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”.