Category Archives: Parenting Biracial Children

Ask Lisa: Ambiguous Looks, Identity Concerns

Posting my 4th “Ask Lisa: Advice for the Multiracial Community” column.

This week, I answer questions from a white mom wondering how to prepare her ambiguous-looking children for anti-ethnic hostility, a multiracial woman facing unexpected results of a DNA test, and a black mom concerned about her multiracial tweens’ preference for their white father’s heritage.

Here is the link to the whole post on Multiracial Media.

Thinking Outside the “Other” Box: An Inclusive Mixed Identity

I am happy to announce that I have joined the blogging team for the Mixed Remixed Festival. I thank Heidi W. Durrow, best-selling author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and Joy Stoffers, author of Whasian. for bringing me on board. The following appeared on the Mixed Remixed Blog on February 5th.
Thinking Outside The “Other” Box
When I think about my own multiracial identity, when I talk with other biracial writers and friends about the state of being mixed, I usually think of the cultures we inherited from our parents—what was represented in our homes and along the roots of our family trees.

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But a question posed to The Ethicist in last week’s New York Times Magazine made me consider blended racial identity on a broader scale.

“Can I call my Nonbiological Twins black because my Husband is?”

The author of the question was a white woman, married to a black man. When she and her husband had been unable to conceive naturally, she had carried to term a donor embryo—the biological parents of whom were said to be Caucasian and Hispanic. The mother noted:

I am not comfortable being open about the origin of my children, except with family and close friends, until they are old enough for me to explain it to them.

But, when a pre-k application form asked the children’s race, failing to provide a “mixed race” or “other” box, the mother identified her children as black. “Was this the right choice?” She wondered. The Ethicist—Dr. Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is himself multiracial, white British and Ghanaian—devoted much of his response to what he would have responded had the twins been the biological children of their parents, going into depth about this country’s frequently challenged “one drop” rule. He concluded:

 …our system of racial classification … presupposes an extremely oversimplified picture of the relationship among ancestry, appearance, biology and culture …

Dr. Appiah correctly faulted the preschool for not having a “mixed-race” or “other” box to check, and suggested that the mother demand one. He also affirmed the twins’ right to claim their non-biological father’s black heritage.

But what Dr. Appiah didn’t mention is an error the parents made long before the pre-k form appeared. Waiting until the children are “old enough” to have their heritage explained implies that there is something shameful about joining their family through donor insemination, something wrong with having a different racial background from their parents’. The time to broach such information is right away, using the simplest language possible—the same way you might talk to a baby about bedtime or the toys in his room.

Years ago as an adoption caseworker, I encouraged families adopting from China and Vietnam to learn about and incorporate their children’s cultures of origin into their family life. Even in domestic adoptions where the child could “pass” for their parents’ biological offspring, I urged families to begin sharing the adoption story immediately—before the child could understand. Talking about difference and culture becomes as natural as breathing. This is your nose, those are your toes, this is a photograph of the day we met you in a place called Guangzhou, where you were born.

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This way, there’s no fraught moment in the child’s life when parents must sit them down and reveal the Momentous Truth. Though less has been written about children born via donor insemination than adoption, I believe this same openness should prevail.

Where it gets tricky is the discussion of appearance. Going back to the twins in the Ethicist’s question, what will it be like for them to identify as black if they don’t look black? As Dr. Appiah points out in his response, there are many people whose African features are not visible—he names early N.A.A.C.P. director, Walter White—who identify as black. Besides, these twins are Hispanic, which is not a race, but in many cases includes some African ancestry.

My own experience is somewhat reversed. Many people perceive me as black—not mixed—so when I identify as biracial, I am often corrected: you’re black. In graduate school, when I identified as Jewish—an ethnicity as well as a religion—it meant to some African American students that I was denying my blackness. But to identify as black and only black would be to disregard my mother’s ancestry and half of my own.

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Another troubling issue: the mother who wrote to the Ethicist was given few specifics about the embryos’ heritage. Only Caucasian (Swedish? Dutch? Irish?) and Hispanic (Dominican? Venezuelan? Puerto Rican?). The parents are not to blame for this oversight. I know from my friends who have had children through donor insemination that you don’t get much control over how much genetic information you’re given, if any. But in an ideal world, these parents would be able to share the twins’ whole heritage—genetic and adoptive— with them.

