NPR’s Tell Me More had a fascinating segment yesterday about a complex form of mistaken identity: multiracial families often evoke strange looks of bewilderment from strangers, followed by the awkward question, “Is she yours?” Or the even more vexing, “Are you looking for more work?” Host Michel Martin led a round table of moms who routinely deal with uncomfortable encounters with folks who have trouble figuring out how a woman of color could be the mother of a different colored child, The responses touched on racial anxieties as well as class and gender divides: Phaedra Erring, a mother of mixed Native American, Black and White ancestry, reflected on the distress she felt when she was mistaken for the nanny of her blond, blue-eyed child:
Well, I was irritated and I don’t actually know what caused so much irritation, but it made me feel like, how dare you think that I am not my child’s parent because you think I don’t look like my child’s parent or you think I look so much different than her. I don’t understand how people can not see that people who don’t look alike can be parent and child. I see an adult with a child and I assume that the adult is the child’s parent until I know otherwise.
Erring later recalled that her mother, who is darker than she is, faced the same dilemma when Phaedra was younger:
when I was a baby, I was blonde haired and green-eyed and fair-skinned, and my mother was constantly, through my childhood, approached and asked if she was the babysitter or the – not the nanny, because it wasn’t this common then, but always was she the babysitter and what was she doing with this child…. My mother was much more hostile about it. She would get very upset with people and she would lash out at them. I remember her doing it and thinking, you know, why do you care about this? And now, as an adult, I can understand why she cared. But I don’t feel the anger to the extent she did.
Jamila Bey talked about how even an honest misunderstanding touched a nerve that was rooted in her own sense of heritage and social mobility:
Well, you know, the thing for me is, and let’s just lay it out here, my parents raised their children, all of us girls, to go and do better than I did. Go and do better than grandmamma did, and coming from a background where everybody in my family were domestic workers. So pretty much the slap in the face to grandmamma would be, oh, well, I’m going to be a maid, I’m going to be a nanny. And to have someone come up to me and say, ‘Oh, you are so loving with him, do you need more hours?’ On the one hand its like, of course I’m loving because this is my child. This baby has my blood and my flesh. There’s the intellectual part of it that goes, do you know how much education I have? And all of that assumption of the struggle that my family has gone through to educate their daughters, all of that is negated.
The conversation relates to how women identify themselves as mothers and community members, and how they conceive of their socioeconomic status in a world still wedded to stereotypes of what a “normal” household looks like. When does a well-meaning question translate into an insult, and what’s the appropriate response? Since our readership may be of a somewhat younger demographic than the NPR guests, let’s approach the question from a different angle: If you’re a child of a mixed-race household, how have you dealt with the confusion of others? Does it evoke anger, sympathy, embarrassment? Is it different when you’re the child as opposed to the parent? Do you take the time to explain, or just smile, shrug and walk on?