babies and pregnancy · culture/multiculturalism · hair · happiness · Hispanics/Latinos · Jews/Jewish/Judaism/Orthodox Judaism · prayer · race/racism

Brown Baby

In an article in Newsweek, “Beyond Just Black and White,” Raina Kelley writes about wishing her biracial son looked black. It was an utterly honest, perhaps controversially honest, portrayal of one African-American woman’s hopes for her half-white, half-black son. She ended the piece beautifully when she discovered that her son‘s skin was neither black nor white but golden:

“Perhaps as the number of multiracial Americans continues to grow, there will be plurality of golden people who are impossible to positively identify as one race or the other. And the rest of us who can be easily categorized will be forced to accept that color does not contribute to the content of one’s character because we won’t know which set of stereotypes to apply to whom. I want my son to grow up wearing his biracial heritage like an invisibility cloak, able to move unseen among people’s prejudices—impervious to racial profiling. But I will prepare him for a world that may think he is black or white, even though he is golden.”

It felt like I could have written this article. It was almost as if Kelley had taken the words right out of my head. In fact, I had pitched a similar idea to Latina magazine early last year. I’ve mentioned before on this blog my worries about my future biracial child. I don’t think I was as honest as Kelley was. I will try to be that honest now.

My husband, I have said, is praying for a brown child. Since my mother and maternal great-grandmother are brown (my grandmothers are not), there is a significant amount of brown DNA coursing through my veins that belies my “dark white” skin tone. (Author Mary Higgins Clark once complimented my fascinating dark white complexion.)

It is totally possible my husband will get his wish and his first child may not resemble him at all, shrouded by a thick curly afro, sun-kissed skin and, he hopes, his blue eyes. We see beautiful biracial children like this everywhere, swathed in contrasting skin colors, eye colors and hair types that accentuate their exotic heritage.

The first time my husband told me I was shocked. Before my husband, I had dated white men who didn’t hide their disgust for my “nappy” hair. They begged me to straighten it. I even had friends as a kid who told me my brown cousins couldn’t possibly be related to white little me.

I grew up in a multicolored family where skin color was very much a topic of conversation. I was confused by mix messages: family members who wanted to pretend to be lighter skinned and family members who teased me for being so light skinned. Certain family members wanted to disguise our African heritage and accentuate our white, Spanish heritage.

My mother often made all sorts of racism comments about blacks and Mexicans. My mother even threw away my brand-new Cabbage Patch dolls, gifts from my doting godmother, when she realized they were brown-skinned. (After I ran away from home, I always sent my little sister only black, Hispanic and Asian dolls, never blonds, in part to annoy the hell out of my mother but also to show my sister that there were dolls in the world that looked more like her.)

When I decided to convert to Judaism, a flustered colleague said to me, “You’re already Hispanic and a woman?! You’re going to add Jewish to that?” Talk about being a minority within a minority…. But I was naïve, I didn’t think of my race when I decided to become a Jew. I didn’t wonder about whether I would fit in or whether or not people would make racist comments around me, about me.

I think that I secretly believed Jews would be above all the racism I had previously experienced because of my ‘biracial’, exotic features. When Jewish people finally did make racist comments, I was shell-shocked. I never stopped to think about the damage those comments had done on top of all the racism I’d experienced in my life before Judaism.

My stomach coils with anxiety when I think of bringing a brown baby in the world. I am scared. I remember that my darker-skinned sister was always followed around in stores while I, with my whiter skin, was not. I think about racial profiling. I think about racism. I think about the fact that despite our brown president, there will still be racist forces (both overt and subtle) conspiring against people who are not white.

I think about my brown baby being the only dark face in a sea of white Jewish children at day school. I worry my brown baby will come home, and like the adopted African child of a white Jewish mother I read about in a recent Oprah magazine article, and will want to be white or whiter. Oh, the terrible irony of it. As a child, I so wanted to be brown to look more like my mother and all the other kids in the neighborhood.

I still think it’s easier to be white. I think that this is terrible but true. I think that if my baby looks like my husband, no one will ever question his or her Jewish identity. In this way, I think my child would just blend into the colorless background of white, Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Judaism. This ugly thought makes me angry. I cry as I write this. It is such a cynical truth to face in cold black and white.