One of my closest friends had her twin sons with the aid of an egg donor. Before her boys could understand the word “fertility,” they knew that somewhere in the world was a Very Special Lady who had made it possible for Mommy and Daddy to be their parents. Now the boys are three and the special lady is part of their family dialogue, as is her country, which the twins may visit someday. As they grow, these boys will have more questions which my friend and her husband will be happy to answer. These twin boys will know who they are genetically as well as culturally. One day, they too will be faced with boxes to check. They may choose one or more; they may choose to leave them all blank. Either way, by the time they are old enough to hold a pencil, my friend’s sons will understand that no box will ever truly define who they are.

 

Does the “White Privilege” Umbrella cover Black and Biracial Children? (Survey included)

Baby 1966This is the first post I have written soliciting responses to a survey—so I’m stating it up front: At the end of this post is an actual, honest-to-goodness survey for those who are interested and who fit the demographics* I’m looking for.

So, what is this about “White Privilege?” Sounds kind of political, kind of threatening, no?

The first time I heard the term “White Privilege,” I was in my late twenties and teaching at a very exclusive, private girls’ school on the Upper East Side of New York. Peggy McIntosh, PhD., the feminist, antiracism activist and associate director of the Wellesley College Women’s Project, had been brought in by the Parents’ Diversity Awareness Committee of said school. McIntosh, who is white, was there to discuss her famous paper, White Privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Backpack, as part of a workshop for staff, parents and students about the ways in which whites unwittingly benefit from racism on a daily basis.

I was fascinated as McIntosh described white privilege as an

invisible package of unearned assets which [she could] count on cashing in each day, but about which [she] was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.

However, as she began to list these assets and privileges, I found myself thinking: hold on a minute—I grew up with a lot of those assets and I’m not white! What gave?

As I thought it over, I realized that, as a child—regardless of my color—I had walked through the world in the care and company of a white mother. I had un-harassed entry into upscale department stores and swimming pools. Most everywhere I went, people had treated me with the same respect they paid my mother.

When McIntosh went on to list the ways in which her skin tone worked in her favor:

“I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented …When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is … Whether I [use] checks, credit cards, or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.… I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, withouthaving people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race.

I started to see her point. Okay, maybe all of those privileges hadn’t been mine, but under the umbrella of my mother’s whiteness, the world had been a different, more accepting, place than it might have been otherwise.

When I was alone with my father, we visited restaurants  and little shops in Harlem—which was mostly black at the time. It was a world apart from the Englewood, New Jersey pool club my mother’s friend belonged to, where Mom and I went almost every day in the summer. As a child, I felt equally welcome in both places. However, if the whole family had shown up together in either location, there might have been stares or even questions.

My father taught me to be aware—and sometimes wary–of racism, that I might be treated differently because of my color. But my mother took me everywhere; the hostility, if there was any—was subtle enough for me not to notice. I believed I belonged anywhere my mother did.

The stories of black and biracial children raised by white parents are as varied as humanity itself. I know my own, but am curious about others. For this reason I’ve started a project I’m calling Under the “White Privilege” Umbrella: Children of Color in their White Parents’ World.

As part of the project I have created a survey where I ask adults of color, like myself, who were raised by at least one white parent, to reflect on their childhoods. My purpose is to understand the experience of growing up black or biracial** in the care and company of a white parent, to learn whether–and how–any of us benefited from the day to day privileges our white parents might have experienced.

*If you are between the ages of 18 and 70, identify as biracial or mixed, the product of a white parent and a black parent, or if you are adopted, either black or biracial/black-white, and raised by white parents, interracially married parents (one of whom is white), or by a single, white parent), I would love to hear from you.

Please note, I have no hypothesis to support and no political agenda. And here is the link to my survey.

**The reason I’m only including black and white in this project–at first at least–is to understand whether parental “white privilege,” dilutes the very specific biases directed toward blacks.

