Motherhood,  The Woman Behind the Mother

I’m not the babysitter…and other truths about my biracial family

By Rachel Willis, Guest Writer

Even though I am a completely average-looking human, going anywhere with my children makes me 88% more memorable.

To pull from a Facebook memory from January 2, 2017:

Daughter: I think I’m more part of Daddy’s family than yours.
Me: Why?
Daughter: Well, all your family has white skin and my skin is brown, closer to Daddy’s color. Also, your family likes country music.

While country music certainly plays a role in my own familial displacement, none of my kids look like me because my husband is black. And though I know a few biracial children with blue eyes and brown hair, my kids ended up with dark skin, dark brown eyes, and dark brown, curly hair.

Biracial families attract attention. People are interested in us. They stare sometimes, or ask dumb questions, including the following:

“Are you babysitting?” [Yes, didn’t you always call your babysitter mommy?]
“Are they yours?” [Nope, I just take three cranky children to the store because I love pain.]
“Is their dad, um, you know, um, ….?” [It’s okay to say black, folks. It’s not a bad word.]
“How long have you had them?” [Uh, well she’s 9, he’s 7, and he’s 4, so…]
“Where did you get them from?” [My vagina. Where did you get your dress?]
“How much did they cost?” [$233,610, according to Time, but there’s also opportunity costs in lost wages, reduced mental capacity, increased string cheese packaging which does affect the environment, and tears.]

I never really know how to respond when strangers accost me like this. And white people aren’t the only ones who make comments. Black women like to give style and product tips for my daughter’s curly hair. If you know anything about black culture you know that hair is significant. I walk a fine line because I am more aware than my daughter is that her hair, when unkempt, will draw negative attention, especially from black people. It reflects poorly on me, her white mother, who clearly is not taking care of her brown babies if she lets her little girl run around with her hair like that. The problem is that now, my daughter often doesn’t leave enough time to style her curly afro since she’s older and takes longer to get ready. Every so often I check in with her and ask her whether anyone has said anything to her about not doing her hair. My son has already gotten comments from other children at his school about his messy hairline, and I’m waiting for the day when my daughter experiences this too.

Even my husband, whose one consistent treat growing up was a weekly cut at the barber’s, can’t really articulate the importance of hair to black culture beyond saying, “It’s a black people thing.” Thus, before we ever visit his family, there’s a frantic rush to cut the boys’ hairlines and style my daughter’s hair with so much product I have to run to the store to buy more.

She occasionally comes home in cornrows after a visit to my mother-in-law, which I love. The cornrows look pretty bad by the second or third day, but I try to leave them in longer out of some sort of acknowledgement that this is who my daughter is too.

Halloween is also an interesting time of year. This year, for example, my daughter wanted to be Arwen from Lord of the Rings. This was problematic in a few ways. First, apparently costume makers have decided only white people nerd out over LOTR, and so the only elf ears I could find were white. Well, white tips on brown ears was not going to work, so I abandoned the option of elf-ears and just bought the costume dress.

Second, my daughter demanded I buy a wig of long dark straight hair for her because, to put it in her words [add lots of tears and a dramatic bed-flop], “With my hair, I’ll NEVER look like Arwen! No one will EVER know who I am!”

Not to be outdone, my son requested “yellow-white face paint” so that he would more closely resemble Harry Potter.

Amid tears and tantrums, I said there was no way we would be doing whiteface in this house or buying any wigs (we compromised by straightening her hair with a straightening iron), and when the time came to trick-or-treat, both kids were too excited to care.

Other than some of these smaller issues, my children so far seem relatively unaware of their racially-inflected identities. My eight-year-old seems especially oblivious. For example, during last year’s black history month, he came home with some facts about African Americans. “Sweetie,” I said, “do you know what African Americans are?”

He looked confused and shook his head.
“Black people,” my husband said, and my son stared at him dubiously.
“Like you?” My son asked.
“Yeah,” my husband answered, “and like you.”

I felt amused and a little anxious by this—somehow, he listened to a whole month’s worth of lessons on African Americans without realizing he belonged to that category. This was hard to hear because my kids will never not be thought of as black. To other people, it’s not immediately apparent that my children are half-white. When I visit them at school, kids are confused: “Are you his mom? He doesn’t look like you! Are you sure you’re his mom? If you’re his mom, then why is he brown?”

My kids seem to think it’s normal and gleefully accept the attention, but I wonder what it must be like for them to grow up being perceived as one thing while understanding themselves to be something else.

For now, my husband and I discuss issues that we feel could be racially-inflected and try to be wise about the future challenges our children might encounter. I know as they age we will have to navigate certain expectations from both white and black communities about their family background (married parents, just one baby daddy, thanks), their socioeconomic status (middle-class), their academic performance (my school-aged kids are smart and engaged students), and their behavior (rambunctious but with questionable rhythm).

While we face certain challenges, we also enjoy benefits and humorous situations as a mixed-race family: I know my kids can go a full day at the pool with only one quick covering of SPF 30 spray. They need at least one spray though, as my oldest found out after she told a friend she didn’t need sunscreen and experienced her first sunburn at the ripe old age of 9. We’ve enjoyed the completely different assumptions people make about our family dynamic when we take a white child out with our family.  On occasions my children are misbehaving in public, I’ve wondered aloud where their mother is. When naming our children, my husband and I agreed on terms that their names would be neither “too white” (he vetoed Hannah) or “too black” (it never got that far).

My kids might wrinkle their noses at my enjoyment of country music even while they have no clue who Beyonce is, but I am proud to report that my kids know most of the lyrics to the Hamilton musical. And despite being neither fully white nor fully black, each of my children is inimitable and original, and I hope I can do the challenges we face enough justice.

Bio: Rachel Willis is an instructor in the Westover Honors Program at Lynchburg College. She was a stay at home mom and a work from home mom for several years, and is married with three kids. In her free time, Rachel coaches beach volleyball and runs. 

Photo provided by Rachel Willis.

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