My skin is peanut butter brown, and the natural texture of my dark hair can only be described as kinky. I’m married to a man who’s fair skinned and a bit freckled, with the kind of glossy, brown, loose curls any woman would die for. You might call me Black and him White. Or, if you’re more politically correct about such matters you’d say I’m African American, and he’s Caucasian. I don’t mind these terms, but they don’t seem to encompass the rich symphony of heritage that runs through either of our veins.
My husband Mike is adopted and grew up mainly in the well-fed nest of his mother’s Italian family. How is it that something like the pasta noodle, which is basically just a mixture of flour, salt, and egg, can become an altogether rapturous experience when formed between the right fingers? Their meals aren’t just meals, they are events and often events of great magnitude when the whole family gets together. Jealous, yet? (I am, by the way, eternally grateful to have been grafted into this family!) It’s been easy to imagine Mike as Italian.
But lo and behold, upon finding his birth parents, Mike’s recently discovered that he’s half Turkish. Oh, wait. So now, is he Turkish American? Turkish-Italian-Scotch-Irish-Applachian American? Each nationality could be assumed – each has played its part in shaping who he is.
And how about me? I know that in several places in my family tree, a few randy plantation owners probably impregnated some of their house slaves. I was always told vaguely by my parents, “Yeah, we have some Scotch-Irish blood, somewhere,” as if blood was wont to wander.
Then there is the recently surfaced story of my great-grandmother, who, as the dentist’s wife, was a prominent member of the black community in the small Oklahoma town in which she lived, until she began “taking up with” a Cherokee man in the woods. Enter my granddad. Once he was born, the nice dentist and his wife shipped him off to some relatives a few towns over – I suppose the reddish hues in the child’s skin were too much a reminder of the indiscretion.
So yes, technically we’re all partially immigrants in this melting pot of a country, and yes, race is a cultural construct. Most of us are “mixed” when it comes down to it – unless your family is of aristocratic and incestuous leanings (in which case, the question begs to be asked, how have you made it into the 21st century?).
Mixed. It’s not an ugly word, is it? How about Oreo? (No, not the cookie.) Woodchip? Zebra? All words that I was worried, despite how far we’ve come from the Three-Fifths Compromise, could possibly be hurled at my daughter when I found out I was pregnant. Spending most of my teenage years in a rural suburb west of Atlanta, Georgia had taught me that words such as this, and worse, were not dead.
Five and a half years later, I’ve not heard my daughter’s race really referred to directly at all (at least, certainly not within earshot). Maybe I hang out with a different crowd than I did as a teen. The only term I’ve heard a friend use was “swirly,” and it was most certainly affectionate, as she is married to a man of another race and will be having swirly babies herself. Most people just smile at my daughter and say, “What a pretty girl.” (And in hopes of lightening the load of baggage that statement will bring, we also tell her how smart, independent, and strong she is.)
It turns out that so far, unlike the warning given to Mike and I by well meaning adults before we married (who were worried about how people would treat our bi/multi/trans-racial children in the South), our daughter hasn’t borne the brunt of any sort of small-mindedness. At least not yet, and I pray she never does.
But I still see it, and it is mostly directed at me. Once, while at the library with my daughter, a librarian told me dismissively that “the nanny doesn’t have to pay the overdue fines” when I reached into my pocket to resolve the fines leftover from too many days with Dr. Suess.
Or, there are those times when my family is together in a restaurant and the waitress/cashier will look between Mike and me and ask, “Is this check going to be together, or separate?” I mean, I get their confusion and desire to avoid redoing the check. Our daughter, upon first glance, with the same glossy curls and ever-so-tanned skin, is “white” like her Dad. I just wonder how many other families, you know, the ones with monochromatic skin tones, get asked the same question.
Yes, I get annoyed with adults who seem bewildered by the fact that a black woman is tied to people with “white” skin, as if a family is singularly determined by markers of appearance. It’s natural to search for easy indicators of connections between people, I know. Race just happens to be one of those. Or age. Or gender. But I say, if you’re going to be in the business of categorizing families, let a family be determined by the quality of their interaction. By love apparent.
I’m curious – what kinds of experiences have you had in the wider world as a bi/trans/multi______ family?