Brown, Orange, and Beige like Caramel

Brown, Orange, and Beige like Caramel

Art Sandbox

By Alexander Schuhr

“Maybe you want to play with him,” the woman says, leading her daughter toward a toddler sitting in the sand. The boy doesn’t need anybody to play with. He is completely absorbed with his task of shoveling sand into a bucket. Nevertheless, this woman seems terribly eager to see her girl join him in this endeavor. She proceeds to drag her away from my daughter.

For my daughter, the fact that everybody has a different color is as self-evident as mundane. Her stuffed dinosaur is green, her plush duck is yellow, and she has a pink teddy bear. Similarly, mommy is brown. (A more accurate description than “black.”) Daddy is orange. (Inaccurate, as far as I’m concerned, but so is “white.”) She describes herself as “beige like caramel,” sometimes clarifying “like Leela,” an Indian-American character in Sesame Street (Comparable complexion, though different ethnicity… but then again, why would she care about that?) In the protected world of our home, I have a comparably innocent approach to skin color. In the outside world, however, a different reality imposes itself.

In the two years of her life, my daughter underwent a complex transformation of racial identity, unbeknownst to her. For some time after her birth, her complexion remained very similar to mine, and her hair was straight. People considered her Caucasian. On more than one occasion, my wife was asked, with an insolent tone of disbelief, whether she was the mother. Then, there was an extended period of ambiguity. Eventually, her hair became curlier, her once-milky skin tone turned into the color of a café au lait: still with lots of milk, but just enough coffee to keep people guessing. Few would guess out loud, of course. People feel much too uncomfortable talking about race. I’ve seen them several times, the relieved expressions on faces, like when a bothersome puzzle is solved, when either my wife or I appeared next to the other parent, thus clarifying my daughter’s ethnicity.

Our daughter’s skin became only slightly darker. At some point, she must have crossed a threshold, though, and the “one-drop rule” went into effect. Now she was no longer “ambiguous” but “black.” Suddenly it would be an overwhelming majority of black people—occasionally other “people of color”—who would interact with her, call her cute, and tell me how beautiful she was.

Along with her apparent transformation to “blackness” came my worry that she may be subjected to the same vicious, sneaky force that I’ve seen too many times applied to my wife. Social scientists call them “new racism” or “racial microaggressions,” these subtle traces of racial bias in everyday situations. They are faint symptoms of a social disease, well known to virtually any minority group, yet often unacknowledged by the Caucasian majority. They are harder to spot than the hateful slogans of the white supremacist with the swastika tattoo, the degrading slurs of the hooded clansman, or even the thinly disguised attacks of the populist demagogue that are effortlessly decoded by his intended audience. No, new racism is subtler, less identifiable. It is conveyed by the flight attendant whose cheerful demeanor becomes cold and distant when serving an Asian passenger, by the group of giggling coeds that turns silent when the Hispanic classmate enters the lecture theater, or the motorist who, while waiting for the green light, feels compelled to lock the car when he spots the African-American pedestrian on the sidewalk. The ambiguity of these signals makes it difficult to identify their nature. Each isolated incident may be vague and open to alternative interpretations, but their aggregation makes all doubt vanish.

And now there is that woman, who pushes her daughter away from mine, toward the deeply absorbed toddler with the shovel. She gives me a nervous smile, which reveals uneasiness as well as defiance. I don’t smile back. While I feel offended by her action, I cannot be certain of its meaning. Part of the viciousness of subtle racism lies in its obscurity to the recipient, and sometimes even the perpetrator. Consequently, I find myself wondering whether I am too suspicious. Maybe it’s innocent. Maybe she knows the little boy and fears he is lonely or bored. Maybe she fears older kids (my daughter is not older than hers, but is unusually tall for her age). Maybe she fears me, the only dad on the playground. I try to find other explanations, but cannot ignore the one reason that seems to be an obvious possibility, and I dread the day this reason may appear equally possible to my little girl.

Yet, it is a bitter truth that she will become aware of racism in its subtle and not-so-subtle forms. And it is my duty to prepare her, so that she can identify the deficiency in the senders of such messages and never attribute it to herself. It is a duty I face with the utmost determination, but also with profound sadness. I cherish our protected world, where people are simply brown, orange, or beige like caramel.

Alexander Schuhr is an independent scholar and freelance writer. He has spent much of his adult life between the U.S., Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa. He and his wife have a two-year old daughter.

More (and Less): Talking About Discrimination With Our Children

More (and Less): Talking About Discrimination With Our Children



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“Wait, what are you talking about?” This is my 13-year-old son, Ben. “I thought you were talking about a long time ago.” I picture what he’s picturing: grainy black-and-white Brown v. Board of Education photographs of black school kids escorted through frowning alleys of white faces.

