Mike Heenan reflects on his mixed-race heritage and wonders how his daughters’ ethnicity will affect their futures.
There is an elephant in the room at our house and that is not a self-deprecating fat joke.
The elephant is race, and I find myself thinking a great deal these days about its connotations and its future effects on my daughters. In a month where Donald Sterling became just the latest, outed, vitriolic and bigoted Fred Phelps, my mind is painting vivid impressions of the future my daughters will occupy and wondering whether their ethnicity, perceived or actual, will be irrelevant, or uplift them to ceilingless heights of self-worth and achievement, or beat them into the earth all together.
It was Mother’s Day last week and like usual I did NOT write that cathartic be-all/end-all prose piece about my relationship with mine (or lack thereof). Instead, I just put my daughter, J, to bed. Prior to that, I supervised her bath time, shampooed her hair, and sat with her on her bedroom floor kneading Mixed Chicks® into the uncooperative knots of her otherwise soft and sweeping curls.
See, I am mixed, and I don’t love that moniker, but use it sometimes for its succinctness. In circles I’ve frequented throughout my life, it has meant, merely, my African-American/Irish-American ethnicity. Today there are a bevy of terms for the myriad multi-ethnic makeups. Mixed, bi-racial, interracial, half and half, what have you. I can’t keep up with what is or isn’t PC at any given moment, nor do I care to. Regardless, I spent the greater part of my youth in an ethnicity conundrum.
I cut my identity-teeth growing up in a Northern Virginia suburb. A part of the Commonwealth kissed by urban sprawl from the neighboring Nation’s Capital, but still, regularly, bitten in the ass by a Southern segregationist and racist past.
I was told that I am too black, not black enough, and that, “In America, you will never be anything but black,” by friends and family, alike. Conversely, I was told that I am too white, not white enough, and incapable of being anything but white. You get the frustrated, fractured, and fragmented picture.
See a third-grade me, sprinting home from the bus stop at which I was dropped off, daily, by the wards of an out-of-town, bullshit, school for the “gifted.” When my sprinting proved insufficient, see me clawing my way up through a dog-pile of neighborhood bullies, dodging fisticuffs and epithets. (To this day, I don’t know if the racism was overt or more of a convenience for mean kids, but it taught me to hold my own, physically and verbally, early and often, and for that I am thankful.)
Fortunately, by high school, I learned to embrace my inner melting pot. I championed my unique cultural constitution, often to the point of buffoonery, taking the stage at parties to rap as M.C. Oreo, an oft-used, disparaging slur, the Uncle Tom denotations of which were lost on me, in favor of some core need for popular attention that it fed, readily.
By senior year, I was a scholar of my heritage, likening myself to the noble and rebellious peoples of the Ashanti Empire on Africa’s Gold Coast or Ireland’s plentiful heroes and saints. I’d like to think I gave ethnicity a slightly better-educated treatment in lyrics that I wrote in those days, including these rap lyrics as I performed them, ironically enough, during my school’s Black History Month Assembly.
Whether white, Puerto Rican, Filipino or Jew / you’re not black, you’re another, but I call the others brothers too
And like the Digables I stick to my task / and stay peace like that… ‘cause I’m mixed like that
Half black, half white, the interracial kid / and I’m not still mad at what my mother’s father did…
I digress, but I will say that, in various educational institutions and throughout my community, I can vividly recall being used by both “sides” as a pawn, in actions that I didn’t quite find affirmative.
So, in a one-bedroom apartment a few miles south of the house that we live in now, my Italian-American wife and I effed around and created a veritable United Colors of Benetton when our daughters were born. This article was supposed to be about them. Sorry for the lengthy back story.
While I was on J’s floor, doing her hair before bedtime, she says to me, “Dada, remember that Dada and his daughter brushing their teeth?!” I know immediately that she means this giant image plastered onto a Walgreens window downtown.
I tell her that I do, in fact, remember, and that’s when she says, “Dada, that Dada and his daughter look JUST. LIKE. US!” A curious thing for a loose-curled toddler with a complexion the color of December’s last remembrance of a summer tan to say about herself and her olive-skinned old man. A poignant example of the pristine spirit of an untainted mind that doesn’t see, or sees through, skin color? I can’t say for certain. More likely than not, it was an innocent expression of her memories of countless times like these:
Either way, it makes me wonder what the world will make of them, in time. They are fortunate, in many ways, to be growing up, here, in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region that supports diversity and champions tolerance. I forget which author said something to the effect of,
“I was surprised to discover, upon leaving San Francisco, that the rest of the world was not like this.”
What will they make of a world where racism flourishes, both institutionalized and overt, yet that world is growing more heterogeneous by the day, as attitudes and latitudes change and the Fred Phelpses leave it to face their makers and the Donald Sterlings get caught red-tongued and, gradually, fade away? How will they identify themselves in a world that seemingly demands that one picks teams and befouls demographics surveys with a category called “other.”
Dear J and N,
You are NOT “Other.” You are J and N. You are American, until, when, and if, you choose otherwise. Your rich and diverse cultural heritage makes you no better and no worse than anyone else who gets to grace this ever-shrinking globe for a while. Your one true measure will be your actions, and how they affect the people that cross your path. You do NOT belong to a group called “other.” You belong to a group called “humanity.” If anything, you are “All.” Just like your Dada.
At what age did your children become aware of true or perceived ethnic differences? If you have “mixed” kids, how do they identify themselves? It’d be an honor to hear your comments.
Originally appeared on AtHomeDadMatters.com; Images courtesy of the author