Where Did You Get Her?
“This is amazing, you’re the first black president. I’m proud to be able to say. But that’s unless you screw up. And then it’s going to be, “What’s up with that half-white guy? Who voted for the mulatto,” quipped Wanda Sykes, at a White House Dinner.
The joke made me laugh. Yet underneath the humor was the reality of how we perceive race. We are what we look like to others because it is easier than incorporating the more complex issue of what being multiracial means. In his new book, The Bridge, David Remnick writes that Obama, as president, believed it was best to “internalize” race talk believing there was “no winnable percentage” in a national dialogue on his road to the White House. I have often wondered how Obama’s mother would have felt continually hearing that her son is the first black President. I want her to fit into the equation.
That’s probably because I am the Manhattan mother of two children who are biracial. Their father is Indonesian and I am white. When our daughter was born in 1983, a relative on my husband’s side insisted that she was one hundred percent Indonesian. It was a prescient comment, echoed for years afterwards. But then Ariane was just a tiny little girl, that I nursed and cradled, and the thought that anyone would question whether she was mine was not something I even considered. I grew up in Maplewood, New Jersey, 18 miles from Manhattan. In the 1960’s our family was not the norm because my parents came from different religious backgrounds. The community was divided by what church you attended. To find a synagogue you would have to travel to the next town over. We attended neither. My father, a non-practicing Jew, deferred to my Protestant mother. We celebrated Christmas and Easter by having a tree and baskets, eliminating the religious aspect of both holidays. My friends who were Christian questioned why we didn’t go to church. My Jewish friends questioned how we could have a decorated evergreen in our house. I didn’t have the answers for them, or at least, not the ones they were looking for. They wanted us to be something they understood. My parents were oblivious to the complicated life they had given to my two brothers and me.
When my father died, in 1974, my mother and I moved into the city to be close to my brother and his wife. I was twenty-two. Six months later I met my future husband, Jon, at a publishing company where we worked a few desks away from each other. His father came to the U.S. to sit on the Human Rights Commission at the United Nations. He was a brilliant man who, in an ironic twist, was open-minded about everything except his children marrying non-Indonesians. To be fair, my own mother reached beyond the grave to have my deceased father weigh in on the marriage. According to her, the message she received, was that he would not have approved.
That experience, and my own childhood, should have prepared me for the possibility that if an interracial marriage was not readily accepted, mixed children might raise the same issues. When my daughter grew from the swaddled infant stage to the, on display for all to see, stroller years, I found out how unprepared I was for the cross examination about her ethnicity. Ariane was a rosy-hued, brown skinned child with dark, crazy curls shooting out all over her head. She was the kind of baby people couldn’t resist picking up. We got a lot of attention, and so many questions. They came in every form imaginable, ranging from the polite to the outrageous. There were the people who solicited enough information to assess on their own whether she was my child. Lisa, a woman who later became my friend, told me that when she first met us in a Gymboree class, she just assumed my daughter was adopted. Even after she saw me nursing Ari the possibility that she was biracial did not enter into her thinking but the ability to spontaneously breastfeed, did.
At the age of three, getting ready to go out for a walk, Ariane climbed onto the bathroom sink joining me in the mirror. Putting her face next to mine she asked when she would look like me. I asked her if she meant white. She did. This was a little girl trying to figure herself out. I responded only by asking why she would ever want to be pale like me? Not an answer, a deflection. Her little friends from Washington Square Park and nursery school were predominantly white. She wanted to fit in. Not surprisingly Barbie became the doll she coveted …blond, upturned nosed, Barbie. If you couldn’t be it, you could own it. For her fourth birthday my friends asked earnestly if they should get her the Hawaiian version. I knew she only wanted the classic doll. By the time she was seven she had at least thirty, most of them white, a few not.
As my daughter grew up the curiosity of strangers continued but now we shared the direct hits together: shouting at us on the street as we passed, a young man asked “Is she mixed?” I smiled and nodded, yes; attending a school play when my daughter was eleven, and seated next to me, a woman turned around in the row ahead of us to ask me where I got her. Even if she was adopted, I am pretty sure she would have been able to hear her. My polite upbringing stopped me from asking the woman how she managed to be so rude, intrusive, and close-minded all the while thinking she was just asking a question. This time my words came out in some staccato short-hand … “father, Indonesian.” The clumsy, insensitivity of that interaction stayed with me long after I wrestled it to the ground inside my head. It bothered me for years because it revealed the unease people have when they can’t immediately figure you out. If you can’t be identified as one thing or another than you are something in between. For many that is not a comfortable place to land.
By the time of the school play incident, I had a four year old son. Damon was much fairer and looked like a combination of his father and myself. There was less scrutiny but
interest all the same as people tried to figure out in what category to place him. In a book titled Is That Your Child? Mothers Talk About Rearing Biracial Children, the authors wrote that raising children of mixed race who are ambiguous to the world outside their home will have their relationship challenged. This was not the book I read when I was pregnant. Instead I bought books like What to Expect When You are Expecting. Happily, I read what happened at 3 months, and 6 months until the big day arrived. Naively, I never once thought there would be so much confusion as to whether they belonged to me because they had skin color different from my own, or how this would be the overwhelming factor that dictated how the world perceived them. My daughter is now 27, my son is 20. She is still occasionally asked, where she is from finding herself explaining her parentage to complete strangers. Most of the time she just says, New York. Recently I asked my son if he was asked the same questions. With a shrug, he said he couldn’t remember being asked very often. I know from the shrug that he does not like being asked this question. I’m uncomfortable putting it out there too because it makes him seem separate from me.
In the seven years between my children attending kindergarten in the same school, the number of multiracial families had increased significantly. Yet, it’s 2011 and we have a man in the White House described as the first African-American president. Obama, himself, has written about his struggle as a young man trying to reconcile the social perceptions of his multiracial background. I wonder how long it will take for people to see him as our first biracial President. I think his mom would like that.