Thursday, April 30, 2015

Who's That Baby?

As a mixed couple, we live a charmed life here in sunny Miami, Florida. I hear stories from other couples about the side-eye and dirty looks that they get in other parts of the country, and even some tales of more aggressively hateful people, but I don't think we get that down here. Miami is such a culturally diverse area to begin with, that different nationalities, customs, or styles of dress are no surprise to us. Also, maybe I'm just sensitive to it, but it seems as if the percentage of mixed couples is much higher here, because we see it pretty much wherever we go. I'm aware that things are different the farther north we go, and the more we move away from our culturally diverse home, the narrower the views around us seem to get. Even then, we don't get half the grief from strangers that mixed couples report from other parts of the country.

However, when it comes to mixed-race children, there still seems to be a great deal of ignorance surrounding how the process works, and how the final product comes to be. I think most people assume that all children are a kind of melting pot for their parents' features, but not necessarily their coloration. We're used to thinking of a child, he's got his father's ears, his mother's eyes, his father's nose, his mother's hair, but when it comes to skin color, or other matters of coloration or race, I think we often just assume that God finds the two parents on the Pantone grey scale and then picks the middle-most shade for the offspring. The truth is, if a child can overload on one side of the family, getting all of his mother's features, for example, and looking nothing like the father, then the same can be true for coloration as well. Now usually, even with children whose parents are of similar racial background, when a child looks nothing like one parent, eyebrows tend to get raised, and sometimes even cheeks tend to get swabbed. But even then, differences in facial features don't have the same visually striking effect as differences in racial features. The latest example of this is the pair of UK twins of mixed race that look so obviously different that they have become worldwide headline news. The story raises so many questions for the audience. How can this happen? What are the odds? How am I supposed to feel about it? Am I allowed to talk about this and still not be racist? I noticed in some pictures, the copywriters went out of their way to be polite in their captions, identifying the girls by phrases like "far, far left" or "third from right," apparently just to avoid identifying them as "the white twin" or the "the black twin." Another great example of not only the genetics of mixed-race, but also the social ramifications is the film Skin, starring Sophie Okonedo. The film is based on the true story of a "white" couple who had no reason to ever question their heritage, until the wife gave birth to, for all anyone could tell, a black baby girl. By the way, the story takes place in apartheid South Africa, around the 1960's.

I don't know what the odds are, but I know it happens more than one might think, that a mixed race child isn't born with a "mixed-race" look. In our family, the two teenage children, who are also mixed-race, definitely have "the look." Even my teenage daughter, who is light skinned, still has dark features from her mom's side - dark hair, brown eyes, skin that darkens in the sun rather than burning. The baby, on the other hand, fools everyone. Like all beautiful girl babies, she is definitely a conversation starter, but when my wife is out with her, the conversation usually starts with, "Oh what a beautiful little girl! Is she yours?" or the more tentative and polite "Oh my, where did you get such a pretty baby?" To clarify, the baby turned out exactly as white as I am, and that's about as white as it gets. In addition, she has my clear blue eyes, and they don't seem to be changing, along with light brown, mixed with almost golden, hair. The eyes make a lot of sense, because although my wife is dark-skinned, her father has very green eyes, so I can see how those genes would team up. The hair is more of a mystery, because even on my side, none of my people have light hair.

The irony is that while the coloration takes center stage in everyone's mind when they see us all together, she still doesn't really look much like me, despite the fact that so many people say we look exactly alike. Most of her features come from my wife's side of the family, so much so that if you put a picture of the baby side by side with a baby picture of her grandmother (and namesake, oddly enough) they look exact alike, just different complexions. In fact, the first time my wife's grandmother, the baby's great-grandmother, saw our daughter, the first thing she said was how much she looked like her namesake at that age.

I don't take offense to these incidents, and as far as I know, neither does my wife. I find it kind of funny when it happens, because it seems very innocent and only reveals the way we think of race and family and normalcy. I wouldn't want to go through some of the experiences that others have shared with me, and I certainly wouldn't want to explain them to my children. It's one thing to find humor in an innocent comment; it's quite another to be made the butt of someone else's joke, or the jester in someone else's court. Situations like the tasteless jokes on Melissa Harris-Perry's show, about Mitt Romney's family and his black grandchild being different from his cousins and siblings, show how unwilling we often are to accept racial differences and especially racial mixing. To paraphrase what Caleb Howe said about the situation, the picture of that black child in a white family is only funny if you think that race-mixing is absurd or laughable. I feel the same way when I hear about the geek rage over originally white comic book heroes like The Human Torch being cast as black in movies. A large part of the furor over Michael B. Jordan's casting as Johnny Storm was explained as tampering with the essence of the character, not because of his blackness, but because he's supposed to be Sue Storm's brother, and she's being played by a white actress. Again, for so many, it seems completely out of the realm of possibility that two people, one dark-skinned and one light, could ever be siblings, even in a fictional world where one of them can become living flame and fly and the other can turn invisible and create force fields. That we're willing to accept, because gamma radiation, but racial variation in a family, well, there's only so much disbelief I can suspend, right?

So I guess I'm really appreciative and proud of my wife for handling these incidents with the humor and patience that she does, because, for the most part, we have to believe that we're dealing with people who have genuine love and respect in their hearts, and may just need to see more of Mendel's laws of inheritance in action in order to see the beauty that comes with variety.

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