Someone asked me if I was my son’s nanny today. We were at our local Little Gym and were being signed in. I said “I’m here with Julian”, and she replied “Are you his nanny?” It was heartbreaking and humiliating. The only other black person in the room (also a mother to a mixed son) simply looked at me with a pained expression. I did my best to compose myself by relaxing my face and steadying my voice to reply: “I’m his mother.” But I could feel my eyes narrowing as I uttered those last two syllables.
To be fair, the asker claimed she had us confused with another family, but the question stung all the same, partly because I had to spend the next hour being polite to her during the class. On the way home, I gave it some more thought. Her explanation was plausible enough given her line of work, so why couldn’t I just give her the benefit of the doubt? Why did I feel like someone had just punched me in the gut? We hadn’t even reached the house before I had a clear answer.
Sitting on the tram, after Julian had fallen asleep, a woman sat down next to me. During the ride, she turned her whole head in order to take a good look at my face. Then, she leaned forward and looked into the buggy at my sleeping baby. She repeated this a few more times before we could get off of the tram, to my great annoyance, but I didn’t want to make a scene and so, for the second time that day, I let it go. The Hague might well be a diverse city with plenty of families with children who look like Julian, but to some, we’re still a spectacle.
The lady on the tram is not the first – and she will definitely not be the last – to wonder wordlessly what I am doing with my son. Sometimes people wonder aloud, either in the grocery store, at a café or on public transport. Once, a stranger who had been cooing over Julian asked my husband and I if we had “made” him together. We were too shocked to say anything other than “Yes”, to which she nodded her head approvingly. To a certain extent you just get used to these kinds of comments, the same way you might get used to being the only black person in a room, or having that one white friend who will always say something offensive about your music, films and clothes. White privilege means that people of colour can be gawked at and interrogated, asked the most personal and upsetting questions, in public, and it is always our responsibility to make the white person – who is just curious afterall – feel at ease. These social dynamics create an environment where black and brown people cannot defend themselves in public without running the risk of violent backlashes, which make them out to the the aggressor, rather than the person who harassed them in the first place. Think: Miss Millie from The Color Purple.
However, being used to something doesn’t mean you’re comfortable with it. Today proved to me just how hard it is – and will always be – to be the mother of child a who shares my eyes and smile, but not my skin colour. The hardest day will not be when Julian understands the question, but when he understands the implications behind it.