For Canines of Mixed Ethnic Heritage

IMG_0121He’s a golden doodle?” said the woman with the boxer, eyeing my sweet, black-and-white puppy with the same skepticism my mother had faced when I was little. Back then, everyone wondered how I—this brown, curly-haired baby—could belong to my white, straight-haired mother.

“He doesn’t look very golden to me,” said the boxer lady.

“Well he is,” I could almost hear my mom responding. Short, sweet and a little indignant. Just like she handled people who questioned my parentage.

I, on the other hand, lunged into an explanation. “He’s a quarter golden retriever and three quarters mini poodle. His parents were bred from black and white parti poodles. So …” Did the boxer lady need such detail? Did she deserve the lowdown on my puppy’s ancestry?

Of course not. But her question caught me off guard, triggering something in me. An age old response to having my own ancestry questioned.

When Rico came home I thought I was prepared for everything. I’d been researching puppy care for over a year, grilling every dog owner I knew—and some I didn’t know—for tips. I’d learned about crate-training, treat-training, leashes and harnesses, apple spray, and chew toys. I’d researched vets and arranged my schedule to accommodate a “new baby,” which is how everyone said a new puppy would feel.

We’d been trying for a rescue dog for some time also, getting turned down again and again because I’d never owned a dog before, I did not have a vet in place, and because my last pets (the gerbils) had perished in a house fire. And—the ultimate deal-killer for pet rescue organizations—we had children under fifteen. Finally we bit the bullet and started researching goldendoodle breeders. When we found a reputedly great one, I looked on the website for “waiting puppies” rather than signing up for an upcoming litter. You could click on the link and watch a YouTube video of each golden retriever-poodle mix pup interacting with the breeder’s young grandson. I fell for Rico immediately.

A mini-goldendoodle expected to top out at about thirty-five pounds (he’s thirty-three), Rico was sweet and playful with a curly coat—predicted not to shed much, which was a good thing for my husband’s and daughter’s allergies. Though plenty of pups on the website were golden goldendoodles, ranging in hue from off-white to rich amber, Rico and his litter mates were black and white, like Snoopy and Harry the Dirty Dog and the Pokey Little Puppy. Like us too.  Both his parents were half “parti” poodle, meaning black and white spotted.

Rico is a party dog it turns out. He’s a total charmer, loves people, loves other dogs, is even gentle with our neighbors’ toddler twins. He doesn’t chew shoes or furniture. He slept through the night and potty-trained with relative ease. His only vice—kind of a big one—is that he loves to eat debris. Sticks, rocks, socks, ace bandages—a habit that’s sent him to the pet ER more than once. And yes, everyone at the ER loves him too.

None of us can imagine family life without him. He fits us perfectly. As my son says, “he’s even a quarter black and three quarters white like me.” True. But that’s just what I wasn’t prepared for: having the same conversations about Rico’s heritage as I have about my children’s and my own.

For example, this is what people say about my son:

“Wow! You really can’t see the black in him.”

And about Rico:

“Wow! You can’t see the golden retriever in him at all!”

About my daughter:

“That hair is beautiful. It must be a lot of work.”

About Rico:

“That coat is beautiful. It must get so matted though.”

And the kicker (seriously this happened): “We were thinking our goldendoodle’s coat might get curly too. But Misty has that nice, smooth golden retriever fur. You can barely see the poodle in her.”

Now substitute the words “biracial child” for “goldendoodle” and “black” for “poodle” and you have something like what my mother used to hear when I was a kid.

“Are you sure he’s part golden retriever?” (Are you sure she’s yours?)

And I explain. In varying degrees of detail. You might ask, WHY must I answer to these curious passers-by and dog owners? Why do I need to answer prying questions about my dog’s, my own or my children’s ancestry? Why can’t I be more like my mother and give a simple—if snarky—response?

In Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” it says specifically, “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

In other words, I have the right not to explain my heritage. As someone who does not look mixed, I am called upon to do this less frequently than my racially ambiguous-looking mixed friends. Since I look black, I don’t get asked “what are you?” very often. People assume I’m black and leave it at that. It’s only when I mention a different piece of my background—that I’m Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side, for example, that people ask How is that possible?  

