In April, several months before Rachel Dolezal became head jester of racial appropriation court, Rush Limbaugh called celebrated black image activist and feminist Michaela Angela Davis, “a mixed-race little orphan Annie.” The statement was shockingly ugly, a blatant reminder from the court’s self-appointed king that, even in 2015, the intermingling of races would not to be tolerated. Davis, who does not identify as mixed race, would never be allowed to determine her own identity. Last week, upon publishing a piece in the Washington Post titled, “The day my daughter realized she isn’t white,” Lisa Papademetriou unwittingly stumbled into place beside Limbaugh and was coronated queen.
The article, which appeared in the paper’s On Parenting section, was accompanied by such gems as “Why I won’t be GPS tracking my college freshman” and “Trying to like hiking for my child’s sake.” Papademetriou’s short piece seamlessly merged with its likeminded contemporaries, but in addressing this particular issue, she found an unlikely critic in me, childless and generally unwilling to publicly voice opinions on other people’s parenting. Perhaps it is Papademetriou’s background as a young adult author that allows her to so jokingly convey the horrors of having to discuss racism with her four-year-old daughter.
“Mama,” my 4-year-old daughter said. “Did you know that darks and lights didn’t used to be able to go to the same places?”
“What?” I asked. It was bedtime, and I was tired. I wondered vaguely how Zara knew so much about laundry.
That moment paves the way for her decision to inform Zara that she is not, in fact, white like her mother, a choice that ends with frightened tears and screaming, the natural conclusion to being told what and who you are by someone else. The article, from this interlude alone, could more aptly have been called, “The day I told my kid she wasn’t like me.” Bravo.
It’s a spectacularly archaic parenting call in an age where the demographic of multiracial Americans is growing at three times the rate of the population as a whole, according to a Pew Research Center report. So maybe it’s time to have an open discussion about how to help your mixed-race child or children come to terms with the fact that the census will always be a struggle.
I spent most of my young life under the false impression I was white. In many ways, I led the first edition version of young Zara’s life in the 1980s. I grew up in overwhelmingly white areas sporting Keds, but spent every Eid dressed in itchy salwar kameez, stuffing my face with spiced lamb and biryani.
My own Pakistani father and white mother took great pains to ensure I felt special, but never different from my peers. Conversations about race and identity revolved around being all-American rather than brown. Together, my parents celebrated and endlessly defended their interracial marriage, but deeper dialogues about their differences were left unspoken in my presence. We pointed out other interracial couples in commercials, applauding their rare appearances as if they were celebrities.
Occasionally my father—who, physically, was undeniably of foreign origin—would feel slighted by a person or situation and cry racism. As a teenager, I remember being horribly uncomfortable every time he casually labeled someone a racist. Frankly, it felt indulgent. And it summarily dismissed the fact that he had a temper, something I inherited in addition to the “tan.” I was embarrassed that he made our neighbors into bigots every time someone slighted him.
It wasn’t until I went to college in New York and realized I wasn’t white, to steal the phrase, that I began to see his point.
The onslaught of jihadi insults in the wake of 9/11 were a shock to me. I’d spent my high school years cocooned by the subtle racism of Vermont’s homogeneity. If I’d been annoyed by the mispronunciation of my name by teachers who ought to know better, it was nothing compared to the fury I felt at the whispered “Arabs” and “dune coons” that slithered down my back. My resentment regarding my father’s tendencies to “cry wolf” became a benchmark for how much the world has improved for people of color between his generation and mine.
During my first semester at Manhattan College in 2003, I was “discovered” by what I sort of jokingly dubbed the Muslim sorority. Some of the girls wore hijab, some didn’t. Some were observant Muslims, some were day drinkers in sundresses. A couple were Boston virgins, something I found absolutely hilarious as they blathered on about Allah. Mostly, I was annoyed by the fact they’d so easily identified me as a Desi when I’d passed for just really tan for most of my life. What was confusing, particularly since I’d gone to high school in Vermont, one of the whitest states in the Union, was how ill-prepared I was for the commonalities these women expected from me based solely on my skin color and name.
