The colors of a family
“He’s so cute,” the woman said. “Whose baby is he?”
The question shocked me.
I was holding my 1-year-old, ambling about downtown with some friends. White friends. She must have thought my boy belonged to one of them.
There’s a simple explanation: I’m black but my son, Ashe, is white. At least he looks it.
But things are more complicated than that.
I’m actually half black and half white. It should come as no surprise, though, that even as sophisticated as we’ve become about people of mixed parentage, I’m pigeonholed as black. If someone asks and I don’t have time to go deeper, that’s what I call myself.
Ashe is mixed too. His mother, my wife, Vanashree, is half white and half South Asian, with roots in India. She has olive skin, and Ashe is slightly lighter than she is.
This surprised us. When Ashe was born, one of the first things I said to Vanashree was, “Honey, he’s so light!” We chuckled, poking fun at our assumptions.
We had thought our newborn would have skin more like mine. We also figured I would teach him the lessons my parents taught me as I grew up in the 1960s and ‘70s: Be proud of being black; but be ready, because you will always have to find a way around barriers large and small.
My son won’t need those lessons.
He’ll have what I can only imagine: white privilege.
That means in most of America, most of the world, when he walks into a room filled with strangers, he’ll have nothing to prove. He will be assumed to be smart, trustworthy and reasonable.
We’ve obviously come a long, long way when it comes to this, but when I meet strangers, most of the time I have to prove myself. Am I smart, trustworthy, reasonable? That’s not necessarily assumed. It’s the same, I dare say, for all black people.
Here’s something else, and it is subtle.
More important than how others see me is how I see myself — and how my son will see himself.
For me, it works this way:
At the level of daily interaction, I view myself as proudly black, proud to feel a connection to a people who have known such a terrible struggle and accomplished so much in spite of it, proud to trace my roots in North America to Venus Streeter, a slave born in South Carolina in the late 1700s.
At the next level, I honor the fact that I’m as much white as black. I honor my mother, my aunt, my cousins and Eleanor McManus, my great-great-great-grandmother, born at the dawn of the 1800s on a voyage to America from Ireland.
Since he’ll grow up experiencing the world differently than I do, Ashe will likely flip the importance of these views. And because of his even more varied ancestry, he probably will add to the mix. That’s wonderful.
But I want us to end up in the same place: at the final, deepest level. This is where I savor the fact that I am, most important, a human being, a 45-year-old man connected to all others of every race and culture in a way that transcends the divisions that betray us all. It is this identity I feel in my bones when I am at my best.
Sadly, there are times, sometimes long periods, when I forget all about connection and transcendence.
If you are categorized as black, no matter who you are, what you’ve achieved or where you are from, race is almost impossible to ignore. This can be a gift: the thankfulness I feel for Venus, for example.
But it can also wreak a sort of neurotic havoc on the mind. Uncertainty is a constant. Why didn’t I get that apartment? Was it because of my race? Was that why the waitress treated me rudely? Why did a former boss keep confusing me with an African American colleague, someone who looked nothing like me? And what did his confusion mean?
In the last dozen years, I’ve been accused of shoplifting once and pulled over by police four times.
Shoplifting? The last time I stole anything I pilfered a Three Musketeers bar and was forced by my mother to return it and apologize through tears to the owner of our neighborhood grocery store. I was 5.
As for the police, the only traffic stop that seemed legitimate was for a broken turn-signal light, and I was grateful to be told about it. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the officer pulled me over at virtually the moment I drove into Chino Hills, a suburb with few African Americans.
Why did the police stop me the other three times and never give me a ticket? Why was I accused of shoplifting? If you look like me, you may never know. You go through life doing guesswork, delicate mental calculations that you are sometimes barely aware of, trying to divine the meaning behind glances, insults, insinuations, even praise — and then trying to decide the smart and appropriate responses.
I’m very comfortable with people from all corners. But even for me, the steady drum of silent wondering and guesswork brings too many days when race sits heavily on my shoulders. It causes too many moments when I react with fear or anger or distrust, too many instances when I forget about our common bonds.
During times like these, my son is a gift.
Now all I have to do is hold him tightly.
He jolts me back to my deepest identity and reminds me of the ways in which we are all connected, how we are all basically the same.
What a gift!
Ashe looks like a wavy-haired white kid. He is. Just as he is South Asian, just as he is black, just as he is, above all else, a human being.
Whose baby is he?
Lady, he’s my baby.
The view from Sacramento
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