By Special Correspondent Thea Lim
The other day in convo with a friend, I burst into tears when he mentioned a couple he knows who are in the process of adopting. As a Korean couple, they have been discussing the potential race of their baby and whether or not having a Korean child is a priority for them.
My reaction was pretty over the top. Maybe it was because I was tired and stressed. Maybe it was because it was close to 4 p.m. and I hadn’t talked to anyone except my cat that day, and I don’t deal well with isolation. But the truth is on an ordinary day, when I hear parents talk about choosing their child’s race, or the politics of having a child of a different race, I immediately clench up.
My mother is English and Irish, and my father is Singaporean Chinese. Neither of them are particularly involved in radical race politics, and I will never know what or how they thought about having mixed race children before my sister and I were born, because (at least at this point in my life) I am afraid to ask them that question.
I often imagine that their thought process was similar to that of Nicole Sprinkle. In her article for the New York Times Magazine, Sprinkle talks about being the white mother of a white/Colombian daughter*:
When I was pregnant, the thought of having an “exotic” looking child based on our combined genetics – Jose’s inky black hair, dark eyes, and round face coupled with my waspy, delicate looks and tiny build – hadn’t really occurred to me.
Sprinkle talks about how this attitude changed after the first time she and her husband experienced discrimination as a mixed race couple:
Would her choices of where to live or travel be compromised by her looks? Or would her mixed genes work in her favor? Not being quite Hispanic-looking enough to make her a victim of racism, but enough for, say, college scholarships? Maybe she’d walk through different worlds at will, be whoever she needed to be for any situation. Nice in theory, but the idea of conveniently shifting identities to protect or promote herself left me cold.
One of the first posts I wrote for Racialicious discussed mixed race parenting, and I remember being quite moved by a comment Abu Sinan made:
Thanks for the article. As a father of two bi-racial children I try to understand as much as I can about the issues they are going to face here in America.
As the daughter of parents who, for better or worse, never discussed what it meant that my sister and I were mixed race (except to regularly tell us that we were “beautiful” and “special”), I am captivated by parents who want to talk and learn about how being mixed race might be a big deal for their kids, and even further, white parents who can admit that – even though they came forth from their own bodies – their children will have experiences that they themselves can never understand.
Sprinkle goes on to describe her family’s attempt to navigate the hairy terrain of multi-racial experience, and even lovingly accepts the reasons why her husband is hesitant to speak Spanish to their daughter, based on his own experiences of discrimination. Yet despite her initial sensitivity, Sprinkle quickly lost me.
I began to panic. Yes, I wanted her to be bilingual, but I didn’t want Spanish to be the language she identified with most. Yeah, my kid was of two cultures, and, yes, she would learn Spanish and English, but to emphasize her Latina side,I felt, was somehow a disservice. Frankly, I didn’t want her to lose any of the privileges of being white.
To emphasize her Latina side was somehow a disservice. Ouch.
On the one hand, I am ready to admit I don’t have children and so I don’t understand the profundity of that desire to protect your child, even when that means doing something that (as Sprinkle herself admits) expresses slightly f-ed up racial politics.
But honestly, while I appreciate Sprinkle’s bluntness, there is a unarticulated vein that runs through her article that says that she doesn’t simply want her daughter Nina to be considered more white than Colombian just so that Nina has access to as many opportunities as possible: Sprinkle also just thinks white is better. (For instance, later in the article she associates schools with large immigrant populations with subpar education, and she again openly states that she wants her daughter to be more white than not. But I’ll get to that.)
And that’s not so surprising. She’s a white lady whose had the privileges of being white her whole life, and received the corresponding messages that clearly white people are just inherently better – or why else would they be most powerful and successful ethnic group in America?
In some ways Sprinkle’s article frustrated me so much that I felt speechless. (Any regular readers will know that I am a bonafide chattypants and it is unusual for me to be struggling for words) There are close to 300 comments on Sprinkle’s article (mostly negative) and L at #31 articulated a simple conclusion that I was unable to get my tongue around:
There is no problem in feeling conflicted about racial or ethnic identity, but people like Ms. Sprinkles who continue to promote ideas that White equals privileged and Latina/other minority equals disservice are doing nothing but perpetuating inequality and frankly, racism.
Despite all her protestations, I was clearly not the only one who picked up the sense that Sprinkle assumes Latin@ heritage is inherently inferior.
When Nina is ready for real school, the choices in our neighborhood don’t thrill me either. Because of the dominant immigrant population, many have a heavy focus on learning English. While I understand that need, I can’t pretend I don’t worry that my daughter’s education will be slowed while she waits for other kids to learn her native language…[so] We enrolled her to start in a private midtown nursery school instead — when she turns 2. It’ll cost us almost my whole paycheck, but there won’t be any rough Spanish — or any homemade rice and beans for lunch like the current day care. (I’ll miss that delicious smell.)
I do not care for that offhand remark about good-smelling rice and beans. It almost sounds as if Sprinkle is saying “Your schools aren’t good enough for my daughter, but y’all do have some good food!”
