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Oh, It’s Tuesday: Fear of Becoming the Black Grandmother [Political Physics]

It’s funny, because though I’ve written a book and have at this point written hundreds of blog posts, the post that seems to have resonated most with people is the one I wrote while pregnant, the one in which I worried about how to properly raise a biracial child. People have responded in many ways to that post. They’ve reassured, encouraged, commiserated with and attacked me. People are still leavings comments and writing me privately about that post.

And the strange thing is that I brought up so many deep issues in that post, and now that I’m in the actual trenches of motherhood, I’m truly concerned about exactly zero of them.

In fact after reading my best friend’s meditation on whether biracial children should consider themselves black or biracial, it occurred to me that at least for me, the issue might not be about how to raise biracial children. It might be about how to be the mother of a biracial child.

Before I go on to fully explain this statement, let me reiterate that these feelings are mine and mine alone, not to be applied to every other black mother of a b/w biracial child on the planet. So feel free to cite my argument, but please do my fellow black mothers the advance boon of not lumping us all together and accusing them of having the exact same feelings that I do on this matter.

That all said, let’s start at where I was with the whole biracial vs. black issue before it hit the news cycle compliments of Halle Berry and her daughter, Nahla and my best friend, Monique, wrote about it. Even before that, I had begun to realize that with multiracial becoming the fastest growing racial category in America, the tragic mulatto trope may well be dying.

When I was growing up, the majority of biracial kids I met were from single-parent homes and often seemed deeply confused about their identities. When I went to college and met b/w biracial women who were not like this, who had a firm sense of who they were despite having parents of two different races, it seemed to me that they were the exception to the rule.

But over the past few years, I’ve begun to see that these b/w biracial kids with a strong sense of identity are fast becoming the new rule, to the point that I haven’t met a so-called tragic mulatto in quite a while. As professor Katrina Gamble pointed out in the comments of Monique’s article, today’s college students are way more comfortable with seeing themselves and others as multi-racial as opposed to just black or just white. What’s funny is that Tiger Woods made his infamous “Cablinasian” comment when I myself was in college. I remember being annoyed that he wouldn’t just call himself black. I also remember feeling quite level-headed for only be annoyed, because many of my fellow black students were absolutely furious about his comments.

Now President Obama marking “black” as opposed to biracial on his 2010 census form gets a whole news cycle, and if say, a b/w biracial athlete goes on to win 2014 Olympic gold as a figure skater and says, “I’m the first black and white biracial skater to do this — not the first black person,” I doubt people will be nearly as angry. In fact, I’ll go even further and say that if people are truly angry about this, it will probably be people from my generation and older.

Which leads me to question myself closely. If I haven’t actually met or even heard of a tragic mulatto in over a decade, why did I so greatly fear my daughter becoming one while I was pregnant? The fact is that unlike the biracial kids I grew up with, she will never be the only biracial girl in her entire school. Growing up in California, she will easily be able to find other biracial kids. And as long as I’m alive, she’ll be able to identify with both sides of her culture. Actually, even if I die she’ll be okay, because I’ve given CH weirdly in-depth instructions on how to raise her in the event of my death (ex. actually talk to her about race, make sure she summers with my sister, take her to Africa for her sixteenth birthday, take her to a black hair salon — seriously the list is long).

The fact is that since both her father and myself are nerds, she’ll be more likely to have issues surrounding abject social awkwardness as we both did when we were in our formative years than issues surrounding race. And to tell you the truth, I have no idea how to help her with that. I can just see myself saying something like, “Um, it gets better?” when she comes home crying because some mean kids have made fun of her for wearing glasses and not dressing in the latest designer clothes — or perhaps, like me, ones that even match.

Really, when I think hard about it. My daughter being biracial is really far down on the list of things I have to worry about when it comes to raising her. I mean mind-crashingly far. How do I convince her not to get in a car with a boy who has been drinking — even if he’s really cute? How do I prevent her from trying meth just once? How about if I attempt to teach her the value of hard work, and she just insists on being lazy? And seriously, must she climb on to the couch arm and attempt Evil Kneivel jumps every time I turn my back? I stay worried that she’s going to break something … or give me an ulcer.

Perhaps while pregnant, it was easier for me to worry about how she would identify racially. After all, it’s really a non-worry when you think about it. I can’t name one person who is half black and half white, who identifies just as white and has rejected the black parent that raised them — I mean there was that one chyck in Imitation of Life, but wait that was a movie, one made over fifty years ago. I also know that because she has two parents who are willing to talk with her openly and frankly about race, she will be able to fully grasp that she is both black and white, even if others insists that she must identify as either/or. Really of all the things I have to teach her — race might be the easiest. It occurred to me before Monique’s article dropped that much like concentrating really hard on clearing those episodes of GREY’S ANATOMY out of my DVR, as opposed to say getting the day’s writing done, I might have been focusing on race as opposed to the myriad other things that could go wrong in the raising of my kid.

So even before Monique wrote her article, I had pretty much come to peace with the biracial vs. black question … or so I thought. Monique’s article hit just around the time that I finished up my daughter’s preschool applications. The California preschools we’re applying to care a lot about diversity. We know this because they all talked about it on their tours and it’s listed as a main criterion for every application we put in. However, these being progressive preschools they don’t make you pick a race for your kid. One preschool asked us to check as many boxes as applied. Another preschool didn’t even ask our daughter’s race, just ours — and again they allowed each parent to check as many boxes as applied.

