Amy “Different Varieties of Human”

  Photography by  Shea Swinford

Photography by Shea Swinford

The word “hate” is a dirty word in our house. It’s a rule my husband and I established with our children very early. My kids would probably rather curse around me than say that they hate anyone, and I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve heard them say that they hate anything - even a food or an activity.

We explain it to the kids like this: Saying that you hate someone is the same as saying you do not care if that other person lives or dies. There are some folks in this world that you will strongly dislike, people whose choices and behavior you will find reprehensible. But at the end of the day, a basic level of respect and dignity should be afforded to all human beings, even if, by your judgement they are undeserving. And you should try to reserve judgement whenever possible, because your understanding of other people's’ circumstances is imperfect. Judgement due to ignorance just creates more ugliness and hate.    

Despite our non-use of the word, hate is a subject that has impacted our lives more than I like to admit, and so much more than I expected. How do you explain to your children that there was a common belief in the not-so-distant past that a person could be treated as property, not given basic human rights, separated from the rest of society and brutalized due to nothing other than skin pigmentation? How do you explain to a child that their parents wouldn’t have been allowed to marry just 50 years ago? How do you tell them that in their own country, a country whose core beliefs espouse freedom and equality, there are still people who hold hatred towards people of color?

You see, Dr. MLK’s statement about judging someone by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin has always resounded with me. Call it naivety or ignorance – to me it has always seemed like common sense. Growing up, my school, church and extracurriculars were mostly made up of people who outwardly resembled me. But even though the majority of the people around me were physically similar, I knew from a young age that each of us was different in our experiences, motivations, strengths and weaknesses regardless of outward appearance. Being white certainly didn’t make us all alike. My circle of friends was as diverse as it could be for the area – white, black and Hispanic; rich, middle class and poor; kids from the country and city; parents that were married or divorced; jocks, stoners, preps, hicks and nerds – I was able to find connections with pretty much anyone, and none of those connections had anything to do with skin color.

This same theme carried over to my dating life - race had no bearing on my dating decisions. When I started seeing my now-husband it was nothing out of the ordinary for me. Both of our families supported our relationship, and except for one random remark from a young woman walking by us at a club one night (“Ain’t that cute, he got him a white girl.”) no one seemed too worried that we were an interracial couple. That’s not to say that no one noticed. I mean, it’s kind of hard to miss.

After almost four years of dating, Darren and I got married and decided to start our family soon after. I wasn’t worried about having biracial children, but I remember my mom stating that she was concerned for how people would treat our kids. I didn’t get it. At all. I thought back to my one childhood experience with a person who was biracial, a boy I went to school with my whole life, and I couldn’t recall anyone treating him poorly as a result of having a black mom and white dad. In fact, I had always thought it was pretty cool that he was different. I assured my mom that interracial couples were common in our community and our kids would be just fine. And for the most part, that’s been true. But what I was ignorant to, was the everyday ways that race would impact so many experiences in our lives.

When I was pregnant with our firstborn, my only concern about my child being biracial was if I’d be able to take care of my daughter’s hair properly. Four girls later (all with different textures) I’m very knowledgeable about the subject, and I’ve grown used to hearing, “YOU know how to do that?”  

I also got used to people asking which child was mine. Our differences in pigmentation challenged peoples’ need to easily classify their surroundings. I also started to become aware that mixed-race children made some people uncomfortable. I vividly remember picking the girls up at daycare one day and the provider telling me that a woman had been there earlier for a tour. This woman had stated, “I see you have a lot of mulatto children here.” Mulatto? I hadn’t heard that term since my college Anthropology class. Our provider skillfully enlightened the woman that she simply classified the children in her care as humans; race was irrelevant.

As the kids got to preschool age, they became aware that they had parents with two very different skin tones. And they became aware that we were classified differently. That brought up a lot of questions: “Why are you called white and dad called black? I think we are all different browns.” And later, “If dad is black and you’re white shouldn’t I be gray?”

They also became aware of societal expectations for girls – and that finding depictions of girls that looked like them in the toy aisle, books or TV shows was sometimes difficult. But it went beyond the decision to buy the black Barbie or the white one (“both” is the answer no matter what race you are, by the way), they needed to know that they belonged. As they’ve grown up, those images have rapidly evolved to be more inclusive. Even though we’ve told them that we can’t allow media to shape the way we feel about ourselves, it makes a difference for them to see girls that look like them portrayed as smart, successful and talented.  

When the kids went to school, race began to play a bigger part in our lives. They weren’t sure how to classify themselves – the ability to check a “multiracial” box didn’t exist at the time. They weren’t sure whether they should choose black, white, or something else. And if the boxes were more politically correct - “African American”, “European American” – that added a whole other level of confusion and questions. Did we actually KNOW that my ancestry is from Europe or that my husband’s is from Africa? If there are “dark brown” (as one child termed it – she refused to use the word “black” for years) people in many countries, why do we label them all “African American”? I remember conversations where we wondered why plain old “American” isn’t a choice. After all, our families have both been in the US for several generations now and have no ties to any other country or continent.

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The kids went to a diverse grade school and we loved that they chose a rainbow of friends. We always seemed to have an extra kid or two in tow – usually adding to the array of skin tones in our crew. We would joke about watching people silently try to figure out how we all fit together as we walked through Walmart. But the kids eventually figured out that sometimes the quizzical looks weren’t just that of someone trying to gain understanding. Sometimes there was judgement attached. God forbid our family go to dinner with another female and her mixed-race children – we’ve been quite the spectacle for bystanders at times. My husband often remarks that his “stare button must be on”. The kids feel it too, and they know that people are creating stories in their heads based on false racial stereotypes.   

