Making space for race

(a post which contains, among other things, an attempt to summarize Utah's complex web of race relations in a pithy paragraph but which ends up being a complete mess and makes me look like an idiot and possibly a racist myself (which I'm sure that on some level I am, in the same way that I still find homophobia within myself) so please don't hate me after you've read this, I just need to get it out, and I'm willing to listen to others' thoughts on the matter)

Our baby is only 6 weeks old, and already we're having race-relations problems.

A pre-shooler informed Kristin that our baby has a black face. "That baby's face is black" she went on to elaborate. Her mother quickly replied, "Oh no, her face isn't black, it's just her skin's darker than yours."

What's wrong with this exchange?

Let me just sketch some context here. We live in Salt Lake City. In the heart of Utah. A state which is characterized by most people who don't live here (and, to be honest, quite few people that do) as one of the whitest places in the US. This is not true. We have a very diverse population. We all just stay hidden in our little ghettos. Some examples: Utah is currently taking in thousands of refugees from all over the world, but for the most part citizens don't see or interact with them, heck, most Utahns don't even know about them; per capita we have the 3rd largest queer population in the country, yet we have some of the most draconian anti-gay laws on the books which were placed there recently not because Utah admits to having a large gay population that needs to be punished/controlled/put-in-their-place but to "send a message to the rest of the country" (italics mine); and we have large areas in all our major cities (ok, two out of the three) where English and White faces are rare. The numbers of our non-wasp population may be small compared with other regions in the country, but per capita the numbers are significant, and significant in the fact of their virtual erasure in the public sphere. However, we don't have large numbers of Blacks. Well, we have an increasing number of Africans, but not a large number of African Americans. (One other point I'll just make here: on the Wasatch Front -- our metropolitan area that contains all our important cities except Park City -- Mormons are actually in the minority. The problem is that they're the largest minority and they're solidly united, while the other population segments tend to be fractious).

So, as you can see, we have race (and other) problems. Our big (big big) race conflicts manifest themselves between Anglos and Latinos. We also have conflicts between Whites and Pacific Islanders, but since most of the Pacific Islanders immigrated under the aegis of the dominant religion, (and the Latinos are mostly Catholic) those problems are glossed over like a crazy relative hidden in the attic. Yet, most of the dialogue and materials on race relations and racism (at least those presented here) are based on Black/White tensions. So it's very easy for Utahns to "talk the talk" and think that racism isn't a big problem here because we are such dang nice, evolved people and we would never call a Black person a nigger or insinuate that by aborting all Black babies we would solve our crime problems. After all, "it's not Blacks that cause crime, it's the Mexicans". Racism as expressed towards Latinos is just "unfortunate but those illiterate, dirty Mexicans [if you speak Spanish you're Mexican whether or not you actually hailed from Mexico] bring it on themselves by coming where they're not wanted and taking our jobs and draining our resources and not even bothering to learn to speak our language." Oh yeah, and they're ungrateful and rude to us (for us read Anglos). Oh, we're evolved, all right.

So, back to the personal in this political moment. Our donor is Black. This in itself made it impossible for people to know that we used a known donor and not to know who it was since he's the only Black man in Kristin's and my friend circle. But more importantly (since we can't keep a secret so everyone was sure to know who our donor was anyway) this makes Julia biracial. And it makes her biracial in a unique situation: biracial children aren't unusual in Utah, but the races involved are Latino, Pacific Islander and White. Black/White biracial children are much rarer here. Whereas if Julia were half Latino or half Pacific Islander she would have resources to help her honor and hold to her non-white half. She would have a community both of people who identify as the race of her other half, and as biracial in the same way that she is. The way it stands now, the only access she has to more than just academic knowledge of Blackness is through her donor. This is tricky in itself because though we want him to play an important role in her life, we don't want him to play such an exclusively important role in her life. We don't want any judge for whatever reason to ever think that Julia would be better off in his (or his family's) custody. Yet to be seeking out role-models and "intentional family" members based on skin color also feels wrong. We don't want to make skin color a criterion for a relationship.

