The Race of my Every Day


Photo: Ursa Minor on the day he was born. He turned 1 on the 15th. It’s just sinking in. I’m also coming to grips with the fact that I think I’m only going to be the mother of two. I don’t know if we have the energy for three…. another post for another time.

Life is so interesting. I know that I am reminded of my skin color every day when I look in the mirror, and because of who I am and my world view, my skin color informs many of my actions and interactions throughout my day…but sometimes I can go through periods of racial stasis–kinda like, hey, I’m Black and i live in the neighborhood. And that’s fine.

But after those low periods, I feel like there is a peak period, and that is where I am this week. It actually started last week when I went into my favorite little coffee shop. I walk in for a sandwich and an ice coffee, and there are 4 little old ladies who are sitting and looking at menus. One of them notices the boys in the double stroller, and she starts smiling and cooing. The boys are very good at flirting with the ladies, so I let them do so while I’m placing my order. Suddenly, the leader of the ladies walks up to me, she must be in her late 60s, early 70s. She says “They’re so adorable…are you their nanny?”

I smiled sweetly and said, “No, these are my sons. This is [Ursa Major] and [Ursa Minor].” I totally did this kindly. I feel like people of a certain age don’t get a pass per say, but I’m not going to give them attitude about misconceptions. I just can’t be outright disrespectful to elderly people. I have a grandmother who I am very close with and I try to extend my same awe and respect for her to other people of a certain age. Anyway, the woman chuckles and says “Oh! I’m sorry! Well, they’re amazingly beautiful. My son is married to a Jamaican woman…” I smiled through it and actually continued to talk with her while I waited for my order. The boys continued to flirt with the rest of the group. Life went on.

So I’m in the coffee shop this week, gossiping with the manager and one of the maintenance men for the apartment complex, and we’re talking about something unrelated, and here the manager remembers last week’s episode. “Oh my God!” He says. “Remember that group of ladies who were in here last week? And that one lady asked you if you were a nanny?”

“I mean, yeah,” I say, but I wave a hand in dismissal, “It wasn’t a big deal.  I felt bad for her…”

The maintenance guy, on the otherhand (and who is White, btw), is not impressed. “No, man, fuck that. She should haven’t known better. People know better than that!”

I disagreed. I wasn’t going to yell at an old lady, I said.

“Well,” the manager continues, “After you left, she came up to me and felt so bad about it! She kept telling me about her son and his Jamaican wife and how she should have known and blah blah blah.”

I honestly felt bad. I tried to go out of my way to make that woman feel better. “Oh, that sucks. I really didn’t want her to feel bad. I tried not to make her feel bad.” I replied.

“Fuck that! She should feel bad!” The maintenance guy said. I still disagree. We ended up agreeing to disagree.

So yesterday, when I walk the mile to my polling place to go vote in the special election, I am faced again with the nanny question!

First, at the polling place, where no one directly asked me if I was a nanny, though one of the ladies crossing off names said something along the lines of “they must be a joy to sit for” to me as I was feeding my sheet into the machine to be counted. When I referred to myself as “Mommy” while talking to Ursa Major, one of the women raised an eyebrow of surprise. It’s a funny thing to see race math run across someone’s face. I shrugged it off again. Who cares, right?

Well then I start the walk back home. The commuter rail track crosses the main street that we walk on to get back. Of course, Ursa Major sees the train tracks and must see a train. I’m sweaty and tired, so I’m like, fine. We walk past a woman who is sitting on a bench near the tracks, smoking and eating some peanuts or something. I nod toward her and say good morning, but find a far bench farther down the platform (so as to avoid the smoke). A train is coming in 4 minutes….perfect! I break out some cheerios, refill the sippy cups, and breathe easy. The sign flashes “Next train to Boston, 2 minutes. This is a flag stop, so make sure the engineer can clearly see you.” I’m like “Hm…interesting…a flag stop… OH SHIT!” I don’t want the train to stop just for us! We’re not getting on! So I immediately wheel the boys back toward the end of the platform so that way we can see the train, but the train can’t see us. As we’re walking toward the street sidewalk, here is the lady again.

“Hi there! What are your names?” She asks the boys. I tell her their names. “I’m [Betsey.]” She introduces herself. She starts talking about how beautiful the boys are. “Oh look at their hair!” She exclaims. There seemed something a bit off about her that I cannot describe, so when she asked us where we lived, I was like “Oh, you know, down the way…” rather than be even remotely specific. Anyway, Ursa Minor wasn’t wearing a hat and his hair is practically blonde in the sunlight. She says “His hair is so beautiful. You’re the nanny, right?”

I put on my best smile again. She wasn’t a “little old lady” but she clearly wasn’t a “regular” person either. What’s the point of getting huffy? “Oh, no, these are my sons.” I say, calmly and kindly.

