by Michelle Jackson Jewell
Children are curious. Children are honest. Children are accepting. Children love unconditionally. Until they are taught to not be inquisitive. Until they are taught that sometimes dishonesty is acceptable. Until they are taught that they should not accept everyone or everything. Until they are taught to hate.
Sometime in elementary school, probably around age 6 or 7, I came home with a question for my mom. As you probably know, it’s generally around this age that kids begin to notice the differences in people – or rather those differences are very clearly identified for them by adults and society in general. So, I had been fielding questions from my classmates in my Southside Chicago school that were confusing to me; questions I didn’t really know how to answer with my Kindergarten sense of reasoning and explanation.
“What are you?”
“Are you black?”
“Are you white?”
“Are you mixed?”
The focus became the color of my skin where before it had been whether I could skip rope, or draw, or run fast, or wanted to play house. It was no longer about who I was on the inside, instead it was about what I looked like – or didn’t look like – on the outside.
But for my friends, it was, actually, about who I was. There weren’t many white kids that attended Parkman Elementary on the Southside. In fact, I can only recall one or two being in my classes. We definitely lived in a black neighborhood; varying shades of ebony, chocolate, bronze and caramel. So, because I wasn’t as dark-skinned as the majority of my classmates, based on their immediate experience, they didn’t know who I was. I didn’t look like them exactly, yet, in some ways I did. Being black was their full identity. Mine was not as simple.
My mother was white and my father was African-American, but very light skinned. Complicating matters was the fact that my brother and I were adopted and our parents were considerably older than most of the other parents at school. My father being a well-known musician traveled a lot and we often went with him as a family when we weren’t in school. This gave us a broader vision of the world than the one the kids in our neighborhood were afforded. And, my mom was a former teacher, so learning was a constant occurrence and not something solely allocated to the school day. I had a strong vocabulary, good reading skills, and because I was around adults more frequently than kids, I spoke in a more mature manner than my friends at school. So, I was, by so many of their definitions, not “one of them”.
On this particular day, when we arrived home from school and my mom had set about getting us a snack, I was compelled to ask the question that I had been harassed about for some time, one that now needled in my own consciousness. Where before I had just been “me”, I now needed to know “who” or “what” I was in relation to the world because it was clear that that was how I would be perceived, judged and accepted. So, I asked.
“Mom, what am I?”
She was clearly caught off guard, though I suspect she knew that the question would come at some point; I imagine she thought she might have a couple more years. “What do you mean, ‘what are you’?”
“Am I white? Am I black? The kids at school wanna know what I am. I don’t know what to tell them.”
It could be argued that my mom shouldn’t have dignified those questions by responding with a label. Some would say she should’ve told me that it doesn’t matter, that it’s none of their business, that those are rude questions that I didn’t have to answer. All true and valid responses.
But, somehow, my mom recognized the realness of my situation even though she had never experienced it herself. Somehow, she knew I needed an actual answer, a real response that I could give when I faced those questions. I will never forget the gentle, loving smile that graced my mother’s face, the lack of indignation of “how dare they make my child feel different”, the understanding in her eyes that told me no matter what her answer was, I would know in my heart it was the right one.
She leaned down, took my hands in hers, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “You are like coffee with cream, honey. You are of two worlds and you are beautiful. You tell them you are cafe au lait.” Then she kissed my forehead and pulled me in for a hug.
The next time I was asked what I was, I answered exactly as my mother told me: “I’m cafe au lait,” I would say proudly. Of course, kids that age had no idea what cafe au lait was, so they would stare at me, cock their heads and say, “What’s that?” And, I would smile and say, “Coffee with cream,” and then go on about my business. Interestingly, there were rarely follow-up questions and I continued to use my French descriptor for several more years….even after we moved to Michigan and the ratio of white students to black flipped the other way and I would get the same types of questions from both my white friends and my black friends. By then, of course, you had to “belong” to some group. And, frequently, the groups were further subdivided by race. And the questions evolved into proclamations. The interesting thing is that when you are biracial, you don’t get cut a break from either side. The black kids would call me “Oreo” and “Wannabe”. The white kids would tell me they “didn’t think of me as black” – as if I should take that as a compliment.
