Part One: Family as Rorschach Test
Browsing through babyGap, checking out at Whole Foods, waiting in the security line at the airport, the question used to be, “Is he yours?”
“Is that your baby?”
“Are you his mother?”
“Are you his nanny?”
Ever since my son started to speak and call me “Mama” in public, the questions shifted:
“Does he look like Daddy?”
“Is your husband tall?”
Sometimes, instead of fielding questions, I become the recipient of statements, as if, by the force of sheer declaration, these strangers make sense of what they’re seeing:
“You don’t look anything like your mama!”
“But mama isn’t very tall!”
“You must look like your daddy.”
I am interested to see how Shiv will field these questions when he is old enough to understand and answer them; in the meantime, I know that how he responds will depend in large part on how he sees me respond. Which is why, though I’m tempted, I’ve resisted the urge to print passive-aggressive “fuck off” note cards that I could hand out at will:
Friends often try to assure me that people mean well, urging me to go easy on them, to be gracious, to give people the benefit of the doubt. “People don’t mean to be offensive,” they tell me. “They just don’t know how to say it without coming across that way.”
What these friends don’t understand is that when the act of defining your family structure becomes an expected part of every day of your entire life, you grow tired of being gracious. It’s exhausting to have strangers view your life as an up-for-grabs educational experience. For my kid, it’s to constantly hear the underlying message: “Your life, your family, doesn’t make sense to me. Someone needs to explain it to me. You owe me an explanation.”
It’s the people who live comfortably inside majorities who tend to discount any sort of commentary from minorities as being “overly sensitive.” And I imagine that it’s hard to step back and grasp the fact that when the world you occupy is built to accommodate you, you fit inside the boxes. You make sense. You are expected. Your existence is accounted for in paperwork, in pop culture, in legislature. I, on the other hand, grew up checking “OTHER” on State of Tennessee forms for years, because the only categories under “RACE/ETHNICITY” were “BLACK,” “WHITE,” “HISPANIC,” & “OTHER.” I have had to remind more than one nurse practitioner that women who sleep with other women can be sexually active without having to account for birth control. I have drawn in my own relationship category because “SINGLE,” “MARRIED,” and “DIVORCED” don’t apply to me.
When I was younger, I struggled with the entitlement of strangers who brazenly asked about my ethnic background, as though my coloring and features were deliberately designed to infuriate them. Back then, the questions were:
“Where are you from?”
“You have the most beautiful skin!”
“Where are you from—I mean, where were you born?”
The problem is that, when asked where I’m from, I will truthfully respond “Memphis,” the city where I was born and raised. But this, of course, is not the answer people seek or expect from me, not what they really want to know.
“Uh, but where is your family from?”
“You’re from Memphis?”
“No, where are you really from?”
As if someone who looks like me couldn’t possibly be from Memphis. As if, even though I was conceived in and born on American soil, I won’t ever fully be “from” here.
And my kid still has to field the same entitled questioning that I did. But yeah, we totally live in a post-racial society.
You are told not to add more fuel to the fire, which ends up adding more fuel to your fire until one day you find that you are in your thirties and you have a black son and you’re a lot less willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
What I learned growing up brown in the South: Sure, you have the right to be angry; your hostility is justified, but to act on it risks ruining things for all of us. Your immigrant parents teach you to be patient, to gently laugh off offensive comments and calmly explain that your family is from India, but you were born in the States. Everything around you—news stories, sitcoms, comments made in line at BBQ shops—teaches that while others project their assumptions, this is not something you can reciprocate because you must remain polite and well-mannered. All it takes is one mistake and it will forever be counted against you.
You are told not to add more fuel to the fire, which ends up adding more fuel to your fire until one day you find that you are in your thirties and you have a black son and you’re a lot less willing to give people the benefit of the doubt.
Our family statistics, as perceived by folks at the grocery store and dentist’s office, et al.:
Jill: white, fifty‐one, Louisiana born & raised
Nishta: brown, thirty-two, Tennessee born & raised
“Yes, we are a couple. No, by ‘partner,’ we do not mean the business kind.”
Shiv: black, age two, native Texan, placed with us by his birth mother at birth
“Yes, he is our son. No, he did not come out of either one of our vaginas.”
