On Being the White Parent of a Biracial Child

To view the pdf version click here: On Being the White Parent of a Biracial Child

“Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” –Emily Dickinson

When I started thinking about this essay I was in a bad place.  I was thinking about entering the Colorism Poetry Contest and the poem that came out was not one that quite fit the criteria for the contest, but definitely uncovered a lot intense emotions (you can read The Invisible Parent by clicking here).  Negative ones.

I have this feeling, as the white parent, that in the eyes of the world, I am the parent that doesn’t count.  I am the parent that hasn’t contributed anything meaningful to who my daughter is.  I am invisible.

Fairy Shalon

Now, before I go any further, let me clarify.  I’m not trying to be a victim.  I also understand that my whiteness confers to me privileges and opportunities every day that I am completely unaware of and take for granted.  After all, the cop that doesn’t give you a speeding ticket or the professor that lets you make up a test don’t tell you that they are doing so because you’re white (probably because they’re not even aware of this themselves).  I also understand that this privilege is unearned and unfair.

That doesn’t change these feelings of irrelevance that I have.  As the white parent I intellectually understood that racism was still alive and well but I didn’t emotionally connect with the concept until after my oldest daughter was born.  It’s hard to really understand the scope of something you neither see nor experience.  The first time I really felt it was the death-stare the secretary of the Biochemistry department at George Mason University gave us whenever we came in.  I’m still not sure if she disapproved of my daughter’s non-whiteness or the fact that I had a child so young.  I handled that situation by trying to be as polite as possible.  Honestly, I don’t know why.  I guess I thought if I got angry she would feel justified in thinking ill of my daughter.  Somehow, I thought that if I could convince her I was a nice, polite young woman she would come around and soften towards my daughter.  She didn’t.

I started noticing the stares whenever we were out.  Not even mean stares, just a sort of startled look, like people don’t quite know how to interpret our relationship to one another.  There was the time I was at the playground and a woman, busy talking to her friend, completely ignored my then 18-month daughter even as she played with the woman’s shoelaces.  She proceeded to ignore me as well as I picked up my daughter and apologized.  I walked away and said loudly, “Never mind, I’m not sorry then.”  I didn’t bother to look back to see if she heard me.

There were all the times at the playground when all the other mothers ignored me.  They happily chatted with one another, even when it was clear they’d never met before.  It was like they didn’t know what to make of me, or how to think of me; they didn’t know how to approach me.  So I didn’t exist.

When we were forced to interact because our children were playing together there were the hesitant questions about if that was my daughter and then the follow up of, “Oh, she must really take after her dad.”  Really?  You think.  Then there was the time I was asked if she was adopted.  My heart twisted into some unknowable contortion of pain.  Of course she was mine, of course she’s mine.  Whether or not she’s adopted, she’s mine.  It’s not blood that binds us, it’s love, and how can you not see that?  How can you think you have the right to ask me that?  That’s what I wanted to scream.  But I just smiled tightly, politely, and said, “No, she’s my baby.”  “Oh,” the woman replied, “She looks nothing like you.”  “I know.”  I gave another tight-lipped smile then walked off, shedding blood that, of course, to her eyes was invisible.

Excited Toddler Shalon

These reactions from people were especially agonizing to me because of what my daughter did for me.  She saved me. Before she was born I couldn’t quite get my life together.  I was all over the place, my grades too.  I could see where I wanted to go, I just couldn’t seem to get there.  When I found out I was pregnant with her I had the realization that if I wanted her to be a happy, healthy person I had to be a happy, healthy person.  I started going to therapy.  I started thinking of myself in terms of a hero, because that’s what I was going to be to her.

So many people said to me when I was pregnant with her, “You know, once you have kids your life is over.”  These statements terrified me.  They equated parenthood with death.  I could only view becoming a mother in terms of negation, self-deprivation, but when she was born I realized how wrong they all were.  The moment she was placed in my arms was the same moment my life really began.  She is the genesis of all that is good about me, and she motivated me to aim higher, reach higher, do better, be better.

About a year after she was born I went back to school and my grades improved dramatically.  My last three semesters of undergrad my GPA was a 4.0.  I graduated with honors.  My Masters degree I completed in 51 weeks with a GPA of 3.96.  This from a girl who had barely, just barely graduated high school.  Such a transformation without my daughter would have been impossible.  I see myself reflected in my daughter’s face, smile, eyes, humor, intelligence, her mannerisms, her speech, her temper.  I don’t mean to imply she got all of those things from me, because she didn’t.  But it hurts me that when the world looks at her they don’t see me at all.  The One Drop Rule has many ugly facets, this insistence on seeing and treating people according to the biases of the race you perceive them to be; one of which is erasure of the white parent who loves them just as much as the other parent.