In Vermont, it wasn’t possible for people to befriend me based on shared pigmentation because there were no people of color. I was one of only three or four kids in my class whose birthstone wasn’t chalk. My name had previously caused people to pause, but now my identity was suddenly contingent upon putting myself firmly in the brown camp. I was a minority, like it or not, and these women wanted me to acknowledge it.
But I decided to take a different route. I spurned their advances and assimilated into a crowd of mostly white female engineers and embraced my position as the token minority of the group, laughingly agreeing to the nickname Jasmine or Jaz. I cringe to think of this now. Today, I would no more allow myself to be the subject of playful stereotyping than tell my hypothetical daughter she’s not white.
The time to boldly explore the changing landscape of race and its future in our society is now—and much of that conversation starts with our children.
Understandably, the issues surrounding how people of ambiguous ethnicity identify seem insurmountable. When adding in the painful imagery of a young girl like Zara, crying at her mother’s feet upon learning that she is not white, that she is different, it seems easier to leave well enough alone and never bring up the topic at all. But, while my parents are human and flawed like everyone else, they prepared and imbued me with a strength I have developed only through making my own choices to be who I am, in my own way. But that is only one of the ways in which they have supported my journey to assimilate as a woman of color.
The road has been anything but easy. A few years ago, while living in Vermont, a woman at a drugstore refused to speak with or serve me, and I left the store in a fit of rage, my mother trailing behind me in confused dismay. It was the first time we’d been in a situation where our differing opinions on what had happened revolved around the spectre of racism. She thought the woman was rude, not racist; I pointed out that she’d been served without issue. My anger was righteous, unfazed by her discomfort, and I thought, “You just don’t get it. And you never will, because you can’t.”
That’s a common occurrence between children of mixed parentage and their white parent; I spoke with a few friends who have all had similar moments of eureka with their caucasian mother or father. The key difference in how their stories varied from mine is this: my mother later acknowledged she’d mostly been uncomfortable with my reaction. I had felt slighted by a woman based on my appearance and she had been more concerned with the fact that I’d loudly called the woman a bitch. A few times. Her admission led to a revelatory conversation, on both our parts, about tone policing. As a person of color from New England, the “land of pursed lips,” I’m well acquainted with the phenomena, particularly as it pertains to race, but it was a first for my mother.
But white parents aren’t the only ones who feel the wrath of a mixed-race child’s vulnerability—my father was blamed early on for ensuring I was different, for giving me such a Pakistani name, for taking away the blue eyes and freckles I’d never inherit from my mother, for all the bad shit that ever happened to me because someone didn’t like that I was brown.
No parent escapes the warpath of teenage uncertainty, but the conflict of an internal battle about being white or black or brown or somewhere in between adds a unique weapon to the dilemma. My father simply continued to buy itchy salwar kameez, make chicken korma, and insisted I thank my grandparents for their generosity in Urdu; it’s how he showed me who he was, and in turn, how I discovered I was still Pakistani.
The acknowledgment of their own identity by both parents is as paramount to honest dialogue as any other part of child rearing. Speaking frankly about the differences between yourself and your partner is critical to helping your child understand both sides—cultural merging is hard as hell. My parents discussed that honestly and without judgment, and I firmly believe that was critical to my acceptance of myself. At some point everyone needs to learn the art of agreeing to disagree, and this isn’t a terrible place to start.
That frankness is useless when tempered with personal bias, however. In her article, Papademetriou admits that her husband’s relatives drive her crazy with their predilection to “announce a visit, and then arrive 48 hours before the planned date and time, or 56 hours after it, or not at all.” This behavior is not solely the domain of brown people, just as emotional frigidity is not the bailiwick of WASPs. Let Papademtriou’s willingness to categorize shitty behavior as a cultural difference serve as a warning against confusing lousy in-laws with brown people time—which, I admit, totally exists, by the way.
