Just a few weeks after her daughter Emma* was born, Leah was excited to take her out into the world for the first time. Leah found herself in the aisle of a hardware store and asked one of the staff members where the hammers were located. Given the nature of the question, Leah was completely caught off guard by the response.
“He looks at my daughter and he looks at me with this complete look of confusion and he says, ‘Is that your child?’” Leah, blonde, blue-eyed and very white, looked from him to her curly-haired, brown-skinned infant. “I was like, ‘Oh the one in the stroller that I’m pushing around?’ He still had this look of disbelief and said, ‘Oh, she doesn’t look like you’. From that point out, there's just been subtle reminders of that throughout her life.”
While we live in a society where many individuals find comfort in advocating for “color-blindness,” (as is evidenced by comments left on this very blog), the reality is, for white mothers of biracial children, “color-blindness” is not an option. Even before their children are conceived, these parents are reminded, by suspicious strangers or well-intentioned friends, that their maternity is grist for for the mill of public scrutiny.
“I don’t think anyone ever asked my mom if I was her kid,” Leah tells me, with resignation. “Which I got a lot of when my daughter was little.”
For Bridget, the most frustrating comments came from her closest friends. Bridget, a fair-skinned Oregonian, and Virginia, her Afro-Brazilian wife with a caramel complexion, wanted to find a donor who had similar ethnic roots as Virginia, given that they’d be using Bridget’s egg to conceive. Even before she was pregnant, Bridget’s friends made off-hand comments that were intended to be light-hearted, but they rubbed her the wrong way.
“Our babies are going to be super ugly and your kid is going to be super cute,” Bridget’s white friend said, referring to the fact that she and her white husband’s children would be less desirable, less exotic. “Your kid will get into all the best schools.”
At the time, Bridget simply laughed, unable to speak to the confusing mix of discomfort and disgust she felt upon hearing this comment from one of her closest friends. She didn’t know how to process the experience or all of the emotions that bubbled up around it.
And all of this before she’d even gotten pregnant.
For folks on the outside looking in, these types of comments may appear benign, complimentary even, but for the mothers, these comments are a reminder that their children will be considered outside the norm by their white peers, friends and family members. Their children will beneficiaries of adorable comments when they’re young, followed by suspicion and scrutiny as they grow. For the mother-to-be, the projections from loved ones about who and what their children will become based on their racial difference, make it difficult to simply enjoy the bonds of attachment.
Leah had mixed feelings about the reminders of her child-to-be’s otherness. When she was pregnant, her father - a social anthropologist - gifted Leah with a book about biracial families called Whose Child Is This?
“I was sort of perturbed with him,” She says, reflecting back on that moment. “Why can’t I just be a new mom without having this shoved in my face? I knew that she might not look like me, but that wasn’t’ a primary concern for me at the time. I was just excited to be a new mom. I’d been in a biracial relationship for seven years, so that wasn’t new. I knew where my dad was coming from. He was saying society is going to make this a big deal, even if you don’t.”
She was right. For white mothers of biracial children, the white society in which they were brought up is already classifying their children, organizing them into the hierarchical structure where their status will continue to drop the older they get. Herein lies the struggle.
For parents of color raising their children, the act of being othered by a white society, being questioned, scrutinized, handled - these things are not new. But, for white mothers who have grown up as a part of this system, being - perhaps - intellectually aware, but viscerally untouched, this othering of their own children, their flesh and blood, serves as a gut-wrenching awakening.
“Everyone lives in the white frame. You’re living in a frame different from the rest.” Jessica, the white mother of a black son told me when explaining the ways her own participation in a racist framework is continually dawning on her. “ On my mother’s side of the family, it was public knowledge that they were slave owners. When I was little, I saw a will that talked about slaves as property. It’s embarrassing and shameful and something that I’ve never said out loud publicly, that that is your legacy. If you come from that then you have to do better.”
For white mothers, it is a shock to see the ways society treats their children of color. They are caught off guard by the way their white peers consider it a right to touch their children’s hair, comment on their physicality, make assumptions about their talents for basketball or math or hip-hop dance based solely on their physical characteristics. For people of color, this is nothing new. For white mothers, it is a painful initiation into once invisible systems of oppression.
In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the ways our nation’s success is founded upon the principle of ownership over the black body.
“Resent the people trying to entrap your body,” Coates writes. “And it can be destroyed. Turn into a dark stairwell and your body can be destroyed. The destroyers will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions… All this is common to black people. And all of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible. (Coates, 2015, pg. 9)”
When Jessica Hetcher’s biracial four-year-old turned to her and said, “Mom, I don’t like people with dark brown skin,” She was slammed into a new paradigm, one where she was in the same physical world, but everything was fundamentally altered.
For many white moms of multiethnic children, small fractures like the ones illustrated in this article portend a seismic shift to come, but the cocoon of home life, the infant’s lack of awareness, and the ability to carefully curate one’s social circle create an illusion of safety for the first couple of years. For many white mothers, preschool ushers in an entirely new realm of awareness that they were able to keep largely at bay when their children were in infancy.
In the next article, we will continue to explore the psychological experiences of white mothers of biracial children through the lens of toddlerhood as the kids begin to verbalize their experience of being racial minorities in a world that wasn’t set up for them. These are experiences that the mothers themselves were never prepared to navigate, but who now find themselves in the position of having to help their young children survive and thrive when playing by a very different set of rules.
* All names and identifying characteristics have been changed to protect the identities of the interviewees.
Coates, T. (2015). Between the World and Me. New York, NY: Spiegel and Grau.