When my son was born a little over a year ago, he spent the first week of his life in the NICU. My first thoughts weren't about his skin color. They were focused on whether he would remember to breathe (he stopped once) and whether he was getting enough nutrition and love in the hospital. When we brought him home and started to get used to life as parents, I started the usual mom inspection. Does he look like me? Does he have my nose? Does he have my lips? The one thing he did not have was my skin tone.
My little one was as light-skinned as his dad. I am a black woman. My hair is composed of tight, black curls. My son's? Soft, wavy tufts of brown, sometimes golden curls. As he grew older, his eyes turned a bright shade of blue, similar to his dad's. To put it bluntly, my son looks white.
Here are some things I've learned as a black mom of a son who can "pass" as white.
1. People will judge.
The first few times people gave me looks on the train, I brushed it off. I think my son is the cutest little button in the world, and clearly they were staring because they agreed. Then the comments started. I was feeding him one day and someone asked what I feed my own kids. Someone else asked if I was the babysitter. At first, I bristled. At the core of every parent is a desire to see a bit of yourself in your child. When people implied that he wasn't my child, I felt personally insulted.
One day, I stood in front of the mirror and looked at us together. As he giggled and reached for his reflection, I saw the contrast in our skin tone. I also saw that he has my nose. And those curls did not come from his dad. If people look past the skin tones, it's really quite obvious that he's my son. I wish I could tell you I learned to not care about the comments, but I have learned to be prepared for them and realize that people's insensitivity -- most times -- doesn't come from a bad place.
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2. It's OK for me to struggle with this one.
He probably will be treated differently because of his skin tone. He will probably be privy to places, experiences, and opportunities that I will not. He will probably be considered "white" before he has a chance to let them know that his mother is a proud black woman. In much the same way assumptions are made about me based on my dark skin tone, assumptions will be made about him because of his light skin tone. And that makes me uncomfortable. I don't want him to relish in any privilege this may lead to. I want to raise him to be proud of his black side, his Trinidadian side and his Jewish side, but it is anyone's guess which identity he will feel closer to.
I can only hope that he will forge an identity that honors his heritage and isn't based on what little box society wants to place him into.
3. My husband and I have to make decisions about how we want to raise him in relation to race.
Before having a child, I never thought about race in relation to my kid. My husband told me that our son may be confused as a multiracial child and I didn't understand why. I grew up in Trinidad, half black and half Indian. I wasn't discriminated against or judged. I only discovered I was a black woman when I came to America.
My son will have questions, and my husband and I will be the guiding forces. We want to raise him with a strong black identity, but he is also half white and Jewish so we want to raise him with that identity as well.
Does the black identity negate other identities? Taye Diggs has received some flack for labeling his child as mixed as opposed to black. He said, "I don't want my son to be in a situation where he calls himself black and everyone thinks he has a black mom and a black dad, and then they see a white mother, and they wonder, 'Oh, what's going on?'"
Fans accused him of self-hatred. The reality is that my son is not solely a product of me. I don't want him to identify solely as black for the same reason I don't want him to identify solely as white. Raising a half-black, half-white child will involve some really conscientious discussions about race, some of which I hope to test-run with my hubby before I'm put on the spot with my son.
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4. He is my son first and everything else after.
I am going to say something that I hate hearing, but bear with me. Now that he is less of a blob and more of a person with likes and dislikes and a very distinct personality, I don't see his skin color in our everyday life. That sounds super clichéd and highly ignorant, but I really don't notice it until someone points it out to me. He is my little boy and I am more fascinated by how massive he is becoming than by his skin color. When he snuggles against me at night, waiting for his bedtime story, and his eyes look up into mine as he finishes his bottle, the only thing I notice is how lucky I am to be a mom to this ridiculously amazing, vivacious child.
He is an extension of me and that is exactly what it is. I have no idea how you mix mocha coffee and milk and come out with milk, but it happened, and it's the cutest thing ever.
5. It is possible to raise him in an environment of racial equality while realizing that we do not live in a post-racial America.
One of the things that my husband and I really cherish is how well our families get along. When they're together, it's just a group of people hanging out. We have several friends who have multiracial kids around my son's age. We live in Brooklyn, where interracial couples and multiracial kids are pretty commonplace. In our immediate community, he won't be the "other."
My ideal hope is that he never has to see racism against me, but my realistic hope is that when he does, he will be old enough to understand that racial divides have no place in our home and in our community. My hope is that he will see it as weird and different and not acceptable. My hope is that I can protect him from the worst of it, and that when he is old enough, he will use whatever privilege he has to help those who don't have the same privileges.
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Facing race issues head-on in relation to my son was difficult for me. My son's passing as white has to do with the external noise around him... and I always want him to define himself by what is on the inside, and not pay too much attention to how others define him. It's important to face race issues head-on and unpack the things that make us the most uncomfortable.
Hopefully, when he is old enough, he will read this and tell me I had nothing to worry about.
When not discussing race with her 15-month-old, Tabitha St. Bernard-Jacobs can be found waxing poetic about her zero waste fashion line, Tabii Just. She lives in Brooklyn with said son and husband.