. It is an affront to nothing short of our identities.

Some background: I’m black and my husband is white. Our little sweet potato is a clear merger of these genetic facts. On some level, this question is merely a result of a failure of imagination, the inability of others to envision our connection. But it’s also based on twisted assumptions about race, entitlement and socioeconomics.

***

Talking to My Biracial Child About Why People Think She’s Adopted

“And in the grand scheme of things, getting asked all the time if you’re adopted is probably one of the less annoying/irritating things about racism. Sure, people are curious. As a curious person myself, I don’t begrudge people their questions. But I wonder, as the world becomes more and more multicultural if there will come a time when it won’t seem so unusual to see a brown child with a white mom and immediately wonder if the child is adopted.”

***
No, I’m not the nanny: When you don’t look like your kids

“Walking around in Brooklyn, people just assumed I was the nanny, ” she says. “One woman actually suggested I get DNA testing done because perhaps my baby had been switched at the hospital — ‘because they can make mistakes, ‘ is what she said.”

***

I’m Not the Nanny: a site for mothers who are raising multiracial kids that may not look like them:

“As the mom of biracial children, I’ve been mistaken for the nanny, depending on which DC Metro park I visit. I started this site as a way to share the challenges and joys of raising biracial children.”

Have you had any experiences with strangers saying something they shouldn’t?  How did you respond? 

Alicia lives in a small college town that often challenges her resolve to live as simply and as stress-free as possible. When she’s not working, rereading the same children’s books, cooking, or wondering how crunchy she’s become, she’s busy updating her site,  liciabobesha.com. You can follow her on facebook.

About Alicia B

Alicia lives and took a semester of photography in a small college town that often challenges her resolve to live as simply and as stress-free as possible. When she’s not working, rereading the same children’s books, cooking, or wondering how crunchy she’s become, she’s busy updating her site, liciabobesha.com. You can follow her on facebook.


  • Maxine

    Your son is gorgeous,very beautiful but I am real as can be and think we have to have an open mind.
    While I would not say the things described,I have unwittingly said certain things in jest,without meaning to be rude,if your children do not look like you and someone says something…dont always take it personally its natural for people to presume or critique,they may be completely innocent.

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    • Ugonna Wosu

      why not advise people like yourself on how to behave instead of telling her to just be cool with it? It is rude, period. Truth is, a lot of rudeness is innocent, but is still rude.

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      • Alicia B

        Yes, yes it is. That’s why I wrote it!

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    • Alicia B

      I know most people are just curious and unwittingly being hurtful, but it is hurtful, so I wrote the piece. I’ve had lots of people tell me they didn’t even think about how that would be for a child to continually hear those things, and they were glad for my post so that they would be more careful not to say those things.

      I am not perfect. I’ve said things I shouldn’t have said, but I love hearing others perspectives because it helps me make more kind decisions with how I interact with people.

      Thanks for your comment.

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      • Trina

        Thank you for your post! I am white and my husband is black and we have a beautiful brown baby girl. I have been asked twice If she’s adopted and it does hurt and is irritating and no one should be cool with it. I simply said “nope she came out of my vagina”. As it was said earlier, people simply see the skin color and don’t look past it and actually see that she has my big eyes, my chin, the same dimple and crooked grin when she smiles. How about thinking outside the box first and realize she is the product of an interracial couple.

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  • Sherri

    Thank you for writing this! I did many double and triple takes of my first child. I’m very brown-skinned and she is fair skinned, even more so when she was born. But she looks just like her daddy, who is a blend of Latino and white, so like you, I knew she was his! And I was recently wondering if there are resources that provide insight on parenting multiracial children. As my kids get older, I notice their perspective of the world becomes more clearly defined and I want them to love and appreciate all parts of their heritage. Thanks again!

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    • Alicia B

      There are resources out there. Some great sociology based books. One called Raising Biracial Children. This sounds like a post topic I need to develop. The link to I’m not the nanny has some good resources as well.

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  • http://thenaturalhavenbloom.com Jc

    I have asked the ‘Is he yours?’ question to a friend who I had not seen for nearly 5-6 years and not because of the race of the child (who did happen to be mixed race and the father black). We just bumped into each other on the street and he was with son and I asked if this was his son so that I could congratulate him.

