Growing up, I got teased a lot for being a fair-skinned black girl by kids who would assume and make sure I knew that one of my parents surely must be white or another nationality besides “black” (ah, kids). When I became a teen and young adult, I would get asked a lot of times what my nationality was as if it was a way to explain my lack of what they considered the appropriate amount of pigmentation to allow me to be a black “American.” When, in my adulthood, I gave birth to my first son–whose father is white and who quickly went from being a dark-haired beauty at the hospital to a light-blond, bright blue-eyed angel in what seemed a matter of days–we would be out on walks together, just loving each other, being mommy and son.
Invariably, I would get doting, curious passersby stopping, ogling him while asking me, “How long have you been taking care of him?” I would smile to myself (always feeling a little sorry at first for the person) and say, “All his life.” And they’d usually follow this with, “His mother must really trust you.” And I would say, “Well, since I’m his mother, I would hope so.” Then they’d look at me, rather startled, look to my son, then look back to me and very delicately ask me, “Oh, really? What nationality are you?” I’d answer, still smiling to myself, “American.” And they’d say, “No… you know what I mean.” And I would look at them innocently (didn’t want to make it too easy) and say, “No, I’m sure I don’t.” Then the raised eyebrows of shared understanding, the wink of confidentiality–as if we had just established a friendship based on racial profiling–followed by the inevitable, “YOU know… what… you know…?” And, dropping the smile, I would propose, “Yes, actually, I do know, but just so YOU know, my nationality is not my race.” And I would tell them to “Have a nice day!” and walk away.
I have two sons now, both rather fair skinned, both glorious, both melting pots of wonder. And still, to this day, people will ask me, “What’s your nationality?” as their delicate, considerate way of asking if I really could possibly be the mother of these two obviously not black looking (in their opinion) children now young men. I find great irony in the fact that, as a child and young adult, I wasn’t dark enough to just be “black” and now, with my sons, they’re not dark enough to belong to someone who can just be “black.” And, now, I just don’t bother answering, because, truth? I’m their mom and their my sons and that’s all that matters.