Some people were more obvious about their judgement of our family. In elementary school our daughter and a friend were called to the counselor’s office to mediate a conflict. As the counselor attempted to get to know them both, she made it a point to ask my daughter if both parents were in the home and other questions about our family. She didn’t ask the same questions of the classmate, who happened to be white. Though only in 4th grade at the time, my daughter was perceptive enough to understand the probable rationale for those questions.

Fast forward a few years and we added two more girls to the mix, our great-nieces who are now our daughters. The youngest has much darker skin than our other three girls, leading to all kinds of speculation by the shoppers at Walmart, I’m sure! I’ve gotten used to the confused looks when she and I are in public together or someone hears her call me, “Mom” for the first time. I’ve even almost grown accustomed to the questions that people think they are entitled to ask, like my personal favorite: “Did she actually come FROM you?” I choose to believe that these questions are more a product of natural curiosity than anything ugly, and 9 times out of 10 I answer accordingly. We all try to make sense of the world around us, it’s basic human behavior. But sometimes, I struggle with how much explanation I owe people. Sometimes I wish we were all colorless so people could see my relationship with my children first instead of the relation of my skin color to theirs.

Our girls are currently 17, 16, 15 and 11 and the impact of race in their day-to-day life is evolving once again. We do a lot of traveling for their many activities, and the girls regularly notice a lack of diversity in the participants. They can scan a room and count people of color like Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rainman counted toothpicks. I wish we lived in a world where these disparities weren’t so obvious, and the girls didn’t feel compelled to do these headcounts so often.  

The girls have also been subjected to my lectures about portrayals of women in the media for years. As their music choices have become more “grown up” my list of lecture topics has expanded exponentially. Women of color are especially portrayed too often as having worth only as it relates to their sexual behavior, and society tolerates it as long as it’s got a good beat. I want my girls to know that they should be celebrated for their intelligence and talents, not their ability to breed and satisfy men. And I want young men to know that they should be more in awe of the miracle of life that women bring forth, not the act which creates it. I want the media to stop glorifying being a “baby mama” and start revering the act of parenting.

I also want my kids to not feel the need to justify their blackness or whiteness. I wish they could just be comfortable in who they are. But there are still preconceived ideas about them based upon their outward appearance: the foods they must like, how they should speak, the clothes they should wear, the limits of their future aspirations… There is a notion that their race is synonymous with their culture. But here’s what I try to get them to understand – a person’s culture is impacted by the totality of one’s life experiences, and yes, our life experiences are undeniably influenced by skin color. HOWEVER, it’s ludicrous to think that all people of a particular shade have the same experiences, feelings and behavior. Skin color is just one fragment of each unique individual, not something that should dictate our opportunities or control our sense of self.  

Let’s take this analogy – in our yard we have an assortment of iris flowers. I’m told there are over 50,000 varieties of iris, yet if you know anything about flowers you can spot one easily. With all the diversity in color, size and species, an iris is ultimately still an iris. Now let’s take one of the many colors of iris – around here purple is common. Yet every purple iris isn’t the same. Some are short and some are tall. Some are dark and some are light. Some have a “beard” and some don’t. Some have ruffled petals and some are sleek. Some bloom every year and some don’t. Some grow in the shade and others need full sun. Some are accented with other colors, some are monochromatic. Even within a specific variety of iris, you will see variation. Hopefully you see where this is going. We’re all different varieties of human. To assume that all humans of one color are identical is as ridiculous as assuming the same about purple iris. We can embrace both our sameness and our differences, without discounting either one.

Over the years I’ve learned that being the parent of a biracial child is more than coaching them on how to answer the question, “What are you?” or how to react when people touch your hair without asking. It’s more than helping them deal with people’s assumptions that they must be good dancers or athletes but having to prove repeatedly that they are highly intelligent. It’s more than teaching them to be tolerant when people stare, or to view disparities as a challenge instead of an obstacle. It’s more than helping them evaluate why racial issues are increasingly brought to the forefront in the media, but people still struggle to discuss it civilly. It’s more than teaching them to scrutinize the blind perpetuation of stereotypes and the consequences of doing so.

It’s about teaching them to understand that every person harbors some amount of bias whether we like to admit it or not, but we can’t let it be our guiding force or develop into hate. In those times when we find ourselves operating out of preconceived notions, we can decide to reserve judgement and educate ourselves through respectful interactions with others. And when we see others operating out of ignorant preconceptions, we need to encourage understanding and connection. These are things we can all teach and model – because at our core we’re all just different varieties of human.

Final thoughts: Maybe you love purple iris but have never taken time to really look at the yellow ones. Maybe you didn’t even know that blue ones existed. Or maybe you’ve never noticed how much variation there is amongst the other types of purple irises. Maybe you’re missing out! You may find that you don’t care for a particular variety of iris too much once you get to looking closer – that’s ok. But just because you wouldn’t plant that variety in your yard, remember that other people may love it and that’s ok too. Your dislike for it doesn’t mean that you go around digging it out of their yard or stomping on every flower that looks like it might be the kind you dislike. Try to see something of beauty in every variety. You might be surprised how much it changes your outlook.

  Iris painting by Christin Wasson

Iris painting by Christin Wasson