    My kids will be mixed race too and I would not take offence to that particular question. Are you the nanny……now that is rude……if you asked me that, there is an eighth hell that you are going to find.

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  • Courtney

    I’m the type of person that automatically assumes that if an adult is with children (and its not obviously a birthday party) they are the parent either biologically or through adoption. I get excited whenever I see a biracial child and the mom is black and the dad is white/Hispanic/Asian because they’re like me and you dont see that combo to often.

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  • Helena

    I truly appreciate this article. I do not have children yet, but I’m in an interracial marriage so I may face the same problem. My friend has the same problem with her children since they all came out the same complexion as their father who is Hispanic, she is black. I think it’s a struggle how to deal with these issues and I’m glad to see it written, so others can see it as well.

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  • Cathy

    What are you?

    That’s what my daughter gets all the time. Black mother/white father and for some reason everybody thinks she’s Latina, specifically Colombian. Go figure.

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  • Erika

    I’m black and my husband is Mexican and we have a six year old daughter. She is very light skinned with half moon shaped eyes and long silky hair. In other words, she looks nothing like me. However, I don’t feel it’s any stranger’s business or right to know why she looks like she does, so I have recently made a conscious effort not to answer any questions related to her parentage, looks, etc. i don’t feel any responsibility to satisfy the world’s curiosity, so if someone asks about her hair, her skin, her looks in general, I just that’s how she was born and leave it at that. If they ask what race her father is, I say human. It sounds rude, but it’s also rude to ask a complete stranger personal questions. No one has any right to get offended, and if they do, that’s just their problem. I don’t get offended, I just don’t answer and I keep it moving. And I hope in the future if/when someone asks her directly “what she is” (as if there is a valid reason to ever open your mouth to say this to someone) she learns from her mama and does the same.

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  • Kelly

    My dad is black, my mom is white. And forever people have had the rudest attitudes toward us, from the mean ones “oh, where did you adopt her?” to the innocent yet very hurtful one “you don’t look anything like your mother. At all.”. Please, if you have bi racial kids, teach them early that they DO LOOK LIKE YOU. It’s been very difficult for me as a mixed girl to be unable to relate physically to my mother.I think she didn’t realized the struggle and never took the time to do so, until very recently (and i’m 25…).
    And as a half black half white woman, marrying soon and indian man, i’m VERY worried about that issue : what will our kids look like? Will I be able to make them feel that they are a little bit of their dad and their mom? because that’s exactly the point, when you are mixed, you are ‘everything’. And if your parent don’t take the time to teach and show you that ‘everything’ means ‘everything from mum and dad’, well, you end up feeling that you are nothing and belonging to nowhere. And you let ignorant and rude people ruin your perception of yourself and your family.
    Great article, very moving!

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  • mizzpicklezz

    This happens to me ( I am fair skinned with freckles)the questions and the one I can’t stand “Are YOU sure you aren’t white?” I am not biracial if I was I’d confirm it. It also happens when my son is out with his father who is black and not bi-racial. My son is fair with bright red hair, freckles he looks quite Irish actually, but he isn’t. My husband is a darker almost cinnamon colored brown. My husband was asked in OR by the OB/GYN if he was sure that my son was his! Your son looks like you especially in the photo where you both are smiling. I don’t know why people get caught up on skin color.

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    • kalexa1

      If you’re of west indian origin it’s quite likely it’s a gene throwback to slavery days ancestry, where many Irish were amongst many other europeans in the west indies and mixed with black people. I’ve seen this occasionally in west indian circles.
      Also, I think the little boy in the photo where both are smiling looks mostly like his father feature-wise. Guess it’s a subjective thing.

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  • Katharine

    I was honestly shocked to read this. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in Toronto (in Canada) my entire life, where it is EXTREMELY common to see biracial children, but I’ve never assumed that a child that with darker or lighter skin is adopted. And children here are not just mixed with black and white, they are often mixed with Black and Asian, Indian and Asian, Indian and Black, or Asian and White, and this is never an issue that I’ve come into contact with, and I have many friends and family with biracial children. I also happen to live in an area where a lot of people have nannies.

    Parts of Canada definitely have their racial issues, but I think people here (in Toronto, at least) are just polite enough to keep them to themselves.

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