That’s all well and good, but then after reading Monique’s article, I started wondering how our daughter would actually be counted. For example, these days, when schools say that they have a certain percentage of African-Americans in attendance, do they count the b/w biracial kids as African-Americans, too? Or in the case of L.A., where they say that the number of African-Americans is shrinking, is this because there’s less of us or b/c there are more b/w biracial kids and they’re not getting counted as African-Americans? Later on, when they talk about the seemingly ever-widening black-white achievement gap, will my daughter be counted among those helping to close it? And wait a minute, let’s say my daughter is the first b/w biracial person to win Olympic Gold in whatever winter sport in 2022. Will she not get the “first black woman to” title? I grew up thinking those titles were hugely important, but in the future, who will be counted with who? Will we stop bothering to say things like “the first black” anything when talking about b/w biracial people? Or will it become ridiculously complex? So-and-so is the first black and white biracial person to win a Best Director Oscar.

“Well, maybe b/w biracial kids should just identify as black,” I thought. “Wouldn’t that make it easer for everyone?” But then I quickly dismissed that idea.

Every transition in this country has been “messy.” And from what I can tell, we are in the midst of a messy transition. In many ways, I find myself wanting to cling to the ways of the past, because that is what I know, what I grew up with. I’ve never been one to ask multiracial people, “What are you?” — not just because it’s rude, but also because if you talk to someone long enough, you’ll get all your questions answered, and oh how I like to talk. So it’s never been necessary for me to ask after someone’s racial makeup. But I do have a dear friend whose father is not really in her life. She was raised by her white mother and doesn’t aggressively identify as either of her main racial components. However about a year into our friendship, she surprised the hell out of me by mentioning that in addition to have her two parental races in play, she had a black grandmother on her father’s side. And what really stuck with me is that she never brought this grandmother up again.

I am a huge fan of my own blackness and I have to say that ever since that day, I’ve lived in fear of becoming someone’s black grandmother. Much like no one’s all-Cherokee anymore, I worry about disappearing from my own family tree in this supposed world in which our children will tell everyone that they’re both black and white, and then perhaps they will marry white  people. Then our grandchildren will tell people that they’re multiracial, mostly white, but a quarter-black. Then perhaps our grandchildren will get married, by which time I’ll probably be dead, since I didn’t start my family early. And when people ask about my great-grandchildren’s background, they might be one of those kids that rattles off, “Oh, I’m a little bit of everything: white, black, Scottish, French, Kenyan, Peruvian, and a bit of Thai.”

It’s both frightening and beautiful, because I’ve traveled all over the world and suddenly by marrying outside of my race I’ve become a part of it in a way that I wasn’t before. I’ve opened myself up to the hypothetical melting pot — by that, I mean that I’m actually melting into the pot. Before entering an IR, I just lived in a stated “Melting Pot” where people coexisted in the same country, but didn’t actually do much melting, thanks to ideas like the one-drop rule, which meant that every person with even a bit of black in them got claimed as one particular ingredient.

On one hand, we can now see that this one-drop law was b.s., and written for mostly craven and financial reasons. On the other hand, what a way not to disappear into a rattled off list of racial make-up. Under this rule, Halle Berry, whose mother is white, calls herself black. Simple. She can also call her daughter black. Still simple. If the one-drop rule stays in effect, then things will always be black and white and will never get messy. I will never become someone’s black grandmother. And perhaps that is where the appeal of this rule really lies, at least for me. It means that I’ve permanently stamped my progeny through race.

But then I have to remind myself that in this particular case, it’s not about me. My daughter gets to claim whatever she wants to claim. My grandkids get to claim whatever identity they want to claim. If my great grandchildren want to include me in a list of rattled off races, that’s they’re prerogative. Not mine.

“But society will see them as black!” I can already hear other black people proclaiming.

Yeah, but um … will they? I mean, you and me are eventually going to die. College students are already aggressively identifying as bi or multi racial and their peers, unlike us back in the day, seem to “get it.” And it’s not looking like the number of interracial marriages will go down in America. Ever. From now on, there will only be more biracial and multiracial kids asserting their right to be called whatever they want. Twenty years ago, almost every b/w biracial person I encountered identified as black. Now it would seem that those in the generation that came after me are increasingly identifying as biracial. And when it came time to fill out preschool applications for my daughter, I marked the biracial box for her. Unlike many black mothers from generations before mine, I’ll actually say from the get-go that she’s biracial no matter how society sees her. And I’m not the only one. The world is indeed changing.

So my two questions to those that say that society will always see my daughter as purely black is 1. How do you — how can you know that this will always be the case? Always, after all, is a very long time. A lot can change in even twenty years. I mean, I didn’t even know what the internet was twenty years ago or have a home computer. To tell you the truth, I didn’t think all that deeply about race back then — not just because I was fourteen, but also because I didn’t really have to. And now I’m typing this thing about the complexity of race on a laptop for your online reading. Whoa. Next question: 2. What is more important? What carries more weight? How you see yourself or how society sees you?

And seriously, what does it matter if I become somebody’s black grandmother? I’ll be dead, and they’ll be living in a world that I can barely fathom having grown up as I did in a mostly black neighborhood.

I’m not insinuating that we’re headed toward a post-racial kumbayah sort of moment. But we’re definitely headed toward something new, and who among us can say for sure what lays beyond that horizon?

featured image credit: webzer