When I was a boy, if you were multiracial you learned pretty quickly there was no clearly designed spaced for you in the world. Humans tend to like well-defined categories. We think in terms of boundaries and groups. The fact I didn’t fit in any neat package meant I was something of a curiosity. It’s why my favorite animals growing up were the liger and the tigon. You may remember the liger — it was Napoleon Dynamite’s favorite animal, too.
If you never saw the movie, ligers and tigons are what happen when a lion and a tigress mate. They only exist in captivity since lions are from Africa and tigers are from Asia, and thus, their habitats don’t overlap. I always related to ligers and tigons. They were the only creatures in nature that seemed anything like my sister and me. Luckily, as I grew older, I met lots of other liger-and-tigon-kids. And these days, there are more and more of us born each year. In fact, there are so many of us we’ve a carved out a space for ourselves in the demographics of the census. Roar!
According to the New York Times, multiracial children are the fastest growing youth group in America. There are now roughly 4.2 million multiracial people in America. And there are far more of us all around the world. Yet, for lots of folks they still have trouble knowing what to do with us because we’re not exactly one thing or another. This wouldn’t be as much of a problem in most nations of the Caribbean, in Brazil, and in various nations of Latin America, where multiracial is almost the norm, rather than a rare exception. But in America, we’re an inconvenient mélange. Thankfully, as our numbers rise, such difficulties of categorization are becoming less and less of an issue. Obviously, this wasn’t the case when I was a kid.
Imagine this scene.
A little boy stands at a circular clothing rack in the woman’s section of a department store, curiously fingering the fabric of skirts. To his small eyes the variety of colorful clothing seems almost endless. Next to him stands a middle-aged woman, browsing the same skirts. On the other side of the little boy, a young 30-something mother shops. Surprised to see a little boy, seemingly alone in the woman’s clothing section, the middle-aged lady grabs the child by the hand and drags him away from the clothing rack and out towards an aisle. She yells at the top her lungs…
“Has anyone seen this boy’s mother?!”
I was that little boy. The young 30-something was my mother. I was about four feet from my mother when the over-protective middle-aged lady grabbed my hand and dragged me away. Her heart was in the right place. She thought she was looking out for a lost child. What she failed to understand was how a brown-skinned boy could be the son of a little white lady. Our biological connection was missed because the middle-aged woman was looking for an “equally brown mother.”
It’s always been something of a problem for Americans to easily understand. Most folks usually require some math and basic biology to wrap their minds around our relationship. I’m not adopted. She’s my mother. I started life in her body. And yes, that means at one time she had sex with a black man and my sister and I were just two results of that carnal knowledge. You’d think based on some of the questions I’ve heard over the years, people were talking about breeding dogs, crossing donkeys with horses, or perhaps mixing wines, but certainly not children. It’s the 21st Century. Yet, many Americans are still surprised by how a little white lady could be my mother.
My father is American black (a mix of Ghanaian, Cherokee, British and some unknown West African tribes). My mother is American white. (English, Irish, Scottish, French, Swedish, German, and Dutch). They’re both mixes as well.
To make things in my family even more complicated my sister now has children. Their father is an American white guy. Her children are both fair-skinned blondes. One of her children thinks of herself as white and the other thinks he’s black. Being kids in Ohio they want to be one easily understandable thing. And my sister urges them to self-identify, so neither of them goes with the multiracial tag. I often worry about my nephew, who calls himself black despite his blond hair and fair-skin. Gotta love his chutzpah. But I imagine he’s going to endure all sorts of awkward and hurtful moments when he hears racist comments from folks who assume he’s just a middle American white kid.
When I was my nephew’s age, I was constantly surprised when I was confronted with racial bias- like the time when a racist owner of a Florida ice cream shop ignored me and kept serving white families instead of me. He served three families who came into his store after me before I realized what was happening. I thought he just didn’t notice me waiting. I’ve always been somewhat optimistically naive, kinda like Pollyanna but with a penis.
Now, my sister gets to repeat the same experiences we had as kids. Only this time she’s the differently colored mother. My niece and nephew are so stereotypically white-looking my grandmother, once told me on the phone, “Looks like we washed the black out in one generation.” She’s from Iowa. Her racial “white-washing” statement might strike you as patently offensive, but my sister and I are used to her. My mother’s mother is a straight shooter. She’s wasn’t saying it like it’s a good or bad thing- she just tells it like it is. Ignoring any offensive aspects of her statement, she’s entirely right. There are almost no traces of any American Indian or African ancestry in my sister’s children. None. Which continues to make things weird for our family.
There was this one time when my sister was in town visiting. I took care of my niece to give my sister, who was pregnant with my soon-to-be-nephew, time alone with our mother. My niece was a few months past two years old, new to walking and just learning to talk efficiently, but not expertly. Embracing her fast-developing sense of independence and self-government, as children do in their “terrible-twos,” she often threw temper tantrums when she didn’t get what she wanted. This intimidated me. Not being an expert babysitter, I thought it’d be cool if my niece and I took a walk to get some ice cream. She, like me, loves ice cream.
Halfway there I realized I’d forgotten my wallet. I told my niece we needed to head back to my place to fetch it. She was not into that idea. She’d been promised ice cream and had no interest in going anywhere else. So she turned and ran away from me, down the sidewalk in the direction of ice cream. Money wasn’t something she understood, but ice cream was. She had a head-start. I chased after her.
The problem was, to an observer, my little blonde niece was running from a black man with long dreadlocks who was dressed like an unemployed musician. She ran past a Korean church. The pastor happened to be outside. I was about to catch my niece when he stepped in to protect the crying, fleeing child.
He picked up my niece. And he refused to hand her to me because he didn’t believe I was her uncle. I didn’t get my niece back until two policemen arrived on the scene and were finally convinced when my two-year old niece called me Uncle ZZ. Once she figured out neither the pastor nor the policemen were going to give her ice cream, she knew she had to speak up. The adults listened to a two-year old before they believed me.
I know everyone involved did what needed to be done. In many ways, I’m glad they did what they did. It’s important we protect children. But I think if my niece and I looked more alike, or if the minister and policemen could understand that a black man might have a little white girl for a niece, it wouldn’t have taken them twenty minutes to clear it up and give me my niece back. And I’m sure any multiracial family can tell you similar stories.
When I consider my family tree stretching back into history, I imagine American Indians struggling to survive a surprise famine; and European peasants scratching at the earth, foraging for food to outlast the long winter; and West African hunters dragging home fresh-caught game to quell the hunger of their children, and thanks to all their efforts to live, thrive and survive, I’m here to write this. And yeah, I’m sure for some of them it would be totally confusing if they saw I was the end-result of all their labors, but imagining them gives me a global cultural view. The fact that my family tree’s roots are buried in three different continents makes me feel connected to a much larger story than race as it’s understood in America.
I know, as time goes by, there will be more and more of us caramel-colored kids. Maybe future generations won’t have to put up with so many awkward questions and sidelong stares. Perhaps, we’ll finally transcend the divisions that still bedevil today’s world. This thought makes me happy. Because as my family proves, just like the mutts that we are, stripped of the hues of our human skin, we’re all the same animal. We’re all one family sharing the same planet.