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Is Beige The New Black

I have to be honest about something I’ve noticed recently. I am noticing that – where I live at least – if you are my age, moderately middle class, African American, female and in a long term relationship, more than likely it may be with a man “other” than African American. Is that a given? Absolutely not. But is it probable? Highly.

Now I am not always on the lookout for other interracial couples, searching for normalcy in an unforgiving world. Quite the opposite, I didn’t even characterize my own marriage as interracial. My husband is an Alpha for God’s sake! He’s grandfathered in. It wasn’t until other people pointed out that he wasn’t black and therefore we were by definition an interracial couple that I began to see us as others do. So I’m not on the lookout for other mixed couples to be our mixed friends so that we can talk about mixed couple things.

But what I am always on the lookout for are friends for my daughter. I want her to feel comfortable in the world and am always trying to soften the “only” syndrome that I new so well. It’s tough being the only tall/black/not poor/not rich/not white/not black (enough)/ not kid. So I am always looking for environments that are well balanced so she’s not the only “only”. The good thing is, she’s not. Much like my parents, I have made friends with kids that are being raised just like Leila. Her little friends share similar experiences, values, and perspectives. And as it happens, most of them also share the same beige complexion. Because what I realized at a recent shindig one of my friends threw, is that a lot of Leila’s friends’ mommies look like me, and their daddies look like my husband. I looked around at all my friends with their little mixed children, standing with their swirly husbands and partners and it got me wondering: has beige become the new black?

The whole world would have me think otherwise. Whether its talk shows bemoaning the plight of the lonely ambitious black woman, the death of the black family, or the undesirability of the African American female, the message is the same: ain’t no love for a black woman. But I look around and I am seeing Black women all around me in thriving, loving relationships. I am seeing us raise well behaved respectful children with the same values that our parents gave us. I am looking at the life partners of these women steal glances at them that speak pride, and love, and affection. And while some of these glances are from one black lover to another, up here on the east coast it’s also not. At first I’m inclined to first wonder if I unconsciously bought into a social trend for upwardly mobile (translation: bougie) females or if I am watering my bloodline, I think again. The only trend I’m a part of is the trend of people opening their eyes to one another and believing that attraction is more complex than complexion. It’s perspective, it’s sense of humor, it’s values, it’s bone structure. And everybody can command it, even a black girl. We are loved and being loved, committed to our families with partners that are committed to us. We are fine! So beige may wind up being the new black, and that’s okay. ‘Cause beige is beautiful, too.

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The Dark-Skinned Club

A few weeks ago, John and Leila met me at my job.  They were picking me up for a family dinner night out in Harlem.  Since they were meeting me at the office, I thought it would be nice to bring them in so Leila could meet my whole team.  They came in, Leila smiled, everyone laughed at her missing teeth, we said goodbye and that was it.  As we exited the building, Leila said to me, “all of their skin is so beautiful, Mommy!”.  I wrinkled my eyebrows.  I think I know where this is going.

As I have mentioned before, Leila is keenly aware of complexion.  I do not know why this is, because I do not remember even remotely having an eye for it at all in my childhood.  I would say it’s because John and I sit rather far apart on the color spectrum, but then I think no.  My father was significantly darker than my mom, and although my sister and I are closer to her complexion than his, I never considered his skin’s complexion significantly different or even noticeable.  It just kind of was, like his beard and his height.  But Leila did not only notice skin color, by the age of 3 & 1/2, she had picked a preference.  “I don’t like Mike and Jacob, because they have brown skin mommy”, she said to me one otherwise insignificant summer day.  “Excuse me!?!?!” was my reply, followed by an intense – but measured – line of questioning.  This was all too much!  Not only was she aware of complexion in a way that I was not prepared to deal with yet, she had already internalized some negative connotations about skin color that didn’t just affect the way she could see the world and her role in it, it could disturb her relationships with her own family members, including me!  Initialize deprogramming sequence immediately!

