There have been many times when I’ve looked at my child and wished I was Black. Interestingly enough, there have been zero times that I have looked at my child and wished he were white.
I can remember when my son was an infant in his crib and I had gotten a video monitor to watch him from my room. The first time I saw him on the monitor, he looked like a white baby because the video inverses dark and light. I remember recoiling on first look. It’s not that I don’t love little pink and white babies, oh I do, but my baby was not white, he was brown skinned and so I wanted to see my baby in that video.
Recently, I’ve been going back and forth with the Sephardic Federation in New York. Spain is trying to get a bill passed which would allow Sephardim (Spanish Jews) to be granted citizenship. It’s a bill that might have passed before the conservative government was elected recently into power, and it still might pass, and what I’ve learned is I need to be ready with my genealogy to prove that I come from the Jewish people who were exiled 500 years ago (1492) from Spain and dispersed around the world.
While thinking about putting together my genealogy, I’ve thought about my son’s. Since I know so little of his primary family background, and because he is African American, we will know so little of his ancestry, I’ve thought about doing the 23&Me and African Ancestry genealogy for him. I’ve wondered what we would find in his background. A friend who is African American did his and found out he has a large part of him that hails from Italian ancestry. He was shocked.
Piecing together who we are by way of ancestry is the equivalent of a trip down the rabbit hole. In a review for Christine Kenneally’s “The Invisible History of The Human Race,” David Dobbs says “our DNA tells its tales most fully only in light of the history of the people who carry and interrogate it.” It made me think about the history that I don’t tell about myself, which is my mother’s side of my equation.
My mother converted to Judaism when she married my father, but she was born on a dairy farm in rural Louisiana to white Baptist parents. Her family hails from England and Ireland and Scotland and they farmed their way across the country having arrived here in the early 1500’s. They were land poor as the saying goes and my grandmother died in a house on a street that bears my grandfather’s last name.
This is where I get my skin color – peaches and cream – and where I got my reddish blonde hair color. My blue eyes surprisingly came from my Sephardic grandfather. The people on this side of my family tree are mostly salt of the earth, family loving, and God-worshipping people. They were and still are mostly farmers, planting seasonal crops.
I sort of let this identity of mine slide into oblivion because what defined me growing up was my Judaism, my father’s Spanish accent, and his olive skin. My brothers inherited his coloring. My sister got some of it. And I was born “lily white” as the saying goes.
All of my life, people have come up to me off the street and said, “You have such beautiful skin.” And that is a gift my mother gave me because she too had beautiful skin. People were not talking about the color of my skin as much as the smoothness and lack of acne and discoloration of it.
And yet, when I was sitting at the counter having breakfast with my son the other day and he said, “Mommy, why does your skin not look like my skin,” and I began again the story of melanin and adoption, I openly told him the truth, “I wish we had the same skin sometimes, but we don’t.”
It’s true that as an adopted mother I wish to bear a stronger connection to him visibly and I do sometimes secretly wish my skin were some shade of brown so that when we are out in a crowd, people would not be pairing him up with some strange African American woman who just happened to be standing near him or that when we are walking through an airport people don’t immediately start looking around for his mother. I am his mother.
But being Black is not just a skin color, it refers to a culture. Just like Jewish is a culture, not just a religion. And white, well we are just starting to understand what white culture means to white people. I think people of color have long held beliefs of who white people are based on their relationships with them, but white people themselves have never had much self-reflection about being part of a group called white before now.
I don’t know if it was prescient or just the facts of my life, but I grabbed hold of my ethnicity as a Spanish Jew from a very tender age. I was not white, until I was in the reflection of my brown baby and the world at large. After living a half century, I had to start grasping a very different image of myself. I’m white – go figure. Who knew? I surely didn’t. When I would spit out words like “white man” problems as a young feminist in college, I did not hear the irony of me saying that statement.
So now when I’m piecing together my genealogy for my Sephardic heritage to see about my Spanish citizenship, I’m also thinking about my white heritage and why I downplay that part of my identity when the people who make up those genes are so special to me in my life. When we do get around to my son’s genealogy and his DNA and find out his make-up will this be welcome news for him or would it be better for him to forge his own identity – grabbing hold of what strikes him the most as I did and wearing that until the real facts don’t matter any more – like the fact that my very dark-skinned friend is part Italian?
The fastest growing group of children in the United States is biracial. As these children grow and develop their self identities, it will be interesting to see if they choose one or the multitudes of the ethnicities that inform them.