When white women have brown babies: (un)learning and what can I teach them?

Becoming a mother unleashes an uncertainty onslaught unmatched by any other stage of life. Under such attack the most useful thing anyone can ever say to a new mother is, “You are the mother your children need. You are enough”.

But what if this isn’t always true?

What if the space of unknowing is so great that it creates a vacuum into which your child can be sucked, chewed up and spat out unrecognisable to herself and those around her?

Because white mothers of brown babies don’t know. We haven’t been there. And as we grapple with the certainty of knowing we should lead by example, we are also struck with the certainty that in some ways we are clueless. We realise we are not enough.

I am a white middle-class(ish) woman. Coming to terms with the privilege that affords me has been a sudden awakening in the last few months and for that I am sorry. I’ve expressed this regret to people who reassure me that I have not done anything “wrong” – people can only operate from their place of awareness – but still I would quite like to sit with that discomfort, own it, and notice how my “instincts” have been muddied with the realisation that they too have been the unsuspecting victims of unconcious bias.

White people in Britain are taught to ignore race – we feel uncomfortable talking about it; even typing the words “white”, “black”, and “people of colour” makes me wince. But of course, we have that privilege – we have the option to ignore race, to pretend it doesn’t make a difference, but when a white woman has brown babies she has to finally sit up and take notice.

So I am reading as much as I can; talking and listening to people who know. I know I have 36 years of unlearning to do and so far I’m somewhere around the third sentence.

I’m not expecting, nor do I want, congratulations for this. I just want to talk about how and what I am learning because in a deepening of the wound of the uncertainty-onslaught motherhood inflicts on us all, I have realised that I’m not qualified to guide my children through the challenges they will face, and it’s sometimes a lonely place.

I’m working through those thoughts by writing because this is what I do. I strive to make sense of my thinking by tip-tapping it out and posting it out there for anyone to see. I invite agreement, challenge, even derision, because it helps to clarify my thinking.

So this is where I begin.

I’ve already got it wrong.

Drowning in Disney images of pale-skinned Princesses, many with blonde hair and blue eyes, I worried in her third year when my daughter repeatedly asked when she would grow “lellow hair”. But I downplayed it.

In a perfect example of Are you sure it was meant like that mentality I told myself that the omnipresence of a Eurocentric standard of beauty didn’t matter that much. When I later watched my daughter swell in prideful recognition that she could be Moana (making allowances for a four years old’s awareness of the different origins of brown people), I jolted awake.

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Moana

My skin crawled in appalled recognition when I was taught that allowing strangers to touch my daughter’s hair out of curiosity was as inappropriate as allowing them to stroke her skin. I had failed to protect and promote the sanctity of my daughter’s body and have had to ask myself some uncomfortable questions about why.

The creeping truth is I have allowed strangers to pet my child like an exotic animal because I didn’t want to embarrass them by saying no. Crucially, I placed their potential embarrassment above my child’s agency over her own body because I didn’t understand the significance of what was being asked.

The assurances of friends who tell me the whiteout of their commuter-town communities would not pose a problem, were we to take the plunge and move out of London, have been met with the same silence. Why? Because I don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable either.

The pretence sees me asserting that my only concerns are that I don’t want my children to stand out by default – if they want to claim their individuality they can dye their hair pink or wear outrageous clothes, I say.

I occasionally go further to explain how I don’t want to live somewhere they are so different that the colour of their skin can be used as their identifiying feature – you know A, the mixed race one. I imagine the words “mixed race” being said in a nasal half-whisper that suggests some sort of discomfort with the words, and I assume we live somewhere everyone understands the term “half-caste” is not ok (but then, we all know what assume did…).

But I usually avoid venturing into the territory of explaining how the colour of my childrens’ skin impacts the way the rest of the world sees them. I rarely explain the ways teachers, peers, other parents, the Police, future employers and employees will treat them differently – unconciously perhaps, but still differently (and I’m including in this the creepy fetishising of mixed race children that happens throughout our society). I avoid talking about it because many white people get defensive, challenge it, and I feel uncomfortable insisting.

Finally, I avoid the white-supremicist-elephant in the room that, in a world where images of Saffiyah Khan, Ieshia Evans and Tess Asplund necessarily go viral; in a society where Katy Hopkins’ vile brand of attention-seeking “straight-talking” has an audience, my children will be safer growing up in London. At least here there will be other people who look like them, with whom they can share their experiences.