By this time, my dad had begun periodically asking my brother and I a question when we returned from school or an trip to the mall or a sleepover with friends: “Everybody treat you OK?” We had little clue as to why that question was important to him at that age. We had been fortunate to have lived a relatively unscathed existence where racism was concerned. With the exception of the questions and taunts from school kids and the looks from some parents when they would see us and/or our parents at school, we really had no reason to think we would be treated any differently than our classmates.
Our parents lived through periods of some of greatest racial tension in our country. I was 5 months old when Martin Luther King was assassinated. My white mother carried her brown baby down Wells Street in Chicago because she was out of formula and my dad was on tour. There were men with rifles on top of buildings, the neighborhood was a powder keg; yet nobody bothered her. My father told stories of his days as a musician in the 30’s and 40’s where the band would sell out a venue, but be forced to enter through the kitchen or sit behind a restaurant on wooden crates to eat because they were not allowed in. He talked about clubs having separate stages for the black orchestras and the white orchestras, where they would literally wheel one stage off and the other one into place so that things could remain segregated. We heard the stories of the past, but for us, in our adolescence in Michigan, they were history to be revered not cautions of what to be aware of now. We had a subtle luxury of naivete living in rural Michigan instead of inner city Chicago.
But, growing up black – even “cafe au lait” black in Southwestern Michigan – teaches you that you WILL be thought of as different, despite all the efforts by your parents and your friends to the contrary. There were the “you don’t act Black” comments from people you thought of as friends, as if behaving with decency and maturity was something intrinsic only to being white. There were the double-standard compliments from white friends’ parents who would tell their daughter that I was such a good influence and a good example as a friend, but then say that they would never allow their daughter to date someone who was black; friend, ok; boyfriend, no way. There were the times I was followed around in stores by staff who assumed I was there to steal something instead of buy something. So, my dad’s question – “Everybody treat you OK?” – became understandable to me in time.
The inquiries don’t change much, even as you age and I know that people of all hues – from toasted coconut to blackberry – can relate. “Where are you from originally?” “What’s your ancestry?” “What are you mixed with?” These are questions I’ve heard as an adult, eerily similar to and no less uncomfortable than the ones I heard as a child. People claim simple curiosity. Being on the receiving end, however, is akin to being seen as some aborrhation, an object, a “thing”, an exhibit to be critiqued, reviewed, deemed acceptable or unacceptable. This is the world of microaggressions and enough of them can cause someone to begin to see themselves only within the box they have been placed by others. Or, worse yet, they can erode a person’s self-worth so much that they no longer feel part of anything.
When my biracial daughter came to me with the same question I asked my mother as a little girl, I gave her the same answer that my mother gave me. “Tell them you are cafe au lait, sweetheart.” Her smile mimicked mine from so many years ago because a label that you give yourself is much more powerful than one that is forced upon you.
I get it: labels help us understand what to do, what to expect, how to behave. But, labels are for things, not people. Lest we forget, these types of inquiry, scrutiny and judgment are put upon virtually anyone who isn’t perceived as “the norm” – and the norm has traditionally been white and straight. People of color, people who love others of the same gender or any gender, those who have discovered that they have been born the wrong gender, people who others see as “different” – they’re all automatically labeled. I suppose most everyone is pigeonholed at some point in their lives, but, the blatant negativity generally associated with the labels assigned to those listed above is most detrimental.
We must all find our tribe – the people who bring us the most comfort, who “get” us, who have our back, who are our community and our support. But, it’s not a prerequisite that they have the same skin color, sexual orientation, political beliefs or religious affiliation. In fact, our tribe will be most effective if we align ourselves with as many different personas as possible. It broadens our vision, it enriches our experience, it opens our senses and our sensibilities, it makes us better people. Chosen family is as powerful as the people with whom you share the same bloodline, sometimes more so.
The little girl who wondered how who I was inside became overshadowed by what people saw on the outside – and the woman she has become – hopes that we can resist applying labels unless they are offer us direction for the care and handling of others and that will require one simple instruction: love.