Corrective action was taken, post haste.  Whether it was right or not, I told her everyone has brown skin.  Everyone!  Daddy is light light brown, mommy is brown-brown, she is light-brown, Pop-Pop (her grandfather) is dark brown, etc.  And ALLLLLL brown skin is beautiful!  Brown is beautiful!  Now say it!  And repeat it!  Again! It was more military drill than affirmation.  I had to make sure she got the point.  I can’t risk raising a self-hating child and letting our lives become a re-enactment of Imitation Of Life!  Everything became about the beauty of brown.  “Look at how pretty that brown marker is!”  “I love the brown crayon”, it just went on.  And I made it a point to point out how attractive brown skin is, also.  Every brown person we saw in a magazine, tv show, or even on the street, I made a point to offhandedly comment on how pretty their skin is.  Of course, I would reaffirm for her how perfect her skin is too, because God made it that way, just like he made the brown skin.  “All skin is beau-a-ful!” my baby would say to me proudly, and I would say “that’s right, baby!” right back, just as proud.  Crisis averted.  No self-loathing (or mixed kid mommy shame) would take place here.

But children are so observant.  And Leila noticed something in a five minute interaction that I had not noticed my entire two years at my job.  Yes, I work at a predominantly black agency.  However, what I saw through Leila’s eyes, is a bit of complexion stratification.  The majority of my line staff is dark-skinned.  And for the most part, the higher the management personnel, the lighter the complexion.  It is something that I never even saw until my baby said, in earnest, “all of their skin is so beautiful!” Because what I know is she was really making an observation (albeit one that had slipped past me):  everyone is very brown.  She planted a seed that I had not yet considered and couldn’t exactly process.  Anyway, a week later, she says to me, “Everybody in the dark-skinned club at your job is so nice!”  “What are you talking about?”, I ask, because time has past and I don’t know what she means.  “At your job mommy!  All the people in the room are all together and they are all dark-skinned and so pretty!  So they are a dark-skinned club.”  She was so matter of fact, so innocent, so earnestly contextualizing her own observations.  Of course I explained that they were not a dark-skinned club, and they weren’t a club at all, just a group of people who happened to have similar complexions.  I went on to explain that the similarity was a coincidence and besides, all that really matters was if they were nice.  She agreed and changed the subject.  But I was left wondering about the larger, more silent, subconscious systems at work in society, even in organizations run by minorities for minorities and wondering if even radical, revolutionary, renaissance me has ever yielded in their direction.  Leave it to a kid to make a statement that leaves you questioning the world.

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Prepping For The Press

What is it about girls and long hair?  Every little girl wants long flowing locks. I know I most certainly did.  In third grade, I ached to have long, straight tresses to play with absent-mindedly like all of the other white girls in the school full of vanilla skinned children I had recently transferred to.  I wanted it so badly I used to walk around with my mother’s slip on my head, pretending it was hair. I tucked it behind my ear, I tossed it over my shoulder, I even secured it pony tail style with twisties.  I waited – with bated breath – for those wonderful and rare occasions that every black girl lives for:  when she sits in a beautician’s chair and the heat of the hot comb stretches her hair all the way from short to long, from kinky to straight.  For me, though, the hot comb only took my hair from super short to short. There was never any hair to graze my neck or tuck behind my ear. Hence the slip.

Leila has the same long hair fixation with a twist; she actually has long hair. When I’ve washed her hair she has said “now is my hair long, Mommy?”  With a mixture of pride and dread I say”…..yeeeesss…” I know where this is leading. I remember clearly the tantrum she had when I told her once that her hair was washed, it couldn’t stay “down”. And I’m hearing her say repeatedly how tired she is of her poofy hair. Sooner or later she’s gonna realize that straight is an alternative, and once that happens will she ever want to see her curls again?

Well, sooner is upon me. Leila is a flower girl and the bride has requested that her hair be loose. I know full well the only way to manage her loose hair over the course of several hours is to straighten it. Otherwise it will swell to the size of a hot air balloon and snatch up any small utensils it passes.  Literally. At Leila’s last party she had her hair down and my sister came to let me know that there were forks and crayons getting snagged in her hair. So it must be straightened. I tell her “so Leila, this Sunday I’m going to get your hair done.” “Is it going to be long and straight and beautiful?”, she asks. “Well, your hair is already beautiful. But, yes it’s going to be straight also. We are straightening it for a special occasion, not forever, okay?”  I stare at her, this little girl who has memorized every scene and score of Tangled the Rapunzel movie. I see a little girl who has told me all she wants is straight yellow beautiful hair, I stare at this little girl who reminds me so much of myself, and I wait. I wait for her to say something that reminds me of how unhappy all little girls are with themselves. And she looks at me and says right back, “ok, that’s fine. I love my curls.”  And just like that I realized she is more than ready for her first press.

