Published on May 29th, 2018 | by Cheryl Klein1
Brown Like a Kiss: Red Poppies, Pink Bear, Brown Mama, White Mommy
My son Dash gave up his pacifier recently. That is to say, Mama and I took it from him after engineering an elaborate ritual involving a trip to Build-A-Bear to guarantee his buy-in. Dash loved his new pink bear, Sparkle Bunny Bear (named for Sparkle Bunny the bunny, who was named for Sparkle Boy, the kid in Lesléa Newman’s picture book about a gender nonconforming kid). But just about everything else in the ensuing weeks pissed him off.
He wanted to watch TV at two in the morning. He wanted to play with his trash truck at ten at night. He wanted to CLOSE THE CAR DOOR MYSELF, MOMMY! NOT YOU! NOT YOURSELF!
Someone asked C.C., my partner, if he had a replacement for his paci. She answered, “Mostly screaming?”
Meltdown No. 372 happened a block from the farmers market. We’d done our usual thing: shared a tamale combo plate and a carton of raspberries, and visited the library. Our car was parked on a residential street in South Pasadena, a small L.A.-adjacent city known for beautiful Craftsman homes and high-performing public schools. We live a mile away in Los Angeles, in a gentrifying neighborhood where fresh spray paint blooms nightly to remind us that the neighborhood’s gang past is also its present.
The house next to my car was one of the aforementioned Craftsman bungalows, with an immaculate lawn and a row of poppies in all the colors of an L.A. sunset.
“The flowers!” Dash exclaimed. “They so pretty!”
My delight at his Ferdinand-the-Bull tenderness was short-lived, because he also wanted to pick the flowers. Then he wanted to run around the lawn and jump from step to step on the brick path leading to the house’s heavy oak door.
“Dash, this isn’t our house and these aren’t our flowers. The people who live here might not want us playing here. It’s time to get in the car.”
Sure, I wanted to teach him respect for other people’s space, but I was thinking of Trayvon Martin. Of Tamir Rice. Of all the boys of color—their names blurring in my terrified-mom brain—shot for acting like kids and being read as criminals.
Look, I don’t want to be melodramatic. I know that the likelihood of anyone going vigilante on a middle-aged white woman wrestling with a light-skinned Mexican three-year-old is slim. And yet.
When C.C. and I signed on with our adoption agency, we checked a box saying we would welcome a child of any race, which required us to attend an online transracial adoption training. It was clearly geared toward white, heterosexual parents adopting children of color. There was a lot about what to do when people see that your family is not “normal.” No one was ever going to think that C.C. and I had made Dash during a night of chilling with Netflix. No one needed to lecture C.C. on what it was like to move through the world in a brown body.
My color is “Pasty Brit + Eastern European Jew.” C.C. is Mexican, though often read as Filipina or Hawaiian. (When she visited Hawaii, a local said, “You look like you’re from here.” Five minutes later he said, “No, you talk too fast.”) She is a color that landed her the nickname “Pocahontas” when she was in high school.
As far as we know, Dash is 100% Mexican—which means almost nothing genetically, not only because race is a construct, etc., but because Europeans and Africans have long inhabited the land of the Maya, Olmec, Mixtec, and Zapotec.
Dash is currently the color of C.C.’s un-sunned stomach and my driver’s side window arm. I’ve considered these gradations—of color and concept—in part because, some months back, he announced, “I’m brown like Mama. Mommy white.”
Before he knew how to use the potty regularly, he’d noticed something about skin that went beyond tone. I’d read about studies confirming as much—cautioning white parents against glossing over race under the false assumption that children were anything other than forensic analysts of the world into which they were born—but it was nevertheless mindboggling to see it in action.
At the time, I cheerily echoed, “Yes! You’re brown like Mama!” and felt grateful that our adoption was only half transracial.
Around the time Dash relinquished his pacifier, I started playing a game on my phone called Covet Fashion. (Speaking of pacifiers.) It’s basically digital paper dolls. You choose the complexion, hairstyle, and clothing for your “model” and compete in a series of styling challenges. Other players vote for their favorite looks; it’s “Who wore it better?” in miniature.
I played Covet on the floor of Dash’s room as he tried to sooth himself to sleep sans paci. I gave about half my models “dark” or “medium dark” skin, and when I voted on other players’ looks, if I felt like the styles were roughly equal, I opted for the model of color. It was a tiny protest vote.
