Dealing with Everyday Racism as a Black Mom with a White-Passing Son
"I see people flinch with surprise as I nurse my son in public, and I wonder whether they think I’m a hired wet nurse."
Illustration by Erin Aniker
“Do they live far?” the woman asks me in the swimming pool changing rooms, nodding her head towards my son. “We live across the river, not far from here,” I reply, not quite understanding the wording of her question. On my way home I realize that her choice of pronoun referred to my son’s family—which she assumed I was not a part of. She did not think my child was mine. I bite my lip and wipe the tears from my eyes.
When white professor Robert E. Kelly’s children interrupted his live interview on the BBC last year, many thought his Korean wife, visible in the background, was the nanny. The incident sparked a much-needed debate on stereotypes and racism, but the truth is this is part and parcel of many non-white mum’s life. Having lived in London for more than a decade, where less than half the population identify as white and British, I have – perhaps naively – been lulled into the idea that people don’t judge me based on the color of my skin. But since the birth of my child, I’ve been proven wrong time and time again.
I notice a shop security guard staring at my son, examining his features and trying to answer the big red question mark blinking in his head. “Are you looking after him for someone?” he blurts out. This time I’m unable to hide my anger. “No, I pushed him out myself,” I reply curtly. I make a swift exit, accompanied by the awkward laughs and raised eyebrows of those who witnessed this unfortunate exchange. Swatting away microaggressions with an invisible bat has become part of my everyday survival.
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Part of motherhood is being thrown into a whole new world, but as the mother of a “white-passing” child, I’ve been thrown head first into a place where a playgroup leader asks if I am my child’s guardian—but immediately refers to my white friend and her white baby as “mom and baby.” A place where an Irish woman corrects me on the pronunciation of my own child’s Irish name. A place where I see people flinch with surprise as I nurse my son in public, and I wonder whether they think I’m a hired wet nurse, and keep smiling even though I feel like crying.
During my pregnancy, I tried to prepare myself for the probability that my baby would most likely not inherit my dark pigment, but his Irish father’s light hue. When he was born, I looked at my tiny human and ticked the “mixed black African and white” box on the hospital forms. He is mine, and half of his genes come from me. And yet it’s impossible for me to ignore the constant comments about how my son looks like his father. At times, it seems people think my baby resembles a distant relative’s big toe more than me.
Of course I knew that this little human being would shake my whole world forever, but I wasn’t prepared for the fact that my own identity would quake after his birth. I often notice myself overcompensating in public, as I coo and chat to my baby, referring to myself in the third person so that it will be obvious to everyone that we share DNA: "Mommy’s so proud of you!" and "Mama’s over here!" I feel numb, because it feels exhausting to add yet another survival mechanism to an already long list. I feel bitter about the fact that if we are out with my husband, no one seems uncertain about the fact that the baby is ours. It’s just that alone, I’m not enough.
I don’t feel like I know how to navigate the space where I can transfer to him pride for my Senegalese roots but also teach him about colorism, anti-blackness, and white privilege. My blackness has always been a big part of my identity, and I feel lost because I won’t be able to share my lived experiences with my child—although I’m happy that he most likely will be able to bypass many challenges because of his light skin. But what if my child wants to walk around in a traditional Senegalese boubou, or braid his hair in cornrows? It’s clear that mixed race people cannot appropriate their own culture, but I still find myself wondering if people will mistake him for being a Rachel Dolezal-like abomination .
And what if my child wants to identify as white? Sometimes I wonder whether one day he will tick a different box on a form to the one I did, the day he was born. I stand unequivocally behind people of color being able to define however they want, but I know that a part of me would be crushed if my son would not feel that blackness is a part of him. I fear that whiteness will eat him up in one big mouthful; that he will choose to blend in with it. I fear he will quickly realize that it’s easier to live this life assimilated.
I want to protect him, but I do not feel equipped to teach him how to weave between the two worlds. I’ve never been able to hide or deny my blackness. From personal experience, I know what it feels like to be too black to be white, but not too white to be black. I know what it feels like to belong nowhere. I do not know what these experiences are like with lighter skin.
I don’t want to become my child’s identity police, and I hope he can one day use all the small parts that make him him, and mold the entirety that feels right to him. I hope by then, our world will have changed, at least so he can be spared the “Where are you really from” questions, and that he can be—however quietly or loudly—proud to be a Finnish-Senegalese-Northern Irish-Londoner.