“I’m Monique, Asha’s mom,” I smiled. “I-I-I,” she sputtered, “I thought you were one of the teachers.” She stared at me like I had two heads belying her slow comprehension that I was not who she thought I was and that, who she imagined would be me, did not look like the real me at all. This woman was the mother of an Indian boy who also attended my daughter’s daycare center. Our children played together every day, but we had not yet met. The look of shock on her face as she realized that I was the same Monique who sent emails to all the parents urging them to confront the staffing issues at our center, the same Dr. W. who worked in the swanky downtown office and, therefore, did not drop-off or pickup my daughter from the center, the same Monique married to the tall white guy that she had, in fact, met before, and the same Monique who was the mother of the white-skinned blonde baby named Asha--- a Hindi word that she no doubt knew to mean hope, would have been comical if I didn’t see it every time I introduced myself to a parent there.
Hi, I’m Mo. I am 32 years old. I am a wife and a mama. I am a chocolate-lover and Harry Potter fanatic. I am an African American. Yes, my husband is white. No, my children are not the same color as me.
How I came to be one of the proportionately few, but growing number of black women married to white men is probably a story about racial assimilation, educational attainment, and social mobility; but it comes down to the day that he, a History Ph.D. working as a statistician at the Census Bureau, brought me a data file from the 1950s. This means nothing to people who don't study statistics; but I am a demographer. One of the true hallmarks of a demographer is that we will do anything for data. I mean anything. And so when he kept lingering around my desk making jokes and asking to see my lifetables, I grew fond of him; he had delivered me microdata after all. And when, at his birthday party, he asked me to go hiking one weekend, I said, "OK." After four months of dating, we moved in together. After a year, we were married in Las Vegas at a wedding chapel with fake flowers and four guests.
That's the abbreviated version of an already short story. In the years leading up to that day, I had very little interest in marrying a white man. I am black. I expected and wanted to marry a black man. That is how I was taught. I had only dated black men. I kissed one white guy in college after drinking a bottle of wine with him at happy hour. He asked me for a kiss. It was sweet and I think he really liked me, but it was the wrong place for either of us to cross the divide. Even kissing on a major street in Nashville was a big deal, a really big deal.
So what happened to make me consider becoming serious with this guy who happened to be white? Was it really all about some data? No, of course not. What happened is that my attachment to racial homogamy lessened through graduate school where I was the only black person in many of my classes, my friends were all different races and nationalities, and interracial/ethnic marriages were approaching the norm. Every one of my WASP girlfriends was married to a guy who was racially or ethnically different from her. Among social science Ph.D.'s intermarriage just sort of happened. We drank a lot of beer and coffee and spent long hours learning new things. Perhaps somewhere between the beer and the sheets, we discovered that biology is a more powerful force in human behavior than social sanctions.
But being romantically entangled with a white man brought me more attention in the world outside of academia than I had bargained for. We only had a few episodes of negative attention as a childless couple. On one of our first dates, a group of young black men threw ice at us from across the food court in Union Station. I asked them to stop, and they did. Once as we walked to church, a couple of black men said something like "yuck." to us. My husband was confronted by an old white guy at our coworker's wedding. The man called him a warmonger for supporting Lincoln in the Civil War. I guess it does all hinge on the Civil War for racist whites, hence their clinging to the Confederate flag in times of racial inclusion.
Those few encounters were annoying, but they were absolutely nothing compared to the near constant racist experiences we had after the birth of our first child. On the first full day home from the hospital, we stopped at Target to get more diapers. I was standing with Asha in the cart. A Hispanic woman approached me to see the baby. She gushed over how pretty. She asked me whose baby. I told her, “Mine.” Who else would be alone with a 3 day old baby? She blurted out, “Your Baby?!?” Was it really that unbelievable? Apparently so. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have responded to me that way since then, the number of times I’ve been asked if the child I’m with belongs to me. A month ago a woman on the bus asked if I were my kids’ childcare provider. I said, “Yes. I’m also their mother.”
At first my husband didn’t understand the magnitude of the problem when I described it to him. No one ever seemed to say anything race related in his presence. Then he was along with us one day buying cat food when the white cashier could not shut up. “OHHH! She looks like Dad. Oh, blue eyes. Blonde hair. If she’s lucky she’ll just look tan.” My husband was so harassed that he kept entering his PIN wrong on the card thing. She just kept blabbing as loud as she could until we walked away.
We soon discovered that we would not eat in a restaurant in peace again. Waitresses lingered way too long. White people talked to my husband about the baby as if I weren’t there. Hispanics liked to tell me, “She looks like her dad,” as if I didn’t know what she looked like. Many people said, “Oh, she must be a daddy’s girl,” and people, including my own mother, assumed that my infant must be closer to her father than to me---her mother who only nursed her day and night and slept with my arm around her to keep her safe and warm. Why? Because I was the dark one, the one who did not fit.
The nastiest thing anyone ever said to me came from a black man who was walking on the street downtown where a friend and I were having lunch with our new babies. My friend is black and her daughter is the same color as her. The man told her that she had a beautiful baby. Then he turned to me and said, “You ought to be ashamed of yourself for having that white baby.” I didn’t get it at first because I wasn’t listening. My friend yelled at him to mind his own business and go away. Then I realized that he was trying to insult me. I just glared at him and finished eating.
But on my walk home, that confrontation bothered me more and more. What made him feel so comfortable and compelled to shame me, a total stranger? The last thing I felt about my baby was shame. I’ve done some things in my life that I’m not proud of at all, but having that baby is the thing I’m most proud of. I survived 20 weeks of constant nausea and vomiting without any drugs for relief. I gave birth to a healthy full-term baby without any drugs for relief. I was fiercely proud. By the time I got home, I felt the tears coming. And I cried and cried and cried.
I could list conversation after conversation, recount one hundred and one times that people stared at us or were surprised by my presence, times when the grocery store cashier would not ring up my drink along with the rest of my groceries because my husband was paying and she couldn’t figure out that I was the mother of the baby he was holding. I could tell painful stories about how I had to confront family members on both sides of our family about objectifying my daughter and teaching her anti-black sentiments. Ever wonder why racism is so deeply ingrained? Because it’s taught young. And even in picking my battles to educate our families about how we expect our daughter to be treated and what messages we wanted to give her, I was made the bad guy. I was the one with the problem because I won’t tolerate racism.
It’s been a difficult couple of years with such little support for what we are encountering, but it has made us a closer nuclear family. Most of my family and friends don’t have any advice for me and don’t want to hear me complain about the added burden racism puts on my already difficult task of raising two babies. One friend absentmindedly advised me to read slave journals because they probably had similar issues. I don’t think I need to look to slave journals for validation. I understand the problem. I’m just not sure how to solve it.
One thing I know is that no matter her skin color, my daughter does look like me. She has my eyes, same shape different color. She had my nose, chin, and cheekbones. To this day we have the same smile and exact same crinkle on the bridge of our noses. People don’t care to see past color to see that we are very much alike. What matters most of all is that she knows that she belongs to me and that I belong to her.
She likes for me to put her to bed at night. When she should be winding down, Asha likes to talk. There are some nights when she’ll want me to squeeze myself onto her toddler bed with her and she will touch my hair. She says, “I like you hair, Mommy. It’s so bootiful. I like you face, Mommy. You so bootiful.” I tell her that I like her hair and her face. I tell her that they are beautiful, too. Then I say, “I like you, Ashie. You are beautiful inside and out. I love you, Bug. Now go to sleep.”