This is probably going to be the hardest blog to date so forgive me in advance if my frustration or pain comes across in my writing. Putting these words onto paper makes me feel vulnerable, as if it will somehow validate the ignorance and outright hatred we have experienced as a mixed family.
Before I started writing, I did something that I hadn’t done with any of my blogs before this, I sat my daughter down and asked her permission. I wanted to make sure she was comfortable with me sharing these experiences. She gave me carte blanche.
When would we need to start having conversations about race? I can tell you the exact date. It was August 23, 2001, the day she was born.
Just a few hours after her grand arrival I was given a form to complete for her Birth Certificate, it asked for basic information as well as our race, there were about six options and very clear instructions: “CHECK ONLY ONE BOX”.
Dee-Dee Caucasian check.
Jerome Black check.
Frustrated, because I couldn’t check two, I left it blank. It didn’t take long for the hospital social worker to pay me a visit. She advised me to “pick one” so they can process the paperwork. “In these situations, we would recommend you check OTHER, it just simplifies things,” she said.
It brought me back to all the times in my life that I had to identify my race on standardized tests, doctor’s forms and even at the DMV. I never had to think twice about it, but she would, and it would be our job as her parents to prepare her to answer this question. So, what would she decide?
Over the course of my life, I heard Black/White Biracial children called Oreos, Mulattos, or Mutts. All of these were grossly offensive before I had a mixed child, now a simple check in a box would matter.
We made the decision, she would most likely present or “pass” as they say, in society as Black. We checked Black.
For me, the option to check “other” didn’t seem simple at all. I wasn’t able to reconcile that in my own head. From that moment on I wondered how she would she identify in a world where she was constantly asked: “What are you?”
*Chloe at 1.5 years old*
As my baby grew this answer would evolve.
At first, when she couldn’t talk I would get stares. I’d be asked “is she yours?” or “is she adopted?” and the dreaded “what is she?”. These obnoxious questions would infuriate me, but this was something I got used to handling.
I’d learn that those questions were the least of my worries. Chloe was taught to dribble a soccer ball as she learned to walk. When she was four years old she played on a team and she was nasty on that field! Parents and coaches were always complimenting her coordination and skill at such a young age. On more than one occasion my husband would get “you guys are just natural athletes. It’s in your DNA” followed by an elbow nudge or a wink. She wasn’t ever good for her hard work or dedication, it was always because she was black and every black person is born a natural athlete apparently.
I remember the first day of school, Chloe standing there with her nerves of steel. I was a wreck. A sea of children and parents surrounded her, not a single one resembling her. I’d beat myself up, counting on one hand how many children of color there were in the entire school? Thoughts would race through my head, “Homeschooling can’t be that hard, I should grab her and leave NOW!” Then it happened, everything was in slow motion. The boy behind her grabbed a curl and pulled it down as far as he could, then released it making an audible “BOINGGGG”. Then again, once, twice, now both hands were going, “boiiinggg, boiiingggg, boiiinggggg….”
His eyes wide in amazement. “Woooooowww, you have cooooooolllll haiiiirrrrrr”, he said.
MY. HEART. STOPPED. Did this boy just?
But before I could give him a stern talking to about keeping his hands to himself, Chloe turned to him and half-smiled, “Thank you, I know!” she said, then swatted his hand away fiercely and turned back around. Problem solved.
This seems like the most innocent exchange, but it made me realize that this was not the first (or last) time she would deal with the general public thinking it was OK to just walk up to her and touch her hair. I never could have imagined how much hair touching she would endure in her life.
By first grade, I got to know many of the kids. They would see me at school functions and sporting events. However, I never realized that I was just “a mom” to them, not necessarily Chloe’s mom. So, it’s BRING YOUR MOM TO CLASS DAY and I was assigned to the time slot of “ART CLASS”. I was excited! I had this vision of my daughter seeing me and lighting up!
Spoiler alert, it didn’t happen like that.
I walk in, all the kids look and suddenly there is confusion. The art teacher, knowing to expect Chloe’s mom says, “I think you are at the wrong class Miss” so I say, “No… I am Chloe’s Mom” and the room erupts in giggles.
Embarrassed, she quickly recovers, “I am sorry Mrs. Kanhai, come on in and have a seat”. Chloe scowled at me from across the room.
Then the Art teacher decided this was the perfect opportunity, a teachable moment, she grabs the box of Crayola crayons and begins to explain that “PEOPLE COME IN EVERY COLOR”… Doing her best Vanna White as she displays the rainbow of crayons in the box.
Chloe sees her teacher struggling, so she decides to help, she raises her hand. “Yes, Chloe” she says.
