"I just don't like flat noses."
I dropped my knife with a clink. I had been smearing my scone with clotted cream, but now I wanted to take the porcelain tub of the stuff and chuck it at his chest. Here I was, across the table from the man I loved, and he'd just admitted he didn't want our kids to have African noses. I was dumbfounded.
Our earlier discussions had always been about the big bad societal issues -- discrimination, split loyalties, fitting in -- and they usually seemed as surmountable as steeplechase shrubs. When the jumps looked too high Id say: "Look, your own half-black, half-German girlfriend has a scholarship at Oxford and a promising future in politics. Life can be good for a mixed kid!" He'd calm down and wed talk about something else.
But his nose declaration silenced me.
While James (not his real name) was always earnest and eager in his desire to have a family with me, he had unwittingly stated what I'd always feared: That in the end, race would count -- against me. As I solemnly poured more tea, all I could think of was history's Tragic Mulatta: The archetype of the mixed-race woman light enough to "pass," but always rejected once her dark heritage was discovered.
The more we talked family, the more he sounded like a lost Faulkner character obsessed with poisoned bloodlines. It was as if he saw my genes as a ticking time bomb waiting to explode negroidness. He'd already told me stories of white couples giving birth to black babies (because of the sins of an errant ancestor) -- stories that annoyed me because they smacked of cautionary tales. While this wasn't Oxford, Miss., it was Oxford, England. Was he now speaking for his Empire past, giving voice to the collective fear that settler genes would be overrun by those of the natives?
Only the anthropologists know for sure, since James and I have long since broken up and no longer discuss such issues. As patently ridiculous as I found his concerns, I soon worried. Was there any legitimacy whatsoever to his fears? I wondered if "difference" ever undermined a parents ability to love, or be loved.
Im not the only one. My friends Bessie and Joel -- she a 29-year-old Texas Cajun, he a 32-year-old black D.C. native -- are a striking couple, one that would attract gazes even in a hate-free world. Day to day they survive the usual frictions, from the requisite stares in restaurants to the hurts of family disapproval.
One day I talked to Bessie, who expressed fears about one day having children with Joel. She told me about the time they were driving home and a group of black women pulled up and motioned for Joel to roll down the window. "They started yelling at him," Bessie remembered, "asking him why he was turning his back on black women." After that, Bessie became more hesitant about kids. "I didn't know if I wanted to put them through this type of situation," she said.
And she wondered if she would always fit into her children's lives. As a white mom, she worried that one day her kids would "turn their backs" on her. She assumed that her kids would look more black than Cajun, and that a "black" identity would be automatically foisted upon them by society. She worried about the price of acceptance into the black community.
Would they be forced to forsake her as their mother, as if renouncing their matrilineal line could cleanse them of alien whiteness? This angst was only aggravated by what she saw as a black backlash against Tiger Woods. "I became scared," she said, "when [he] said that he wasn't black and there was a huge outcry from the black community."
The more I listened to her worries, the more I wanted to answer her back. I wanted to say, "Hey, I was that kid! I had a white mother and a black father and it's OK!" I wanted to tell her that I could never turn my back on my mom because she's my rock, and that my mom can't help but see herself in my face because her DNA blitzkrieged itself through my genes. While I know that my experience growing up was unique, I wanted to show her that it didn't have to be unmitigated trauma.
I was different -- no question about it. But it was a good thing. We were in Detroit, and, to be blunt, I was a golden girl in a chocolate city. To the adoring brown faces of family and strangers, my color and curls seemed precious.
Then, when I was 6, my father died. We soon headed north for the suburbs -- where my currency was immediately devalued. My light skin was now seen as dark amid the children of the white working class. Unfortunately, my mom made my displacement worse by shearing my hair. When all the girls wanted Barbie manes, I looked like the beige Orphan Annie.
If I was ridiculed, I'm sure it was for looking like a chubby boy rather than a beige girl. I say beige, because nobody knew I was black. People would guess Indian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern first. My ability to be an ethnic chameleon allowed me to escape easy hits from racists -- and allowed me to enjoy a bizarre sort of interloper status as kids shared racist jokes with me.
I remember in third grade watching my best friend pull my sleeve and say "Look, nigger lips!" as she pressed her bottom lip out and curled her pink tongue up against her top lip. Even though the episode was upsetting, I never felt threatened. Even then I knew I was lucky; it wasn't like I ran gantlets of taunts on the playground, or felt I was in physical danger of any kind.
And unlike other mixed kids, I never felt torn between two cultures. Because in my suburbs, there was only one culture: the hegemonic white one. There were so few nonwhite kids I never felt like I had a choice in alliances. My family never made me choose either. The only black relative who I saw all the time was my grandmother, who was more concerned that I grew up to be a courteous young lady than a conscious black nationalist.
My family was just apolitical, so my new environment and the TV had pretty much free rein on shaping my sensibilities. At the age of 7 I liked AC/DC and slasher flicks; my beauty aesthetics were shaped by the cast of "Dallas." Thinking Charlene Tilton, I asked the stylist to "feather" my hair. I still remember the bemused look when she told me no way.
Even in my conservative town, high school was good to me. People befriended me, listened to me, nurtured my talents. If kids made fun of me, it probably had more to do with my asymmetric hair and black trench coat than the melanin in my skin.
As opposed to being a hindrance, difference was something I embraced at every turn. Different music, different politics -- I was always looking for the other side of the story. Even with my "alternative" persona (before alternative went mainstream), I was elected vice president of my class three years in a row; I went on to become senior class president and was even voted the girl most likely to succeed. From there, I went to Washington to study politics.
But race finally became an issue, in the one venue that mattered to me most: love and romance. I learned early on that all my accolades would never neutralize race when it came to dating white guys. I found it ironic that despite being seen as "most likely to succeed," some parents still saw me as a drag on their (white) sons' social and professional prospects.
I can never forget how my boyfriend David's parents reacted to his relationship with me. (We were 16). "Think of your career," they pleaded. "Think of your future." Even though David was West Point bound, his parents assumed he'd someday return and settle in a big house off Main Street and build his life right next to theirs. But he was from Up North, and in Gaylord, wedding-cake brides didn't come in beige. They worried he'd be shunned professionally, and in a small town, you could only alienate so many people before you were nonviable as a businessperson.
I don't think he meant to hurt me with his parents' opinions, but I could tell he was buying some of it and that was enough for me to break things off (and to make him persona non grata in my home). Once he entered school, where his worldview was no doubt radically broadened, he tried to resume correspondence. But by then, I'd moved on.
Obviously my experiences are unique, and in no way do I mean to discount the pains of the mixed-kid life. But I do think that mulattas don't have to be tragic anymore. The only insurmountable problem for a mixed kid, I think, is the inability of her parents to love her because of her "difference."
I asked my mom if she had ever worried about my "foreignness." She scowled and said, "I was more worried about how I was going to feed you." I wasn't satisfied. "C'mon, not even a little worried?" She ironed some more and then blurted, "It wasn't like I didn't have choices!" Her allusion to abortion shut me right up, and then she added quickly: "You were my child, it didn't matter. I would have loved you if you were green."
To some, this epiphany will seem anti-climactic, like something I should have known in my bones. Others will still doubt. But now I finally know that a child doesnt have to be a clone of her parents to be an object of love. Just like I knew that a parent doesnt have to be a facsimile of the child to qualify for her love. Love may not conquer cruel streaks, self-absorption and/or long-distance telephone bills (apologies, James), but it can easily conquer cosmetic difference.