Monthly Archives: September 2011

What Kind of Mother

I grew up in a place called the Main Line, just outside Philadelphia. The Main Line isn’t a town or a school district or a county. It’s not a train line, although it got its name from a stretch of the Pennsylvania Railroad built in the 1800s. The Main Line contains a collection of towns, the same way Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses contain collections of jewels. It’s a loosely defined region, but more importantly it’s a state of mind, an atmosphere: of blue bloods and old money, horse shows, cricket clubs and sprawling estates. It’s the hometown of icy political spouse Betty Draper from Mad Men. When you read about or hear about the Main Line, you should imagine it being pronounced in an accent dripping with privilege, like Thurston Howell III.

If you’re the daughter of black immigrant doctors and you grow up in a place like this, the pressure to act or not act a certain way can be considerable. My mother wanted us to study hard, to excel, to race to the top. Underlying those aspirations was a cardinal rule: Don’t do anything or say anything that will confirm a negative stereotype white people have about black people. Don’t be loud. Don’t be late. Don’t talk like that. Don’t walk out of the house with your hair a bushy mess or your clothes a wrinkled mess. And I don’t think I ever did. Which is why, on a sunny day in August, hoisting 3-year-old Rose out of her car seat and into a cart at the supermarket, I froze when I realized something: My daughter had no pants on.

I had scooped her up so quickly in the driveway, I hadn’t noticed she was only wearing underwear and a shirt — a tunic-cut shirt, but a shirt nonetheless. Her Hello Kitty panties were exposed for all the world to see. And all I could think about was, what kind of mother do I look like? Or, just as likely since my daughter is so fair-skinned, what kind of babysitter do I look like? I prayed I wouldn’t run into any neighborhood parents — which I did (a perfectly tanned couple and their blond daughters, who had floated out of a J.Crew catalog). I prayed Rose wouldn’t broadcast it in her high-decibel warble — which she did, at the crowded deli counter. (“Mommy, where are my pants? This cart is making my butt freeze!”) It was the fastest market run I’d made in years.

I know all parents have these moments (right? right?). But in that brief instant, I wasn’t just a frazzled, disorganized mom picking up last-minute ingredients for dinner. I was the black mother whose child was in a public place in her underwear. I saw myself the way Betty Draper might see me, and the feeling I got was as irrational as it was real: I hadn’t just let down my daughter and her slightly shivering backside. I had let down my entire race. I didn’t want to feel that, but I couldn’t escape feeling it.

Big thanks to Fabiola Perez-Sitko, maker of the handcrafted, multicultural line of dolls fig & me for the photo above. It’s a funny story: Not wanting to use a photo of a real child in underwear, I started searching for images of dolls and landed on her blog. Then, a few minutes after my email, these words from the northern shore of Lake Superior: “I am Mexican, and my husband is Canadian of European descent. More often than not people do not associate my children with their father, and in some occasions have thought and said he had adopted them.”

Amazing. Caramels abound.

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Out of the Mouths

When kids learn a new word or phrase, they try it on. They wait for the right moment, or what they think is the right moment, and then with all the conviction they can muster, they try to make something they don’t yet understand sound like something they figured out years ago. “You can’t read my mind, Rose!” Sky screamed one day after his sister accused him of hurting her intentionally. “You don’t even know how to read yet!”

In a weird way, the same is true of race. You can’t possibly ask a kid who doesn’t understand that reading doesn’t always mean reading to understand that brown-skinned people are actually called blacks (except when they’re Latino) and pink-skinned people are actually called whites (except when they happen to be your extremely light-skinned younger sister). Watching Sky struggle with this, I’m aware that part of me wishes he would never figure it out. That there was nothing to figure out in the first place.

Not too long ago, looking at a black and white photo of Coretta Scott King, Sky tried on race like this.

“Mom, guess what? You and Daddy are just like Martin Luther King and Coretta!”

“We are?”

“Yea. Martin Luther King is dark just like you, and Coretta is light just like Daddy. Look! See?”

Look. See. And he means that, literally.

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