At another point Sprinkle says:
I didn’t want prejudice or any extra hardship or confusion — like my husband still feels. I just wanted the eyelashes, and cheekbones, and that lyrical Spanish when appropriate. I wanted the good stuff, and from both sides. I wanted it all.
Again, so those oh-so-dreamy eyelashes are good enough for your kid, but your husband’s culture is not. Nice. Also, if you didn’t want “confusion” you should’ve thought twice about having babies with a man of colour. I like to think people put some thought into things like that.
But to get away from the snark and back on track: in terms of education, I’ve heard this debate before. I have friends of colour who’re from middle class families, and whose parents sent them to good, predominantly white schools – where they felt alienated and lost until they transferred back to schools that were predominantly immigrant/mixed cultural. I also have friends whose parents were poor immigrants of colour who had no choice but to send them to neighbourhood schools that actually did have lower educational standards. This latter group now say they plan to do what it takes to get their own kids into the good white schools.
Yet the difference between my friends who plan to get their kids into the best dadburned white bread schools they can afford is that they come from a place of experience, where Sprinkle – especially because she offers no information on whether or not these immigrant schools actually are worse – seems more prejudiced than anything.
And Sprinkle completely disregards her daughter’s cultural needs. She states that there will be other biracial children at the private school where she’s sending her daughter, yet she does not mention whether or not her daughter will have the chance to connect with as many Colombian children as white children, or how she will be able to orient and find herself in this whiter environment. Sprinkle makes offhand mention of the fact that Nina’s Colombian grandma will teach her salsa, but generally she doesn’t seem too concerned about her daughter’s cultural education.
Motherhood is constantly realizing that so much of her life will be out of my control. So is it so terrible for me to see that one of her cultures maybe edges out the other? Just a teeny, tiny bit? If Latinos ruled the world, maybe I’d push things to go the other way, but political correctness and cultural diversity aside, I want her doing well in life — money, success, respect, opportunities, and, most of all, safety.
This last paragraph really turned my stomach. Yes, Nicole Sprinkle, there is something terrible about you wanting one culture to edge out the other. Because the culture you want to WIN!! (and isn’t there something inherently gross about wanting one culture to pwn another?) also happens to be YOUR culture, and it also happens to be the dominant culture in the US.
This rhetoric of the white parent who consistently attempts to assert their mixed child’s whiteness over their non-whiteness reminds me of white folks in a room of colour who pout when the conversation attempts to focus on the issues of people of colour. The experience of no longer being the centre of attention can be disorienting and uncomfortable for some white folks. They make a fuss in order to recentre the focus on themselves: it is too painful to not be in control of the perspective.
When I talk about myself as a woman of colour, sometimes my white mumma asks why I describe myself in that way, instead of saying I am half-white. She feels I am erasing her contribution to my life. I try to be sensitive to her feelings, though sometimes it is hard. Incidentally more often than not I refer to myself as a mixed race POC, yet the few times I want to emphasise my non-whiteness, she tends to flip. Or she asks why I am so engaged with my dad’s culture and not hers.
The answer is simple: when you live in a country where white culture is dominant, you don’t gotta struggle to learn about whiteness. You may, on the other hand, have to struggle to learn about your culture of colour. And you may have to struggle to assert your non-white side, especially if you are middle class, or especially if – as in Sprinkle’s daughter’s case – you are the child of parents who want to subvert your non-white side.
I don’t buy Sprinkle’s insistence that the bottom line is wanting to ensure her daughter’s well-being. This is what Sprinkle says, but what I hear is that she wants to stake racial ownership over her daughter, regardless of what her daughter wants or needs.
To be honest, perhaps my own issues and baggage make me the wrong Racialicious correspondent to unpack this article. When I hear parents talk as if they know what is best for their kids (who are of a different race), my knee jerk reaction is rage. It makes me seethe to hear parents take ownership over something they can’t possibly understand.
Unreliable bias or not, if I was in the business of educating white parents, I would send an email to Sprinkle saying this: You know what would really help your daughter? Not removing her from schools where she might get a subpar education because of the immigrants – children who might become important lifelong allies and friends. The problem is not immigrant dominant schools, but that schools with more immigrants (of colour) tend to get receive less resources. Don’t make the issue about individual students and individual schools when it’s actually about the system. In short, the problem is racism.
Of course it is your parental right to place your daughter in the school of your choice. But if you really are as devoted to your daughter’s well-being as I assume you are, you may just serve her needs better by advocating against systemic racism and its effects on the school system. You definitely are not serving her needs by reinforcing racist beliefs and ideas in the freakin’ NYT.
Yes, that is a gratuitous Mariah pic. It made me feel better, ok!
*I recognise that saying white/Colombian might not make much sense as some Colombians are white. Sprinkle doesn’t specify what kind of white she is or what kind of Colombian her husband is, but from her descriptions of her daughter I guess we are supposed to assume Nina is white/non-white Colombian.