Raising a Biracial Son

When I took my newly born son from the nurse's arms, I did the expected counting of his fingers and toes. I checked under his cap for hair and flexed his little limbs. Once confident he was whole and healthy, I began to wonder how dark his skin would get. As a black woman married to one of the world's fairest men, I worried that our son would be so light-skinned as to appear Caucasian, and I wanted him to look black. After we all came home from the hospital this past June, I Googled newborn eye color to reassure myself that Gabriel's eyes wouldn't change from my shade of brown to my husband's green. I brushed up on my genetics, and though I discovered that curly hair is a dominant trait, Gabe has straight brown locks that stick up in a cowlick just like his dad's—not the wild curls I struggle to keep under control. Undaunted by these failures to find Gabe's blackness, I inspected my son's skin daily for the Mongolian spots common in African-American babies, but his skin was as smooth as … alabaster.

It was time to face facts. One day, I would be an old black lady hanging on the arm of a young white man who passersby would think was an obliging stranger but who was actually my offspring. It didn't help that everywhere my new nuclear family went, we were told that our son was the picture of his father, and, well, he is. So I began to wonder, if it's never much bothered me that I'm a different color from my husband, why was I as rigid as a Klan member when it came to identifying my son's race from birth?

It never occurred to me then that if people thought my son was white, it might make life easier on him. Obviously, I was not interested in logic. I just wanted to claim Gabriel for "my" side—in league with his mother against small minds, casual racism and discrimination. So even though Gabe still appeared Caucasian, I grew more obsessive in my racial cataloging. I'd ask my spouse embarrassingly leading questions: "Do you think you have a black son?" "Is it weird having a black kid?" "Would it be strange for you if Gabe became the second African-American president?" To his credit, he tried to answer in good faith until a particularly brutal interrogation when I heard him jokingly mutter to Gabe that "Mommy's racist against us white people." It sounded absurd to hear Gabe described as white even though I myself had been saying things like "I hope he darkens up" and "He looks Dutch." Clearly, I had become so eager for my son to be black that I was tiptoeing across the line from mildly offensive to racist. Not to mention that at that moment in time, it was even more absurd to call him black. Can you imagine the reverse scenario? Gabe born dark-skinned and my husband saying, "I hope he gets whiter"?

But by his third month, Gabe's skin tone began to darken and my hormones leveled off; I can now report that, seven months after his birth, Gabriel is the exact shade you'd get if you mixed his father and me up in a paint can—a color I call golden. This has made me realize that I want Gabe to be proud of his entire heritage. Why does my son have to bear the legacy of a one-drop rule that is the direct intellectual descendant of slavery and Jim Crow? The very concept, that even the smallest amount of black blood in your ancestry makes you African-American, harks back to the early 20th century when states including Texas and Virginia passed laws to protect the "purity" of the white race. Is this really a concept that needs to be perpetuated? And though I'm loath to admit it now, maybe I just wanted my son to be black because many people in this society think and say awful things about races that aren't theirs. I couldn't bear to worry that my son was thinking and saying those things about black people, about me.

But for Gabriel's sake, I'm going to try to stop playing the black-vs.-white game, since my son is actually neither white nor black. He's biracial, and there are hundreds of thousands of little golden children out there just like him. One of them even grew up to be president of the United States. The latest U.S. Census numbers indicate that there are 4.9 million biracial Americans. That's 1 million more "mutts," to quote President Obama, than in 2000 when the census began allowing Americans to identify themselves as more than one race. Indeed, in that census, 823 people identified themselves as a combination of six races.

New mothers being insecure, I've now begun to wonder whether my constant harping about skin tone warped my infant son for life. Did I already doom him to rebel against my dichotomous racial regime, reject his blackness altogether and move to the Netherlands, the land of his father's people? Or maybe he'll grow up to look upon his father as the Man, his mother as a race traitor, and move to Namibia to start a new black-separatist movement? Or maybe he'll just be himself, because when you juxtapose Obama's comments about society with the reality of his election, isn't the real secret of American freedom that we don't have to accept the roles that society assigns us? Our newly elected president ignored the racial stereotyping that seemed to limit what he could accomplish in this country—and he didn't do it by passively accepting society's assessment of his skin tone. Perhaps as the number of multiracial Americans continues to grow, there will be a plurality of golden people who are impossible to positively identify as one race or the other. And the rest of us who can be easily categorized will be forced to accept that color does not contribute to the content of one's character because we won't know which set of stereotypes to apply to whom. I want my son to grow up wearing his biracial heritage like an invisibility cloak, able to move unseen among people's prejudices—impervious to racial profiling. But I will prepare him for a world that may think he is black or white, even though he is golden.