Cute baby. Where is she from?

Susan Fentin
Conway, MA

My son and his wife had their first child in April 2010, a beautiful brown-eyed baby girl with a head full of dark brown hair, whom they named Laila. Her complexion was a delightful coffee color, a blend of her dad’s fair coloring and her mother’s Indian ancestry. Since I knew they would be relocating back to Seattle after his graduate school was complete, I took one day off a week after her birth to be the “nanny,” and for much of the first year of her life, Wednesdays were my “Laila Day.” She and I frequently took walks down the main street of Jamaica Plain, the section of Boston where my son and his wife lived at the time, to story hour at the library, to the grocery store, to the playground, and for coffee at the local coffee and ice cream spot. During one stop for coffee, a Caucasian gentleman about my age stopped to admire my granddaughter and asked me, “Cute baby. Where is she from?” His question caught me by surprise: I wasn’t really sure what he meant, so I simply responded, “Jamaica Plain,” and he nodded and walked away. But after he left I recognized the true question in his mind. My coloring resembles my son’s: blonde and blue-eyed, and this gentleman had assumed that the little girl in the stroller had been adopted from some foreign land.
My daughter-in-law was raised in the Boston suburbs and was one of the few people of color in her high school class. When she and my son were considering where to make their home after graduate school, we were hoping that they would settle in Boston. Instead, they chose to return to Seattle, in part because they had grown to love that part of the country, but also in part because of the multi-cultural nature of the community there. We were disappointed that they would be so far away, but after my interaction with the man in the coffee shop, I could understand their decision. No one in Seattle would think twice about a little coffee-colored girl having a snack with her Caucasian father or grandmother. This was never more evident than recently, when my husband and I visited and took Laila to a park near their Seattle home. She was surrounded by children from a wide variety of races and ethnicities. Indeed, we, as Caucasians, were likely the minority in that happy crowd of parents and children. I don’t think that the gentleman who asked about Laila’s heritage meant any harm. I’m sure he was simply curious. But I have come to understand, based in part on that moment, that if my son and his family stayed in Boston, there would always be a sense that they — or their children — did not really belong here, did not really fit in. I am sad that they are living so far away but happy that they will not be faced with the subtle racism that accompanied that gentleman’s simple question.


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