I have heard this question in my life more times than I care to, and I know that for my children–one in particular–this line of questioning has just begun. I have a pocketful of pre-formed answers, responses designed to catch the questioner off guard, to get them to examine their own assumptions, and to (sometimes) get out of answering the question all together. The problem for me–and for many others, I suspect–is that when an adult singles out one of my children and asks me, “What are they?” I know what the questioner means.
I am better–and more practised–at fielding and deflecting such questions from White parents/adults. When the questioner is an adult of color, I slip a little. When the questioner is another parent of color, I’ve already let my guard down a bit. With a Black parent of color standing alongside their young daughter, I have to admit–I am not expecting this question. I am also not going to call out this person I’ve just met, possibly embarrass them or make them look dumb, in front of their child.
When I was introduced to this particular questioner by a mutual acquaintance (that made all three of us adults of color at this event standing together) I was holding Teri. I was grateful I had brushed out, re-parted, and re-styled her hair that morning. The one thing this person said to me about Teri was that I have to ‘get her used to sitting for long periods of time because of her hair texture’ (don’t I already know it). This was not said in a complimentary way about Teri’s beautiful hair, even though this parent’s child has a similar hair texture. Then Jaja arrived, practically wordless, clinging to my legs (as she always does around strangers). My new acquaintance practically glowed in her presence. Thankfully, Jaja quickly skipped off to play near Dad with Gretel and a friend–and that’s when the questions began.
First, the adoption questions. I offered only, “We have two domestic open adoptions. We know and see our children’s birthparents. We were there on the days they were born.” (Yes, I know, to those of you who know our full stories this is a slight exaggeration–Teri was four days old when we met her–but I was going for the short version at this point. I was beginning to see where these questions were going.)
My answers to the adoption questions (which included some version of the ‘where are they from?’ question) did not give the information that was really being sought. Which brought on, “What is she?” There was no mistaking which ‘she’ we were talking about; Teri (still on my hip) hadn’t been offered a second glance. Still, I played a little dumb (I do after all have three daughters). I refocused on my children as a group. “All my kids are multiracial,” I answered. “So am I.” I was just about to start in on the ‘We have Black, White, and Cherokee heritage in our family . . .’ when I was stopped.
“What is she?” the questioner repeated, pointing across the grass at Jaja.
I sighed. I knew what this person was asking. They were not asking if my child is human. They were not asking about her gender. They were not asking about her ‘nationality’ (As usual, that one had been covered with the, “Where is she from?”) I caved. “She’s biracial. She’s Black and White.” I said.
“She doesn’t look it,” this Black parent responded.
Do you know any biracial kids? I wanted to ask, but I kept my mouth closed.
With their daughter standing right next to them, this parent went on. “She [Jaja] is so beautiful. She looks like a little doll.” I had pretty much tuned out at this point. I excused myself (with four young children, there’s always an excuse) and walked away. I was disappointed. I had been excited to meet another parent of color in my community.
There are a couple things I want to point out here: (1) I never would have even let this line of questioning begin had any of my three older kids been within 15 feet, (2) Teri and Jaja have almost the same skin tone, also very similar to the skin tone of the questioner’s daughter, and (3) All four of my kids are physically striking–they get complimented on it all the time–in completely different ways (bragging mom here, sorry).
The questions and comments about Jaja–which, unfortunately are not going to stop any time soon–are because few people can racially place her. (Although in cities with large Black and White populations–Philly, St. Louis, D.C., for example–Black/African American moms seem to know that Jaja is multiracial, that she has Black ancestors. The same thing can’t be said for White moms in the same cities. We got the most inane comment ever from a White mom in Philly, who said Jaja looked ‘island-y’. My husband reported this comment back to me. “I wanted to ask, ‘which island?’” he said to me. Perhaps racial segregation–including isolated parents of color in my current community–is a big piece of the story.)
My oldest daughter has medium brown skin. Her smooth dark brown hair gently curls. Her facial features are a complete blend of her birthparents’ faces; she looks so much like both of them. This racially-defining question, and all its accompanying baggage, is something she will likely have to deal with her entire life. Unlike her three younger siblings, she is not easily racially stereotyped/categorized by a combination of visual factors, primarily skin tone and hair texture. Rico, Gretel, and Teri will have a similar experience to mine (in this one way): they will have the option to ‘out’ themselves as multiracial, when and if they choose to. But they are unlikely to be questioned or challenged about their racial ancestry based on their physical appearances.
The comments that really get me are the ones after people ask an inappropriate question about my own or my child’s racial heritage, surprise or weasel me into answering their question, and then say I’m wrong or lying. I want to be able to answer these questions about my family’s racial heritage without feeling that I am violating some sacred trust, without feeling as though I am talking about my sex life or my spiritual beliefs or my children’s birthmarks–with a virtual stranger. I want to normalize the multiracial experience, for multiracial families and multiracial individuals. I want people–this person–to know that multiracial people come in all colors and shapes and forms. That we don’t all look alike (anymore than two people of similar racial heritage look alike). And that saying “You don’t look like what you are,” is one of the most dismissive, condescending things someone could say to a multiracial person.