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Saffiyah Khan

It’s telling that the friends who tell me my fears are unfounded are unfailingly white. My mostly left-leaning friends nod to the existence of racism – you can’t be a good lefty if you’re in denial of bigotry – but some also perpetuate a myth that it doesn’t happen where they live. And it’s telling that I don’t set them straight.

I fail to challenge their blindness to the institutional, structural and societal racism that surrounds them, and I fail to point out that the reason they don’t see it is because where they live there are no people of colour to fall victim to it, or they don’t see it because they’re not its target.

Like most white people living in majority white spaces I’ve excused people expressing views that too kindly get called “borderline”. It has been safer and more comfortable for me to pretend they “didn’t mean it like that” but I’ve realised that I have to take responsibility.

I have to risk alienating and offending people. I have to risk being told I’m being over-sensitive. And when my gut tells me what we’re all too afraid to say I have to say it anyway.

I have to do what people of colour have been doing all along while I made excuses.

I’m going to be afraid and uncertain. I’m bound to get it wrong at times (I’m aware even this very blog post might be getting it wrong) but I can’t do nothing. I can’t pretend that there are no difficulties in preparing my children to navigate a relationship with the world that will be completely different to the one I understand. There are going to be times in the future when the teenage refrain, “You don’t understand” is going to carry extra weight and I have to accept that.

So this is my way of starting that journey – openly, honestly, imperfectly.

Because my mixed-race children aged just two and four have already taught me that my dearly held life-long left-wing views are worthless when not deepened by action. It’s uncomfortable to admit that only being genetically invested in their future has prompted this reflection, but I have finally learned it’s not enough to just say “I’m not racist”.

 

25 thoughts on “When white women have brown babies: (un)learning and what can I teach them?

  1. Well done on writing this, I can’t comment as I am not in your position but feel that this is a sensitive and well thought out piece which your children would be very proud of, and hopefully will be when they are old enough to understand. The fact that you have even written about the struggles shows how aware you are and that is a good thing x

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I am white, my son is too, we live in an overwhelmingly white part of the country, yet I found this massively informative- answering a lot of questions I have about race.

    I don’t mind admitting that I was unsure about posting this, it’s often seen as a taboo subject isn’t it? Race. I completely agree that as white people, living in a white society we are taught to ignore race.

    Without wanting to sound like a complete knob, I take parenting very seriously indeed! I am raising the future and I am determined to do a good job! I basically want to raise a left- wing feminist who goes on to save the world (poor kid). Since becoming a mother, I am asking myself all sorts of questions I was oblivious to In the past. But I struggle with race, what is the right thing to say? How do I educate my son properly about race?

    I’ve always forcibly informed my little one that ‘everyone is the same’- but we aren’t are we? Is that in itself racist? Am I just teaching a new generation to ignore problems that don’t affect him? I don’t know how to teach him about inequality, he is Incredibly unlikely to face it, but I know that I want him to be aware of it. Without wanting to sound in any way condescending, I’d genuinely love to hear how I do that? What do I teach my child about race that means he will grow up to respect others and not be a dickhead (even if it is unintentional).

    We don’t talk about it- it’s ‘awkward’. Without the questions being asked though, nothing will ever change will it?

    One of the most thought provoking pieces on parenting I’ve ever read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Cara, thank you so much for this thoughtful (and lengthy!) comment.

      I know exactly what you mean about being unsure where a white person’s voice belongs in the conversation around race but I *think* we do have a place. Perhaps it is our place to speak up in white spaces where black voices are too easily dismissed? It is wrong, but there is truth that some people are more willing to listen to people who look like them. It is then important that once we have “softened the blow” we point people in the direction of the voices who speak from lived experience – that as white people we don’t assume knowledge.

      For what it’s worth, I was brought up in a wholly white community and I do not think it has to be a bad thing. My parent raised me to be open and accepting of people regardless of the ways they are different to me and that is how I continue to approach my life. Don’t get me wrong, I fail sometimes, and I have spent most of my life unaware of my privilege, because we’re all subject to influences outside our control, but we can also all question ourselves and where our assumptions come from. This is what I try to do.