“No,” I say. “That’s what’s so crazy. This is what’s happening now. Literally today.” I am explaining to him about the first integrated prom in Wilcox County, Georgia. “But that’s illegal, right?” he wonders sensibly enough, and I have to describe the parents’ work-around of making the prom, technically, a private party. “That is really not the spirit of the law,” Ben says, and gets a kiss on the head he is shaking in disbelief.

The next day, along with his 10-year-old sister Birdy, we “like” the prom on Facebook and are treated to dozens of photographs of beautiful, beaming, radiant kids, everybody so sleek and newly hatched that you can hardly believe that, already, they’ve experienced so much of the ragged, crumpled world. And yet you know they have. “We’re so proud of you guys!” we write, and I have tears in my eyes. “Can you imagine,” I say to my husband Michael later, “being black and having to send your kids to school with the kids of the kind of people who would figure out a way to keep your kids out of their kids’ prom?” It’s an inelegant question, but he knows what I mean and says simply, “I can’t.”

By the end of the very next day, I’ll have told our children, also, about Jason Collins. My bubbling excitement about his coming out is actually flattened a little bit by the children’s appalledness. The children’s appropriate appalledness. “Wait, wait.” This is Ben again. “I don’t understand. There’s never been another male athlete who’s been openly gay?” I explain that we’re talking about team sports (e.g. not figure skating) but that, yes, that’s right. “But that’s crazy!” It is.

Part of their horror comes—how best to put this?—from the fact that we intentionally raised them to be horrified. We did not want the kids to learn bigotry as a fact of life, alongside the germination of a lima bean in a mayonnaise jar, the mixing of red and yellow to make orange, the cycle of egg, caterpillar, pupa, and stunned, emerging butterfly. I understand that it was a luxury, this waiting—waiting until the natural rightness of difference was so fully, deeply settled in the children’s hearts that the idea of prejudice would properly horrify them. And it was a luxury afforded us, paradoxically perhaps, by our very privilege: white privilege, straight privilege, able-bodied privilege, middle-class privilege, the privilege of living in a groovy, liberal town. We were not exposed to discrimination ourselves, not really, and so I did not have to explain it until I thought the kids were ready.

And I stand by this, even though I then bungled it so badly. When Ben was eight, I finally told him, on a wintery walk in the woods, about the significance of Martin Luther King Day. He took in the information with level gravity and sober, engaged questions about courage, about violence. Birdy, however, was four and not as fully distracted by the gathering and eating of giant fistfuls of snow as I had assumed. “We’re white, right?” she said suddenly. “Phew, Mama, right?” And I was stunned by the magnitude of my screwing this up. “No,” I said, panicking, my mind a blank of shame. “Yes,” I said. “But we’re Jewish, and that’s always been super-dangerous too.” That is really what I actually said.

Later, I tried to explain better: the idea, for instance, that none of us is free until all of us are, and so we are all in this together. This made sense to Birdy. (NB: Three is too little to understand that race is a cultural construction with no actual taxonomic significance. Trust me: I speak from experience.)

I will never wish for silence over truth, even if that truth expresses itself through a grotesque collage of my own awkwardness, ignorance, and mistakes. Well, maybe very occasionally I will wish for silence. At least that’s what I’m thinking right now. Because we’re still looking at the prom photos on Facebook—white kids in black tuxedos, black kids in white tuxedos, gorgeous girls in colorful dresses with smiles as dazzling as optimism itself—and I realize, finally, that the children understand what they’re seeing. I can stop talking now. And so, for once, I do.

Catherine Newman is the author of the award-winning memoir Waiting for Birdy, and writes regularly for many different magazines , including Family Fun, where she is a contributing editor, Real Simple, and the nonprofit kids’ cooking magazine, ChopChop. Read more at

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Invisible Family

Invisible Family

By Ashley Davis

Art Invisible Family 2“Are you helping mama with her errands today?” the grocery clerk asked my son at the check stand.

“Mommy, not mama,” Nate corrected, emphasizing the last syllable of each word. At three and a half, he is quite the helper. He continued to transfer containers of Greek yogurt from our cart to the conveyer belt. Mommy and Mama are not interchangeable terms in our house. He has one of each, and it was plainly obvious—to him—that he was shopping with his Mommy, not his Mama.

“I see,” said the clerk. She seemed amused by his precision. Nate was actually making a few distinctions about our family: the title of the parent he was with, and the fact that he had another female parent at home. Matter-of-factly, he was coming out as having a same-sex headed family.

