It started even before she was born. My husband speculated that our baby would have the dark brown skin of my African father. I imagined she would be the female version of our 8-year-old son with eternally tan, glowing skin, light golden brown eyes, and straight hair that is just shy of being called black.
When Olivia arrived, her rosy cheeks and blue eyes didn’t really surprise me. Black newborns often have blue eyes and pink skin, I thought.
The postpartum nurse innocently asked if her skin would darken. My mind was clouded by sleep exhaustion and I imagined waking up one morning to find a chocolate-colored baby nursing hungrily from my breast.
‘I don’t know,’ I answered.
We brought our baby home from the hospital on a cold autumn morning, tightly swaddled in a blanket.
‘Will her eyes change?’ asked our neighbor as he peered into the bundle.
‘I don’t know,’ I replied as my husband shrugged.
The first few weeks she was home, we struggled to figure each other out. It had been eight long years since my last baby. I looked forward to her well-baby checkups so I could ask questions. At her three-month appointment with the pediatrician who also cared for our son, Dr. Ramos looked in amazement at Olivia’s blue eyes and alabaster skin. ‘Do you think her eyes are going to stay that color?’ she asked.
‘I don’t know.’ I’d hoped she would answer that question.
‘Does anyone else in your family have blue eyes?’
‘My husband does,’ I replied.
‘But it must also come from someone on your side of the family. It’s a recessive gene.’ Her brief lesson reiterated information I was already familiar with.
It wasn’t long before Olivia integrated into our family’s routine.
One day, as I watched my son’s karate class, I rocked Olivia in my arms. A woman with a long blond braid stood next to us. She looked at Olivia and said, ‘She’s so pretty. Is she . . . yours?’
The question caught me off guard. ‘Why, yes. Whose else would she be?’ I asked the woman indignantly.
She didn’t answer, but blushed as she returned to watching the class.
I wondered why her nosy question bothered me so much. Was she questioning my right and ability to mother this white-skinned baby? Was there something else to it?
One weekend, I took my children to a puppet show. The elderly woman in the ticket booth asked, ‘Are you with the adoption group?’
‘What?’ I looked around the lobby, just noticing that it was filled with middle-class white couples carrying beautiful brown babies in all shapes and sizes.
‘Uh, no, I’m alone.’ This puts words to the way I felt: like an outsider, again.
As we made our way into the darkened room, I saw a well-dressed all-American-looking father whisper to his lovely blond wife as they looked at me, then Olivia, then to their cappuccino-colored toddler playing at their feet. I imagined him asking, ‘Why didn’t we get one that looked like that?’
I pulled Olivia possessively close and walked into the theater to watch the play, which was based on an African folktale.
‘This a story from Kenya, where Poppy’s from,’ I whispered to my son, who avidly watched the action on stage.
‘Cool,’ he answered enthusiastically.
A few weeks later my brother came home from Korea, where he’d spent the last year in the Army. That day, he met my daughter for the first time.
‘Are you sure she’s the right baby? Maybe they gave you the wrong baby in the hospital. You know they do that sometimes, mix them up in the hospital,’ he rambled as he looked at her peachy-white skin and sky-blue eyes.
I explained that Olivia never left my side the entire stay at the hospital. ‘I’m sure she’s mine,’ I told him firmly.
Later, my brother’s friend Felix dropped by and burst into deep belly laughter when he looked at Olivia.
‘How did you get a white baby?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know.’
As time passed, I began to ignore the whispers and glances from strangers. But at times I wondered why people were so concerned with my daughter’s skin tone. Why did they feel entitled to question me about her parentage? And it wasn’t exclusively white people or black people who asked such personal questions. It seemed universally unfathomable that I could be her mother.
I wondered if white women with brown babies experienced this too. I turned to an expert, a woman who raised 10 brown babies.
‘Did people ever ask if we were your kids?’ I asked my mother.
‘Sure they did. When we lived in Lancaster they always asked if you were Fresh Air kids.’
We laughed and my mom explained that Fresh Air kids were ‘city’ kids sent to the country in the summer to get some ‘fresh air.’
‘Did it bother you?’ I asked, wondering if my annoyance was uncalled for.
‘Sometimes. But I just figured the people who asked those questions were ignorant and I was doing them a favor by educating them.’
My brothers and sisters, whose skin tones range from high yellow to chocolate brown, weren’t given the choice of picking their racial identity, as Halle Berry and Tiger Woods profess to have done. Our race was decided by a society that easily categorized us as black. I sometimes explained that my mom was white to those who asked about my racial makeup, but it didn’t really seem to matter to anyone-black, white, or in between.
At Olivia’s weekly play group, a new mom introduced herself to me.
She looked around the small toy- and child-filled room and asked, ‘Is one of these children yours?’ She looked from each child then back to me as if to evaluate, like dominoes, who did I match?
I pointed to Olivia. ‘She’s mine.’
As I drove home that day, I wondered if the problem is that it’s difficult to label Olivia either black or white. I wondered if the people looking at her and asking if I’m her mother fear this child may sneak under their ‘race radar’ and be accepted as white, therefore gaining access to the privileges of being the majority in a country where, no matter how far we’ve come, race is still undeniably important.
I rock Olivia gently to sleep, and her pink lips sip hungrily from me as I smooth her curly baby hair. She seems like a big girl now, already over a year old. Her hands seek my thick black hair as she hums sleepily in my arms. Her heavy-lidded blue eyes meet my dark brown ones. I whisper to her, ‘You’re my baby, aren’t you?’ She smiles knowingly with mama love glowing in her satiated eyes.
I don’t know if the world is ready for this child, but I know I will do whatever I can to make her ready for this world. I’m her mother and she’s my daughter. It’s simple. She’s mine.
Reprinted from the progressive parenting zine Hip Mama (#35). Subscriptions: $12-$24 sliding scale (4 issues) from Box 12525, Portland, OR 97212; www.hipmama.com.