It is very important to both Kristin and I that Julia not be forced into a racial identity. We know that in very important ways everyone is forced into a racial identity, but we want her to be able to hold and honor and inhabit as much as possible both her racial heritages. This is why we found the tableau I started this post with so upsetting. In one moment Julia was both racialized as "other" (though the pre-schooler doesn't have a full grasp of the meaning of what she said, she definitely gets the "other" part of what she heard, the most upsetting thing is that she picked that language up from someone speaking in a racialized way about Julia either to her in front of her) and had her differences (e)rased. We do not want to force her into being White just because we are both White and most of our extended families are White any more than we want her to be forced into being Black because of the color of her skin. It may be crazy, but we want her to be able to be both, at least until she is old enough to choose for herself. Is this unrealistic? (I'm serious here, we're grasping in the dark, if you have thoughts please share them) Until Julia can choose which race she wants to identify with, or choose to try to hold her space between the two, Kristin and I want to hold that space open for her. Though we feel, in some respects, woefully inadequate for the task, we are giving it our best shot. We were taken by surprise in this instance, but the next time it happens, we're planning on trying to have a dialogue about making space for both of Julia's races.

If you have any thoughts at all, please comment. I'm sure my logic and thought processes are confused and flawed. Kristin and I are still trying to work out why we feel the way we feel and the best way to do what we want to accomplish. You'd think that we would've worked all this out during the ttc and pregnancy, but having a baby made it suddenly real and not merely an academic exercise. I've spent days working on this post and am a little afraid of posting it for fear that I sound like a horrible racist or terrible idealist or a completely incomptent mother. I may be all of these things, but I'm not completely sure, so if you want to point it out, please do so, but be gentle; I learn best when I'm dealt with tenderly.

Posted by Trista @ 10:18 AM

Read or Post a Comment

To be honest... since i saw her picture, I've just wondered quietly... knowing it is none of my business, but wondering what the reasons behind a black donor were for you. Really I would love to know some day, because I find it interesting.
I know a few people kinda sorta in your situation. I don't want to give out their names in such a public space, but if you email me privately I will let you know who they are...
I, personally, don't believe in race. Just like I would not lump people together because they are blonde or have green eyes... I do not lump them simply because of the color of their skin. It's a physical characteristic, that's all. To me at least.

Posted by Blogger Estelle @ 12:57 PM #

You know, I think I would just let the chips fall where they may. People will talk and you can't change that. As a lesbian, you know people talk, but I don't let it bug me. Most of the time I don't even hear what's said, but I know I am the subject of many a conversation. I really don't care. It doesn't affect where I go, what I do or who I am with. I know it can be tough in school because children can be mean. I would be willing to bet that the love she gets at home will make her strong enough to endure. As long as her parents accept her and she is confident in who she is, she will be fine.

Posted by Anonymous cocoa @ 12:57 PM #

estelle- i would guess the reasons may just be that, like you, they do not believe in race. i don't know that there has to be a reason behind race when it comes to wanting a child. it seems like that may be part of the problem, as you would not question why they might have a white child.

Posted by Anonymous cocoa @ 1:02 PM #

I think there are two contexts for your thoughts and concerns, macro & micro.

On the macro level, your analysis of Utah -- and to a large extent, all of the middle class US -- is going to have a huge impact on how Julia grows up, experiences the world, and is seen by others.

But I think the incident that sparked your concern is in the micro level context. And there are a couple of pieces to consider adding to the context. First, most middle class white adults are uncomfortable discussing race and will do just about anything to avoid it. And second, small children are literal and they notice the physical world much more intently than adults.

Small children are going to notice each other's differences. They notice the kid with orange hair and wonder why adults call that red hair when it clearly isn't red. But they can learn to call it red. And they notice the kid whose skin color is different, especially if most of the other kids have similar skin color.

When I was 2 or 3, I almost caused my mother to die of embarassment, because I walked up to an African American woman and announced that she was brown. She shook her head and kindly told me that no, she was black.

I argued. (Evidence that personality is formed VERY young....) I knew my colors, and she was the color brown, not the color black.

Of course my observation occured in theat macro context, but as a toddler, I had no concept of racial identity. All I had was "she doesn't look like me or my parents. Her skin is a different color. Brown."

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that you're right to be thinking about this and how to handle it over the course of Julia's growing up.

And at the same time, as young as Julia is -- and the kids around her are -- maybe you're reading more into it than is there.

And I agree, getting clear about one's thoughts and opinions and feelings on the topic of race and racism is a real challenge. This was a much longer and more muddled comment than I intended to make.

Posted by Anonymous Liza @ 1:09 PM #

My partner is Mexican/Japanese/Irish, and because we live in an area where migrant Mexican labor is abundant, there is no shortage of derogatory or assuming comments heard about Mexicans. In her line of work, many of these things are said 'elbow-in-ribs' to her, everyone assuming she's Hawaiian (because that's where she's from). Every time it happens, she regrets not speaking up rather than just ignoring the comments and walking away--one thing we know for sure is that we want our child to be confident in all that encompasses who they are.