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She Got It From Her Momma

I love walking my daughter to school.  Some of our best conversations happen on that five-minute walk between our house and the school doors.  Every morning I tell her, “do you know that this is the best part of my day?”  And everyday she replies, “I love you Mommy!  You’re the best!”  We hold hands, she skips and I stroll, we swing arms, and we enjoy the perfection that only comes early in the morning, before anything can go wrong.

All this happened this morning, too.  It was the same routine, until we got to the street light right across from the school.  As we waited for the light to turn green, she looked up at me and “Mommy, everyone is saying I have a mustache and I don’t.”  I looked in her eyes and saw all of her little hurt feelings, staring right back up at me.  There I was, with only 30 seconds between the school’s front door and where we stood to try to figure out how to address what she was telling me in a way that was useful to her.  30 seconds to tell her that she does have a mustache and she got it honest.  30 seconds to say that everyone has hair on their upper lip but it only stands out on you because your hair is dark and your skin is so light… wait maybe I shouldn’t say that.  The numbers are ticking down on the cross walk light and I still have to say the perfect thing that is truthful, that is empowering, something that will affirm her self-image.  So I say, “lots of ladies have hair on their upper lip.  Lots of people have lots of things that make them different.  So if someone says anything about you having a mustache you look them in the eye and say, ‘So what!?!'”  “People are short, right?  So what!  People are really skinny.  So what!  People have long hair, right?  So what! Who cares about what makes us different, right?  So what!”  By the time we got to the front door, we are skipping and chanting “So what! So what!”

Is that going to be enough to keep her from feeling less than when others pick on her? Will she even remember to say that when it counts? I don’t know.  After all, I remember when I was the only tall/short-haired/heavy/skinny/too smart/too quiet/teacher’s pet/only black/not black enough girl getting picked on for any and everything.  I never felt like I had the right words at my disposal, regardless of whatever my mom said to me to try to make it better.  But I know that I matured, I moved forward, I defined myself for myself and I became fabulous.  Now when I think about the idiots that made fun of me, all I do is shrug my shoulders and think, “So what?”  Here’s to hoping that my baby makes it safely over to this side of things too.  After all, if I could make it through, she has to be able to too, right?  She’s got to get more from me than just my mustache.

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Momma’s Bags

I am raising a mixed child in what Tracy Morgan infamously dubbed “A Post Racial America!”. I have certain beliefs about race based on my own experiences that are true for me. But I also know that my grandparents had their own beliefs about race that – to me – seemed completely antiquated. In fact, I remember my own grandmother telling me that my husband was “just fine, nice and everything, he just needs to stick to his own race”. Translation – I need to stick to my own race. But to me that kind of thinking was just so – Jim Crow. And no disrespect to the folks who actually lived through that mess, because I understand from my own family’s Deep South experience just how real it was. It makes sense that someone from the Jim Crow South should think that anyone remotely resembling a white person should be avoided at all costs: hell, it’s a safety issue! That’s where thoughts like “Messing with those white girls are gonna get him killed!” After all, that was true. Very true. So true, in fact, that it is the very reason for the maiden name of one of my grandmothers. It turns out her father had some sort of “illegal” interaction with a white woman that forced him to flee Alabama and change his last name from McKenzie to Morgan. Even though he may have only made this woman smile or just held her gaze, whatever the infraction was, he had to flee his hometown and family and literally change his identity in order to not be killed. And my father’s family knows that same black truth: fooling with white folks can get you killed. My grandfather spoke to me on occasion of how in Jim Crow Tennessee, when a white person walked your way, you stepped to the side and looked down if you valued your life. So why would someone from this time who knew these truths support what looks like such a dangerous relationship? I get it. But in the 2000’s honey, its different!

In the 2000’s, love is color blind. In the 2000’s Black women are objects of desire, fashion icons, and business moguls. In the 2000’s Issues of race are less overt and more nuanced. After all, it is a post-racial America, right? And yet, I feel compelled to teach my baby that she is Black first, because she has a Black mommy and the world defines who you are by what it sees. I have to remind myself that “she is Hispanic too…”. I struggle with whether or not to discuss her European lineage with her. I am torn between deeming it unimportant because of the one drop rule that has applied to us for so long and being fair to her father’s heritage. I am inclined to think that when she is having a hard time socially, its because she is the brown girl with the brown mommy and the poofy hair. I have to stop and force myself to consider that maybe it’s because she is shy and withdrawn in large groups that the other girls aren’t talking to her. I have to ask myself, am I – this Renaissance Mommy in a Renaissance relationship in Post-Racial America – passing on my own antiquated ideas about race to my baby? Am I teaching my baby old school truths in a new school world? And are these old school truths really just generational baggage that I’m hoisting onto my baby’s back?