Similarly, people assume Rico is a poodle or a Portuguese water dog. No one means anything by it; no one is judging him. But the word Golden hits strangers the same way Jewish hits them with me. Rico couldn’t care less. The words he knows are sit, stay, leave-it, drop-it, walk, bone, and Ruby (the little dog next door). But I care.  His heritage is what it is—not to be questioned any more than mine or my children’s.

photo 3This is why I explain. I explain to be understood. To acknowledge all my heritage, my children’s and my dog’s, not to deny any part, but to embrace all, even the parts that are unseen.

Multiracial? Or Multicultural?

imagesCASDTSYLA few months back, I wrote a post called A Daughter by Any Color, about the experience of parenting a child who looks like me, after being raised by a mother who doesn’t.   Today, I wrote another post for the Montclair Patch, our local online paper, that addresses this issue from a somewhat different perspective.  You can read it here.

So far I have one comment from a reader who objected to my use of the word “Multiracial,” suggesting (very respectfully), that I use “Multicultural” instead.   As it got me thinking a lot, I responded (equally respectfully, I hope).  I would love to hear what followers of this blog think of the discussion.  Comment here on this blog to weigh in.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

Lisa

Not Jungle Fever

In London, a few years ago

I mentioned in my last post that I’d been interviewed by the Washington Post’s Carol Morello for her article entitled:  Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  In the article, Ms. Morello graciously included a link to this blog, which led to the highest traffic day it has had since its inception in December.  Checking my stats, I discovered people were not just finding me through the Washington Post article, they were also hitting my blog via other blogs and online publications that were buzzing about the article.   Checking these sites out, I found myself exploring some unexpected turf, including a site that horrified me: a virulently white supremacist site which I will spare my followers by not linking.  Some of the comments, reacting to Morella’s article were along the lines of: how could any self-respecting white person allow themselves to get involved with one of those?  (I paraphrase.)  Suffice it to say I didn’t stay long, though some of the heinously stereotyped caricatures of African Americans stayed with me for a while.

Since that time, I’ve been meaning to do another post on interracial marriage, thinking about why it works when it works, and why, when it fails, race isn’t always to blame.  Here goes:

Not Jungle Fever

 Why does it bother me so much when high profile interracial couples like Heidi Klum and Seal, or Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren break up?  Why do I want run out there and explain to the media: this kind of thing happens with mono-racial couples too!?  This wasn’t about race!?    These highly visible couples were supposed to be poster children for mixed marriages, publicly validating my personal history, thumbing their hue-blended noses at the skeptics and naysayers, the racial separatists who suggest there is something lewd and unsavory about interracial pairings.

The good news is that interracial marriage is more prevalent than ever, that these couples divorce at a rate barely higher than same-race couples.  There’s even a biracial president sitting in the Oval Office, dispelling the insidious myth that mixed couples’ progeny are lower-functioning than others.  Yet, interracial couples still face insensitive questions, sometimes outright hostility, even parental rejection.  Marriage is hard enough; why make it harder?

The irony is that the burden of outside opinion is often the hardest part.  All mixed marriages, especially black and white ones—which draw by far the most press, the most ire—exist in both a public and private sphere; all have to contend with an often unappreciative world outside their home.  Even the strongest such couples—those for whom commonalities outweigh differences—still bear the weight of other people’s prejudices.  But public perception is only part of the story.  What naysayers don’t see is that an interracial couple’s private unity can be its greatest strength.

As a clinical social worker and couples therapist, I have seen many interracial couples.  The happiest share a beautiful sense of partnership—truly a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  What I have learned, professionally and personally, is that the most successful of these couples have each other’s backs in the face of public stares and criticisms.  In private, the partners’ blend of two selves, two worlds, unifies their home.

As followers of this blog know, I’m the daughter of a black father and a white, Jewish mother.  Though my maternal grandmother was not the least bit religious—despite running a kosher restaurant—she sat shiva for my mother when my parents married.  It was 1950 and interracial marriage was still illegal in thirty states, though not Illinois.

“It can’t last,” my grandmother’s friends consoled her.  “These marriages never do.”