I went to UCLA in the identity-obsessed late ’90s, when the school released a new Joe Bruin mascot with blue eyes. Students balked at this apparent nod to Aryan supremacy. A quieter debate unfolded over whether the T-shirts and hoodies bearing Joe’s image were manufactured in sweatshops.
Shortly after graduating, I read Naomi Klein’s No Logo. She critiqued identity politics as a distraction from the bigger problem of multinational corporations impoverishing actual humans of color (not cartoon bears) in developing countries. The book laid a foundation for my grownup political orientation. I still believe #RepresentationMatters, but I try to orient myself toward the material, the legislative, the difficult.
Meanwhile, my white models almost inevitably score higher than my brown and black models.
Like any good three-year-old, Dash is vocal and fickle in his favoritism. After several nights on bedtime and wakeup duty, I was his mom-of-choice on the second Tuesday morning post-paci.
C.C. tried to offer him an orange and he screamed, “Not you! I want Mommy!”
An hour later, Dash and I were in the car on the way to daycare. He was eating a cup of raisins and one Hershey’s Kiss because bribery. I interrupted his chatter about trains and airplanes to hand him a wipe for his sticky hands.
He obliged and proceeded to wipe his forearm.
“I getting white,” he said.
Did that really just happen? I wondered. How many stories had I read about children trying to scrub their skin white? Like birth, death, love, and violence, narratives about race are subject to cliché because the same things happen over and over to each generation. It’s our job to process them; to inhabit the particular even as the cliché recreates itself.
Arguably my disbelief was a result of my whiteness, but the mix of sadness and surrealism was not unlike what I felt when my mom died. No matter how smart or countercultural I tried to be, here I was walking the same shabby road as millions of others.
Just as I remember eating bagels and going to a street fair the weekend after my mom died, so life marched unspectacularly forward following Dash’s comment. I dodged morning traffic as Dash turned his wipe into a headband.
“I think brown is a beautiful color for you,” I said.
When we pulled up to daycare, I turned to look at him in his car seat.
“What color is Teacher Fredo?” I asked. Alfredo was his favorite teacher, a chill young guy who gave piggyback rides through the parking lot.
“Brown,” Dash said in a shy voice.
“What color is Serenity?” I asked. A curly-haired daycare friend who was so verbally precocious that I was shocked when she couldn’t open a can of Play-Doh by herself.
“How about Kira?”
“We have lots of awesome friends who are brown, don’t we?”
“Chocolate is brown,” he said. Based on his Hershey’s Kiss obsession, this seemed like a positive association.
After I dropped him off, I texted the exchange to C.C. I don’t want to make it a bigger thing than it is, but I also don’t want to make it a smaller thing than it is.
She replied: Interesante. Thanks for keeping me updated on his self-identity and racial thoughts. It’s important that he like his brown even when Brown Mama isn’t his favorite at the moment.
I fancy myself the sort of white person who prioritizes listening; who fosters empathy while keeping its limits in mind. I try to do these things as an attuned parent, too. I seek out brown and black role models for Dash. Two of the three books in heavy rotation at bedtime feature black protagonists (Jazmin in the lovely and rhythmic The Rain Stomper and Adar in Babies Come from Airports). Most of the other books we read star sentient bulldozers.
For the past five years, I’ve worked at nonprofits where most of the clientele and a slight majority of the staff is Latinx. I don’t do this for Dash, who came along later. I do this because I live in and care about Los Angeles, and Los Angeles is Latinx. I don’t want to be one of those dudes who discovers feminism upon the birth of his daughter, you know?
But I can do the right things, and still, Dash will try on whiteness with a Pampers wipe.
On the podcast Closer Than They Appear, Carvell Wallace—a black journalist and father, who was raised in part by a white woman—offers a complex, vulnerable series of personal narratives and interviews about race in America. He shares his definition of humility: knowing your exact smallness with respect to the world’s problems, and your exact bigness. It is a version of the serenity prayer. Own what you’ve done. Tackle what you can. Don’t shy away. Don’t drown in guilt about what you can’t solve.
I don’t want to make it a bigger thing than it is, but I also don’t want to make it a smaller thing than it is.
My parents couldn’t save me from homophobia, but they helped me live to tell about it. I remind myself all the time that my job isn’t to shelter Dash from the world, but to equip him with the tools to live in it. As a toddler, he’ll get through bedtime without a paci. As he grows, he’ll stand up to the harsh world that waits in the daylight.