Double Take

Even with twins, concepts of race are not always black and white.

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twins

My son, Liam Kojo Johnson, entered the world pink and screaming, slate blue eyes squeezed shut. Peach fuzz covered his perfectly shaped head, a place-holder for the blonde hair that would soon grow there. His twin sister, Chloe Adjoa, came in peace. She was the color of gingerbread, with jet-black hair. Her calm, stoic face carried traces of beloved matriarchs on both sides of the family tree. Upon arrival, each baby looked a bit like their older sister, Jasmin, but nothing like each other.

In African-American communities, it's fairly common to see family members with different hair textures and skin tones. Fraternal twins are no exception: By definition, they're the product of two fertilized eggs who just happened to have shared the same uterus. Wombmates, if you will, no big deal. Or at least I thought so until I saw the rash of headlines from abroad. Over there, twins like my own, with both African and European ancestry, are being called a scientific anomaly. They say the odds are a million-to-one, yet scanning the headlines ad nauseum makes that kind of hard for me to believe.

Last month, little Ryan and Leo Gerth were born in Berlin to a Ghanaian mum and German dad. The hospital called a press conference to cover their "black and white" twins. In 2006, Alicia and Jasmin Singerl were born in Australia to parents of West Indian and European descent. Great Britain has done a particularly fine job at welcoming two-toned tots, claiming Remee and Kian, Layton and Kaydon, Orlando and Natalia and Marcia and Mille, just to name a few. Not to mention the myriad of "black and white" twins we probably have here in the states, including those of Libra Thompson from the 10th season of Big Brother. The press said the odds were "a million to one," but no matter how many examples have been reported, the odds never seem to go down.

Even in the United States people didn't quite know what to make of the sight of my twins. In those first years after Liam and Chloe were born, my family lived in New York's Hudson Valley. And almost anywhere I went with my twins, strangers would ask me questions about them.

How could one be so pale and bald, the other considerably browner, with kinky curls atop her head? Do they have the same daddy? Are you 100 percent sure you're not the nanny?

In the beginning when the twins were tiny (and I was a hormonal zombie), the silly questions at the supermarket would frustrate me to the point of tears. Then I learned to force a smile and just try not to smack shoppers for trying to guess my twins' ingredients.

These days, I'm ready for the elderly lady in the dairy section—the one who sizes us up and stares us down for two minutes before saying anything. The kids look slightly more alike now, at age 3, so the questions aren't as blunt as they used to be, but I still have my stump speech ready: My husband is biracial, and although I'm not, there are slaves and slaveowners in my lineage. Trust me lady, it's not really that deep when you consider the history of our country—ever heard of Sally Hemings?

At this point, I just try to make it to the next aisle before laughing aloud at the nerve of some folks. But it seems that as far as the rest of the world is concerned, the joke might be on me.

When the Western World starts ignoring our skin colors and starts getting real, maybe we'll see these "miracle twin" stories for exactly what they are: living proof that it's time we rethink the concept of "race."

Ethnicity and culture will always be real, but the concept of race is not that straightforward. In America, there are some truths to face. We can start by facing a history many people are still too ashamed to talk about directly: slavery, miscegenation, class, caste and rape. Any American that looks at two siblings of different colors and is confused doesn't just reveal their ignorance of race, they show their lack of understanding of the history of this country, and where their own story fits into it.

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