But the day my father breathed his last, after forty-five years of marriage, my mother was at his bedside, his hand in hers.   My parents weren’t an anomaly.  When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, my parents’ large community of friends included many other intermarried blacks and whites whose marriages worked and lasted.  As a child, I was unaware that there was anything unusual about this.  Later, when I learned the stereotypes and taboos around race-mixing, I was shocked at how removed they were from my own experience.

In Spike Lee’s 1991 film Jungle Fever, the romance between a black, married architect and a white office temp elicits rage and resentment from family and friends of both partners.  It’s the race difference, not the adultery, which brings on the most vehement censure.  I saw the film with my parents when it was first released; they’d been married forty-one years at the time.  As I sat between them—our three contrasting skin tones visible in the not-yet-darkened theater—I looked around, wondering if people thought we were trying to make a statement.

I remember being outraged by the film’s suggestion that black and white partners were drawn to one another solely for the thrill of breaking taboos.   In fact, Lee was just showing one specific example, making as much a point about gender politics and class as he was about race.  I doubt I’d have taken it so personally if there had been other films portraying black and white relationships in a positive, normalizing light.

Fast-forward twenty years: I’m a psychotherapist, specializing—not surprisingly—in multiracial families and couples, in a strong interracial marriage of my own, with two beautiful second-generation biracial children.  In Montclair, New Jersey, the town where we live (which Interrace Magazine named the Best Town in America for Interracial Families in 2002), our kind of family is so common, we’re boring.  People who give us an extra once-over do so with approval or, in the case of other interracial families, camaraderie.  This town, as I noted in the last post, is also full of multiracial adoptive families, interfaith families, and families headed by same-sex parents.  Many of us moved here to raise our children in a place where they were nothing unusual.  (A typical Montclair moment was the time my daughter came home from preschool and asked how many mommies she had.  When I told her I was it, she said it wasn’t fair; her friends Sophia and Jacob had two mommies each!)

But even if we’re “normal” here, in public our family inspires speculation.  Did our parents approve of our union?  Do Jon and I have struggles at home over our differences?  Do we clash over parenting values?  We know that our racial disparity is what people see—not the fact that my mother’s ancestry is the same as my husband’s.  Like us or not, we’re making a statement just by being us.  The public eye is just part of what you live with as an interracial couple; even if you’re not Heidi Klum and Seal.  Some black and white marriages crack under this pressure; I have seen many split up—some, regrettably in line with the stereotypes.  But many have succeeded, ultimately achieving the stable, loving comfort that makes a good marriage last through the decades.   Interracial couples do require a special kind of care, sensitivity and knowhow, an acknowledgement and ownership of the potential challenges that can arise.  But when commonalities outweigh differences, when there is a good social support network–which may mean family, though not necessarily–when both members of the couple share values about childrearing, the role of religion and other big-ticket items, the odds are well in a mixed couple’s favor.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.

The Hunger Games, Corduroy and Me

Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time.  I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught.  I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue.  Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family.  I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was.  (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.)  In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black.  When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?

I had reason to wonder.  A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy.   Well sort of.  Here’s the true story.  My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing.  Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept.  Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told.  His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine.  When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book.  He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age.  (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)

Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun.  (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!)  I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart.  But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:

“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?”   Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma?  I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard.  But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child!  Or That’s my children’s favorite book!  Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white.  What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.

I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games.  Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown.  I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss).  But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.

And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes?   (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee  .  Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.)   Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be?  What went into the decision to make her white?  Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice?  Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway.   What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue.  That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.

It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it.  For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial.  She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother.  I loved that no one mentioned race in the film.  It was just there, and no big deal.  Is that reality–race being no big deal?  No, but what a wonderful wish.  If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?

I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games).  In a television show called Flashforward,   which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon  and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman.  Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed.  It was no big deal, which I loved.  I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal.  (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)

We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons,  a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple.  For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)

But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black.  Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.”  Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white?  Not true, not true!)

When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way.  That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died.  (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.)  I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit.  But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.  (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!)  It should be no big deal.  Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them?  I really hope not.

Who’s Afraid of The Little Mermaid?

Aged three. Make mine the Princess cup, please.