I hold my breath. I know my child, I can see by the look in her eyes that nothing good was about to happen. “When I was born I was white, like my mommy, but I grew black like my dad,” she says.
AND THE CROWD GOES WILD! (This can’t be life.)
I thought I was doing all the right things. Where did she get this idea?
Second grade, early in the school year, its picture day! I always took such pride in her appearance. In my mind, every day was picture day. So, it wasn’t a big “to-do”. I got her ready like I would any other day and then anxiously awaited the overpriced photos to come home all bent up in her backpack in the following weeks.
Here is her photo from Second Grade. (I have blurred the image to protect the innocent.)
Something stood out to me. Do you see anything odd? Every single person I would show this photo to would ask, “Why did they do that?” and I didn’t have an answer.
There they were, the four beautiful young girls of color carefully placed in the back row, side by side. My daughter peeking out behind the tallest boy in the class. I wondered, were they carefully arranged according to complexion? Maybe I just hypersensitive to this.
I sent the photo back to the school with a simple post-it, on it was written one word… “REALLY?” They returned it to me with an apology, apparently, it was unintentional.
These “subtle” remarks, sideways compliments and thoughtless statements would be a part of our life. I have stories like this for days, I would need more than a blog to compile it all.
So many things stuck in my head. Like, when she is singled out by teachers and asked “if you can’t afford the field trip, we will work it out” or “if you didn’t sign up for the sports clinic because of money, we can help pay for it”, underneath I am sure these are genuinely kind gestures. Yet, none of her peers were offered the same. I always made me wonder, WHY HER? There was the incident when she forgot her lunch bag in my car, when I ran in and dropped it off, they gave it to another kid because “they didn’t think it was Chloe K. because, you know, she’s”……….they paused… then they slid their finger against their forearm. Yes, they signaled the unofficial term for “skin color”. So, my child missed lunch and another Chloe had 2 lunches, all because we didn’t have matching complexions. Then the day I read a Facebook post, “my daughter is what every parent dreams of, blonde haired, blue eyed cheerleader dating the quarterback. An All American Girl”. Is that what everyone thinks an American girl should look like? Are the ones who don’t fit that description less beautiful? Is my daughter any less American? By the way, this came from a family member. Does it offend me? To be perfectly honest, it does.
And, if I had $1.00 from each person who has told me that “Chloe’s different than other black people”, I’d be rich. Chloe is different from EVERY person, black and white.
Newsflash: There is no standard “black person” just like there is no standard White, Asian, Hispanic, etc… person.
Whew, I needed to get this out.
These are just some of the stories that I can share because in the end, they didn’t break us.
Let’s fast forward, today I am the (obnoxiously) proud mother of a responsible young lady with brains, integrity, compassion, wit, athleticism, beauty and the type of inner strength that I always wished I had. Yes, I am biased. But, I adore her.
In 2018 society should be far past all racist stereotypical ideas, but we are not. She is almost 17 years old, an age where I question my role as a mother when she comes face to face with racism. Do I intervene or allow her to work it out? It’s the cusp of adulthood.
In the last month I watched her navigate through a few tough incidents, like a friend who was dropped off around the block because “you know how my parents are” or a classmate getting caught with weed and their reaction was to say “was it Chloe’s”, because she is the perfect scapegoat apparently. Of course, there are times she gets followed around in stores and asked not to touch things if she isn’t buying them. But that happens to Oprah too, so I guess this may never change. Listening to people tell Black jokes because “she’s not really black” or white jokes because “she’s not really white”, just imagine that internal dialogue as a teenager.
I understand that this may sound like harmless teenage strife, but if you are on the receiving end of these cues being given to you everywhere you go, it matters.
I have watched her handle these conflicts with ease and grace. I give so much credit to children of mixed ethnicities, the “other” race. I give even more props to those who are growing up in environments where there isn’t much diversity, because I see secondhand how hard it really is.
We did our best to expose her to all races and cultures. Especially her own.
Every time something like this comes up, I remind Chloe, these tests would strengthen her character. (And mine!)
Today, Chloe has 4 first cousins. Of those four, three of them are biracial, black and white. They are all amazing in different ways. As she is the oldest, she will have to lead by example. She can share her experiences with them, hopefully helping them to grow into strong women and… a man.
So, the next time you encounter a person who looks “exotic”, remember that is a term they use for fruit and animals and although it may sound complimentary it really might not feel that way to the recipient.
Simply put, be aware and raise children who are aware. Stay woke. That isn’t just a phrase, it really means something. Be awake to what is going on around you.
The GREATNESS… xo