But what really got to me was the day my daughter made an uncomfortable face when I called her by her Bengali nickname.

“What?” I asked.  “Do you not want me to call you that?”

“No.”  She shook her hands nervously.

“Is it because you just don’t want to be called that?”  I was confused because I know her Abba (abba is the Bangla word for father) calls her that often.

“No.  It’s just that, I only want.”  She stopped, unsure of what to say.

In the brief, ensuing silence I’m pretty sure you could hear the pressure cracks speeding around my heart.  “You only want your Bengali family to call you that?”

Her face dropped into relief, glad that I had given form to her feelings.  “Yeah, yeah.”

“Ok,” I agreed, trying not to show my devastation.  I was the one who had picked out that nickname.  She bore it because of me.  I realize now that I could handle the thought of the world disconnecting us because of race, but I couldn’t handle the thought of her doing it.

I was discussing all of this with my husband (whom she thinks of as another father, and calls Dad) as I was preparing to write this, holding back tears, when he asked the most simplest, most obvious question: “Do we even know how she identifies herself?”

My mouth dropped open.  I had never even considered this.  I had always just assumed that she saw herself equally as both white and Bengali.  But maybe she didn’t.  And I had to ask myself, did this question never occur to me because I’m white, or because I still think I know how she feels about everything?  I don’t really have an answer.

So with a bit of trepidation and a lot of curiosity I made my way to the basement where she was playing Minecraft.  I turned down the music and began the discussion by explaining to her that I was writing this essay, about the joys and the struggles of being the white parent of a biracial child, and how I have concerns about her encountering prejudice at which point she cut me off and said, “I’ve never encountered any prejudice.”

Startled I asked, “Really?”

“Yeah.  I’ve never encountered any prejudice.”

“Well, that’s great.  Wonderful.”  My heart lightened just a little.

Then I asked her how she felt about her ethnicity.

“Great!” she exclaimed with a look on her face like she couldn’t even fathom why I was asking.

I laughed, and said, “That’s wonderful, but what I meant was what do you see yourself as white, Bengali, both?”

She paused a moment, then said, “Both, but maybe, like, maybe 0.1% more white.”

Surprised I asked her if it was because we live in a mostly white neighborhood.  She shrugged her shoulders.  “Yeah,” she agreed.

Finally, I asked her if she ever felt uncomfortable around her Bengali relatives, like she didn’t quite belong.

Her response was quick and emphatic.  “No!”

I smiled, hugged and kissed her.  Let her get on with her gaming.  I was practically laughing with relief.  She was happy, and she felt like she belonged in both worlds.  And I do think that 0.1% comes from living in a mostly white neighborhood, one where her color never comes up.  I know that her happiness is only partly because of her Abba, her Dad, and myself; some of it is just sheer dumb luck.  And it certainly doesn’t mean she isn’t going to encounter prejudice at some point.  She almost certainly will.  But right now, she’s happy and she feels good about herself, and connected to both her heritages.

I walked up the stairs, my heart rising with me and into the sky to become a point of light amongst thousands of stars.  Because I realized that really, truly, it doesn’t matter whether the world sees me or not; sees me as her mother.  It only matters if she sees herself in terms as the best of both her backgrounds.  It only matters that she feels like she belongs.  And she does.  Not just to me but to the world.  I know she is going to make her mark in beauty in the world.  She already has.  In me.

As for her Bengali nickname, I can understand and respect that she may want an easy way to transition between her Abba’s family and mine, and the name she’s called allows her to do that.  So I’ll let that go.  After all, I gave it to her, so she owns it now.  It’s hers.  It’s Asha, by the way, if you were wondering.  And in case you don’t know, asha is the Bangla word for hope.