Visiting middle schools with my daughter last week has me musing about change: the upcoming changes in my daughter, in our relationship—as she relies on me less and less, on herself and her friends more and more.  I’m thinking about practical changes too: the changes in our schedule, as I’ll have two kids in two different schools in two different parts of town come September.  But as well as looking to the future, I can’t help glancing back with bittersweet nostalgia at the days of baby teeth and mispronunciations, of Dora and Blues Clues, Bob Books and Hop on Pop.   I also remember my parenting then, the things I thought were big deals: how meticulously I mixed water in every glass of juice, how white flour products hardly ever found their way into my kitchen—never, ever made it into my kids’ lunchboxes.

When it came to playthings, I was a little easier going.  Though I never bought my son a toy gun, I found it amusing that—from the time he was eighteen months old—Theo turned every object he got his hands on into one.  He’d take the letter “L” from an alphabet puzzle, grip it like a pistol and chase his sister around going: “Rahr!  Rahr!”  (Never having seen or heard actual artillery, the most aggressive sound he could come up with was the noise the lion made on Nature.)

I didn’t even object when my daughter, at three, became passionate about Ariel and the other Disney Princesses.  The way I figured: a plastic Disney Princess cup at Target cost about seventy-five cents.  If it would make her drink milk happily, why not?  I didn’t see it as anything that might one day harm her character.  (If one day she began to lament her lack of a fish-tail, we’d cross that bridge then.)

What follows is an article I wrote about two years ago, as a belated response to the Princess backlash I’d heard around the playground during my daughter’s Ariel days.   At the time, Zoe was nine, way finished with the Princesses and had entered a tomboy stage, banishing all dresses, all pink from her wardrobe.

 Don’t Throw the Mermaid out with The Bath Water

Fear not the Disney Princesses, nor their impact on your daughter!  They will pass, my young mother friend, as will the lure of Bratz dolls and even Hannah Montana.

When my daughter Zoe was three, turning four, Cinderella was released on DVD.  Everywhere you turned there were little girls in long, blue gauze dresses marked at the breast with the blond heroine’s picture.   Zoe’s fourth birthday party was a costume pageant, where she and no fewer than four guests showed up as Cindy—not to be confused with the three pink Auroras and two yellow Belles.  (Someone’s sleeping, stroller-bound baby arrived in Ariel’s seashell bikini top and tail).  It was a craze I succumbed to halfheartedly (yet another franchise, preying on children), but without too much guilt.  An Ariel cup?  No biggie.  Belle underwear?  Sure.  A Cinderella beach towel?  Well—Zoe would need cups, underwear and towels anyway; why not make her happy?

“Aren’t you concerned about the message it’s sending?”  said my friend Anne, who was writing a book on feminist parenting.  She was referring to the beauty myth laid out so eloquently by Naomi Wolf back in ’92.  The Princesses all perpetuated unrealistic standards of feminine beauty—dainty hands, feet, and noses; huge eyes with fabulous lashes; succulent lips, microscopic waists and flowing blankets of hair.  Anne, whose daughter Emma was younger—just breaking into Elmo—emailed me articles every week on how mass marketed toys undermined girls’ self esteem.

As a biracial woman whose daughter has inherited both my tightly curling hair and my brown skin, I admit, I was a little concerned.  The new African American Princess, Tiana, was years away and stores rarely stocked products featuring the darker Princesses—Jasmine, Esmeralda, Yulan and Pocahontas.  More than once I watched Zoe prance around in her blue Cinderella outfit with a real blanket on her head, simulating “Princess hair,” swinging it this way and that.   Oh, how I remember doing the blanket-head thing myself as a child;  Look, Mommy; I’m Marcia Brady!  (My generation’s reigning Princess.) Were we rejecting our real hair and identity, or just pretending for an afternoon to be something we weren’t?   Frankly, at four, Zoe was more inclined to pretend to be a pig.  I don’t think she was rejecting her species; just imagining a different sort of existence.  And isn’t imagination the place to be if you’re four anyway?