Shiv calls me “Mama,” while in his eyes, Jill is “Gigi.” Jill picked the name before he was born; I was much more attached to the idea of having a “traditional” mom title than she was, and we wanted to avoid having overly similar parent names, as it seemed potentially confusing for everyone. So she picked “Gigi” because it sounds like Jill. My mom, who lives nearby and speaks to Shiv exclusively in Hindi, is “Nani,” the Hindi word for maternal grandmother.
Sometimes I marvel at the convergences my son embodies. The other night, he was tucking his dinosaur toys into the basket he keeps them in, and he started to sing the Hindi lullaby that my mom sings to him, and sang to me as a child. Here he is, this black kid with two moms, one white and one brown, who turns the heads of Indian families we encounter at the zoo when he calls out “hathi!” instead of “elephant.”
Our family doesn’t fit well into the boxes. We don’t fit at all. Often, I sense this really sweet and completely awkward desire that some folks have to express that they see, affirm, and support our family. This is not to say that they “approve,” per se, but demonstrates something along the line of, “I think your family is great and I want to convey that but I’m not really sure how.”
Which I get. I’ve felt that, too. I’ve told strangers in the park, “You have a beautiful family,” without having any earthly idea how that particular group of individuals was linked together, but it being clear to me that they were, in fact, a family, in the truest sense of that word.
Most of us don’t have the right language for these situations. Maybe the right language doesn’t exist, no way around the weirdness of saying, “How awesome that you adopted a black baby!” and “We are not assholes and we think your same‐sex relationship is lovely.” Maybe it seems ridiculous that such statements should even be necessary or notable, except that we know they are and so that’s why we say them.
Today, the black, male cashier at Whole Foods asked, skeptically, “You’re his mom?” and I was reminded that what people see when they look at us really has more to do with them than us, a Rorschach Test of sorts.
When Jill is out with Shiv, it’s fairly obvious to most people that she is a white woman with an adopted son. We’ve noticed that people tend to be particularly affirmative of that pairing, in a way that expresses, “How great of you for doing that!” More than once, Jill has been thanked—by black women exclusively—for adopting Shiv. I wear a ring and am dark-skinned enough that Shiv could presumably be my biological son if my husband were black; I’ve never been thanked.
As is well documented, children of color are considered “difficult to place” by the adoption industry and “difficult to place” children come with a slightly lower price tag. Do I want to use this kind of language to discuss how my beloved son came into my life? Of course not. But, beautiful as it can be, adoption is an industry, with not a small amount of money at stake. My son cost less to adopt because he is black.
The “one drop” rule is alive and well. Children with any African-American heritage are automatically considered “mixed race” by the industry; most, but not all, families who apply to adopt are white, and most, but not all, white adoptive families want white babies. And if they are up for mixed babies, they want babies who are a mix of white and something-other-than-black.
When Jill, Shiv, and I are all out together, the opportunity for presumption increases exponentially. People do not naturally assume that my family is a family and that Jill and I are his moms. “Who is she?” a fellow parent, also of Indian descent, in Shiv’s music class asked me when Jill accompanied us for the first time. “She’s his mom,” I said. I received a puzzled look before adding, “He has two moms.”
Though not at all proudly I will freely admit that I am cagey, defensive even, whenever we interact as a family with black strangers. Almost all of our reactions have been positive, though at times they are charged. Certainly I am aware that I am, in part, if not altogether, creating this charge. I know that I am guilty of being relieved whenever it doesn’t seem to be a problem that our kid has two moms, neither of whom look like him. And I know that I am guilty of thinking of Shiv like a badge, like a human “pass” that gets me into some kind of club, even though it doesn’t, of course. I would find it undignified to say, “I have a black son,” because it seems to reify the notion that his blackness is an essential quality of his being; but I know that my reasoning for moving so quickly to pull out my phone and show his picture is not exactly innocent.
The more time I spend in our family dynamic, the more I become convinced that all social interaction is, on some level or to some extent, performative. We are always performing, always reading social cues and dancing in between them, deciding what we can and can’t say, anticipating how they will respond, putting up walls when we anticipate an attack. Judging, perceiving, performing—at least that’s what the adults and big kids are doing anyway. My kid, for now, he’s just being: he sits in the grocery cart and is his self no matter where we go, no matter who’s around, while all of this troubling and problematic stuff swirls about him.
