“Mama, why did that man ask if Daddy was the gardener?” my almost 4-year-old daughter asked from the back seat, equally curious and innocent.
I paused. Not because I didn’t know the answer, but because I didn’t know how to explain stereotypes, racism and classism to a preschooler. I glanced toward the rearview mirror to catch her deep brown eyes staring back at mine and uttered a half-truth: “I am not sure, mija.”
We were visiting friends in Santa Barbara, Calif., for spring break. Lovely mission-style homes with nicely manicured lawns lined the neighborhood where we were staying. Friends of ours had offered to let us use their home while they were away. As we were loading up the car on our last morning there, my husband carried our suitcases to the trunk and then two trash bags to the curb just as one of their neighbors walked by with his dog. He lowered his sunglasses, looked down at my husband suspiciously and asked, “Are you the new gardener?”
My daughter and I stood in the doorway. It was not the first time I had seen him bear the brunt of racism and ignorance, but it was the first time my daughter had.
My interracial love story
Up until 1967, marriages like mine would have been illegal in many parts of the United States. It wasn’t until the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the marriage of Virginians Richard and Mildred Loving in a landmark ruling that interracial marriage became legal in all 50 states. As a result, June 12th is celebrated as “Loving Day,” a hallmark for civil rights and racial equality. However, my own interracial love story is far less heroic. Like most people, I chose to marry a man I loved. His values matched mine, and it didn’t matter to me that his skin tone did not.
My husband and I were married in the ruins of a colonial Guatemalan town and later had a reception under the lights of my California beachside home. We said our vows in both English and Spanish and promised to teach our children “about the beauty found in our differences.” I was excited about our future as a multiracial family. However, I was somewhat unprepared for how the differences of our skin colors would shape our children.
I grew up in the suburbs of Southern California on a cul-de-sac with cookie-cutter houses and white neighbors. Growing up, I didn’t see many people who did not look like me. Implicit in that statement is part of the problem. I didn’t have to see people of color. In my family, we didn’t talk about race, because we didn’t have to. And that in and of itself is probably one of the biggest privileges — or problems, depending how you see it — of being white.
What biracial kids see
Biracial kids (and transracially adopted kids) often see race from a very early age, in part because they are defined by it. When my daughter was just a few months shy of her second birthday, she would use crayons to identify the colors of skin represented by our family. “Daddy is brown. Mama is peach and I’m tan,” she announced proudly, as if naming the colors of the rainbow. Experts agree that most kids start noticing and pointing out race as early as 2 or 3 years old as they are learning colors and how to classify things as either similar to or different from themselves.
Years ago, we were at a high-end restaurant on Los Angeles’s west side. Although L.A. is one of the most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, dining is still divided along class and culture. We sat at a table where folded cloth napkins rested on each plate and three forks were lined up to the left. I was nursing our daughter and asked my husband to get me some water. He signaled with his hand partially raised and nodded his head, just how I had done so many times before, trying to get a server’s attention. But no one came over. I watched this continue for a few minutes before I finally I asked my husband, “Why aren’t they coming?”
Without hesitating he said, “Because I look like all of the workers in the back. They don’t see me here.”
I shook my head in disbelief. How often do we not see people because we hold onto a certain socially constructed idea of where that person belongs? Or maybe worse, in an effort to be inclusive, we equate equality with sameness and in the process fail to see the distinct differences among us.
I looked at my husband and then down at our daughter in my arms. “I want our kids to grow up seeing people, all people,” I told him.
Answering hard questions
But in order for that to happen, it takes intentionality as parents. It means being open to honest conversations and willing to answer hard questions — like, “Why did that man ask if Daddy was the gardener?”
As we drove along the 101 freeway that morning, I looked back over my shoulder to catch my daughter’s attention and did my best to explain micro-aggressions to my preschooler. “Sweetie, sometimes people form ideas about someone who looks different from them before actually getting to know them. And sometimes those ideas are not right or fair.”
She nodded her head, as if she understood.
“So what do you think is something we can do when we see someone who looks different from us?
She sat quietly thinking. “Well, we could ask their name.”
I smiled at her. Yes. Imagine a world where we learned people’s names first. Where we learned to see a person before a stereotype. What if instead of asking, “Are you new the gardener?” that neighbor in Santa Barbara had greeted my husband and said, “Hi, what’s your name?”
The author is a former special education teacher. She currently lives in Guatemala, where she works with a nonprofit group while also trying to raise two bilingual and bicultural kids. She writes about motherhood, marriage and life in between two cultures and countries at simplycomplicated.me. You can find her on Twitter @MichelleAcker.