Emails from Anne kept coming: the Disney girls were just the tip of the iceberg; Bratz Dolls were next!  Worse than the Princesses, worse than Barbie back in her 39-21-33 measurement days—Bratz dolls were—and I suppose still are—eight-inch plastic renditions of big-haired teenage hookers with oversized heads, eyes and lips.  They all wore perpetual sneers, demonstrating cool—or, rather, a Brattiness that might appeal to the fashionably precocious five year old.  They were a horror, I admit, and thanks to successful marketing, Zoe wanted one.  (My emphatic NO made them all the more appealing.)  She never got one, however, and her interest quickly faded.  By the time Zoe was in first grade, Disney Princesses themselves were passé among Zoe’s crowd.  Hannah Montana held their interest for about a summer; High School Musical, about fifteen minutes.

Beginning in second grade, an aversion to all things girly—dresses, ballet, the color pink, the word pretty when offered as a compliment—had set in and persists to this day.  (Zoe, nine, is wrapping up third grade.)  Part of this is about asserting her identity as a being separate from me; I’m a former ballerina myself.   Zoe has heard me comment that she has natural dancing gifts that I myself wasn’t born with.  “If only she wanted to …” I’ve lamented, failing to make sure she’s out of earshot.  Which, of course is pressure just begging for rebellion.  Not to mention the treatment she gets from everyone who knows I used to dance.  The first thing they say to my daughter is, “Are we a little ballerina too?”

“No,” says Zoe.  “We are not.”

I haven’t the heart to stress politeness at times like these.  She is not a little ballerina, certainly not a little me.  Still, I see her dancing around the house when she forgets herself, leaping, pirouetting—riffing on all the steps she learned in ballet class when she was too young to decide she hated it.   Similarly, when we go clothes shopping, it’s the pink top she goes for first, then checks herself and asks for green.

I am proud of my daughter for designing her own code for dress and behavior.  I am proud of the individual that she is.   She loves pigs, snakes and insects; she can name the super powers of every member of the Justice League along with their back stories; she’s good at gymnastics, tennis and drawing; she runs like the wind; she’ beautiful (okay so I’m biased) and while adults tell her this all the time, she could not care less.

I confess, though, while the “girliness allergy” doesn’t worry me, at times it makes me a little sad.  I fear Zoe is holding herself to her own unrealistic standard, where skirts, pink, and dancing are off-limits, even if she secretly longs for them.  Whenever I fear that she’s cutting off the part of her that enjoys girly things, I reassure myself by remembering how quickly phases come and go.  The pendulum swings one way and then it swings back.  This applies to both my kids in terms of sleeping patterns, eating, quirky likes and dislikes and yes, style.

On a recent visit to the Gap outlet, Zoe grabbed a t-shirt and thrust it at me.  “I need this top,” she said with a grin.  Under a picture of the seven main members of the Justice League was the slogan: “I love Super Heroes.”  Typical Zoe, right?  Yeah.  Only the top was pink.

Other Side of the Lake

My Dad and me at another lake at an earlier time. I think I'm two.

The summer I was ten, my parents and I rented a big yellow farm house which was a stone’s throw from a clear, blue lake. Everyone with a weekend house in the vicinity used the lake; it was the main attraction of the place.  It had a soft (more likely than not, man-made), sandy bank and a wooden raft anchored in the middle that you could swim or canoe out to.  People would lie out on that raft and just sun themselves for half the day.  No one worried about UV rays back in the seventies; people slathered themselves with baby oil and Ban de Soleil–sometimes held those aluminum sheets under their chins–and baked copper-brown in the sun, myself included.  (I know many people of color who were cautioned as children to stay out of the sun–to keep from getting darker.  My mother, who valued a nice tan in those days, was envious of how easily I browned.)

Our second week at the house, a group of boys arrived at a nearby estate.  There were ten of them, all about thirteen, all black, hailing from a place called “Inner City,” of which I’d never heard.  These boys had been awarded this special trip as a prize for academic excellence in a program which was basically for smart kids from rotten schools.  In addition to staying in a huge, old manor house and having access to a lake and the beautiful country, the boys were also taking enrichment classes in all the major academic areas.  Sort of like The Fresh Air Fund meets Prep for Prep.

