Thursday, June 12, 2008

Are you the mother?

I've been thinking lately about how I wanted to get some of my thoughts on race and racism out of my head and onto the page. My problem is that every time something comes up, I feel like I have to tell the whole story or it won't make sense.

And since I'm 42, it's a pretty long story.

So I'm gonna take a different path, I'll just talk about stuff as it comes up. Here's what's come up recently.

I live in Piedmont, a little town of about 15,000 people. Our little town has just a handful of black folks, so even though the Oakland (which is five minutes away by foot) is the most diverse big city in the country, Piedmont is very white and pretty darn wealthy.

Yesterday, one of my daughter's school friends and her father dropped by unannounced to see if my daughter was available for a play date. My wife (who is medium brown) and daughter (who is my complexion - uh... almost transparent) were outside in the yard. The girls excitedly agreed that they wanted to have their play together, so the dad looks at my wife and says:

"Are you the mother?"

Really?!? Not "hi, I'm Susie's dad," or "are you Ella's mom?"

"Are you the mother?"

My wife was, understandably, offended by this, as she has spent the last eight years being assumed, by white people, to be our children's nanny.

On the other hand, how do you politely ask an adult you have never met if they are the responsible guardian?

I wonder if white parents every experience this sorta thing? If so, under what circumstances. I know other black women get it. I was reminded of this by the title of a blog that I saw the other day - "Not the nanny."


  1. hmmm - among other things this would appear to have been one of those 'teachable moments'. but the author does the audience a disservice here - and, no, I don't mean in his ridiculous claim that "the Oakland" is the most diverse city in, on what basis? - rather it lies in not presenting the rest of the dialogue between his darling wife and the socially inept white man.

    "Are you the mother?" is loaded with all kinds of stuff worthy of dissection. So - tell us what happened next?

  2. Okay, I've taken a break for a few weeks now and amazingly enough came back on the same day rj posted a comment.
    I am a black woman with a light-skinned 17 year-old child and a very very very light-skinned 8 year-old. In fact, unless you are from a creole culture (which actually I am) you may never guess that my youngest son came from me. I have been asked "Is that your baby?", "Is that your son?", "Are you his mother?" and numerous other variations of the same question. And I'm sure a couple of those people stopped just short of asking if I were the nanny. And, yes, they were teachable moments for sure, but guess what? I get tired of teaching people who don't take the time to stop and think before they spit some ridiculousness from their mouths. I've had teachable moments about my hair, my skin, my cadence, my intelligence .. it gets exhausting and I already have a full-time job. Why do we have to do the teaching all the time? Why don't other people do more learning? If black culture were as pervasive as white culture there would be better understanding of the different shades of we, but it's not and might not ever be. Black culture is commercialized, bastardized and packaged to give white people what they're comfortable with, no more than that. I'm not angry about it, that's just the way it is.
    As for Oakland being the most diverse city... after having lived in NYC for 13 years and spending lots of time in London, I have to agree with Brian. Oakland is beautifully diverse along lines of class, race, culture and sexuality. It really doesn't get any better than this.
    So, back to Brian and his wife... sure he could have continued the dialogue, but I imagine that happens often and maybe, rj, they're tired too. Funny, how the white moms I know with brown babies never have to answer the "Are you the nanny?" question.