Even before Nate could call us by name, my partner Jamie and I wanted titles that would differentiate us from one another. “Mommy A” and “Mommy J” were our first attempt, but they felt too cumbersome and too similar. Surely in the middle of the night, we would both insist that the other was being requested by the little voice calling out from down the hall. So, we did what any egalitarian couple would do: we flipped a coin and assigned titles. The nickel landed heads up. I became Mommy and Jamie, Mama.

It wasn’t the first time Jamie and I faced a naming dilemma. When we got married, there were no etiquette manuals to suggest what to do—not that we necessarily would have listened to the advice anyway. We both had last names that were mispronounced more often than they were said correctly. Together, the names would have been a hyphenated disaster. We opted for neither name and became the Davis family, in honor of my great-grandmother, a loving matriarch with a name no one else was carrying on. At 99, she died the year we got engaged.

Through our intentional choices about names, we defined ourselves, both within our family as parents and beyond our home as a family. Nate’s clarification at the grocery store pleased me. He wanted us to be seen and known accurately. I share his wish and often feel dismayed that it doesn’t come easily.

Earlier this year Jamie and I welcomed a second child—a daughter—into our family. I had given birth to Nate and, using the same sperm donor, Jamie carried Charlotte. Jamie opted to have her prenatal care, labor, and delivery at a birth center with an adjacent hospital. After meeting several midwives, we followed their recommendation of “primary midwifery” and selected one midwife to see throughout the pregnancy. Our midwife’s knowledge, candor, and irreverent humor made her a great fit for us.

In other encounters, we were not so lucky. As we prepared to become a family of four, we felt unseen yet again. It was beginning to feel like a rite of passage with each major event in our lives. One of the first slights came from our health insurance. A couple months into the pregnancy, a bill came in the mail for all of the prenatal visits to date. How could this be? We had a great policy with 100% coverage for maternity care. Their explanation: maternity care is not covered for males. Huh? As it turns out, only subscribers check a box to indicate their gender on the enrollment form. Since I was the subscriber and checked off female, my spouse was assumed to be male, and hence, “his” maternity care was not covered. It was quite a mess of needless paperwork to straighten out (no pun intended).

Human interactions were not much better. As we tried to book a series of prenatal appointments, the administrative assistant referred to me as Jamie’s “friend.” If I were a man trying to arrange my schedule to be present for prenatal visits, surely I would have been assumed to be the husband or boyfriend, or at least the baby’s father. As a woman, I wasn’t even seen as family.

Jamie and Nate went to a few appointments without me. As much as I hate to admit it, I experienced some relief in not being an extraneous person to whom providers did not know how to refer to or include in the appointments. But even at the visits without me, Jamie encountered narrow-minded thinking. While escorting Jamie and Nate to an exam room, a medical assistant commented that Nate doesn’t bear much of a resemblance to her. She wondered if he looked more like his dad. Jamie informed her that actually, he looks a lot like his biological mom.

“Oh, he’s not yours?” she said, within earshot of Nate.

“He most certainly is,” replied Jamie, noting that she may need to revisit this interaction with Nate later.

At another visit without me, Jamie attended to Nate’s needs while raising her own questions with a provider who was filling in for our midwife who was out for the day. Towards the end of the appointment, the provider asked, “Are you watching him? You’re his sitter?” Jamie couldn’t figure out what she meant or how she came to that conclusion, especially because Nate referred to her as “Mama” incessantly throughout the visit.

“Mama, what snacks do you have for me?”

“Mama, can you read this book?”

“Mama, take my shoes off.”

Jamie answered the midwife’s question. “No, he’s my son.”

“I thought you were the sitter. Your record says you’re here for supervision of a first pregnancy,” the midwife explained, unapologetically.

Perhaps, in caring for biological mothers and their pregnant bellies all day, the midwife lost sight of the myriad ways that families come to be. The medical record did not tell the whole story for this second-time mom with a first-time pregnancy. It also made me wonder if she would consider the baby growing in Jamie’s belly to be mine.

We became accustomed to not being seen as partners or as mothers to both of our children. We chose when to provide a correction and when to let it slide. Sometimes I wondered if the thought ever crossed others’ minds that we might be spouses. Perhaps they feared that we might be offended if their assumptions were wrong, so the “safer” bet would be to use seemingly benign language like “friend” or “sister.”

As a healthcare provider myself, I know it takes little effort to use inclusive terminology with all clients and then follow their lead by listening for their preferred language. Even when a client turns out to fit “the norm,” I have conveyed an important message about my values. And when I flub up—as we all do—I hope to have the humility to take responsibility for the effect of my words.