That being said, i really agree with Liza. Julia will grow up feeling loved and supported by people of all races, and open dialogue is always better than assumptions and things left unsaid. When children point out differences, i think it's important to explain those differences to them and focus on the beauty of diversity, and the power of 'unity.' People always seem nervous to bring up differences, but not to rejoice in what makes each of us unique and special is really an injustice. Maybe that seems utopic, but i really believe it...

Posted by Blogger Amanda @ 2:14 PM #

You are right. As a biracial 12-year-old, people have confused me by trying to pull me onto one race. Being of two races leaves you with an identity crisis. It is strange when your mom is caucasian and lives in Tennessee and yor father is black and lives in a Kansas City ghetto.

Posted by Blogger Kye Miller @ 3:37 PM #

Our little one is half Caucasian, half Indian (Asian Indian) and 100% a product of the way she is raised. We have it a bit easier than you in that both of the cultures that comprise her genetic make-up are in her life/house/day every single day and yet it's still not easy. Brace yourself not only for the questions of toddlers, but the adults asking if she's adopted, if she's a foster child, if she's this or that. At some point, you'll find a polite way to tell them to fuck off.

But then there's this toddler - why do you feel someone spoke to her in a racialized way that led her to say that about your daughter? My daughter is 30 months and has had an amazing command of colors for the past 15 months or so - mostly due to the TV show Clifford. She can tell you which dog is red, yellow, pink, blue and which kid wears which color t-shirt. Unfortunately, this has translated into real life shirt color issues. She now regularly says, "Mommy, who is that white lady?" And it's not about a caucasian lady, but a lady in a white shirt. This is the logic and honesty of a toddler. We don't correct her and tell her that people aren't colors - we'd by lying - she sees three differently colored people every day at her breakfast table. But we do say, "Oh, you mean the lady in the white shirt?" Children are honest, curious and without an internal voice that we adults have.

Anyway, I didn't find what you said to be racist. And it's good to think about these things - but the bottom line is once you've provided your child with all of the support and love that you can, you've got to let go and let her find her own way. She will find cultural groups that feel right to her and they might not be what you expected at all.

Posted by Anonymous Christy @ 1:43 PM #

Christy: Thanks for you comments. It does feel good to hear from someone else going through this. You and the other commentators have had a lot og good things to say.

We know the preschooler has overheard racialized speech because we know this preschooler very well. She is extrememly precise in her language and has had her colors down since before she could even speak them (we could ask her to point to blue, red, purple, tan etc things and she always got them right). If she had been commenting only on the color of Julia's skin, she would have said that Julia's skin was brown or she would have said her skin was dark. She wouldn't have said her face was black. Also, she was very upset about having to share a lap and attention and had been saying anything negative about Julia she could think of. Pretty normal behavior for a preschooler. We're not upset at her at all. We're not even really upset at her parents, just at the conundrum and the fact that it's come up so early.

Posted by Blogger Trista @ 8:23 PM #

Well, here I go...I say this with love and community in my heart, so please understand this. How interesting that I felt I needed to say this so that you didn't get the wrong idea....

Anyhow, I feel that you have clearly shown how white privilege works, and it is a function of white privilege that you began this conversation (or so it seems to us readers) after Julia arrived. I guess this may sound harsh, but as a black carrier of a mixed race child, who is partnered with a white woman who may eventually also carry a mixed race child (and who will be 'mom' to this child) it was important for us to discuss AT LENGTH what this all meant. For me, for her, for our children. How, as a white person, do you parent a child of colour? (i.e what complicated/messy situations are we in for?) How do I parent in relation to my partner of colour? It does get pretty complicated and totally needs to be discussed. So in that sense, kudos for you for this post....

But the thing about not forcing your child into a racial identity. Let's just be honest. Julia will never be considered white in the United States of America (she may, in spaces like the Caribbean, be called "white", more so in relation to her privileged US citizenship and class status) but where you all live, she will always been seen as of colour. And I think you both need to be realistic about this. Because she won't be "white", even if you leave a space open for her to be so. That will just come with confusion and hurt and upset and as someone who is light but not light enough, I can tell you that racial markers are all about putting us in our place and making sure we stay there. And then, the crazy academic in me gets all riled cuz "race" as is commonly understood really doesn't exist (as Estelle mentioned) and to imagine that we are separate biologically is crazy making. But what does exist is racism, so I guess the issue is not just whether she gets to choose what "race" she is, but how she chooses to deal with (and prepare for and survive) the messy racist situations she is likely to experience. And even more so (and I'm sure pretty disturbingly) the racist experiences she is likely to experience from you, as her parents.

One important thing though...the conversations must continue....

Posted by Blogger Kwynne @ 12:03 PM #
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