The world is still easier for white people. The statistics in America are still bleak for people who look like me, for people of color. Until I opened up Latina magazine, until I was an adult, I never imagined a world where I could open up a magazine or turn on the TV and see positive representations of people like me. That we could see a world where we were more than maids and drug dealers. But no, I don’t pray for my baby to be white. In fact, I recoil from the idea of it. Is recoil a strong word?

Like Raina Kelley, I have terrible fears about raising a child who doesn’t look like me. It occurred to me one day that with one parent and three grand parents who all had blond hair as children, who all have white skin and recessive genes for light eyes, I could bring a child into the world that looks like the dolls I played with as a child.

I could have a child who has soft, blond curls and baby blue eyes. I am slightly horrified. I worry about how my blond, blue-eyed children would feel about their Latino heritage. In her article, Kelley imagines a fate where she is “an old lady hanging on the arm of a young white man who passersby would think was just an obliging stranger but who was actually my offspring.” This is a kinder visualization that what my mother experienced when people asked if she was my nanny. I am terrified of this fate.

Kelley heard her husband muttering to their child, “Mommy’s racist against us white people.” (My husband has voiced similar things once or twice.) Kelley writes, “It sounded absurd to hear [my son] described as white even though I myself had been saying things like ‘I hope he darkens up’ and ‘He looks Dutch.’ Clearly, I had become so eager for my son to be black that I was tiptoeing across the line from mildly offensive to racist. Not to mention that at the moment in time, it was even more absurd to call him black. Can you imagine the reverse scenario? Gabe born dark-skinned and my husband saying, ‘I hope he gets whiter.’”

That is the scenario I often imagined when I dated those white men who had strong feelings about my hair. I have one close family member whose white, European father made ugly comments about her African features and I know how those comments scarred her for life. So in the end, all I hope is that my unborn not yet conceived child will be healthy and happy…no matter what color he or she is.

I won’t pray for a specific skin color or eye color. Instead, I will hope that no matter what my child looks like, I’ll find that he or she is perfect in every way. I don’t want to be anything like that racist white, European father. And in the meantime, I will pray deeply for the racist world I live in to change and I will hinge my quaky hopes on our new biracial president.
Here is the comment I left on newsweek.com:

This article really hit home for me. I am part of an interracial relationship and will soon enough have biracial children. I found a lot of the comments made disheartening.

I don’t want to live in a colorblind society but I do want to live in a society that does not judge people by the color of their skin. I am very proud that I am different. I am very proud that I am myself biracial, that I speak two languages and am part of three rich cultures. To say that we are all the same is to deny the wonderful ways in which we are different. I wrote a more in-depth response on my blog of my personal feelings after reading your story. Thank you for being so honest!

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6 thoughts on “Brown Baby

  1. <>When I decided to convert to Judaism, a flustered colleague said to me, “You’re already Hispanic and a woman?! You’re going to add Jewish to that?” <>What in the world? I got this <>exact<> same statement said to me; except substitute “Black” for “Hispanic”. Is that statement taught in Yeshiva or something (“When you meet a Jew of color…”)?

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  2. Move to Israel (see prayer #10 of the 18), and rest assured that your “brown baby” will not be “the only dark face in a sea of white Jewish children at day school.”

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  3. Look, it's just a Jewish thing to say. My whole life, I hear sometimes, “You don't look Jewish” (somehow I'm the only blond and blue eyed one in my family), but when someone is particularly proud of me (thinking a high school teacher who was Jewish, for one), they'll say, “Oh, she looks Jewish!” Some of it really does have nothing to do with you. In Israel, you wouldn't stand out at all. I always wanted to be a little darker. My boyfriend in Israel in a mostly Mizrachi community got called Hitler for blond hair and blue eyes in school.

    I don't think you'd particularly stand out in a worldwide Jewish community. Don't know about New York area.

    I guess I'm trying to make you feel better, that people born Jews get the same kind of thing all the time. Plenty of women here have hair just like yours.

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