The day my daughter realized she isn’t white


“Mama,” my 4-year-old daughter said. “Did you know that darks and lights didn’t used to be able to go to the same places?”

“What?” I asked. It was bedtime, and I was tired. I wondered vaguely how Zara knew so much about laundry.

“There are some people who have dark skin color,” she said. “Lights would go one place, and darks would go another,” Zara went on, indignant. “There were signs saying the darks couldn’t go into where the lights were!”

“Who told you about that?” I asked, and she explained that a special visitor had come to her classroom to talk about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She very earnestly explained the Civil Rights movement and Dr. King’s message to me. “He said that everyone should be able to go into the same places. He said people should take down the signs that kept the darks out.” Growing more passionate, Zara cried, “Kylie and I agreed that we wouldn’t go anywhere if there was a sign that said, ‘Lights Only!’ We would rip up that sign and say, ‘Everyone can go here!’” Kylie has blue eyes and curly blond hair.

“Zara, honey, I’m so glad you feel that way,” I told her. “But do you realize that you’re not white?”

Stunned silence.

And then: rage. “I am white!” she shouted. “You’re white!”

“Yes,” I told her. “I’m white, so you are part white. But Daddy is from Pakistan. He’s brown. And that means that, in those times, you would have been considered brown, not white.”

“I am white!” Zara wailed. “I’m everything!” And she burst into tears.

When Zara was a baby, I read the book Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, which includes a fascinating chapter on race. White parents, it seems, don’t talk about race much—75 percent don’t bring it up at all. This is usually done with good intentions—white parents believe that it’s better to send the message that everyone is the same, rather than pointing out differences.

We live in the United States, and my daughter is an American girl. In a culture dominated by images of white people in advertising, books, and movies, my daughter had simply identified with what she saw around her. As my husband pointed out, it also made sense that, as a girl, she would identify with me. But her name and her complexion mean that others will label her in a way that is at odds with how she sees herself. This MLK Day was her first exposure to the disorienting feeling of being labeled, and I had not yet done anything to help prepare her for it.

According to Nurtureshock, parents of color talk to their children about race in two ways, both of which are helpful. The first is preparation-for-bias. Part of my job as a mother is to help Zara understand that bias exists, but that it should not make her doubt herself. This part feels comfortable, and even familiar. Don’t we all tell little girls that they can do anything? Don’t we explain that some boys think girls can’t play baseball, or solve hard math problems, or be astronauts, or fill-in-the-blank, but that stuff isn’t true? All right, MLK Day gave me the opportunity to talk about race in the same way.

The second way in which parents of color support their children is to instill in them a sense of ethnic pride. This is something that I needed help with.

When my husband proposed to me, he said, “Will you marry me? Because, if so, you’ll have to put up with a lot.” He was talking about the cultural differences between his family and mine, and he was right. It drove me crazy when they would announce a visit, and then arrive 48 hours before the planned date and time, or 56 hours after it, or not at all. I never knew how long anyone was staying, and the visits seemed constant. We have had long stretches—stretches measured in months, or years—in which we had nonstop houseguests. Whenever I described this to friends, they would ask, “How do you stand it?”

But our family relationships have proved to be invaluable in giving my daughter a sense of Pakistani identity. My college-age niece showed Zara how to dance bhangra. My nephew introduced her to Pakistan Idol. When we traveled to Lahore and Karachi, my mother-in-law and her sister expanded Zara’s palate with spicy traditional dishes. And, last December, a different nephew married a Pakistani-American girl who is, amazingly, from the very same small town my husband and I live in. We all went to the wedding, a three-day affair that included a Mendhi ceremony, in which the families of the bride and groom have what amounts to a dance-off, complete with Bollywood music, coordinated outfits, and rehearsed choreography. Unsurprisingly, these moments have given Zara a sense of joy and pride in her heritage. These moments have also given me something: a close bond with my extended family. I’m so grateful for these connections; raising my biracial child is a full-family effort.

Recently, I went to visit Zara’s classroom, where the first grade students were learning how to tell a story. They had worked together to create a character in an original tale. The class character is named Alex Usma, and he is half-Pakistani, half-white.

And all-American, of course. Like my daughter, he’s everything.