My mom is very conscious about wanting everyone to know that she is Shiv’s grandmother. Her skin is much lighter than mine, which has added to family issues since she was pushing me around in a grocery cart. When someone stops to say hi or speaks to him in the way that people always do, addressing the baby instead of the grown-up with the baby—Because it’s safer? Because my kid is a giant flirt who likes to smile at strangers?—my mom will drop a comment like, “Oh yes, he loves going shopping with his granny.”
Part of me sees this as a really helpful gesture she’s worked out, a way of letting people know how to think about what they’re seeing and to respond accordingly. But another, itchier part of me feels like—why do people need to know? Why does my mom feel compelled to tell them? What does it matter if strangers assume she is someone other than who she is?
One of many examples that I remember distinctly: Mom, Shiv, and I out for Mexican food with our dear friends Greg and Sharon. It was Christmas time, and we were seated by the dazzlingly shiny tree, which competed with a giant bowl of guacamole for Shiv’s attention. He sat in Sharon’s lap, across the table from me and mom, and flirted with the (white) folks he could see on the other side of the tree. “He is adorable,” they told Greg and Sharon, clearly assuming Shiv was their son. I did not correct them—indeed, given the way we have intentionally designed Shiv’s “village,” he is, to a certain extent, theirs—but I could feel my mom’s visceral desire to say something.
I vacillate back and forth; on the one hand, it is hurtful to be othered, especially after a lifetime of othering. I don’t want to stand out from the other moms; I don’t want to think about my family being different in any essential ways. But I also don’t want to be ugly, to assume the worst of people, to create rift where it doesn’t necessarily have to be. Shiv’s pediatrician’s office is warm and welcoming and we are far from the only same-sex family there, but their forms still say “mother” and “father” instead of “parent” and “parent.” Every time I’m there, I think—should I say something? How much does it matter? Because it isn’t just my little family that this affects, or even just the other GLBT families; our forms haven’t caught up with what our families look like now, with stepparents and single parents and grandparents parenting and foster parents and the dozens of other possible configurations we fail to make room for.
The older I get, though, the angrier I’m willing to be. We limit and harm people when we affirm these categories over and over and over again.
Part Two: Well‐Meaning White People
“They truly are color blind.” My wonderful, white primary care physician is the kind of doctor lots of people dream about having: personal and warm but also professional, kind, and genuinely connected to her patients, with a well-run practice full of people who are wonderful to interact with. Lisa is smart. Lisa is thoughtful. Lisa is educated and well‐read.
So I was flummoxed in our recent conversation during which she related to me a story from a mother-daughter book club meeting she had attended. The moms and girls had read a book set in the antebellum South where race was obviously a topic of the discussion. All of the book club members in attendance that day were white, save for one young girl who is Hispanic and was adopted by white parents.
The ability to “not see” color comes only when the society you live in is not constantly shoving your color down your throat, reminding you of your otherness. For the rest of us, even if we wanted to, not seeing is never an option.
“The kids didn’t even think about the fact that Isabella isn’t white! It was amazing.” Indeed, it is amazing. It is amazing that anyone could convince themselves that it is even possible—let alone preferable—to get a child to the age of ten without any consciousness of their own or anyone else’s color. It is amazing that these adults saw it as positive that it did not occur to their children that this conversation about race might feel different for their friend of color. I wanted so badly to ask what it had felt like to Isabella.
There are certainly byproducts of colorblindness in modern society and friendship that are fairly harmless; in college, my very pale friend Elizabeth once asked to borrow my concealer before dance, unthinkingly. “You can borrow it, Liz, but I don’t think it’s going to be very good at concealing anything.” But this, of course, was a betrayal of her privilege—she didn’t think about it because she doesn’t have to think about it. She doesn’t have to choose carefully which drug stores or Target she walks into, for fear that makeup matching her skin or products for her hair won’t be available.