“Oh! Heh.” She says. She then starts talking about how her apartment complex raised her rent by 10 dollars, and that she’s on Section 8. At this point, I just want this train to come so I can keep walking. The good news is that the train came and that it was loud and fast. So as soon as the gates were up, I was like “Well, it was nice meeting you! Bye!”

How utterly random, and no, I’m not mad. It just takes so much energy. Sure, there are circumstances where that question really bothers me and it usually has to do with the assumption behind it. I actually do take the time to make sure that I don’t look like a nanny when I’m out and about: I make sure that I wear my wedding rings,  that I don’t look disheveled, that I’m proactive when talking to people. This is just to establish a bit of authority (over my children) and to remove any doubts about my relationship to them. I actually think it’s funny and odd when my system doesn’t work. Somehow, it’s not always communicated that these two boys are my children. I don’t always think that this is a reflection of the racist intents of the people who ask the question (Like, say, the little old lady in the coffee shop, or even the odd lady at the train station. Not even the ladies at the polls, who are bored out of their skulls). So why get mad? If one of them had followed up with something overtly racist, I would certainly have gone off. But, generally, I’m going under the assumption that you’re of a particular experience that’s a bit isolated.

To add even more weirdness to my racial thinking this week, I dropped Ursa Major off at playgroup this morning, and we got to the classroom a little bit early. He, along with another girl who was early, started to play with the Mr. Potatohead dolls that had been set up for them. I look at the fun toys around the room, and I notice two baby dolls set up in the “baby” area. One of them is white and blonde. The other is Black. Not African American, not with brown skin and what not. No, this doll was Black, with very exaggerated features (big, puckered red lips. Extra large cheeks. A nose that was flat and very wide.) The doll was so odd looking. I picked it up and looked at it, musing about The Doll Tests of old (and new. CNN just did a story about this), and I wondered what I would do if I was given this doll as a child. Would I think it was ugly? I was wondering if I thought the doll was ugly because it simply was ugly, or did I think it was ugly because it was Black? The doll seemed more of a caricature of a Black baby, not the actual replica of one. The White baby, too, seemed a bit of a caricature (wide blue eyes, red hair, lips that were soft pink, a tight little nose and cheeks), but that caricature was yet still more appealing to the eye than the other doll.

I put the black doll back in the high chair, but stared at it, wishing that I had my cell phone on me so that I could take a picture of it. Ursa Major walked up to me to see what I was doing. He looked at me, and then he looked at the doll. He stared at it for a moment, then looked back up at me. Then back at the doll. Finally, he looked at me in confusion, as if he didn’t know what do do with this thing. He’s played with other Black children and none of them looked like the doll. He eventually went off on his way, but it struck me that he had encountered race in a new way at that moment. A strange way. And in the face of it, instead of engaging (playing with the doll, or even comparing it to the white doll that was beside it), he simply chose to walk away. That’s how foreign the coloring and make up of this doll was. Upon leaving the room and driving away, I wondered about who chose to purchase that doll and put that doll in that classroom. I’ve seen other children of color (Hispanic and Asian) at this play center, but never any Black children. Indeed, I’ve only seen one Black staff member there. If there were more patrons of Color within this learning community, would that doll still be there?

Adding these two children to my life has forced me to interact with race in such different ways. The level of nuance and complexity that has been added to my racial thoughts and conversations since the birth of my sons had often given me pause and has absolutely forced me to grow. I know that I’ll never be able to avoid the nanny comments, no matter how hard I try. I have found myself, from time to time, feeling sad about the fact that my children don’t look like me. They very much look like their father, that they “belong” to their father. I’m looking at our family portrait, and it’s clear that I’m the odd man out. I also think that it’s interesting that these two boys have taken the “angry” out of me. What kind of example do I set  if I get mad every time someone chooses to label me “nanny” instead of “mommy”? Indeed, if I am their representative of motherhood, womanhood and Blackness, I really need to make sure that my reactions always reflect well in their eyes. What I do matters. To me, to them, to their little lives.

17 Comments Add yours

  1. You have such an amazing perspective that I admire. You ARE setting an example. It would be so much easier to get mad. And, you are an example to me and always make me think. I love it.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      You are so kind. Thank you so much! Really! 🙂 I know that there are people out there who disagree, and probably think that I should be more assertive every single time. But who has the energy? I mean, maybe I shouldn’t go out of my way to make people comfortable with their issues…but then again, my kindness in that moment with the lady in the coffee shop made her more reflective, right? I dunno, it cuts so many ways. I hope that, one day, I can give clarity to my boys instead of confusion. So many questions and fears!

      You are always here, reading, and I just want you to know how much I appreciate it every day. I wish that I was better about commenting on your blog (but know that I am a regular reader!!) You usually already have a bunch of comments on your posts, and I’m like “I’m not adding anything by saying anything here…” because I’m a dummy. 🙂

      1. whatever! Your comments would ALWAYS be appreciated. I think you are right. I think by saying less, you are making others think more about what THEY say.