My mother did a better job of this than my father; he offered culture, education, high society, international travel. My mother’s family, on the other hand, are German by way of Indiana. They are salt of the earth people, pious and warm, and mostly immersed in church and basketball, those most Hoosier of activities. Their kindness was combined with palpable uncertainty of this brown man in their midst. And that divide shaped my own experiences with them, ensuring I never felt quite at ease among the sea of loving white faces at Thanksgiving. They are my family, but I’ll never be a Deppert in the way I am a Khan.
My mother, however, was more Khan than most. She wore a white sari on her wedding day. She ate skinny hot peppers stuffed with cumin right out of the skillet, not waiting for the oil to cool. She accompanied us to Lahore and Karachi and even Peshawar, where we wore headscarves and still felt the stare of hundreds of men on her blond hair. She shaped her mouth around unfamiliar double consonants to be able to say hello and thank you in Urdu. She even allowed my paternal grandparents to name me, although she readily admits she was partial to Sultana and would have put her foot down over some of the other family names suggested. Somehow she gracefully played the white, supportive spouse without becoming a creepy ethnic cheerleader, a feat she managed in the face of my grandparent’s initial, loudly voiced disapproval.
More importantly, together, my parents often explained how their relationship began, despite all odds. One of the most difficult experiences as a person of mixed race is to believe that someone will love you for your unusual background. The romantic relationships portrayed in the entertainment industry are so rooted in homogeny that the idea of finding someone willing to pursue someone other is almost unbelievable—and when you’re mixed race, you are other to everyone. My parents endlessly recounted my origin story. They reminded me, through their willingness to recount their romance, that I am the beloved product of two awesome folks who fell for different strokes. And that has been invaluable in allowing me to more easily navigate the pitfalls of being more than just really tan.
Since my parents married in 1984, the rate of interracial marriages in the U.S. has doubled. A Pew Research Center (PRC) report claims that in 2010, 15 percent of all new marriages were between people of different ethnic backgrounds. Additionally, the report overview stated: “Looking at all married couples in 2010, regardless of when they married, the share of intermarriages reached an all-time high of 8.4%. In 1980, that share was just 3.2%.” These statistics might explain why a more recent Pew reportstates that, “Multiracial Americans are at the cutting edge of social and demographic change in the U.S.—young, proud, tolerant...”
With the possibility of racial transformation on the horizon, why are the old tenants of multi-ethnic heritage so firmly wedded to the one drop ideology when a new paradigm is forming? Why not both, or, in many cases, all?
Embracing one’s status as a minority is no longer dependent upon excising one’s lighter heritage. As a child, I was told by my Pakistani grandmother that a woman of “wheatish complexion” was the most desirable—it conveyed wealth, status and an unsubtle connection to the colonialism that shaped and continues to influence the Indian subcontinent’s culture. That phrase still haunts my light-skinned dreams.
In the black community, colorism is a beast of a different nature. For those like Michaela Angela Davis at the forefront of discussions about race, privilege, and appropriation, the intricacies of skin tone play an even more prominent role in their ability to self-identify. Unfortunately, despite the complexities of divergent melanin allotment within minority communities, many multicultural activists have no choice but to play by the established rules and adhere to the one-drop mentality. And that’s a perfectly acceptable ideology, as long as it’s not the only option. We must move past the strictures of a system that has brought us nothing but grief and chains.
To me, it seems like common sense that for those of us straddling the ethnic divide, acknowledging all sides of our heritage provides us better insight on the racial wounds that continue to fester into tragedies like the Charleston shooting this June. Or the murder of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill in February. Or the thousands of other hate crimes that are committed each year, reinforced by the imaginary lines we’ve drawn to keep ourselves from venturing into the unknown.
By allowing our children to hone that uniquely kids-only ability to cut through the bullshit of being defined by how they look, and decide on their own how they feel about their background and appearance, we are opening the door for a new ideology to form.
[Photos via the author]