These are the things that I think should be obvious by now—the ones that I feel like enough people know that I forget not everyone knows them. There are still hordes of well-meaning white people who like to trot out the line, “Oh, I don’t see color!” or the less-well‐meaning ones who argue that I am making “too big of a deal” out of this conversation about my family and race.
“Not seeing” color is, of course, a form of privilege; it means that things are oriented around you and others like you. It means that you can walk into almost any bookstore in any neighborhood in America and see pictures of people who look like you on the cover of magazines, find books for your child with families that look like yours. Indeed, it means that you would never know not to expect this, or to mark it as noteworthy. The ability to “not see” color comes only when the society you live in is not constantly shoving your color down your throat, reminding you of your otherness. For the rest of us, even if we wanted to, not seeing is never an option.
Part Three: All of the Things We Didn’t Think About
I’m sitting across from Jill in a coffee shop that used to be a gay bar. “The last time I was in this space, there was very different music playing,” Jill muses over her mug of single-origin, responsibly sourced beans. Just across the street from where we sit is a four-star restaurant that used to be a lesbian bar—another sign of gentrification. With mainstream visibility comes a loss of separate, safe spaces. For some, this is positive, a sign of acceptance and arrival. But I wonder what we lose by getting lumped in with everyone else—always this question of assimilation. To be fair, Jill and I like—and frequent—the restaurant a lot more than we did the bar, which was kind of a dump. We are old and past our bar days anyway. Today we’re here to debrief from our first tour of a preschool we’re considering for our son.
We’re looking for a place where our child can learn and grow and be safe: eat snacks, play, get dirty, make friends. Because of our background as educators, we’re looking for a school, not a day care, and furthermore for a school where our family will be a welcome addition and not an anomaly. Add to this our financial constraints and the fact that we’re looking for a partial-day, two-or-three‐day‐a‐week option, and the choices grow even narrower.
Then there’s the diversity concern, which is what we’re discussing in this coffee shop. There are lots of things we love about the school we just toured: location is great, accreditation is top-notch, and the teachers and programs are very high quality. But there aren’t any black kids. Okay, there are like six. Out of a couple of hundred students, there are six black children.
Is this a deal breaker? We don’t know. We know it moves the school down in our rankings as we weigh the options. “I mean, the only way they’re going to get more black kids is if parents of black children send their kids there, right?”
I grew up in the minority—one of a few children of color in a majority white school, but even that seems different, since the demographics and serious lack of integration in my hometown would seem to lend itself to such a scenario. But in Houston? The fourth-largest city in the country?
Then the question arises—would this matter to us if our child were white? We feel like it would, but it’s so hard to say now—not only is it hypothetical, we are also living inside the experience of raising a black son, an experience that has forever changed the way we see the world.
It’s hard trying to figure out how not to be an essentialist and also how to be mindful, aware, in reality—to see the world for how it really is. And so sometimes we struggle, as we are in this conversation about where to send Shiv for preschool. “I don’t want to make his color into some determining fact about him,” I say. And it’s tricky to imply that race or the absence of racial diversity necessarily means any one thing in particular, though it certainly tends to coexist with certain things I don’t want. Visibility matters. I want my son to see others who look like him, and see them as his equals, not only as maintenance or security staff. Am I trying to create a false world for my child, a world that doesn’t exist? Does that make me just as guilty as the white families who are doing the same?
As someone whose father died unexpectedly when I was twenty-three, for a long time I divided the world into two kinds of people: those who had dealt with grief, and those who had not. If you had lost someone very close to you—best friend, parent, sibling—and at a relatively early age, there were certain things I knew you would “get,” that I wouldn’t have to explain to you. Now Jill and I have learned that the same holds true with this: there are two kinds of people, people who have black sons, and people who don’t.
For Jill, this distinction has been especially world-altering. Her sense of her own white privilege used to be furious and intellectual, but now is blood-boilingly visceral. It has been a shock and a revelation and has drawn her closer to the black people in her life as she seeks them out for guidance, asking questions and trying to understand. For their part, these friends have been glad to find in Jill a newly baptized ally, sometimes with even a literal arm‐around‐the‐shoulder and a “Welcome to our world.”