As our baby’s due date approached, Jamie and I braced ourselves for others’ assumptions. We brought in copies of legal documents so there would be no question about who was next-of-kin in an emergency. We fortified ourselves by hiring a doula who could support and advocate for us during labor, should the need arise.

Charlotte was born at the birth center after a long labor during a wintertime heat wave. Due to complications for Jamie, we had an unexpected stay on the maternity ward in the hospital. The morning after Charlotte’s birth, I awoke with a migraine. Several days of sleep deprivation, caffeine withdrawal, and dehydration had caught up with me. I vomited and nearly fainted before the nurses rushed in and wheeled me to the ER. An IV pumped Zofran, Toradol, and fluids into my system, while the attending doctor reviewed what had happened.

“Congratulations!” he said, upon hearing that I had come from the maternity ward.

“No, my partner gave birth,” I said. I must have been delirious to imagine he thought the maternity ward had sent a post-partum patient to the ER for care.

“Right,” he said. “Congratulations.”

It took me a minute to register that I was being celebrated for my one-day-old daughter’s birth. It was utterly refreshing. How ironic that a doctor in the ER got it immediately, whereas some of the birth center’s staff and clinicians did not.

I’ve reflected a lot about how it feels and what it means to have to correct, define, or explain our relationship or our parental roles, in both the mundane and the extraordinary moments of family life. As we awaited Charlotte’s arrival, these moments were frustrating and exhausting, but not egregious by any stretch, especially compared with true acts of homophobia. I know we are fortunate to have family and friends who support us wholly, and to live in a state that recognizes us as legal spouses and as parents to both children born within our marriage.

In many ways, our stories are typical and predictable. Many lesbian-headed households could insert themselves into our stories, save the personal details. These micro-aggressions were not intentional; no one sought to hurt or invalidate us, even though that was the effect. They likely stem from assumptions about who a married couple is or what a family looks like. What people see depends on their experience, exposure, and frame of reference. Perhaps that’s what is important about telling stories that aren’t new: as far as we’ve come with awareness and appreciation of diversity, we have a long way to go.

My children’s identities will be shaped, in part, by what is reflected back to them about who they are. As much as I’d like to, I can’t control the content of those messages. To an extent, I can shield my children in these early years. Regardless of how others see us, Jamie, Nate, Charlotte, and I know who we are to each other. On one hand, that’s all that matters. And at the same time, Jamie and I are faced with a new parenting challenge of helping our children process our complex social world—a world that we are still learning to navigate ourselves.

Author’s Note: I have always been aware of and sensitive to language. You know that childhood rhyme: “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?”  I don’t buy it. Words are powerful.  hey can hurt, minimize, and invalidate. They reflect and affect our thinking about others and ourselves. They are also dynamic and evolve as we do.  Jamie and I met as students at Wellesley College.  From the moment I stepped on campus, I learned to refer to myself as a woman, not a girl.  At 18, I began to carry myself differently as a woman. That distinction was empowering.  Now as a partner and mom in a lesbian-headed family, I continue to notice and take charge of the language used about me, especially in the presence of my kids.  It is a political act to reject invisibility and insist on being fully and authentically seen. 

About the Author: Ashley Davis is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Wheelock College, where she teaches students to think expansively and speak inclusively in their practice with diverse families. She can be reached at


Beauty Calls

Beauty Calls

By Jessica Bram

We had a new baby sitter living with us last year, a 19-year-old college student who could only be called beautiful. She had classic Scandinavian looks: wavy blond hair, gray-green eyes beneath an ivory brow and flawless white teeth. Tall and slender, her body was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit ideal: long legs, slim thighs, tanned young skin that wouldn’t know the meaning of cellulite for years to come.

When we first spied her as she rounded the luggage carousel after her flight from Wisconsin, I couldn’t help thinking: “Oh, no, now look what I’ve done. Did I have to hire someone this gorgeous?” But the thought dissipated when Julie got down on her knees, introduced herself to my two rapt young sons and, while we waited for her luggage, described to them the animals at her farm back home.