Toddler Shalon on the Ground

7 thoughts on “On Being the White Parent of a Biracial Child

  1. Oh my goodness. Where to start, where to start. Maybe I should just email you! I’m gonna start with your daughter who is absolutely “take your (my!) breath away” beautiful! Next I am going to touch on her name, Asha which is just lovelier than all the stars in the sky. Do you pronounce that with a long or short A, by the way? It’s interesting to me that in Hebrew (I’m Jewish) Aisha means fire and Abba also means “father.” Anyhow, this wonderfully articulated essay reverberated and ricocheted off of my deepest insides. I have a daughter, adopted as a tiny little thing from Korea. She’s 16 now. I can echo so much of this way of thinking. Some of it is for different reasons, but the premises seem very similar. The “not belonging to me” part was EXTRAORDINARILY difficult to contend with. People assuming I was married to someone Asian tended to be a given, so much so that after showing off her photo, I sometimes would lead a conversation (during let’s say a lunch or a girl’s night out) with, “hold on a second while I take this call from my NON-ASIAN husband!” But the funniest thing had to be the following: During my first weeks back with her, people (friends?) came by to see her and bring baby gifts. One of my friends was so taken with her but then lowered her voice to a whisper and asked, “There’s just one problem I foresee when she’s a little older.” I sighed (thinking here we go with all the birthmother search questions, etc.) She continues, “In another couple of years, when she’s talking really fluently, how will you understand all that Korean?” I just looked and looked at her and finally burst out laughing. But she was not joking. Pre-programmed Korean Speech babies. What will they think up next??! Can you tell this was a marvelous read for me!!??

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  2. First, thank you so much for your support! It truly means a lot to me, especially coming from someone who’s work I highly regard. I plan on a more detailed response to your comment but it is LAUNDRY DAY (which is the day of the week when we run out of tolerably/mostly/somewhat clean clothes). Absolutely feel free to email me anytime (jessicagajda@gmail.com) you know, with all that free time I’m sure you have. 🙂

    Ok, but before I go, I just have to say, she really, REALLY thought your baby would just start spouting Korean, on her own, naturally? Really? REALLY?

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    • Yes, and get this – – this woman’s mother was at my baby shower (essentially I had to wait four months and was going crazy because my baby girl got caught up in the country’s passport red tape, so my friends gave me a little shower to help support me.) Anyhow, Her photo was in the middle of the table as a centerpiece and the mother (of my “brilliant friend” who thought she would speak Korean naturally) came up to me, grabbed my arm and said, “Wow. I hope YOUR baby will look this cute.” And I said, “What are you talking about? That IS my baby.” And she blushes and sheepishly says, “Oh! I thought that was just a sample baby. You know, like an example of what’s available to order.” OMG!! So my friend comes by her genius quite naturally.

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      • Laughing hysterically! HYSTERICALLY! I told my husband about the “speaking Korean” and he looked at me unblinking for ten seconds than slapped his forehead. I can’t wait tell him that IT GETS BETTER. Lord. On a more serious note, I think it’s awesome that you adopted your youngest girl. I’m a big believer in adoption. I’ve told my husband if he really wants to put my body through one more pregnancy than we have to adopt a child after that. Have to.

        The whole not belonging aspect is so tough, and it’s based so much on skin color. There are plenty of parents in the world with children who have their skin color but look nothing like them and no one asks them if the child is theirs. But I like to think that in a generation or two it will be so common for parents and their children (whether biological or no) to not match each others’ skin tones that it won’t even raise people’s curiosity.

        So, I guess what I’m saying is, when it comes time for me to adopt, can you let me borrow the same catalog you used to pick yours out of? I hear their sample babies are the cutest! And naturally speak Korean!

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  3. Jessica, I love this essay. I might not have experiences that similar to yours, but I can definitely relate. I can relate to what it’s like to feel ignored or left out. It’s one of the most terrible feelings I’ve ever had, so I know it must have been hard for you. It also must have been hard to hear that Shalon looks nothing like you, because if those people had looked closer, I’m sure they would have seen that she does.
    I greatly admire you for taking back your apology to that woman who ignored Shalon. You’ve got guts, Girl, and you know being nice doesn’t always work.
    You’re absolutely right that Shalon is 100% yours, and she would be just the same if she were adopted. I know the latter because my sister is adopted, and I believe very strongly in adoption because of her. It is for that reason, not because parents of different races don’t occur to me, that I am likely to assume a White parent with a child of a different race adopted her or him. For some of the parents who asked if Shalon was adopted, that may have been their reason, too. Similarly, some of the parents who ignored you may have just been unsure about what to say to you and Shalon. I say these things because it’s always desirable to assume the best in people, but, like I said before, it doesn’t always work.
    Dan and I still might decide not to have kids, but what you’ve said about how Shalon turned your life around has helped me think more positively about being a parent.
    Those are my thoughts on your essay. I look forward to read more stuff of yours, and I hope we can talk soon. Take care.

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    • Thanks for your comment! Sorry it took so long to get back to you but 3/5 of us have been sick. Thanks for all your insight about this issue. It’s true, people may have been uncomfortable, but, as I’m sure you understand, to be right in front of someone and ignored over and over again. Adoption really is wonderful. I’ve told Andrew I’ll only have another baby of our own only if he seriously considers adopting another child. There are so many children in the world, here in America, who need love and families. Parenthood is certainly challenging, but so rewarding.

      🙂

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