The truth is, there are people out there who get it, even though they don’t have black sons. There are people who feel our terror, even as they know they can’t really feel it. The people who understand that “praying for healing” is not good enough, who realize that white guilt is really just indulgent privilege and doesn’t do shit to change anything anyway. The people who think to send notes of solidarity, who understood why I showed up at work during much of August with eyes glazed over and dazed from staring at #Ferguson tweets all night because I couldn’t bear to look away, because it was only my privilege that allowed me to be a spectator that night.
We took Shiv to see Santa twice last year; the first Santa was white, the second was black. We were prompted to make the second visit by a (black) friend of ours, who gently informed us where we might find a Santa who looked like our son, at a local art gallery that features work by African-American artists. I debated for a while about whether or not we should make a point of taking Shiv to see a Santa of color; on the one hand, I totally got it, but on the other hand, I worried; would we be reifying the very notion that color is somehow essential?
Ultimately, we decided that you can never fully subvert the dominant paradigm without also affirming it, so what the hell; at worst, it would be a fun way to spend a Saturday morning and we’d get some cute pictures out of the bargain. Which we did, which we then posted on Facebook.
“I loved his picture with black Santa!” our friends said. “Black Santa” instead of just “Santa,” because everyone knows that Santa, like Jesus, and all powerful, good men, are, by default, white.
One of the realities I’ve had to confront as Shiv’s parent is the fact that, for many people, he represents an innocent incarnation of male blackness which people take great pains to affirm and admire: the good, safe, right kind. There is often a transactional twinge to it all, as if loving on my sweet little black son now somehow assuages the guilt of future judgment of him when he is tall and strong and eighteen. All the boys whom he will someday look like.
When he was first born, mothers of the students I teach would stop me in the halls and demand to see pictures, coming at my phone with their faces already broken open into wide-mouthed smiles. They have heard from their children that my baby is cute, but their kids have been so well trained that they never mentioned that my son is black. The moms see his face on the screen and their mouths stay open just a fraction too long, because they don’t want to betray their surprise and they are trying not to say something stupid. “Oh, he’s so cute!” and they mean it, but then it quickly starts to cross the line into overpraise, like they are commenting extra on his handsomeness to assuage themselves of their shock. “Where’d you get him from?” they ask, as if inquiring after a pair of shoes.
I would want to touch him, to feel his realness, to imagine how I could ever stand upright again if someone were to take him from me.
Now that he’s older, the extent to which it is commonplace for both friends and strangers to sexualize him is stunning. “What a stud!” they’ll comment on Facebook. “He’s such a charmer—the ladies better watch out,” they say. (And to which I reply—“Or the gentlemen!”) This I knew to anticipate when we thought we might be raising a girl; with Shiv, it caught me off guard.
Part Four: More Stories We Tell Ourselves In Order to Live
I spend most of my thirty-second birthday inside the bubble of my middle-class, professional privilege. I go to work, where my (mostly white) students are extra-sweet to me and assure me I’m “not that” old even though I’m twice as old as them. I hear from friends and family throughout the day on Facebook, via email, in text messages. I teach class, grade papers, plan my family’s Thanksgiving menu, go to meetings, and head home to spend time with my two-and-a-half-year-old before my partner and I head out for a nice birthday dinner. We drop our son off at his grandmother’s and head out to enjoy wine and four-cheese pizza topped with locally‐sourced prosciutto, talking in that luxurious way that comes when you find yourself across the table from your spouse of a dozen years, without your toddler in tow.
When we get home, I check Twitter and find that the grand jury in Ferguson has made the decision not to send Darren Wilson to trial. Once again, I watch my feed bloom and ripen with photos and Vines of protestors and police on W. Florissant, broken glass, tear gas, and the desperate anger I feel with them; my heart a bruised, deep purple anguish. In that moment, I am glad that our son is sleeping elsewhere, because I know I would risk waking him just to slip into his room and see him, tangled in his big-boy bed, one hand clutching his beloved puppy, breathing even and rhythmic. I know that I would want to touch him, to feel his realness, to imagine how I could ever stand upright again if someone were to take him from me. I tell myself that I will be able to find a way to keep him safe, that I am giving him things that will protect him. I tell myself these things even though I know they are lies.