Imagine a gorgeous 37 year-old mom, her husband and two young daughters. In every way, they are a typical American family, raising their kids and working hard. Except, there is one thing that separates them from many other families. They are forced to fend off racist, intrusive comments from strangers every time they leave the house together. Why? Because they are a mixed-race family, African American and white, with two mixed-race daughters. One of their daughters has blond hair and blue eyes.
Profiled last week by the New York Times, in the series, “Race Remixed” the Greenwood family of Toms River, N.J. is part of a growing number of mixed-race families. According to the NYT, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities. And, among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent to 4.2 million since 2000 (NYT). In a new study published by the Journal of Marriage and Family (JMF), marriages between college educated blacks and whites have increased dramatically since 1980, although they still remain a small number. Given the growth of mixed-race families, why is it the Greenwood family must suffer comments about their adorable fair skinned, blue-eyed toddler like the person who questioned whether she was her mom’s biological daughter, saying, “It’s not possible…you’re so dark!” Comments like these are embarrassing, hurtful and, yes, racist.
I know what Heather Greenwood deals with when she accompanies her kids to public places. I’m also mixed-race (African American and white). I’m married to a white guy and we have two kids. I’ve dealt with the stares at my family from strangers, the too-long looks, the backward glances and the comments--and direct questions-- as to where my son gets his blue eyes. Fortunately, that's all we've had to deal with. Thank goodness the comments about my son’s eyes don’t happen daily. I think part of the reason may be because I live in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the country. I’ve never had somebody ask me, “how come she’s so white and you’re so dark?” like the ignorant question that was recently hurled at Heather Greenwood. After reading the NYT article, I’m certain that living in Los Angeles, my hometown, has been an important factor in my family’s acceptance. Los Angeles has a wonderful “live and let live” quality.
“If we could just go about whatever we’re doing and not be asked anything about our family’s colors, that would be a dream,” said Heather Greenwood in the NYT. I’m heartbroken reading her comment. My family confronts the question about my son’s blue eyes, but we go about our lives without incident. Yet, I can imagine what life would be like if the times I’ve been asked about my son’s eyes were a constant issue in our lives. It would be invasive, annoying, offensive and eventually devastating. Ironically, while strangers are the Greenwood’s most difficult obstacle, their own extended family is accepting and welcoming. In contrast, my husband’s parents don’t accept the idea of me or my children (we've never met) and he is estranged from them.
In 2011, it is disheartening to read about a family, much like mine, who is forced to deal with strangers who question aloud their identify and racial heritage in front of their children. More than a few of the people verbally accosting Heather Greenwood were demanding and obnoxious as quoted in the NYT. If this happened to me repeatedly, I know at some point, I’d probably lose my cool. But, for the sake of our kids, Heather Greenwood and I both remain calm in the face of insulting questions, even as we’d love to give the person a piece of our mind and tell them what we REALLY think.
The JMF study points out that although black/white marriages have increased dramatically in the past 20 years, barriers remain. Part of the reason is that people must decide whether or not they will marry outside their race. But is that always a conscious decision? Don’t some people just fall in love and get married? I’ve often thought that when you’re mixed, you’re always marrying outside of your race. I married the person I fell in love with. He happened to be white. I’m proud to be part of the group of well-educated interracial marriages that are changing the fabric of our community. Racism is one of the last bastions of ignorance keeping people separate, apart and suspicious of each other. When a couple crosses a color line to be together, it may remind some people of their own racism. These people, who have not come to terms with their own racist beliefs, cannot accept a family who is truly able to see past skin color. So they react, often harshly.
It is my fervent hope, underscored by my eternal optimism about the greatness of America that our future will someday be free of those individuals who cling to outdated, racist notions and insidious color barriers. Until my wish becomes a reality, I only ask that people keep their opinions about mixed-races families to themselves. I’m pretty sure I can speak for the Greenwood family when I say that both our families would appreciate that simple courtesy.
Christina Simon is the co-author of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider's Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles. She also blogs at Beyond the Brochure.
More from living