My wife, Amber, sat on the couch sobbing. I asked her what’s wrong. No response. I figured this was a case of prenatal blues, those far too common occurrences where hormones take over rational thought and lead the expectant mother to ask herself: What if he’s born with that unpronounceable disorder that affects one in 50 million children? What if he grows up and gets involved with the wrong crowd? What if he is the wrong crowd! I tried again. “You sure everything’s OK?” She muttered in between tears, “I’m just afraid that he won’t look like me. People might think I’m his babysitter.”
I am black and Amber is white. We have three children. Our youngest is 18 months; he has dark eyes and that racially ambiguous tan “What are you?” skin tone common among women in hip-hop videos. Our two eldest kids, ages 3 and 4, have blue eyes. Their skin is white. People do not think I am their babysitter; my gender prevents that. But people often wonder if I am their father or, apparently, just a random 30-something black guy hanging out with toddlers.
As the parent of two melanin-free biracial children, any moment can quickly become an impromptu episode of Maury. A young Asian mother at the playground stared, turned away, and stared some more until she worked up enough courage to ask, “Where do the kids come from?” Had my wit been quick enough I would have responded, “Deez nutz,” but I was caught off guard and could only say, “They’re my kids…from down the street.” An African restaurant owner inquired about my paternity the second I handed him my credit card, which had an image of my boys plastered on it. As the transaction processed, he warned, “If they marry white women, their kids will be all white. All your blackness…gone.” I nodded my head, signed the receipt, and put an “x” through its tip box. Then there was the white woman at the mall. She blurted out, “Just look at their eyes!” I smiled. The kids went into their stranger-has-approached shells. She looked at me: “Where’d they get eyes like that? Are they…” She thought better of her intrusiveness. Too late. “Yep, they’re mine. All three of ’em,” I said. Her response: “I want some like that!”
Only our oldest, 4-year-old Nile, has even a basic understanding of race. This developed alongside his obsession with Michael Jackson. After watching the “Black or White” video a couple hundred times, he asked, “What color is my skin?” My first thought was to tell him he’s black. I mean, come on; he was named after the river that runs through Africa. If you say we’re having greens for dinner, he’ll assume you’re talking about collards with bacon and not just a bowl of bland lettuce. He was in his parents’ wedding and watched us jump over the broom. He drives a motorized kids’ version of a Dodge Charger, with chrome wheels! Skin tone aside, which may or may not be a prerequisite to black-dom, I’m not sure how much blacker he could be.
Also, I was raised in African American culture and have evidently internalized the one-drop rule, much more so than I realized prior to having children. According to this slavery-era social and legal standard, a single drop of African blood indicates the person is black, regardless of their physical appearance. I have personally known biracial people and black people who disagreed with this concept, only to reside in a lonely racial purgatory, shunned from black society and far too impure for white society. Just look at the hell Black Twitter brought upon Raven-Symoné when she explained to Oprah that she sees herself as American and not African American, or the online beating Taye Diggs took when he expressed a preference that his 6-year-old son call himself biracial instead of black. Both instantly joined Dr. Ben Carson and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas as certified ex-Negroes.
We left it up to Nile to choose his race, regardless of skin tone. My wife poked at his curiosity: “What color do you think it is?” Outside of being asked to pick the top or bottom bunk in the room he shares with his brother Cassius, this was probably the toughest question of his young life. He gave a confused smile. His answer: “Black, Mama.” I felt proud, sort of how I feel when, say, a black family wins on Family Feud. It’s not that I’m against the white family with whom they’re competing, or in this case, against my wife’s heritage, it’s that black is often seen as bad. I was glad, as was my wife, that Nile had not adopted this belief, which numerous “pick the bad person” studies have shown is extremely common and perhaps the norm among children.
Paternal pride aside, my three boys can make as much as a case for being white or biracial as they can for being black. And who knows, presumably, each could even choose a different identity. My hope is that they are allotted the freedom to self-define without criticism, which is something I’m working on myself. This wish may seem naive and idealistic today, but the same could be said just decades ago about the very relationship that led to their existence. Hey, maybe Michael Jackson was on to something.