Character: Build It Here
I have five biracial children. What does that mean? Biracial. Are they Black and White? Asian and Hispanic? Native American and Pacific Islander? Or are they multiracial?
I live in America where most assume that the word biracial refers to people with one black parent and one white parent. Americans think in black and white. We like putting ourselves into categories with clearly marked labels. My children’s father is African-American with some Native American blood. He has white roots going back to slavery days. He had a Dutch-Irish great-great aunt. My ancestry is mostly English and Irish - not much color there except for my red hair. When my children started school, I had to fill out forms with boxes to check:
☐ Native American
☐ Pacific Islander
On every form, I drew my own box and checked it:
School administrators took issue with that. I understood. They had to deal with demographics.
This past weekend, I went to a baseball game with my oldest son, Kasian. 45 years ago, when I was 19 and newly pregnant with him, I had to make some major decisions, none of which had anything to do with checking a box on a form. I had to think about difficult choices like: Should I get an abortion or not? How to tell my parents? Will I have to drop out of art school? Was my baby’s father a good choice for a husband?
Some of the decisions were made subsequently to the first decision. Obviously I chose not to get an abortion, even though my schoolmates urged me to do so. My parents disowned me. I could not afford to continue college. I married my son’s father without thinking about his credentials as a husband or father. The color of his skin had nothing to do with it. Men come in all colors, but not all are cut out to be husbands and fathers.
After the baseball game last Saturday, Kasian and I went out for dinner. Our conversation centered around the massacre that happened at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina the previous week. A young white man walked into the church and sat down with a small group for a Bible study. No one in this group of black parishioners had ever met this man, yet they welcomed him. At the end of the hour-long discussion, he pulled out a gun and shot nine dead. One of the survivors recounted the murderer’s words, “I have to do this. You are raping our women. You are taking over our country.”
Racism is a raw topic in my family - trailing us with its predictable snide remarks, nipping at the heels of our identity, yet never tearing us apart. All my children grew up to be strong contributors in their communities, serving as beacons for humanity.
At dinner, Kasian talked about how rough it was to be a biracial kid. He told me some stories that I had never heard. Stories of times at the playground when kids would echo their parents’ hateful prejudice. And stories of times as an adult when he found himself faced by racial profiling. Kasian talked about President Obama being biracial yet identified by the public as black because the label of biracial would not have played well in the political arena.
“I didn’t belong to either group. The black kids didn’t want me nor did the white kids,” Kasian said, “You know I had lots of friends from both races, great friends that I still have, but I’m talking about the people that didn’t know me. The people who looked at me and asked, ‘What are you?’”
“What instead of who, like you’re not human, just an object that they needed to slap a label on,” I replied, “reminds me of a black woman I saw walking toward me one day on the street in Washington, D.C. She had a t-shirt on that said, ‘You don’t know me’. When we passed each other, she looked at me with a certain scowl. Was her message directed at me? Like I don’t care who she is?”
“Yeah, mom, that’s it. You should have stopped her and asked if she wanted to go have coffee.”
“Yeah, that would have been interesting.”
“It would have done her some good to get to know who you are.”
“Yeah, she had no idea. When you were a baby, we started to attend a church in Berkeley that had a large percentage of African-Americans in the congregation. Going to this church was like being in a foreign country for me. Most of the people there were originally from the South, a culture I was totally unfamiliar with. I know you remember Carl, who was one of the church leaders who became a great family friend. Carl taught me a lot about what it means to be human.”
“Yeah, I remember Carl, of course.”
“He didn’t have more than an eighth grade education, but he was one of the smartest men I have ever known. Nobody ever beat him at chess. And I’ve never met anyone with a greater perception of human behavior. He could have taught psychology at any Ivy League school and students would have lined up to get in his class.”
“Yeah, what a great man. You know, Mom, it took a lot of courage for you to leave your life in Ohio and trade it for something so different.”
“Oh, I don’t know, all I know is that I wanted to find out about other people. I wanted to discover their similarities along with their differences. I wanted to verify what I had always thought as a small child listening to my family spew racist hate in their daily conversations: that underneath our skin of many colors we are all human with the same desires for peace, love, and well-being.”
“Mom, you married a black man and raised five biracial children. That’s brave.”
“Motherhood is an act of courage, Kasian, no matter the color of your kids!”
The waitress drops off the dessert menu.
“Hey, they’ve got butterscotch whiskey pie!” exclaims Kasian.
“What a sweet blend of flavors.”
“Yeah, Mom, just like our family.”
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