Brown Mother, White Son
Take a picture of me and my son, and you just might think you’re looking at a United Colors of Benetton ad from 1988. The almond eyes might be the same, or something in the expression – maybe a certain seriousness. But otherwise, we couldn’t be more different.
Cute, right? Well, I think so. Actually, I don’t – not really. I generally don’t think about it at all – except on those occasions when someone would take me for his nanny. Otherwise, I look at this boy and he’s simply my son – no different, nothing foreign, we’re not a shining example of diversity, or part of the bigger conversation on race or globalization. We’re just family.
Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I carried his whopping 4 lbs. 13 oz. of flesh within my own...Or I somehow, in these past nine years, missed cutting some sort of mental + emotional umbilical cord with this kid...because I’m still not sure where I end and he begins.
Sure, there are those days...like the one time I was having a nice, long lunch with my Filipina friend and my son. The waitress kept staring at us throughout the service. After about the second refill of mint lemonade, she had eliminated the possibility that either of us could be his nanny. By the third, she mustered up the courage to ask, “Which one of you is his . . . uh, mother?”
I fessed up.
“Is he ah...” She couldn’t bring herself to ask the next question, instead she ran off to respond to someone’s request for the dessert menu so fast, you’d think a sweet tooth was an emergency medical condition. I never had the chance to tell her that my son isn’t ah...dopted….he just happens to take after his dad.
So yes, there are those days when people call out our difference...when they hold up a mirror and force you to see with just your eyes and ignore all the rest. But it’s a different thing altogether when your own son gets in on it.
I remember studying Jacques Lacan back in college...a film class, I think it was...or maybe French lit. In any case, Lacan talks about the mirror stage in babies...that moment when they recognize themselves for the first time. It’s that moment when they go from being one with the world to recognizing their own individual person. And in that moment, when their gaze shifts from their own image in the mirror, to their mother...she immediately becomes an Other...different and distinct from himself.
Remember that mental + emotional umbilical cord I forgot to cut? Well, my son didn’t.
The first instance came in 2nd grade: “Did you have to sit at the back of the bus when you were a kid?” He asked when he was learning about Rosa Parks. At first, I couldn’t stop laughing. Then I saw his hurt.
I explained to him that I’m not black, I wasn’t alive back then, and the worst discrimination I’ve experienced is mostly limited to being called a sand-ni**er once or twice...no more than that. Ok, so I left out the racial slurs but still, my response isn’t the point. He had started to see a difference which was fine. But it was his concern that his mother might have been mistreated because of it that was just heart-breaking.
There was also the time we were walking on Hollywood Boulevard. A souvenir hawker tried to get me to check out his trinkets. “Where are you from, pretty lady?” he asked probably for the thousandth time that day. “L.A.,” I shouted back and walked on.
My son, thinking he’s some sort of ambassador bridging a cultural divide, explained to me as kindly as possible, “Mama, he probably thought you were from somewhere else because you’re brown. He didn’t mean anything bad by it.”
And again it hit me: I mean, it’s nice that he sees the difference…heck, the difference is beautiful enough to be the subject of 80’s fashion ads….but how terrible that he feels he has to protect me because of it.
As someone who grew up feeling obsessively protective of my own parents because of the political climate of the time, I know that's an incredible burden to bear.
But as long as he sees me just like this...
...and lets me be his world’s best mom, I hope he can get over the rest.
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