      The key I think is not to pretend people are not different, but to not attach a value judgement to that difference. Being different is neither better nor worse, it is just different. This allows you the space to acknowledge and explore the challenges and injustices that people of colour (and any other marginalised group for that matter) experience – if you pretend they are not different, you also deny that they can be treated differently.

      When it comes to teaching your son about race, do what I am going to do with my children – make sure that he has points of reference both good and bad from all parts of the racial spectrum. We have to work to look for them as the representation of black people in our education system and media is often one-dimensional and unrepresentative (and I use black in the political sense, as in non-white (a term also to be avoided as it suggests a “lack” of something. Over-thinking? Perhaps, but I think its important to be thoughtful and respectful about the language we use).

      Finally, we have to educate ourselves. We have to try to understand the challenges and injustices that other people face. We have to listen to those who know and stop asking for proof. And we have to be open to feeling very very uncomfortable.

      Your son will be fine – he has you to guide him!

      Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment.

      Nicola.

      PS a good starting place is “Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race” by Reni Eddo-Lodge – it’s interesting, well-written and about UK race relations, something that often gets eclipsed by American race-relations. It’s not dry and academic so definitely a good place to start if you’re not used to reading this kind of text.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing this Nicola… it must have been uncomfortable. I’m in the very same position and can feel friendships straining at my vocal chords making impolite and unnecessary noise about the danger of assuming there is invisibility and indifference in colour. But hey I’m glad I’m doing this in your company.x

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    1. Thank you. Its been something I’ve been obsessing over for some time and I was worried about getting it wrong and speaking in a way that was not useful, or worse, insulting. It has been a relief to have the piece taken in the spirit it is intended however, and to hear from people who feel the same about raising their mixed-race children.
      I also get the strained friendships – I’ve had a couple of spats with some mum-friends (not close ones) and I’m pretty sure I’ve been spoken about behind my back. But I feel like I’m doing the right thing so try not to get too upset about it…
      Thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. It means a lot xxx

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  4. Well done on a fantastic piece of writing. Your a fantastic mum with two kids whom are your world. Society these days 🤔 that’s a hard one, I feel people don’t trust the same as they did years ago. Some in society seem to be judging they are judging a lot more than they used to, but why I ask myself ! You keep posting, writing even venting if need be. Thank you once again for sharing. Sorry if my comments don’t make much sense the bottom line is keep going with what your doing. Your one strong mamma. 💪💜💜

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  5. This was a really interesting read, thank you. I’m mixed race (black mum, white dad) and much of this is what I’ve tried to explain (but much less eloquently!) to my (white) husband over the years. He doesn’t see anyone treat me differently, which is obviously a good thing, but makes it hard to explain the subtle, insidious and institutional racism which sadly does exist. My mum bought us up that racism was a reality and that we would have to always be better than the white candidate to be chosen for any job as being the same we weren’t the one who would be chosen and so to try that little bit harder, shine that little bit brighter etc. I used to think she was just saying that to push us to do the best we could and my siblings and I have all gone on to have very successful, fulfilling and enjoyable careers. But as I get older I sadly think she was probably right. However my lovely husband struggles to understand this but I think probably because it’s so hard to understand that the (usually white) interviewing panel also don’t realise that they could be possibly be racist. I appreciated that my mum always pointed out successful black and mixed-race people when they appeared in newspapers or on TV and encouraged us that though things may be slightly harder there were certainly no limits to what we could achieve. I’ve thought a lot about the messages I want to give to my own mixed-race daughter, though she’s still only a baby, as I always assumed her experience would be similar to mine and that my job was to arm her to with the tools to navigate the world as a ‘non-white’ (agree, this is a bad phrase) person. At the moment she’s very white with light, straight hair which was a bit unexpected! I wonder how she will change as she grows and how it will affect her experiences. My aim is to instil her with a great sense of self-worth (not arrogance!!) which I hope will help her to be happy within herself and resilient to the challenges she will face. Xx

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    1. Hi Jess. Thank you for reading – I’m sorry to hear that your husband struggles to understand – I am sure he is a wonderful man, but that can’t be easy. Unconscious bias is such a tough one to explain and tackle – when the white supremacists marched in Charlottesville their racism was out there for all to see. Terrifyingly so, but at least the “enemy” was/is obvious. When people are not even aware of the prejudice they carry around with them, it makes it harder to tackle.
      It sounds like your mum is a pretty special woman though – my partner’s uncle once told him that he has to work harder than white people to succeed and it is something that has alway stayed with him. Not as a cause of resentment, but simply as a fact. What a sad world we live in.
      I hope I can do as good a job as your mum did (and you no doubt will do too) in bringing my children up to be proud of their heritage. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this thoughtful comment. Best wishes to you and your family xxx

