Nope! I’m Not the Nanny, Just a Black Mom

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On Monday I was over at xoJane talking about being mistaken for the nanny (by way of the rude and totally unnecessary question, “Is that your baby?”). The post also introduced the name of the book I’m working on called Nope! Not the Nanny. Call it my final answer to the absurd question: Is that your baby?

There were plenty of comments — over 350 of them, last I checked. Women shared their similar stories, talk about the outrageous things others have said to them or about them (truly galling things, I tell you!), all of it based on assumptions and a warped social construct in this country. And, as I’ve said before, while I don’t suspect that the people asking mothers of color and mothers of mixed heritage families things like “Is that your baby?” are being intentionally malicious, the implications are still hurtful and damaging.

So, have a read of the piece (pasted down below), and weigh in with your take on this. Share your experienced with “nanny assumptions” below in the comments or  Tweet me and add #NotTheNanny.

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I can still see it — feel it — as clear as yesterday. Four years ago, I had walked to the bodega on the corner of my Brooklyn block and stepped into a rude awakening. All it took was one question, four words, from the man behind the lottery desk to completely cut me to the core: Is that your baby?

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He wasn’t the first person to throw this query my way. I had maybe heard it three or four other times while out strolling my baby boy through the hipster BK streets. But this was the time when something clicked — when I stopped pretending the whole thing was some odd coincidence, when the insult of it all sunk in.

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.

Black woman pushing a baby who’s the color of milky tea in a stroller and they are in high-end Brooklyn? Oh, then she must be the babysitter. In fact, let’s ask her what her rates are, and if she’s available to take on another job. (Yes, I’ve had other mothers of color tell me this has happened to them.)

Is that your baby?

“Of course he’s my baby, dummy!” That’s what I wanted to say, and a few times I came so close to dropping propriety and my Canadian disposition to say exactly that (with a few spicy words and some Biggie Smalls lyrics mixed in because, Brooklyn).

Yes, he’s my baby, the tiny person who I have loved from the moment I saw him in the 2D grey-scale glossy photo, the size of a shimmying peanut. But here you come, a stranger with four words, to pierce the bubble of joy and love and pride. It’s galling. It’s rude. And it’s unnecessary.

Actually, I have some questions for your question: Why do you need to know? How is it going to change our impending interaction? Will you temper what you say based on my relationship to the baby? Does my family’s particular genetic breakdown need to be an open book in order to help calm your “just curious” mind? I’ve been waiting an unreasonable amount of time for those answers. (YOU AIN’T GOT THE ANSWERS, SWAY!)

And I’m not alone, sadly. Countless mothers of color, mothers of mixed heritage families and transracial adoptions can add their tasteless stories to the sour stew. People asking these women inappropriate things about their kids like, “What country did you get them?” and “What are they — really?” or “Will you teach them their mother tongue?” Come on, man.

It would be laughable if it weren’t so disrespectful and humiliating. The bigger question is: what’s with the need to squeeze others (and especially The Other) into a pre-existing framework, i.e., all families should look the same and alike?

The choreography to this rhythmless dance we’re doing around race and progress in this country can leave your head spinning. Three steps forward: Black President in the White House. Two steps back: Interracial family in a Cheerios commercial causes absurd panic on the Internet. And get ready for the low dip: Fogey Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes about “people with conventional views [repressing] a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.” Gag reflex? Good Lord, I’m afraid and a little heartsick thinking about how this uneven waltz might end.

As I moved deeper into motherhood, I heard this questionable question less and less. (Except for the time I got nanny’d by the furniture delivery guy this summer. But that was more about class than children, and definitely a story for another time.) Maybe it’s because my son, now 4.5 years old, looks a lot like me, or it could be the fact that he basically says “mama-mama-mama-mama” on loop when we’re out together that strangers don’t come at me with “Is that your baby?” anymore. But this doesn’t mean that the question has been retired.

People still feel fine letting the most impolite things leave their mouths around mothers of mixed heritage families. I’m even writing a book about this and the many other challenges mothers of color stare down on the daily. It’s called Nope! Not the Nanny: Stories of Race and Motherhood, and it’s my resounding answer to the question: Is that your baby?

What’s the most outrageous thing anyone has asked or said to you about your mixed heritage family? Tweet me and add #NotTheNanny.

6 Comments
  • 1
    Alyssa says:

    Growing up, my white mother got plenty of “Are these your kids?” questions when she had us three biracial kids in tow! Not sure if people thought she was the nanny, but I bet people thought we were adopted!

    As a biracial person, the list of outrageous things people say to me on a regular basis are too numerous to list in one comment :)

  • 2
    marilyn tineo schmidt says:

    My friend forwarded your article to me and all i did was nod in agreement throughout. I’m Dominican, and not *fair-skinned* …but within my family runs many colors and hair textures. I married a man from Holland, and *low and behold* through me arrives a little white baby with hair so blond that you couldn’t see his eyebrows. From that point on, I *knew* that I would be questioned … and so I was – Constantly!!! My most famous encounter happened while I was teaching a mommy and me class at the local YMCA in NJ. My then 6 month old baby was in the nursery next door and was brought to me by one of the caregivers. They were unable to calm him .. and so I held him for a few minutes and went about teaching the class. At the end of the class, one of the mothers came up to me and asked ‘how’ I was allowed to teach the class while I was a nanny to the baby I held in my arms. Most importantly, why would the baby’s family allow this to happen. I took her to the side and told her that I was sleeping with the father of the child and b/c of that, I was allowed to do whatever I wanted with the baby. She looked horrified and I proceeded in asking if she was married and if she need a nanny for her child. I waited a few seconds for her to calm down and before I told her that the baby was mine, and his father was my husband. …and that I wanted to give her some advice: “Always ASSUME that the person with the child is their parent … no matter how odd it may seem. Let them CORRECT you and say that they aren’t. And to remember that children hear the conversations of adults and should never have to hear such nonsense…. Just Assume”

  • 3
    Mitzi says:

    My children are half Filipino and ecuadorian. They absolutely look like their father. Time and time again I am asked if they are my children. Once I was even asked if I was babysitting!? It is very rude especially when I am being stared down by Asian people and they are pointing. I have no idea what they are saying. It may be something nice, who knows. Whether I have given birth,adopted, fostered my kids. Whether they look like me or don’t. They are mine so please stop asking me.

  • 4
    Jupiter says:

    My step-kids are white/Panamanian/mestizo. I’m always floored by the “WHAT are they?” question. When they lived with us (they’re both adults now), people asked if I had exchange students living with us and where they were from.
    One time my son (very blonde,blue eyed kiddo) introduced step-son to the neighbor…”This is my big brother.”
    Later the neighbor said to me, “How interesting that the Big Brother program matches older black boys now. We’ve come a long way in America!”
    Not quite but nice try.

  • 5
    Susana Alex says:

    Children are the gift of God, caring a child is an exciting experience. As a nanny I love children very much regardless of their race, nation, gender. For me kids are kids, they should be given with unconditional love and care. Each child has a different appearance and different habits. Understanding the child’s mind is quite difficult, on top of having some knowledge on child physiology if you have enough experience it will be very easy for you.