Raven Snook and her family. Photo courtesy of Raven Snook
When Parks and Recreation star Rashida Jones corrected a reporter on the red carpet who complimented her “tan” by responding, “You know, I’m ethnic,” I let out a knowing laugh. Ever since my half-Jewish (me), half-Puerto Rican (my husband) daughter was born, I’ve experienced many of those awkward exchanges with strangers. “Her skin is so dark! Were you just on vacation?” “She’s so interesting… is she yours?” and the ever-popular, “What is she?”
I realize these inquiries ostensibly come from a place of innocent curiosity. After all, my child, especially as a baby, looked nothing like me, the pasty Goth chick with straight hair, yet was the spitting image of my swarthier, curly-headed husband. However, these questions reveal unpleasant societal assumptions about what families are “supposed” to look like, and which kids and parents go together.
"When you’re just walking down the street and someone asks a question along those lines, it’s jarring," Naomi Raquel Enright, a diversity associate at Horace Mann School in New York City, tells Yahoo Parenting. Enright also deals with similar queries about her own mixed-heritage child. "My mother is from Ecuador and my dad was Jewish, and my husband is Irish and German,” she says. “Our son has blond hair, blue eyes and light skin. He actually looks a lot like me if you get past his coloring, but many people don’t see the resemblance. They think I’m the nanny. Once when someone asked, ‘How long have you looked after him?’ I said, ‘Since he was in utero.’"
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I’ve heard similar stories from other friends with “ethnically ambiguous” children. When the white parent was with the child, the questions were of the “What is he?” variety. But when the parent of color was with the kid, the classist and racist conclusions were staggering. “When my sons were about one and two, I was pushing the double stroller out the front door of my building when a woman walked up to me and asked how much I charged to take care of the kids,” Carol Cain, CEO of the blog Gone Girl Travel, and who is of Dominican-Puerto Rican heritage, tells Yahoo Parenting. “I looked at her confused, thinking that maybe I misheard her. It was the first time anyone had ever vocalized the perception that others might have about my biracial children not being mine because they were lighter-skinned and had green eyes.”
Carol Cain and her family. Photo courtesy of Carol Cain
With interracial marriages on the rise, the United States is more multicultural than ever, so I understand the curiousity — I often find myself wondering about people’s ethnic backgrounds. But it’s hard not to be defensive when asked if your child is, in fact, yours, especially when there are so few positive representations of interracial families in the media. And even when you find one— like in those wonderful Cheerios ads a few years back— there’s backlash and controversy along with the support.
Yet, I also believe that a question like, “What is she?” can spark important conversations, which may lead to a deeper appreciation of our melting-pot culture. The trick is how the queries are asked—and, perhaps more importantly, answered.
“It’s all about approach and context,” says Enright. “I’m much calmer now about those questions than when my son was a baby. Instead of feeling angry or upset, I just state the facts about who he is. I take it as a moment of illumination, how varied our histories are and how assumptions can be damaging. These may seem like harmless questions, but they’re highlighting a whole other host of issues. It’s important to prepare my son for these queries, that he has the tools to respond constructively and not feel bad about himself. My child is looking at me and how I answer. It’s a teachable moment for him.”
Dr. Mariana Souto-Manning, professor of early childhood education at Columbia University and author of Multicultural Teaching in the Early Childhood Classroom, believes the key to demystifying interracial families is to discuss and celebrate differences from a young age. “A lot of early childhood teachers don’t talk about race and identity because they think kids aren’t ready, but children are already dealing with these micro-racial interactions every day,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “If we see every single one of us as a cultural being, we stop having this museum-walk perspective. It’s important to start early or we’re going to raise another generation of adults that have problematic ideas about race.”
A mother of two herself, Souto-Manning answers bluntly when strangers inquire about her interracial children. “When somebody asks, ‘Is he your child?’ I say, ‘You mean he doesn’t look like me because he doesn’t have brown skin?’ I talk about it openly instead of being ashamed. Interracial marriage has only been [legal throughout the United States] since the late 1960s but attitudes didn’t necessarily change right away. It wasn’t until the ’90s that the majority of people in the U.S. thought interracial marriage was okay but there’s not enough education about it.”
Souto-Manning adds, “It’s problematic because it shouldn’t be up to us to educate the world. But entering conversations is a much more productive way to move ahead to dispel stereotypes so people can understand the beauty and diversity of our family.”