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Love in the Time of Bigotry

My biracial children are not half-and-half — they are whole.

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Shadow of mother carrying child into the air.
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When I married my husband in the late 1990s, I was naive as to what obstacles lay ahead. It was not my age — I was 32, he was 45. Nor was it the fact that we’d had a long-distance relationship, and we had only spent a total of 28 days together in person when we walked into the courthouse and became husband and wife.

Rather, my naivete revealed itself in my believing that love across color lines would be a nonissue. In my home country of Sweden and in my travels across Europe, interracial couples are more common, and I found rare instances of bigotry. My husband is a dark-skinned, boisterous and brilliant African American, and I am blond, blue-eyed, pale and quiet. Our children are a perfect blend of us both. They have curly brown hair. Our daughter has big, velvety-brown eyes; our son’s eyes are transparent sea green; and both their complexions are the shade of warm honey.

They are in their early 20s, tall and athletic, kind, hardworking and resilient.

The first dent in my gullibility took place on a freight terminal in a small town a couple of hours outside Chicago. After we got married, my household goods, which had been ferried across the Atlantic, were to be released to us. As we stepped out of the car by the international loading dock, I automatically reached for my husband’s hand, lacing my fingers with his.

“No, not here,” he said curtly and pulled his hand away. When he saw the dumbfounded look on my face, he started to explain. “Around here, we could get killed.”

His comment that the sight of a black-and-white couple would drive someone to murder sounded to me, a newcomer to this country, like hyperbole, a poor, tasteless joke.

As I said, I was naive.

I was unaware that in 1960, interracial marriage was forbidden in 31 states, and only became legal nationwide with the Supreme Court ruling in the landmark case of Loving v. Virginia in June of 1967.

This started happening when both of our children were babies. “What is she?” The woman leaned into the stroller where my daughter was sleeping and pulled the blanket down to get a closer look at the full head of dark hair and soft, tawny skin. “I am thinking of getting one too,” she continued. “We can’t get pregnant, my husband and I, and have decided to adopt. So, she’s what again?”

Many times, I would hear my children being referred to as an object, a “what” rather than a person, a “who.” Regardless of the intent, it is this kind of thoughtless behavior that families like mine must manage on a near-daily basis. Whether the prejudices are implicit or explicit, for my children the result is the same: discrimination, exclusion — or worse.

There are many impediments that so-called untraditional families face. Seemingly small annoyances, such as being stared at on the streets or being given the least attractive table next to the kitchen swing-doors in a restaurant.

And while our family has been spared from the more serious offenses so far, many mixed-race couples in our friend circle and your circles have not escaped the senseless acts of public harassment like being spit on, taunted or beaten.

Before becoming a mom, I was unaware of the privilege afforded me because of my skin color. My parents were progressive and raised their children to treat all people equally. I was shocked to see the racial and ethnic disparities in my new homeland.  

When my children were young, I erroneously believed I could protect them from the bigotry. I believed I could be their shield against anyone who dared judge them based on their parents or the composite of their ethnicity.

I was wrong. Things like this happened and still happen. In his junior year, my son was excluded from an annual classmates’ trip to Florida, and being left behind was not the doing of his teenage friends. Rather, the host parents, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, suddenly were uncomfortable with bringing their son’s one brown friend to their exclusive Florida condo complex.

My daughter, who had been dating an old-line WASP all through college, was told on their graduation day by her distraught boyfriend that his mom had ordered him to end the relationship because of her race. I was speechless.

When we travel as a family, on planes and while touring, while we do encounter genuinely friendly interactions, we are met with as many sneers. We hold our heads high.

Here is just a portion of the long list of crucial advice I have had to relay to my brown children: Do not wear a hoodie. Always look people in the eye and keep smiling. Do not travel through areas known for hate crimes. Crouch or try and make yourself look smaller to appear nonthreatening. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Ask for a bag and keep the receipt when you buy something in case you are asked on the way out of a store for proof of purchase. If pulled over by the police, keep your hands on the steering wheel and infuse every sentence with a submissive “sir” and “officer.” If you get stopped on the street by a cop, keep calm and make no sudden moves.

Raising my children to succeed in a society that judges them because of their skin color can be heartbreaking. They both have big hearts and friends of all cultures and colors and are activists in groups that defend the disenfranchised. I am their white mother who grieves for the mounting racism yet will never know what they know or feel what they feel.

Many Americans assumed when we elected Barack Obama in 2008 that our country had taken a step in the right direction toward equality. However, persons of color who have suffered the most oppression knew that the election of our first Black president would not be a cure-all for societal inequities. In fact, the rise of Obama sadly parallels a rise in racism.

When Black Lives Matter gained momentum in nations across the world, we saw white supremacists take to the streets, committing violent acts in broad daylight, and a sharp ascent in hate crimes and police brutality against young Black men.

Thankfully, my children’s generation is increasingly “woke,” a word officially added to the dictionary in 2017 that means “aware of sensitive social issues such as racism.” The word is not new, however, and was first used by African Americans in the 1940s, denoting “woken up to issues of injustice.”

As parents, we all give our kids lots of advice so they will grow up good and right. Yet our Gen Z offspring have much to teach us, too — foremost, on the healing power of inclusiveness.

Even though they are now young adults, each time my son and daughter leave the house, all I can do is pray their names do not become a statistic. My children are not half-and-half or half of anything. They are white and Black, and whole.

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