My dad loved to observe these boys as they play-wrestled and exchanged insults involving one another’s mamas.  They were loud and wild and splashed a lot.  Most of the well-heeled regulars stayed away when the boys came out to swim—Inner-City-brand hilarity not being the vacationers’ speed.   The boys always greeted my dad with respect.  They could tell he understood them, though they didn’t know what to think about our family.  The boys seemed surprised that my mother—The White Lady—wasn’t afraid of them.  She spoke to them like a teacher would, even stepping in when their routine scuffles got out of hand.   They certainly didn’t know what to make of me.  Once the boys saw that my parents had no problem with them—didn’t clutch me and flee when they arrived, like the other parents did—they felt it was safe to approach me.  They never asked my name, but addressed me as “Little Girl,” referred to me as such amongst themselves.  As in:  “There go the Little Girl, y’all.”

The way I talked, which was nasal and squeaky with prominent r’s, amused them.

“Hey, Little Girl, you better watch out: Jaws is in the water.” (The film had been released earlier that summer.)

“No he’s not,” I’d say, not realizing they were trying to get a rise out of me.  “This lake is fresh water.  Sharks only live in salt water.”

They’d howl and slap each other’s hands as someone else would come up with a question for me, just to hear me talk.

The reason my dad got such a big kick out of these boys was that he had been one of these boys.   He had grown up in the thirties on the South Side of Chicago, part of what was referred to as “The Black Belt.”  His father—whom I never met because I was born too late—was a Pullman Porter, which meant he was always employed, even throughout the Depression.  So compared to those around them, my father’s family was not poor–my grandmother even took to leaving meals out on their front porch for those who had none.  Nevertheless, they were still black; they still struggled and faced the same kind of pervasive racism that all “colored people” faced back then, regardless of class.

It was immediately apparent to everyone that my father was a smart little boy, taking after his brother, Stan, who was eleven years his senior and clearly headed for University.  My father wore glasses from an early age, which no doubt helped people take his intellect seriously.  But it was more than that.  By seven, he was reading everything he could get his hands on; by ten, under his brother’s tutelage, he could differentiate Mozart from Beethoven from Schubert.  In Nineteen thirty-seven–seventeen years before Brown versus the Board of Education–my father was one of a very few black students who began attending a white high school, where he joined the staff of the school newspaper, ultimately becoming its chief cartoonist.

Still, his friends were the boys from his neighborhood.  They splashed around in their lake—Lake Michigan—and derided one another’s mamas just like these boys did.  Of course, the mobile sunshine delineated the white section of their beach.  If the sun moved while my father and his friends were in the water—which it invariably did—the racial divide moved.  That meant trouble.   As Dad would ultimately write:

‘No one had ever designated which sections of the beach were for white and black.  There were no signs as I had seen south … saying “white only, “ or “colored.”  But rigid segregation prevailed.  And the group of pugnacious white men and boys was always there at some arbitrary dividing line, with bats in their hands, watching us.  It was a different group every time we came to the lake, but they always looked the same.  Thin, fat, or muscular, narrowed eyes, tight little mouths and hard frowns …

If any black swimmers lost their sense of direction, or place, they would hear the shouts and curses and racial epithets.  If that didn’t do the job, into the water the group would come, eager for the attack.’[1]

Watching those boys at the lake that summer brought my father back to his beginnings: what it was like to be young, black, smart and way out of place wherever he went.   He never talked to me about those days when I was a kid, only when I found drafts of his memoirs later on and asked about them.  What stories he did tell me of black life in the 1930s on the South Side of Chicago involved a world very far removed from my own.

I spent my whole childhood without a single overt incident of racism—that I noticed.  I know I was raised in a bubble: a city where biracial was common, a private school where the black kids were no different socioeconomically from the white kids.  I had no frame of reference for relating to my father’s tales of segregation and fear.  Also, my father’s job in publishing meant later hours and more business trips than those of my mother, who was a teacher.   Mom was with me more, meaning I negotiated the world accompanied by a white, educated woman.  We may have gotten more than our share of looks when we went places together, but that was an easy trade.  No matter where we went, my mother’s race provided access.

Still, the trials my father endured as a youth, the character they built in him, paved the way for me to have a very different sort of life, in a different sort of time and place.


[1] From Untitled Memoir by Mel Williamson (The manuscript is undated, but he worked on it continuously between 1985 and 1994. ) This excerpt takes place in the summer of 1940.