All this I’m pondering as I comb my baby’s hair for school this morning. We are listening to 1010 Wins News Radio. The news caster comes on and says “…If you are Black and live in New York, you are 25 times more likely to get shot than your White counterparts”. And in between mouthfuls of Rice Crispies, my daughter – who I did not even think was listening – says “Good thing you don’t live in New York”. And in that moment I realized that whatever ideas my baby has and will grow to have about race won’t just be what she gets from me. And maybe, just maybe, that worries me even more.

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Pretty Little Mixed Girl

My daughter is cute. Very, very cute. And I know she is cute because of two reasons:

1. She is 5, and all five year olds are intrinsically cute; and,

2. Everyone we meets says so.

That is right; everyone, from strangers to family to even other kids her age all make it a point to tell me – and Leila – just how cute she is.  On its surface, that is really not something very important. Except, for little girls, it really kind of is.

In many ways, “cute” is the very first measure of importance that is applied to little girls. The cuter they are, the more attention they get. People are so nice to cute girls, adoring, even. They stop, they smile, they coo, they fawn and the girls on the receiving end of all this attention just bask in it. They must be important, after all. Look at how people just stop in their tracks when they walk into a room! Look at how people literally bow down to the cuteness! It simply must mean that the cute little girl is the most important thing in the world, right?

That’s life for a cute girl, in the beginning any way. But there’s an odd little caveat for mixed girls, or at least from where I sit there is. Mixed girls are presumed cute. It’s the bluest eye syndrome. They should have all the components of “beauty”: “good” hair, somewhat European features, lighter skin, etc. It’s presumed that when a person of color has a baby with someone with some European lineage, the Anglo genes are going to soften some of those minority features and the kid is gonna come out gorgeous. And Lord, don’t let the baby get some light eyes! Jackpot! You have just had a perfect kid. Physically perfect, anyway. But what if some of that changes? What if over time, the hair kinks up? What if the nose stays wide, or the skin gets darker? Or what if nothing changes much at all but as the kid ages, the features come together in a manner more average than stunning? What is the pretty little mixed girl to think of herself when the compliments start to trickle to a halt?

With all that said, my baby fell into the beautiful category from the moment she was born. I was stopped so often it began to actually sound like a compliment when people would say, “What a pretty little mixed girl she is!”  And while some of her relatives mused aloud, ” I wonder whose nose she will get”, or “I hope her eyes are light like her father’s”, I pretended like those words were never said. After all, in my eyes, my child could have hair like a Brillo pad and skin the color of eggplant, everyone would still think she was beautiful, including her whole family, right? Right. But as the years have passed, her hair has kinked and she has clearly gotten my nose and not her father’s. I have found an ugly thought creeping around the back of my head: “IS my daughter less cute than a mixed girl is supposed to be?”

It is an ugly thought to own, but one that is real to me. I have found myself looking at her and wondering if she will be Halle Berry pretty the way that mixed girls are supposed to be. Or will she be one of those girls that people talk about with confusion, saying things like “she should be pretty… I don’t know….”

But then I shake my head to clear those thoughts. I remember how annoyed I used to be when people would fawn over her cuteness and how irritated I was that people acted like the most important thing a girl could be was cute. I remember how I got so tired of it that when people would tell me how cute she was, I would respond with “and smart, too!” and tell them about some new found marker of her intelligence. And I remember how I started an affirmation with my child, so she would know at least subconsciously, what the most important values are. “Do you know why I am proud of you?” I would ask her, as young as 2 years old. “Yes!”, she’d reply with pride. ” “Because I am smart and kind and beautiful and important!” Yes! That is it! My baby will know her whole life that she is smart, and kind, and important, and yes, she is beautiful. Whether she stays an object of public adoration or she becomes just a regular chick like the rest of us is besides the point. My pretty little mixed girl is perfect the way she is, beautiful the way she is, all because of who she is, and that is not something that society gets to define. She reminded me of that yesterday, when we did our affirmation for the umpteenth time. “Do you know why I am proud of you, baby” “Yes!”, she replied, with confidence. “Why?”, I asked. “”Because I am me!”, she says. You are so right, my baby. So very, very right.