I asked a new acquaintance after being shocked by the dissimilarity between her face and the face of her interracial baby.
While Mom is half-white, half-something else, baby is at least three quarters white and only 25% something else. Given these kinds of statistics, it’s no surprise that baby has big blue eyes and the sort of pale, translucent Caucasian skin reserved only for redheads. It’s still a shock to see. That he’s white but his mother isn’t.
“Well, I felt sort of ambivalent about it. I mean, look at me? This is my baby?”
It is she assures me, her baby. She remembers the labor pains.
Mom’s response made me think about poor Jessica Alba and all the flack she has gotten for being half-Mexican and half-white. When Jessica dyes her hair blond to take on a role as a white Fantastic Four superhero, Latinos everywhere want her pretty head on a stick. What? She thinks she’s too good to be a Latina? No, Jessica responds. As someone half-white, with a blond mom no less, Jessica just has more options.
One could argue that a blond Jessica who wants to look like her blond mother is a normal Jessica. Growing up, we look towards our same-sex parent, for gender guidance and identification. After all, it’s mommy who teaches her little girl how to be a woman.
When I looked at my mother as a child, I saw a beautiful, dark face and I prayed for a tan. I didn’t want an exotic face that passed for white by Dominican standards. And I certainly didn’t want the encounters that would follow later in life where biracial people everywhere would identify with me because of a shared experience they thought we had. To them, I was biracial, too—half-black, half-white, half-Hispanic.
I’ve always been touchy about announcing my ethnicity (Hispanic not being a race) to the world. As the child of a white father and a “brown” mother, my racial identification has always been conflicted. Whereas white faces and brown faces both represented home to me, my “white” face has been met with hostility from browner faces and curiosity from whiter faces.
Sometimes I hide my Dominican identity in my pocket next to my earplugs at Jewish tables. Though this usually leads to steady and increasingly less subtle inquiries, people yearning to know exactly how foreign I am, I have learned to deter the questions with a yawn, a shrug or a tight-lipped smile. They wonder: Is she Sephardic? Is she half-white? Or better, are her dark features a hint of half-something more exotic than our pasty white skin? My defense mechanisms rise just as the curiosity of my hosts does.
What I’ve never wanted is to be branded an outsider or an outcast: a Dominican that wasn’t Dominican enough or a white girl that wasn’t really white. I wanted to be accepted as an insider and that never seemed possible as long as people were trying to categorize my frizzy hair, my boring thin nose and pale (to Dominicans), dark (to Whites) skin. When I look at Halle Berry or Barack Obama, I think, of how easy it must be to pass for just one race, black, even though they’re both equally just as white. Their favorite author probably never complimented them on the mysterious dark whiteness of their skin.
And then there are my imaginary children to think about. My husband is praying for big curly corkscrews, darker skin tones culled from the intermingling of blacks, whites and natives in my ancestry and my great-grandmother’s beryl blue eyes. If he gets a white baby with brown eyes and my father’s straight hair, will he just put the baby right back? I ask him this with a horrified expression. In response, he laughs.
My husband as a baby.
“No, I wouldn’t put the baby back! But it’d just be so nice, so cute if they….” If they looked like me? But what if I want our babies to look like him? Doesn’t everyone want their children to look like the people they love most?
People tell me that all that matters is that my children are Jewish. It doesn’t matter if they speak Spanish. It doesn’t matter that they’re Dominican, too. These people try to console me by overlooking parts of me that I don’t overlook. I can’t.
In an Ashkenazi world of Judaism, where people gawk at difference, I don’t think it’s just an innocent wish to have babies who look like my husband. I think it’s a hope that my children won’t have to answer constant questions because of faces they can’t change. I think it’s a hope that my children will blend in, in a way that I never have in the Dominican and Jewish communities. It seems easier to hope they have their father’s faces than to expect the world to include my face when they think of what Jews, Americans and Hispanics are supposed to look like.
It’s a hope that comes from a history of racism. It’s a hope mixed with fear. When I look at the face of my newborn half-Asian, half-Dominican cousin, I contemplate the half-white, half-Dominican my sister and I will have. I wonder how the world will look at all our babies and what the world will look like to them.
Because of the decisions I’ve made, will my children, whatever their faces, ever speak the language of their mother’s ancestors or want to eat plantains, instead of Cheerios, for breakfast. Like Jessica Alba, will my children someday look back and “wish to G-d that…dad spoke Spanish to…” them because of a desire to fit in all the different worlds that their little souls represent? All the worlds that their very existence challenge and change?