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.

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

Just Supporting a Detail That My Son is of Mixed-Race

By Wendy Kennar

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The fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.


“So your son is mixed.”

The comment was made by a woman sitting next to me at a writing workshop. And although we were all writers, I was at a loss for words and didn’t quite know how to respond. I stammered something along the lines of some people think my son looks more like my husband, while others think he looks more like me.

For me, the fact that my son is of mixed-race, that my husband and I have had an inter-racial marriage now for sixteen years isn’t worth noting. Our skin colors are mere details not defining characteristics of who we are as individuals and as a family.

But then I’ll read something and realize with a start that our family is not only considered “non-traditional,” but up until 1967, would have been illegal as well. (The Supreme Court decision in June 1967 made it illegal for individual states to prohibit two people from different racial backgrounds from marrying.)

When we were dating, I did think about the differences in our skin color. I wondered what it would mean for our future children (a sign I really cared for Paul). How would we explain a white Mommy and a black Daddy? Would our child feel “too different?” But the more I got to know Paul, the less I paid attention to our racial differences.

I think my environment played a huge part in me acknowledging Paul’s skin color but leaving it at that — an acknowledgement not an insurmountable obstacle. I grew up (and continue to live) in Los Angeles where it’s possible to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell items from across the globe. My parents (now married for forty years) were of different religious backgrounds. And although they both faced family opposition regarding their decision to marry, they successfully blended their two belief systems for our family. My siblings and I grew up knowing that you could pray anywhere, you didn’t need to go into a special building. We grew up knowing that all people are supposed to do their best, be kind, honest, and hard-working. And I grew up with our own familial version of holidays — an artificial Christmas tree and a menorah, ham and potato latkes for Christmas Eve dinner.

However, during my childhood I don’t remember any of my friends celebrating both winter holidays. It was either Christmas or Chanukah, not both. And I wanted my son to feel a part of a larger group, knowing that he wasn’t an abnormality in any way. So before he was born, actually before I was even pregnant, I began building his library. Along with favorites such as Goodnight Moon and The Cat in the Hat, I went out of my way to ensure my son’s books reflected him and our family. I purchased Shades of Black, The Colors of Us, The Skin You Live In, and Black, White, Just Right.

In fact, the topic of race never came up until our son was in kindergarten and learning about Dr. Martin Luther King. Then he verbally acknowledged the differences in our skin colors. He commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was not. He asked questions, wondering which section of the bus he would have sat in. (I told him that he would be considered colored which meant the back of the bus). He said it was so unfair that he and Daddy wouldn’t have been able to sit with me on a bus or eat with me at a restaurant. And I told my son that it wouldn’t have been possible for us to be a family back then.

We’ve talked about how the laws have changed because of brave people who worked hard to change them. And for now, the topic of race is a non-issue for our son. He’s more concerned about his loose tooth, his birthday, a class field trip. Race is there; it’s a supporting detail, not the main idea.

Yet, before enrolling our son in kindergarten, my husband and I had the daunting task of determining our son’s “primary and secondary race.” Up until that point, he was Ryan — not an African-American boy, not a Caucasian boy, just our boy. (His preschool forms hadn’t asked any questions about racial identity). But these forms needed us to make a decision, and my husband and I didn’t take the task before us lightly. We paused to reflect and discuss and consider.  Suddenly, we were feeling quite omnipotent, having a power we really didn’t want. In the Jewish religion (my mother’s religion), a child’s religion is the same as the mother. If I followed that doctrine, our son would be considered white. However, during the days of Jim Crow laws, if an individual was deemed 1/8 black, he was black, which means our son would be considered black.

And, ultimately it was our son who influenced our final decision. My husband and I remembered an incident when our son randomly commented that Daddy’s skin was dark and mine was peach. My husband asked our son what color his skin was. Ryan replied, “dark white.”  Ryan’s skin is darker than mine, but lighter than his daddy’s. And so we filled out the forms — “African American” for his primary race, “white” for his secondary race. (Those were the terms used on the school’s enrollment forms.)

Our son was born in 2008, the year the United States elected its first African-American President. The possibilities and the realities are continuing to widen. But, there will be people who make comments, “So your son is mixed,” that remind me that for some, we are considered a non-traditional family. That’s their issue not ours.

My son is used to diversity. We see it — yarmulkes and Indian saris. We hear it — Korean, French, Spanish. We taste it — crepes, sushi, tamales. Our neighbors include a Korean family, a Latino family, an African-American family, a white family, and a Polish/Indian family.

From my experience as a public school teacher and now as a parent, I don’t see one concrete way to define family. I acknowledge actions that define family. Helping each other.  Taking care of each other. Playing with each other. Being patient with each other. Laughing with each other. Showing love to each other. Establishing traditions.

The details: My son is of mixed-race. My husband and I are examples of an interracial marriage.

The main idea: We are a family.

Wendy Kennar is a freelance writer who finds inspiration in her son and from her memories from her 12-year teaching career. Her work has appeared in several publications, both in print and online. She blogs at