Published on July 30th, 2020 | by Jennifer Jordán Schaller0
Against a White Background
During my formative years, I grew up in the state of New Mexico, where being Brown felt like being anyone else. New Mexico is a majority-minority state, which means the majority of the people are Brown, while the power is white. I say the power is white because New Mexico is part of the United States, an arguably white supremacist country. I am talking about an idea that infiltrates our society in magazine covers, on blockbuster movie posters, through the existence of skin whitening creams, and in boxes of peroxide lining grocery store shelves. When I say white supremacist, I mean a society that purports the superiority of lighter-skinned or white people over other groups. It’s something I didn’t notice growing up in New Mexico, where I could tell myself, humans are humans, “I don’t see color,” and believe this was truth, even through my early college years.
What did this mean for a half Puerto Rican, half Peruvian-American, black-haired, brown-skinned girl like me growing up in a suburb of Albuquerque? I knew I started out life with some disadvantages: my father went to prison when I was a kid, and my mom was a single parent who more than once had to borrow money from my restaurant wages to pay for her rent. I knew these were obstacles Brown people faced at a higher statistical rate than my white peers at the university who lived in dorms and ate food their parents paid for on a college meal plan, but I believed that my hard work could help me beat the statistics. I understood racism as something that landed me behind the starting line, but I also thought it was a thing of the past, and with hard work you could “catch up”?
I started learning about my skin color when my husband and I first started dating. We were in our twenties and driving through Arizona on a road trip to California. I thought I was taking it nice and steady going a few miles over the speed limit on I-40, but as we drove through Winslow, Arizona, a state cop pulled me over and said I was speeding. He towered over my hatchback as he looked through my car’s window. He asked for my documents and told me to get out of my car. I asked him why, and he said I looked suspicious sitting next to that guy (my future husband, the white guy) sitting in the passenger seat. I looked at Karl, who shrugged. The cop wrote me a ticket, but not before he called dispatch to verify I was not a criminal. Over his police radio, he described me as a white female. I disagreed. He said there were five races, and Hispanic was not one of them. I was white, he yelled. When I started crying like a baby, he escorted me back to my car. Karl drove the rest of the way home.
Years later, when I gave birth to our first daughter, the midwife handed her to me, and I cradled my baby to my chest. I recognized her features—curvy lips like my Puerto Rican grandmother’s, round eyes like my Peruvian grandmother’s, soft nose like my mother’s—but her color was lighter, ten shades lighter on a Chanel foundation palette. I thought it was mathematically impossible for me to have a child as light as Ella, but I see myself in her. Sometimes I feel like the only one. Throughout her lifetime, people have asked me so many times if Ella was my child. We can probably agree that when a baby is walking unattended down the street, it is appropriate to ask, “Whose baby is that?” And if a baby rolled over on its face and ceased inhaling oxygen, it would be a good time to ask, “Whose baby is that?” We can concede it is proper to ask questions when a child is in danger. But if a baby is being cradled and loved by a caregiver who is ten shades darker than she, the real question for me is, why does anyone need to know? Child advocates, teachers, and parents need to know who a child’s parent is because they are vested in the personal interest of that individual child. Complete strangers, like that old man at the grocery store who looked at Ella, looked at me, and asked, “What happened?” He doesn’t need to know the details. He needs a science lesson and some boundaries.
I understand humans are curious. Sometimes outsiders, people I will never talk to again, have questions. That’s fine. Ask. Questions are usually pretty harmless, and I try to encourage them because I am a teacher. The simple question of whether or not Ella is my child is not shocking. Of course she is my child. I know it in my heart. I grew her inside of me. What shocked me was the number of times I answered this question during any given day while running errands with her or taking her to the park.
Also shocking–the wide range of responses to my answer, “Yes, this is my baby.” Some outsiders nodded and smiled at my affirmation. Some people gasped with wide eyes and asked, “Really?” like they were a reporter who had just exposed a real, good scoop. Some strangers were confused, like that old guy at the grocery store. An even smaller number of people responded to my claim that my daughter was my own with stories of their own mixed-race families. These were conversations I loved to have because we understood each other and could commiserate–”Isn’t it weird when people ask that question?”
The response I dreaded the most, what people sometimes still say now that my daughter is twelve—“She must look like her daddy.” This response feels damaging. A rainbow of DNA can exist inside the body of one human, but because I am Brown, I am being excluded from her existence. I carried her inside of me, from single-celled organic matter to flesh-and-bones human. Is it biology or my ego that longs to have strangers connect my child to me? I know many women, mixed race and not, have children who don’t look like them. This is why milkman jokes were made.