I was, however, frequently reminded of my initial reaction as my friends caught sight of Julie and registered their opinions. “Who needs such a beautiful girl in your house?” they asked, half in jest, watching her crouch on her long, tan legs alongside my children, sunlight gleaming off her gold curls. “You’re not going to leave your husband alone with that, are you?” A neighbor, eyeing Julie’s lithe young body in her swimsuit at the pool, took me aside: “I think you should pay her her whole salary in advance, and tell her you hope she has a very nice summer . . . back where she came from.”Beauty Calls Art 2

Slowly I began to sense a cutting, almost sinister undertone to my friends’ comments. I found myself questioning to what degree their remarks were serious, and what unnamed feelings they masked. What were my friends really saying? Did they truly fear for my marriage — or their own — if our husbands caught sight of this dazzling 19-year-old? Would we learn some terrible truths about ourselves if forced to compare at poolside our post-pregnancy, time-softened bodies with Julie’s? Or was this some kind of covert misogyny, secretly shared even by women, cloaked more acceptably as simple envy? And why should a kind, good-natured girl deserve such calumny?

All this fuss over Julie got me wondering about beauty. About why beauty is so intimidating and, in the case of a young summer visitor, so feared and resented.

I am what I would call reasonably attractive. I have even, at times, been called beautiful, although I can honestly say that I never experienced myself as a beautiful woman. It is usually enough to have my husband assure me I’m his physical type, although he has occasionally been known to use the word “knockout.” More often, I am content with a kind of not-bad-lookingness that has never caused a prospective employer to believe that I wouldn’t be serious about the job. It’s been many, many years since those preadolescent days when I would search my face in a mirror asking the critical question: Am I beautiful? Am I ugly? It was impossible to know, although I knew enough not to trust my mother’s pronouncement that yes, I would one day most assuredly be beautiful.

And why was it so important to be beautiful? This was something I never questioned, and neither did my mother, It was a simple fact of life–a prior notion that beauty was, for a girl, a basic requirement. Fairy-tale maidens were rescued from drudgery simply by virtue of their innocent beauty, so potent it was feared by stepmothers and evil queens. Not only an end in itself, beauty possessed a magical, inexplicable power: for achievement, for success, for salvation.

The promise of beauty was that with it came the prince and the shimmering castle and all the other rewards that one could imagine in “happily ever after.” It was the essential key without which doors to happiness would remain locked. (Perhaps the beast, being the male, could get around this requirement, but no such luck for a homely princess.)

Years later, I found this same hope of redemption in the glossy, headily ink-scented pages of Seventeen magazine, whose fresh-faced models – Cheryl and Lucy and Colleen – could, like me, be transformed by the magic of make-overs.

Although my mother’s promise to me has always dangled somewhat tantalizingly beyond the horizon, I have, over the years, made peace with my looks. That I do not receive the kind of stares and double takes that Julie did, I assure myself, has only made it easier to focus on other things, like grades and friends and life’s decisions, large and small. And I remind myself that my marriage has survived threats far worse than Christie Brinkley. But to see it as an issue of appearance or even sexual rivalry is, for me, to miss a larger point.

For when I looked at Julie, I remembered that old promise of beauty. Her crown of gold curls, bestowed by God Himself, seemed to me the very embodiment of limitless potential–a sign that Julie, unlike the rest of us, had some kind of guarantee of happiness. This told me that my old fantasies about beauty’s magic are still very much alive. Yet I realized that it is these very imaginings, fabricated out of fairy tales and magazines and thin air, that are the key to beauty’s true power. By believing our own storybook assumptions, we somehow make them, for the beautiful, come true.

I began to understand the accusatory stares leveled at Julie, as though she had committed some grace offense or insult. Perhaps the insult was this: that she had painfully reminded us of the promise of beauty once made, as it was to me by fairy tale and fantasy and a well-meaning mother. A promise that, like so many other promises, would never materialize. Perhaps she reminded us that the kingdom is a nice community in the suburbs with good schools and a pool club. That the prince, for better of worse, does not exactly relish an endless waltz at the ball – if he’ll go near a dance floor at all. That even achievement ends not with a heraldic trumpet blare but with a satisfied stretch of the muscles at the end of a day of hard work. That so many of childhood’s sparkling dreams for the future, while we were busy elsewhere, became dreams laid to rest.

In the weeks that Julie was with us, I somehow came to stop noticing her beauty. What I mostly saw was how kind she was to my children, how helpful and cheerful to have a round the house. And I discovered that there was, after all, really nothing terribly powerful about this girl who liked to draw Magic Marker pictures with my sons and eat big bowls of chocolate ice cream every evening with her long legs sprawled in front of the TV. In other words, as my neighbor said to me about Julie, “You know, she’s really so nice, you can’t even hate her for her looks.”

About the Author: Jessica Bram is a writer, radio commentator and author of Happily Ever After Divorce: Notes of a Joyful Journey (Health Communications, Inc. 2009). She is the director of the Westport Writers’ Workshop, which she founded in 2003, where she teaches workshops in creative nonfiction, personal essay, and memoir.

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