“What’s your daughter mixed with?” asked the cashier at the value grocery store I often frequented as a new mom with my, then, three-month old daughter. She was smiling then, so I knew that her question was well intentioned, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. The question proceeded something about my daughter being pretty and something else about her then “wavy” and “pretty” hair “Ummm…mixed?” I asked, not really confused but mostly trying to buy more time before facing the questions that I knew would inevitably come when I told her my daughter wasn’t mixed. “Yeah,” she said, confidently. “What’s she mixed with?”
Like many persons of color who look a bit different, I grew with questions about my heritage. So by the time I had become a parent, questions like “Where are you from?” and “What’s your background?”and “Are you (fill in the blank nationality)?” had come to be colored in my head as racial identifying questions. I had come to accept them as just part of my identity as a brown-skinned African-American woman, in the same way, I assume, my East African husband had come to accept them as a brown-skinned, black man in America. Our ethnic backgrounds are mixed, but we are black, and so, too, are our lighter-skinned, curly-haired daughters.
I try often to explain this to strangers we encounter in public, but it’s tricky since so many, it seems, have a predisposed notion of what it means to be black and not black and that anything that veers from that notion is odd. “No, they’re black,” I always say when asked about my daughters being mixed. To this, the person asking usually looks confused. And then there’s a silence between us that makes me feel like I should explain more. And I usually do explain more by saying something about how my husband and I have many ethnicities in our backgrounds, but that we, and they, my daughters, are black. This usually does the trick. But, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, the person asking will want to know specifics. So then I say, “I’m American and my husband is from Africa” but the inclusion of Africa in a conversation about being mixed just complicates things even more.
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