I can still see it — feel it — as clear as yesterday. Four years ago, I had walked to the bodega on the corner of my Brooklyn block and stepped into a rude awakening. All it took was one question, four words, from the man behind the lottery desk to completely cut me to the core: Is that your baby?
He wasn’t the first person to throw this query my way. I had maybe heard it three or four other times while out strolling my baby boy through the hipster BK streets. But this was the time when something clicked — when I stopped pretending the whole thing was some odd coincidence, when the insult of it all sunk in.
Is that your baby? The question, though not intentionally malicious, implies, of course, that I am more likely the nanny, not the mother. But it cuts deeper than that. It’s actually asking me to claim my child, to prove that I am the true owner. It is an affront to nothing short of our identities.
Some background: I’m black and my husband is white. Our little sweet potato is a clear merger of these genetic facts. On some level, this question is merely a result of a failure of imagination, the inability of others to envision our connection. But it’s also based on twisted assumptions about race, entitlement and socioeconomics.
Black woman pushing a baby who’s the color of milky tea in a stroller and they are in high-end Brooklyn? Oh, then she must be the babysitter. In fact, let’s ask her what her rates are, and if she’s available to take on another job. (Yes, I’ve had other mothers of color tell me this has happened to them.)
Is that your baby?
“Of course he’s my baby, dummy!” That’s what I wanted to say, and a few times I came so close to dropping propriety and my Canadian disposition to say exactly that (with a few spicy words and some Biggie Smalls lyrics mixed in because, Brooklyn).
Yes, he’s my baby, the tiny person who I have loved from the moment I saw him in the 2D grey-scale glossy photo, the size of a shimmying peanut. But here you come, a stranger with four words, to pierce the bubble of joy and love and pride. It’s galling. It’s rude. And it’s unnecessary.
Actually, I have some questions for your question: Why do you need to know? How is it going to change our impending interaction? Will you temper what you say based on my relationship to the baby? Does my family’s particular genetic breakdown need to be an open book in order to help calm your “just curious” mind? I’ve been waiting an unreasonable amount of time for those answers. (YOU AIN’T GOT THE ANSWERS, SWAY!)
And I’m not alone, sadly. Countless mothers of color, mothers of mixed heritage families and transracial adoptions can add their tasteless stories to the sour stew. People asking these women inappropriate things about their kids like, “What country did you get them?” and “What are they — really?” or “Will you teach them their mother tongue?” Come on, man.
It would be laughable if it weren’t so disrespectful and humiliating. The bigger question is: what’s with the need to squeeze others (and especially The Other) into a pre-existing framework, i.e., all families should look the same and alike?
The choreography to this rhythmless dance we’re doing around race and progress in this country can leave your head spinning. Three steps forward: Black President in the White House. Two steps back: Interracial family in a Cheerios commercial causes absurd panic on the Internet. And get ready for the low dip: Fogey Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen writes about “people with conventional views [repressing] a gag reflex when considering the mayor-elect of New York — a white man married to a black woman and with two biracial children.” Gag reflex? Good Lord, I’m afraid and a little heartsick thinking about how this uneven waltz might end.
As I moved deeper into motherhood, I heard this questionable question less and less. (Except for the time I got nanny’d by the furniture delivery guy this summer. But that was more about class than children, and definitely a story for another time.) Maybe it’s because my son, now 4.5 years old, looks a lot like me, or it could be the fact that he basically says “mama-mama-mama-mama” on loop when we’re out together that strangers don’t come at me with “Is that your baby?” anymore. But this doesn’t mean that the question has been retired.
People still feel fine letting the most impolite things leave their mouths around mothers of mixed heritage families. I’m even writing a book about this and the many other challenges mothers of color stare down on the daily. It’s called “Nope! Not the Nanny: Stories of Race and Motherhood,” and it’s my resounding answer to the question: Is that your baby?
What’s the most outrageous thing anyone has asked or said to you about your mixed heritage family? Tweet me and add #NotTheNanny.