(The Root) — "Are you mixed?"
This question has always turned my stomach. For one, I think it's rude for strangers to inquire about something so personal. What am I talking about — I'm not a fan of speaking to people in general! The unassuming assuming questioner has racked up one strike against himself simply by opening his mouth to speak in the first place. Yes, I have introversion issues.
Two, I've never been fond of the term "mixed." Nuts are mixed. Brownie batter is mixed. Despite others' comfort with this label, I just can't imagine that a body would appreciate being categorized as "mixed."
Categorically speaking, I'm not multiracial or even biracial. Prior to my son's birth, it was really none of my business!
Before G was born, I pondered his phenotype ad nauseam. Would he look more like me or like my husband? Pale skin or tan? Curly or straight hair? Blue eyes or brown? I wasn't particularly concerned that he might look a certain way; I just wanted to start preparing for the questions ahead — his, ours and others'. I surveyed friends and family to determine the most politically correct, self-affirming racial categorization. What would he scribble next to that rude "other" box?
I settled on "biracial." (In case you're wondering where my husband was in all of this decision-making, he was living with his very pregnant wife who was on an all-consuming mission, and he had some good sense. He let me take the lead on this one.) I then shelved my crazy for a bit and decided to allow the first years of our son's identity development to progress without my loving interruption.
When the time came to choose an elementary school, we were fortunate to have several promising options. We're districted for a great public school, I work closely with two phenomenal private schools and Durham, N.C., is home to many strong magnet and charter schools. We chose to forgo the private schools in order to place G in a more racially and socioeconomically diverse setting. Let's be honest — we would also prefer to spend $20,000 on a year of college, not kindergarten.
The diversity of G's school provides a perfect platform for observing and discussing all sorts of human variation. So, of course, I do. Give me an inch …
After months of nonchalantly posing and answering questions about similarities and differences in skin color, I decide it's time to add the next element: vocabulary. By early elementary school, children typically have the cognitive maturity and awareness to understand the constancy of skin color and to begin to associate racial groups based on language, physical characteristics and cultural traditions. Still egocentric, they become interested in knowing more about groups in which they belong.
So I decide that G needs to have a response to the inevitable question, "Are you mixed?" I start by introducing the term "biracial." We talk about the meaning, how it applies to our family, etc. Then, in a dismissive tone, I say, "Do you know that some people like to say that biracial people are mixed? Doesn't that sound weird? You're not a bag of nuts! You're not brownie batter. How could you be mixed?"
G finds this hilarious. To my horror, he decides that being referred to as brownie batter is the ultimate compliment. Guess I forgot I was dealing with a 5-year-old. Hoping he'll forget all about my epic fail, I drop the subject.
A week later.
"Hey, Mommy! I'm cake!" He is rolling laughing in the backseat.
"G! What in the world are you talking about?"
"Remember? We're like brownies! I'm cake! I'm mix!"
Someday I'm just going to have to accept that I cannot learn things for G. I can't protect him from everything before it happens. I can't strangle his innocence with my own lovingly wrought anxieties. All along I've thought my job was to reinforce his armor before he goes into battle. Maybe I've had it all wrong. Maybe a mom's job is to nurse the injuries once they occur, to refasten the hinges and tend to the vulnerable spots.
Yesterday during independent reading time, G picked up Red or Blue, I Like You, a book he's had for ages, though we've never read it. Despite the adorable Elmo and Angela on the cover, it's a really tough book for a new reader. I was so impressed that my big guy needed little help as he read aloud to me.
I smiled each time he read Elmo's name. He still pronounces it "Emmo," and I dare anyone to try to correct him under my watch. He was so focused on getting the words right that I was sure he really didn't grasp what the book was about, but I had learned my lesson. I didn't push.
Studying the picture on the last page, he smiled and pointed to the blue monster dad and pink monster mom holding a blue monster baby with pink hair. "Look, Momma! They're biracial. Just like us!"
Jennifer Rogers is an educational consultant and freelance writer in Durham, N.C. She chronicles her adventures in straddling the fine line between type A mom and learning specialist on TypeA Lite. Follow her on Twitter.