- By Anastasia Kanjere
When I think about being the mother of a mixed-race daughter there is one thing that springs to mind more than any other issue. Before I had Otti, I thought I had thought quite a lot about race and being in a mixed race family and what to expect. But I was not at all prepared for how much people feel that they need to, or even are entitled to, comment on Otti’s race. When I meet new people – people who don’t know George, or, more specifically, people who don’t know that George is black – a certain thing always happens. Slowly, I’ve gotten used it, even started to recognise and expect it. I call it The Conversation and it always happens in almost exactly the same way.
When I say that ‘people’ ask these questions, by the way, I mean certain people. Those of you who are familiar with what I’m talking about probably already know what I mean. But for those of you for whom this isn’t a common experience I should make it clear: it is white people – white parents of white children – who do the commenting and the asking. People of colour in intraracial relationships never do. Parents of mixed-race kids sometimes do ask, but it’s always in a really importantly different way. A quiet way, and a warm, sharing way. There’s a difference about asking about a situation when you’re also inside it. We often end up discussing sunscreen and hair-care. There’s a feeling of solidarity and warmth in these types of chats – which is very different from how The Conversation plays out.
The Conversation starts with someone asking me a question that they don’t finish. We have been chatting for a little while and then they say something like: “Wow, she’s tanned, is she – …?” or, “Is her Dad – …?” and then they trail off. But they ask it in this certain way where I know exactly what they are asking. I hate those questions, and I used to be tempted just to refuse to play along, to pretend that I don’t know what they mean. And honestly at first I took a while to realise what those questions were – being white I’m not used to these kind of invasive “where are you from?” type questions that a lot of people of colour describe as being part of their everyday realities. But now that I am used to them I know exactly what they mean, can even feel them coming, the little reflective pause where you know where the conversation is headed.
I resent those questions so much. I resent the implication that Otti has to explain herself for not being white, that I have to explain myself for not having a white child. But particularly as Otti gets older I don’t want her to pick up on the discomfort that I feel around that question, for fear that she might misinterpret that as my discomfort about her race. So I just go along with it. I say “Her Dad’s African-Australian,” and if they really insist on a genealogy tell them that she has three white Australian and one black Zimbabwean grandparent. Usually naming race so explicitly kind of shuts people up. But then of course what comes after that – I think particularly if people pick up that they’ve pissed me off a bit by asking – is this long performance where they say how beautiful Otti’s skin is.
I hate this part of The Conversation too. It’s funny, because God knows I think Otti is the most beautiful thing in the world. But just like the “where is she from?” part of The Conversation, this feels like an intrusion – an inappropriate level of intimacy for someone you just got chatting to while your kids take turns on the slide. I think some people are doing it as a clumsy way of telling me that they approve of my interracial relationship. But the way they say it is like they want something back from me. They repeat it back to me several times, kind of scrutinising me, almost like they want me to thank them for saying so.
It’s almost as if by my being in an interracial relationship, by Otti’s being a mixed-race child, we are both put in a position where other people get to find out about us and then decide if they approve or not, and if they do then we have to be grateful. To which I think: like hell we do. So for this part of The Conversation I tend to be more ungracious and just ignore what they’re saying and change the subject. Otti is a cute kid and the first grandchild on both sides and gets quite enough compliments from people who aren’t weirdly fetishizing her, so I don’t see any reason to encourage that part of the exchange.
The Conversation always exhausts and irritates me. I think often people mean quite well, or they are just letting their thoughtless curiosity spill out of their mouths without any malice. But to me it really reaffirms the whiteness of the space that we are in: that only white kids and families really belong there and anyone else needs to explain their existence. Also, I think Otti is beautiful purely and simply because she is Otti; not because of and certainly not in spite of being mixed race. So I hate the comments on her skin in particular as if her skin was this abstract, separated aspect of her that is purely racially determined instead of all wrapped up in the uniqueness that is her. Finally I hate biting my tongue and going along with something that I don’t think is right for fear that Otti might think it’s her that isn’t right.
But the more I’ve thought about this – through writing this piece and doing our interview, through talking to George and listening to other parents of mixed-race kids talk about their journeys – the more I realise that I simply have to trust to Otti’s ability to understand that the problem doesn’t come from her. I have to trust in that knowledge and I have to nurture it. The problem comes from outside her and it’s my job to do all that I can not to let it in. Because race has many more ways of intruding other than The Conversation – and not all of them are so easily brushed over.
My resolution this year is to resist The Conversation wherever it comes up. Here’s to making it awkward, to refusing to play along with the unsaid subtext (“is my husband… a bird enthusiast? Why yes, yes he is!”). And here’s to Otti, who is gorgeous and doesn’t need anyone to tell her that. Here’s to her never having to explain herself, and here’s to her knowing, always, that the problem comes from outside.