I also realize it is hard, without a quick preview of someone’s Ancestry.com profile, to understand how a group of people are related, but all that research isn’t necessary. One man, one woman, and a few pelvic thrusts–this is not the only way to create a brood. Sometimes adoption lawyers are involved in the creation of a family. Sometimes reproductive endocrinologists and petri dishes are involved. I believed it was common knowledge that there is more than one way to create a family. The questions about my biological bond to my child felt archaic, and I resented them. Why did strangers feel entitled to the details?
My friend who is also a race scholar, Dr. Amanda Parker, discussed some of her research after reading a draft of this essay. She said, “One of the things that white people do is surveill white bodies and even consider white children their property which is why there are so many disparities between white and black/brown children, so they are asking because whites can actually see Ella as more their business than even yours.” This is an earful to relay to a stranger at the park on a summer’s day, pre-pandemic, as we scooped our children from the bottom of a slide or pushed our children on the swings. Can it be enough to know that where you see love, you see family?
I remember back in 2013 when children from Roma families in Ireland and Greece were removed from their homes because outsiders couldn’t comprehend how they were connected. The Roma people are an ethnic group originating from Northern India, and they live throughout Europe. Two separate families’ children were forced to undergo DNA tests—ripped from their homes by outsiders and forced to undergo genetic testing. “Well-meaning,” white European tipsters reported to police that a light-skinned child did not look like her dark-skinned family. Once the children were determined progeny of their parents, they were returned to their families. Not looking like one’s family became a law enforcement matter. Had the tipsters confused Darwin’s laws with state laws? Children were swept out of their homes because their skin was different. I can think of a few things more primitive and disturbing, but not many.
When this happened, the face of my fear materialized. When Ella was a baby, I used to take her on walks in her stroller and worry that someone would take her away from me, not believing I was her mother. My fear was strong, neurotic, and fierce. Maybe my kid couldn’t be taken away from me, a middle-class American woman who has enough time to sit comfortably and type her ideas, but that doesn’t mean I fabricated covert racism coming at me from strange angles—the guy on the bus who asked if I was my daughter’s caregiver, the disbelieving man on the street who said, “She can’t be yours.” And the woman at a party who announced as I cradled my infant daughter and fed her expressed milk from my breasts, “Whose baby is that?”
“Mine,” I answered, and looked down into my baby’s blue-gray eyes that would eventually turn light brown.
One morning when Ella was a toddler, she woke up early and climbed between me and my husband in bed. She nestled her soft baby body between us and placed her foot against my husband’s inner arm. Their skin was the same.
“What is that color?” I asked.
I stroked his arm and her foot. Sometimes, I ask dumb questions, too.
“The color of your arm and Ella’s foot. It’s almost translucent. Does that have a name? I can see your veins. What is that color?”
My husband responded in his most deadpan voice, “You mean white, Jen? That’s called white.”
I laughed. Honestly, I was thinking about paint, like if I requested that color in a paint can at a hardware store, would it be Nomadic Desert or Barcelona Beige? It’s a natural human desire to want to find patterns in the world, to look at hues on paper and think about how they blend. But this is harmful because it is simplistic. I was asking him to classify his and my daughter’s skin according to swatches, painting a visual dividing line between me and them, but he reminded me that when those colors existed on human skin, they had much deeper implications.
In order for me to have maintained the illusion that I don’t see color, I would’ve needed to deny the terror I felt each time a stranger asked if my daughter was my baby. Is the question “Whose baby is that?” harmless? How about “Will you please step out of the car?” These questions imply that someone needs to keep watch over me, Brown lady holding a white baby. They imply I need policing. These questions make me feel watched in a way I hadn’t before I became a mother. Zora Neale Hurston in her essay, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” says, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” To me, this describes what it feels like to be othered. This experience is its own kind of truth and a lens through which to see the world. When I started my mixed race family, I experienced that truth. I saw color. I could part the veil of idealism obscuring my sight, a level of cognitive dissonance that required I lie to myself each time I told myself color doesn’t matter.
When we talk about seeing color, we are not talking about shades of melanin or paint; we are talking about a person’s lived experience inside their human body. I will teach my daughter about this as she grows older: how seeing color affects the families we create, how seeing color offers new opportunities to see the world, how seeing color helps us connect with and empathize with one another, and how seeing color provides new ways to love each other, despite the lines, visible and invisible, that strangers draw between a person and their family. I hold fast against the white supremacist ideology that attempts to infiltrate my family’s connection, and we love each other the way people are capable of loving at their most human level–with strength, ferocity, and an unconditional bond.