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  6. Hey, great piece Nic! With the world the way it is at the moment we need more people to think and talk about this.
    As a black woman with mixed race children I harbour a deep seated fear for how my sons will be treated as they grow up and go out into the world.
    Personal experience makes me wary but we need people to acknowledge there is a problem and that everyone has a role in dealing with it regardless of their skin colour.
    I have thought about this a lot recently and realised that as much as normal people (by that I mean anyone who isn’t a racist) would love to just avoid or ignore racists, unfortunately that is just giving them exactly what they want. They would probably be quite happy not to have to mix or communicate with anyone outside their desired ethnic group. Only by confronting these horrible people can we attempt (usually in vain as I find that an ability to reason and listen to sensible arguments seems to be lacking in racists) to enlighten them.
    Sorry I’ll stop rambling but in summary, I love it. You’re doing a great job! X

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    1. Thank you Lola – that means a lot xxxx I agree that people who harbour racist views are often resistant to logic and reason – I actually think at that point it become wilful hatred, which is totally different to ignorance. I’ve realised that arguing with such people is a waste of time and instead have decided to concentrate on opening the eyes of my mainly white friendship group, and those of my family, to the privilege we enjoy. The fears for our children that you speak of are real and we need allies. Sending love to you and all three of your men-folk!!! xxx

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  7. Thank you for writing this. It’s overwhelmingly reassuring to read a piece written with such honesty on a subject to which I relate. I’ve only just become a mother (my little girl is 6months), we are a mixed heritage family and I am white. I am aware I need to address my child’s heritage and the fact our skin colour is different and sadly that she may be treated differently; but I am so very nervous embarking on this aspect of parenthood and so acutely aware that I am starting from a very privileged perspective. It feels fraught-when it should be simple.

    Thank you for making me feel less lonely! I look forward to reading more of your adventures and taking some parenting tips and solace!

    For what a stranger’s opinion is worth- you’re doing a brilliant job by all accounts.
    X

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    1. Ah thank you Millie – both for reading and your kind words. It is an over-whelming prospect and the only thing I can suggest doing is reading and listening. I’ve been really fortunate to find some women online (on Instagram) who are open and welcoming to me asking what might be stupid questions – they “don’t play that call out and drag shit” as one of them said to me the first time I met her in person. Let me know if you’re on Instagram and would like me to send you their handles as I think this is the best way we learn. Best wishes to you and you beautiful family – I’m happy to have some company on this journey too x

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      1. Thank you so much for taking the time to reply, I really appreciate it. I am on instagram and have found the whole community really supportive and informative these past few months, I’m millie_buck on there-I follow you (sounds creepy! Promise I’m not) but would love any further recommendations. Motherhood is a baffling and awesome world- I find it can be so very intimidating at times, but I’m *trying* to practise applying some light relief, a sense of humour and a bit of self belief… back to work next month so a whole new set of challenges to contend with!

        X

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  8. I had the same discussions with my late wife. It took her a while to get it but she did eventually. I make sure my kids are in touch with both their Scottish and Jamaican heritage. Her family don’t get it but unfortunately being born and mainly living north of the border means they don’t come into contact with too many people of colour. So they very much fall into the category you discussed in your post.

    I live outside of London and it is possible to bring up mixed race children in a mainly white area. You just have to work at ensuring they have POC in their lives on as regular basis as possible. Also to keep re-enforcing positive images of POC from the people they come into contact with, books, films, childrens programmes etc. There is so much positive work and projects out there being done by black people, that once you get into it you’ll be swarmed by the volume of it.

    Love the #makemotherhooddiverse project that you’re involved in too. Your kids have a great role model to look up to and your partner a strong woman by his side : – )

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    1. Hi! Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’m sorry it has taken me so long to reply – I’m not on here as often as I would like! Thank you also for your thoughts on raising mixed race children in a majority white area – it is something my partner and I keep revisiting as house prices are so ridiculous in London, so advice on how to make it work is always welcome. Thank you again! Nic

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