Simone snuggled up beside me and pointed to my face. "Mommy," she said, "is a black girl."
How observant, I thought, for a 3-year-old to make such a distinction. "Yes," I said, "Mommy is a black girl."
"Simone," she continued, "is a white girl." In all the time I had dreamed about being a mother and teaching my daughter about her African and European heritage, nothing had prepared me for a statement like this.
I demanded to know who had told her such a thing, but my question was met with silence.
"Well, you're a black girl," I said, knowing that I wasn't being any more accurate than she had been a few moments earlier.
Simone repeated her newfound knowledge to her father and added, "Daddy is a white boy."
He told her she was neither white nor black. "You have the best of both worlds," he said.
His explanation wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better than mine.
For a moment, my mind drifted back to our wedding day in 2001, when raising children seemed so far away, when we were just one of the 1.4 million interracial couples tying the knot. In the 41 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down bans on interracial marriages, the numbers continue to rise. In 2006, interracial marriages totaled 3.9 percent of the nation's 59.5 million marriages, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
That means there are more families like mine addressing similar questions.
Back inside our Alabama home, I was uncomfortable, as if someone was watching our every move. I knew, by the way Ken and I reacted, that our latest dilemma was significant. If we flubbed this one, the one we had known was coming, how could we possibly be counted on to find the right things to say about boys, drugs, choosing the best college or any of those other tough parenting subjects?
After talking with Francis Wardle, executive director for the Center for the Study of Biracial Children and a father of four biracial children, I realized I was in better shape than I thought. Simone, it turns out, could have come to her conclusion about her race by herself. No one told her she was white.
Children between the ages of 3 and 5, he said, are becoming aware of their physical appearance and starting to make comparisons. Girls, as you would imagine, often do this before boys.
"She has two choices," he said. "She is either the same as you or the same as her father. There isn't a third option." At her age, race is an abstract concept and difficult to grasp.
She's not the only one having a tough time. I sent e-mails to my girlfriends recounting our conversation. There was no way a black woman could deliver a white child. I am her mother, her black mother, the one who carried her for 9 months.
My grandmother, though, was sure that was what had happened. Soon after Simone was born, she told me how she felt.
"You didn't do nothing for yourself," she said.
I didn't dare talk back. "Well, Mom was light-skinned," I said.
"Light-skinned? That child ain't light-skinned. She's Caucasian."
I tried to convince her to see things my way. "Don't you think she has my eyes and nose?"
"Nah, she is the spitting image of Ken, like he went, 'puh.'"
"Grandma, don't you think she will have curly hair like mine?"
"What does her hair look like now?"
I knew I couldn't win this argument. "It's straight," I said.
"There you go."
Grandma was wrong about one thing: Simone's hair is curly. When I comb it in the morning, she often wants to look in the mirror and see how many ponytails I have given her and to make sure the ponytail holders match her outfit. "I'm pretty," she says. "You sure are," I say.
I see something else when I look at her in the mirror. I see my late mother, a light-skinned black woman. The truth is, I always figured Simone would look black to herself and to society. I even thought that would be easier for her and for me.
I, for example, know what to say when—not if—the first time someone refers to her using a racial epithet or says something else insensitive. Simone would belong to one, not both worlds.
Now I know better. My job as her black mother is to help her navigate a race-conscious world, and I can't take the easy route. I can't simply explain to my daughter where she came from. I must show her, teach her about her background and how to embrace its significance, and I can't wait until she's old enough to understand.
That means I will buy that American Girl doll with the curly hair and light skin. I will make sure my husband tells her about her white great-grandfather's days as the drum major for the Louisiana State University marching band, and I'll tell her stories about how her black grandfather picked cotton as a child. Together, we will expose her to people who look like her and take her to faraway lands so that she can see people of every color. When we can't do that, we will turn to culture, music and art. I don't want her to have to choose one race over the other like so many interracial children who came before her.
Clearly, the conversation I shared with my daughter is just the beginning. I have no doubt that sometimes we will get it right and sometimes our best intentions will go horribly wrong.
In the end, though, it doesn't matter if my daughter is a black girl or a white girl. What matters most is that we help her develop her own identity just as the many biracial children who have come before her—from Sen. Barack Obama to Halle Berry to Tiger Woods.
I wasn't quite as open-minded as I thought I was on my wedding day. I brought with me a set of ideas that won't hold up to the new shades of reality. My daughter will continue say things about race that I don't want to hear and ask questions I'd rather not answer. In the end, though, it doesn't matter if she is a black girl or a white girl, but that she has a black mother and a white father who are willing to help her figure it out.
Monique Fields is a writer living in Alabama.