Thursday, November 5, 2009

Are YOU her mother?

When I was pregnant, my husband told me he was glad I’d soon have someone close to me who looks like me. To be more specific, he said he was glad no one would question my relationship to her. Boy, was he wrong.

Though my husband is white, he does not have blue eyes, but my daughter has the deepest, bluest eyes imaginable—to the point that strangers stopped us to comment on a regular basis while she was a big-eyed toddler. Her skin is fair, about the color of honey, and though it’s darker than most Caucasian skin, it’s the subtle contrast between mine and hers that people notice and apparently that difference exaggerates in their minds. Her hair is still very “toddler,” short with a few curls in the back and a light brown/dirty blonde color. (If you are on my blog now, she is pitured to the right.)

I’ve noticed that while her father holds her close to his face (such as on his shoulders), the skin color difference between them is also apparent, but a little more subtle than the difference between mine and hers.

A friend of mine with the same looking family has two children who both have brown eyes and dark hair, and she gets the same reactions from strangers. Since her children do not have blue eyes or light hair, it seems that reactions from strangers are mostly about skin color.

The first comment that bothered me came from a family member. The person asked, “have you gotten any comments yet?” Though I knew what the person was getting at, I asked, “about what?” The person repeated, “Have you gotten any comments… since you’re black and your daughter is white?”

Wow. So that’s what that person sees? Though asking that question wasn’t necessarily mean or wrong (though I suspect it was for the person’s amusement), I was taken back by the skin color contrast that the person “saw.”

Another person, a random cashier, asked, “Is that yours?” I thought she was talking about a piece of merchandise my child must be holding, but no, she was referring to my human child. And another stranger sent her daughter over to me in a play area to ask if I was my child’s mother. The girl wasn’t far away when she tried to quietly mouth the answer to her mother.

Mostly though, people are either better at masking their question or they are just being friendly or curious. They’ll say something like, “Oh, she must have her daddy’s eyes,” or they’ll just ask, “where does she get those big, blue eyes?”

And even if people do ask in a way that I deem rude, that doesn't mean I'm interpreting their actions correctly. I could be completely wrong. Obviously, it's a sensitive topic to me.

So I’m torn. Do I answer rudely or politely? Should I see it as a learning opportunity for the asker, or should I just leave them more confused than before they asked? The questions will probably continue for a while or maybe forever, and I need to be prepared. Because of all the questions I’ve gotten, I’m never completely caught off guard, but that doesn’t mean I always have something witty filed away.

Sometimes when they ask, like when a nurse did at a doctor’s office, I act startled and stunned that I’m being asked such a question.

The only witty responses I’ve thought of so far are:

Q: Is that your daughter?
A: funny, no one ever asks her father that.
A: no, I picked her up on aisle five.

I’m not the only kind of parent this happens to. A few parents like me or ones who have adopted children who look different from themselves may experience similar instances.

An example that comes to mind is from a passage from Danzy Senna’s “Caucasia.” A biracial character, who is light with straight hair, and her black father are playing in the park when the police arrive wanting to know what he’s doing out with this young “white” girl.

I know some parents might not think this is a big deal or that I’m overreacting. Or perhaps, some think I’m confusing regular “is this your daughter?” questions with rude ones.

Maybe the following will help: Imagine you and your child (no spouse present) are holding hands, walking in a park… oblivious to the world. You pause at a park bench, resting your feet and smiling at the stranger on the opposite bench. But the stranger looks at you, then at your child… then back at you, and continues with a furled brow. As you begin to wonder what’s going on, the stranger’s face registers full disgust, the stranger’s lips purse and out comes, “are you her mother?
I know the difference.

It’s not as if experiences thus far are as nasty as the above example, but hopefully it helps explain what I don’t like about the question—the possible racism hiding beneath. Another way to think of this—and all of the stupid questions from complete strangers I get (with “what are you?” being the most common)—is the wheelchair analogy a friend of mine thought of.

Imagine you are in the frozen food isle at Kroger, piling some ice-cream in your cart. Next thing you know, another customer rolls by. You wonder why the person is in a wheel chair. But, you don’t just wonder, you ask! The customer is just riding by and you turn, see him or her, and say, “no offence… uh… pardon me, but I was just wondering… why are you in a wheelchair?”

Seriously? Have you ever asked someone that? I imagine there might be some situation somewhere that someone can think of where it’d be an appropriate question, but…

So, why do complete strangers ask if I am my child’s mother? And, what is the best response? …keeping in mind that it is not my goal to hurt people, but nor do I necessarily feel an obligation to provide the answer they are looking for either.

The thing is, I do enjoy talking about these kinds of topics… just not with random strangers who might be asking because they are uncomfortable with my family’s appearance.

So, seriously, share your ideas & thoughts!

(but please hold the “I’m so sorry this happens…”)


LaToya said...

I get this question alot, I find it terribly annoying and rude. And often I just don't answer. My children and I don't all look the same but we look similar enough to know that we are family. And even if we weren't family I just don't see what business it is of a stranger to inquire. Especially when my children are screaming mommy mommy at the top of their lungs.

Although I realize that this may be overreaction on my part as well. I don't get annoyed when people ask where their height comes from. Or say "wow, dad must be tall!". It's only when it's clearly a skin issue that I get a little worked up.

Mamabelle said...

I tried to post this calmly, but really, I'm pretty worked up too. In fact, I'm downright MAD about it. I was thinking of another response, maybe just ask them a couple totally inappropriate, personal questions back--like "what's your bra size?" "how often do you shower?"--and see if they get the hint.

momma zen said...

I just realized this was written on Elijah's birthday. For some reason this post showed up on my google reader as recent just now. Along with a few others.

Anyway, how rude! I don't think you are over-reacting at all. I can only imagine how this makes you feel and how it would offend me if I were in your situation.

I can only say that for me I have been experiencing the "Where does he get his blue eyes" and "his daddy must have blue eyes" ...and or if Matt and I were together with him they would look to both our eyes after commenting on Elijah's pretty eyes and get this confused reaction. Especially, toward me know - as if I slept around and he's not Matt's child because neither of us have blue eyes. My mom has blue eyes and all my uncles and grandmother. Blue runs strongly on my mom's side and mom's mom's side and mom's dad's mother's side.

Matt comes from very dark eyed family but he happens to have green eyes. The only one in his family to have them. So some gene from WAY down his line has manifested in him and also lent one gene to Elijah with my one gene and he got that small chance of having blue eyes.

I've had weird reactions from people concerning the topic of his eyes. It's the looks they get that make me nervous ...I'm not sure what to say or not. I don't want to get into biology and the punnet square with a stranger. So, I just say, "Yeah, how about that, huh?"

And make a somewhat graceful exit.

I don't know why such things interest people?

Skin color and eye color. Really it comes down to blue eyed, blond haired, fair skin - this has always been some sort of awe-worthy combo that is rooted by centuries of racism and reminds me of Nazi Germany as well. How dare anyone that isn't blond, blue eyed, and white have a white, blue eyed child ...if you are black, white, mix-race, etc --- if you don't fit the bill how can you have a child that does? Stupid, ignorant people that need to be de-programed.

Mamabelle said...

Momma Zen, It's interesting how people get weird about something as simple as eye color. And the looks they get that make your nervous--that's what I'm talking about! It's spooky and disorienting. My nightmare is that someone calls the police or social services at a grocery store or out in public, and I have to get my husband to rush over with her birth certificate, social security, etc. I just don't know what I'd do if that ever happened... I'd toally lose it. Maybe I'd move!