By Wendy Kennar
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 wendykennar.blogspot.com.