  2. I am mixed race and look white. My father has been asked silly questions from silly people numerous times in my youth. My son is mixed race and looks Hispanic and I have also been asked (twice) if I was the nanny.

    I think it is just people’s nature to assume that children that appear a different race aren’t ours. Particularly from the elderly. I can’t help but be tickled by it because it’s such a funny question.

    Forgive my insensitivity if it is warranted, but I have never thought to be offended. Should I?

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      I had no idea that you are mixed-race, Amber!

      I think the question of offense has more to do with world view and navigation than it does anything else. It also has to do with how much energy you want to spend on it. I feel like being angry with a person in their 60s, 70s, or 80s isn’t really teaching them anything and isn’t going to make me feel better. I also know the history of race and class in this country, and so when an elderly white person sees me and my kids and equates “nanny,” I’m not offended. I’m not saying that the equation is RIGHT or should be condoned, I’m just saying that I, personally, don’t feel the need to go teaching. It’s easier for me to say “these are my sons,” as sweetly as possible, and then keep it moving.

      But then again, I think that tone and context matter. While I can’t make my mind imagine a circumstance where something offensive would/could be said, I’m sure that such a circumstance would exist.

      So it is really about you. I think that you are right: They are silly questions from silly people. It may matter, later, when your son is older and you have to explain to your son what race is and why questions like that are asked. It may be that it doesn’t matter to him… indeed, it may never come up.

      For my sons, I know that it’s going to come up sooner rather than later. Especially as we get ready to start schools. I know that there is going to be a situation where a kid is going to invite Ursa Major to a birthday party, having never met me, and when I drop him off or chaparone or whatever, a mom is going to realize “Oh, that’s his MOTHER? Oh, that makes him Black?? Oh, they can’t be friends anymore.”

      On the other hand, for even more dubious reasons, some moms are going to meet me and my sons and INSIST that their kids and my kids be friends. You know, so that they can say that their kid has a “black friend.” That’s already happened to us. That’s equally unhealthy.

      But I digress… the point of the matter is that you get to choose. Race is a construct that is societal but also deeply personal. If you find no offense because the question is stupid, then no offense is ever needed! 🙂

      1. You know, I never thought of it in that way. That is a big difference in the cultures of where we reside. While in Texas (which isn’t known for it’s high level of tolerance) we live in Austin which is basically a second Portland. It’s very progressive. So mixed race children and marriages are quite common.

        I would hate to think, transversely, that someone would ever not want -or force- their children to be around my son based on ANYONE’S nationality! I never considered that facet in the slightest.

        And yes, my father is Native American. My grandparents lived on the reservation until they passed. He has black hair and nearly black eyes while my mother is German. Never can judge a book by it’s cover, eh? 🙂

        1. K.C. Wise says:

          The story about the mom who NEEDED to be friends with us because we are Black/Mixed is kinda crazy. I’ll totally write about that on Friday.

          1. Though, from a totally different place, we experience that.

            People want to feel good about themselves by inviting the token special needs kid, too. Whenever I catch onto that…I’m so angry, so I can totally feel your pain.

            Can’t wait to read the post!

  3. BTW, I can see your photos in the reader, but when I go to your actual blog post, they aren’t there. I wonder if it’s a problem on my end? This is not the first post that this has happened on…

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      No…those pictures are the “feature image” so when you click on the actual article, the picture goes away? I have to mess with my theme to fix that. if you read the article on the main page (I don’t clip them. I probably should) then the picture shows up. Gotta mess with my theme this weekend so that I fix that…

  4. Thank you for sharing your eloquent observations. I’m lucky enough not to have to deal with this but I live in London which has an incredible mix of communities and cultures. My children have gone to local schools where their whiteness is in a minority, so they accept difference of all kinds as a norm. In London the true differences are driven by economics rather than colour, creed or gender, but often misunderstood, particularly by those of a much older generation who lived through the first and second world wars.

    1. K.C. Wise says:

      I have always been fascinated by British (English?) societal divides, Jake. I’ve been told that divisions and tensions are based on class, but that there can be interesting racial interactions within the various classes. And that, eventually, there isn’t enough racial proliferation in the upper echelons for there to be tension (the Royal and nearly royal classes). Here in the U.S., everyone considers themselves to be some sort of “middle class” though we all know that an acute class system exists here. We LOVE to divide ourselves racially though many of our families are extremely racially mixed. I don’t know which system is better.

      I believe, above all, that integration really matters. Kids who play with kids who are “different” than they are end up being enriched and bettered from the experience. I’m so grateful for my highly diverse upbringing. I’m really struggling to find a similar community for my own two boys–we live in Massachusetts, which is extremely segregated by both race and class. It is utterly frustrating.

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