Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Is My Son Biracial if You Can’t Tell?

Mother and son/ © Shutterstock

“Mamá, you and me are cream colored and Papá is brown,” observed my three-year-old this morning.  There’s nothing attached to that statement.  He also informs us of the color of every bus, chicken, fruit, poop…he doesn’t even have a favorite color yet—his favorite color is whichever one he happens to be looking at.


“Yes, we’re all beautiful colors,” I said. And that’s that, for now.


When I was pregnant, we assumed that our baby would be an even mix: my Mexican husband’s dark brown complexion and black hair, plus my light skin and blue eyes, would naturally produce a tan child.  Coffee with milk.  I imagined him clearly (well, I imagined her, actually—gender was just another thing we guessed wrong.) Though I knew that this wasn’t a genetic certainty, it seemed logical.  I was prepared to parent a biracial child who looked…biracial.  He wouldn’t look precisely like either of us; only the three of us together would tell the whole story, the whole equation:  white plus brown equals tan.  Of course.


Instead, our son has my exact coloring.  Our hair is precisely the same dark blonde-and-brown; when he rests his head on my shoulder, you can’t tell where my hair ends and his begins.  His eyes are gray-blue like mine, but with a light brown starburst around each pupil.  Our skin is the same color, but he tans, and I burn.  He looks, at a glance, like my son.


Some people look closely enough to see that he has his father’s features—the smile, the shape of the eyes, the long black lashes (which always get wasted on boys, am I right?), the heart-shaped face.  He’s outgoing like his papá, too, sometimes giving his shy mother little pep talks: “It’s okay, Mamita, say ‘buenos días.’ No pasa nada.”  He is who he is.


Genetics are weird.  My mother-in-law was blonde as a girl, though her hair darkened to black as she matured.  Her father had gray eyes; some of her half-brothers have light eyes.  There’s Spanish blood mixed in there somewhere.  It seems silly to even try to apply the word “biracial” to our son—what is a race, and how many of them are we talking about here?  Is race the same as color?  If you can’t see it, is it there?


I think I wanted and imagined a light brown child because it would have neatly avoided the drawing of uncomfortable lines: you and me are cream-colored, Mamita, and Papá is brown.  How much easier to say, red and white make pink, yellow and red make orange, and white mamá and brown papá make light brown baby, end of discussion.


Of course that was silly of me.  We will have to talk about race— and nationality, culture, privilege and all the rest of it—eventually, about how something with no biological reality has such a powerful, and often unjust, social reality.  How mamá and son have privileges that papá doesn’t, just because we’re “cream-colored.”


And then sometimes I think that three year olds have it figured out.  Red, blue, purple, brown, white, black: they’re just pretty colors.

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Teresa Ponikvar, her husband, and their three-year-old son divide their time between rural Oaxaca, Mexico, and the Bay Area, and find themselves speaking Spanglish most of the time. She's a frequent contributor to the Matador Travel Network and blogs at Cafe con Leche.

Leave us a comment!

  1. CommentsChey   |  Friday, 22 March 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Thank you for this article! You have just described my family to a tee ! We all thought we would get a mix of my husband (Lebanese) and me (blonde white girl) but we didn’t! Instead my son looks like me in color and baba in other respects, but its not obvious that he’s half Mediterranean. I thought we were the only ones. To answer your question, I want to say yea, my son is biracial, partially because I don’t want the Lebanese heritage to get lost and partially because its just so cool to be two at once! On the other hand, race is only a perception. If no one perceives it, it’s not really there.

  2. CommentsCasey   |  Sunday, 24 March 2013 at 5:18 am

    Our son is green-blue eyed with sandy blonde brown hair and fair skin, though just like your son he does tan more nicely than his mostly Irish heritage mom. Sebastian is what we’ve called the blonde colored copy of his Colombian father. It’s amazing to us that as much as in their physical builds and faces they look just like each other, only family members seem to recognize this. Sebastian told us a similar thing about our coloring, Mama y Sebastian son rosados y Papi es cafe. Living in the southeastern US the race conversation is one that we have to have on a fairly regular basis. In a way everyone in our family is technically bi or multiracial, mestizo. We’re all European and American Indian with small traces of other possibilities. Where we live we’ve pretty much determined that you are racial what others perceive you to be, because that’s the level of privilege that you experience. When I’m out and about with Sebastian speaking Spanish, people curiously ask us if we’re from Spain or Argentina or if I just lived abroad for a while and am teaching my second language to him. When my husband is out in public with him he won’t speak Spanish to our boy because if he does people obviously stare, talk about them as though they don’t understand English and they have the experience of the racial/ethnic ‘other’. In California, that might not be the experience, but in the Southeast it definitely is.

  3. CommentsMelissa   |  Monday, 25 March 2013 at 3:42 pm

    Sounds like your husband is the one who is biracial. My husband is Mixteco. And our daughters are just like you imagined your daughter would be. Like tan skin, dark hair, big black eyes. Our son has my hair–turns out hair is on the X gene, so girls get two Xs and it can go either way. Boys just get one from their mom. My son’s skin is slightly darker than mine, but not as dark as his sisters. His eyes are also lighter than theirs, though seem to be a bit darker than my honey-brown eyes.

  4. CommentsTeresa   |  Tuesday, 02 April 2013 at 11:50 am

    Thanks all for your comments! Melissa–so true, if you look at it that way, my husband and son have Zapotec and Maya and Spanish and blood swimming around in their veins, so multiracial if probably a better word! And that’s fascinating about hair on the X-gene–I had no idea. People always say, “la nina le va a salir a su papa” and maybe they’re right! (not that we have plans, mind you!) Do you live in Oaxaca? I’d love to get together sometime if so!

    Casey–yes, the whole language issue as it relates to percieved race is so interesting isn’t it? In California, Mexican folks ofter hear my son chattering away in his unmistakably Mexican Spanish and almost always stop to talk and find out how this blue-eyed little boy became fluent in their native language.

    Chey–it IS so cool to be two at once! And even if race is an illusion or a nonreality or whatever, certainly our kids are bicultural, which is probably more important anyway!

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