Considering the Biracial Conversation

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

At our engagement party, my mother-in-law gave me two little dolls. Action figures posed on a boat — the Love Boat, of course. The woman doll was black and the man, white. They were cute, these Mini Wes, and I treasured them instantly. When I was pregnant with our son, my mother-in-law giddily handed over the additions to the doll collection: two babies in carriers. She had been holding on to them for over three years. The girl baby, dressed in pink everything, is black, while the boy is blond and sports a tiny blue outfit. “That’s all they had,” she said, with a mix of annoyance and disappointment (aimed at the toy manufacturers, I gathered).

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One day our son, now 4 years old, was playing with the figures, bending their legs, twisting their arms, and taking them to see the wooden elephant at the zoo. He pointed to the doll family, “That’s you, mama. That’s daddy. And . . . ” he paused, looking at the two babies carefully, “this is me.” He pointed to the blond.

I asked him why he chose that one, trying to sound as innocuous as possible while my heart raced and thoughts like, “We never should’ve left diverse Brooklyn for central Connecticut — it’s 82.3 percent white here!” trampled over my good sense.

His answer to my potentially loaded question was casual and plain, “Because this is the boy, Mom! And I’m a boy.” (Thankfully he’s not yet old enough to add in a salty, “Duh!”)

I’ve thought a lot about race and identity as it relates to my kid even before he was born. Now that he’s here, I still have questions. More specific, I have questions about how to prepare my son for “The Question.” That wildly disorienting question people of mixed ancestry will certainly face: What Are You?

As this kid moves (too quickly, sometimes) out of toddlerhood, making a fast break towards Little Kid Ville, he’s able to follow more, interpret and reason more. Along with an ever-expanding vocabulary, there’s also a level of cognition that surprises me daily. Yes, he’s capable of understanding layered things like how the seasons, sun and moon, and the year’s calendar relate to each other, but could he also grasp a more nuanced and intricate concept like race? It’s certainly not as simple or literal as black and white, and the only clear thing about race is that it’s often a murky subject for adults too. How, then, do I introduce it to a fresh, bright mind? Do I enter it by talking about skin color or should I put the focus on cultural awareness instead?

Granted, right now for a child his age the main difference in people seems to be that boys have penises and girls do not. He’s also noticed that some of his friends have straight hair while others have curly ‘dos like him. Outside of that, I don’t think any other variations register with the little guy. My introducing all these other textures might confuse more than enlighten, and the answer to this crucial question of identity — one that he essentially needs to figure out for himself — doesn’t need more convolutions.

I think about the reaction my Asian friend got from the 4-year-old niece of her white fiancé when she said to the girl, in passing, “Did you know I’m Chinese?” The little girl’s eyes grew into moons, my friend said. It was if she had said, “Did you know I’m a princess?” The girl was baffled, evidenced by her followed-up question, “But why are you Chinese?”

Yeah, for some, 4 might be a tad young to broach this potential Rubik’s Cube. The best I can do is cobble together a plan — or at least a raw blueprint — for when that part of my son’s curiosity clicks on and he comes up with his own questions and thoughts on race. From there, I’ll play it as it comes. Who knows what this kid will wonder about regarding his identity and place in this world? However, I do know one thing: we won’t be traveling down the “we don’t see color” road, because that’s venturing into the absurd and simply untrue.

I’ll aim to be as open and forthcoming as I can be while remembering one key point: I know what it’s like to be a black person, my husband knows what it’s like to be a white person, but neither of us know what it means to be both of these things at once.

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My original essay appears on Mom.me’s blog. You can read it here.

1 Comment
  • 1
    Catherine says:

    “We never should’ve left diverse Brooklyn for central Connecticut…” This sounds familiar. I’m the only person of colour who goes to our local toddler group. Many areas in the UK are now so multicultural yet sometimes in a conversation I don’t mind mentioning I’m not from here originally. I had only one experience, and this was many years ago, that it was the other party who brought it up (in a way) and I felt uncomfortable because she was only three years old. She told me, “Hello, I’m Emily. I live in England.” I thought it should be an innocent remark, but the only thing on my mind at that moment was what this white child saw or heard that could make her imply I must live in another country (when we were, in fact, both in England that time).

    I’m not thinking yet how to talk to my daughter about things like this, and just hope that in spite of the occasional strange comments she’ll get, she’ll be closely surrounded by people, say, like our white friends and their children who don’t treat her or me any differently.