When Nosy Strangers Ask: ‘Are Your Kids Mixed?’

June 27, 2014  |  

“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.

I should say here that I think being mixed is a beautiful thing. If I had mixed children, I wouldn’t be ashamed in saying so. It’s just that when you’re not really mixed in the traditional sense of the term and keep getting asked if you are mixed in that traditional sense of the term, it gets strange. It’s strange because after all of the inquiries you begin to wonder why everyone is so interested in what your children “are” and how this will affect them when they get bigger. You begin to wonder why it’s assumed that when a person is a certain kind of pretty that’s defined by hair texture and skin color, they can no longer fit into that generic box of “black”. And what it means to be mixed or black anyway?

More than being bothered about the questions about my daughters’ racial backgrounds, I guess, you could say that I’m bothered that all of this even matters. What bearing does my children’s racial identity have on a stranger’s life?

Do you ever get asked about your children’s racial background by strangers? Do these questions bother you?

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