White Parents, Becoming a Little Less White
Former Gov. Jeb Bush made news recently because he checked “Hispanic” on a voter registration form. This is obviously ridiculous from a scion of the Bush family (and Mr. Bush has said he made a mistake). Yet, I understand, because the family he raised is not unlike mine.
A few years ago, in fact, my wife casually mentioned that she doesn’t consider herself 100 percent white any more. She has blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin, and as far back as anyone can remember, all of her ancestors have been Irish.
She was white when we were married. I know that because I’m Chinese and that made us an interracial couple. My wife jokes (I think she’s joking) that she married me in part because my increased melanin would protect her children from skin cancer.
She became less white when our son, and then our daughter, were born. I think the first bit of doubt surfaced the day we were on the subway with our newborn and a woman came up to my wife and said: “Oh, he’s so cute! When did you adopt him?” I was livid: Did it not occur to this woman that the father was sitting right next to his wife and child? It turned out that the woman really just wanted to talk about her own adopted granddaughter but somewhere in that moment my wife was identified as the mother of a nonwhite child.
Our children are proud to be Irish-American-Chinese-Canadian but most people just see their faces as Chinese. I’ve read about a number of studies that explain how human beings tend to internalize external reactions to their appearance. This is the reason racism can incur negative self-assessments among minorities.
We saw this collision between consciousness and appearance in our own family. One of the most heartbreaking moments of my fatherhood was when my son announced from the backseat of the car that he didn’t like the way he looked. He was about 4 years old. My wife was shocked; I was less so. What don’t you like about how you look, I asked him. Is it your eyes? Yeah, he replied. I don’t think he had a negative reaction to Chinese faces or almond-shaped Asian eyes, but how he felt inside did not correspond to how he looked outside.
My wife was shocked that our beautiful little boy didn’t like the way he looked. But she understands. She understands that when we visit Vermont, our children and I stand out in a way she does not. She understands that when political candidates use coded phrases about people who are “not one of us” that they are talking about people who look like her children. It’s nuanced: she even understands that when universities talk about increasing diversity among their students, they are referring to minorities other than our children. Now many policy issues affect my wife in a more visceral way since they affect her own flesh and blood.
Ironically, the reason I’ve done any reading about the sociology of racism is because my wife has the literature around the house. Part of her job is to lead discussions on diversity in her workplace. She usually begins by explaining why she makes an appropriate leader for such discussions and points out the stereotypes that come with being blond. Now, however, she could probably just put up a PowerPoint slide of her children and many people would accept that she understands at least some of the issues of being nonwhite.
So like my wife, Jeb Bush — having married a Hispanic woman — is in a nonwhite family. And, as Eli J. Finkel explained in a recent piece in the Opinion pages, becoming part of a nonwhite family may change a person’s perception of herself as her identity “fuses” with the identity of those she loves. As Mr. Bush must surely know, there are political ramifications to white parents self-identifying as nonwhite.
Against a background of a 9.7 percent increase in the American population from 2000 to 2010, the 2010 Census showed the Asian/White mixed-race category jumped 87 percent and the Black/White mixed-raced category jumped 134 percent. The actual numbers are small — taken together, the Asian/White and Black/White population combined number only about two million people — but there’s something important to note for anyone not ready for the inevitable, if oxymoronic minority-majority voting population.
While it will take 18 years for that mixed race baby to vote, there is a parent in that family who suddenly has an altered perspective on the culture and policies of the United States. White mothers who realize that their sons will be victims of racial profiling, white fathers who suddenly feel a little squeamish about the fact that “Asian” is a category of pornography. There are white parents whose children look vaguely Middle Eastern and will face harder times getting onto airplanes.
Those two million mixed-raced children have two million white parents who are no longer 100 percent white.
Jack Cheng’s work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, Brain, Child, Archaeology Magazine, Orion and other national publications. Follow him on Twitter: @jakcheng.