She was tall and blonde. He was tall and Black. But that’s not what made them stand out to me, nor was it the fact that their children, like my son, were the few people of color on a college tour in a rust belt city. It was, instead, the way they held hands.
Throughout the campus tour, they stayed in contact, her fingers lightly in his palm, or their bodies just close enough to rub arms. No other couple I saw did this. And then I understood, because I realized I was doing the same thing, my white hand wrapped around my husband’s brown elbow. We were both staking claim. We were both saying, “For all of you staring for a second too long, let me help you out: Yes, I’m with him and he’s with me and the racially ambiguous kid with us (Is he Latino? Middle Eastern? From some Greek island?) is ours.
I’ve struggled with trying to explain what it is to be a biracial couple, raising biracial children, in this current day and age. We’ve never had people outright call us names, refuse us service, or do any of the aggressively blatant racist acts that interracial couples from generations before ours had to endure. But there’s still… something. Something there. Not everywhere, but in some places, where there are just too many eyes on us and we don't feel comfortable, where my husband gets the cold shoulder from some service attendant but their demeanor changes when they see me. Or, more commonly, our togetherness came as an obvious shock. Not an offensive shock, but a shock that serves as a reminder that our love, and even our children, are a curiosity. I often wonder if other families so often hear “Oh my God, your children are so beautiful!” I mean, they are, but in some situations, there is the silent subtext of, “This compliment is my way of saying I am cool with your family’s existence and so obviously, I am woke.” Yeah, thanks! Good for you!
Those parents on the college tour created a mirror for my experience. And in doing so, they shed light on all the ways I consciously and subconsciously have not only tried to stake claim to my family, but assert my right to be with them.
Such as: Sidling up close to my husband when the restaurant host starts scanning the room for the person he expects to be dining with my husband, and then seeing the startled look and quick recovery. “Yes, right this way.”
Wrapping my arm around his waist when we meet new people for the first time and I see that puzzled look, the one that says, “I’m trying to figure you two out.”
Immediately pointing to my child before their new teacher could try to place me with the blonde-headed kid in the classroom.
And, most direct of all, changing my last name.
When we were first married, I was hesitant to take my husband’s name. I was a writer, and my name was my brand, so I wanted to cling to it. I also was embarrassingly uncomfortable with taking on such an obviously West Indian last name. I was never even really sure I was pronouncing it right, and felt awkward co-opting another identity.
I think all women who change their names at marriage feel this way – learning to call yourself by an entirely new name is a hurdle – but I am ashamed to admit this was different. Could I be the white girl with the brown name? Names set up expectations, especially before you meet a person. They tell you what to expect a person looks like, maybe even their religion or where they grew up. Would taking on a name so different from who I was be a kind of con?
I rolled this over in my mind, and eventually realized that taking his name was just one challenge of many that we had encountered, and would encounter, as a mixed-race couple. And this act, of using a surname to claim him as my own, was a very bold way of heading off some of the questions and skeptical glances. If he and I had the same last name, that was a statement unto itself.
And then there was the kids issue. We knew we wanted kids, and I knew I didn’t want to be the odd one out. If the kids had their dad’s last name, but I kept mine, that was yet one more obstacle to my sense of belonging to them. No one matches the white mom with the brown kids to begin with; when you have a different last name on top of that, doesn’t it just infuse even more confusion into the situation?
This was my thinking, and I know many other women in similar relationships hold onto their maiden name and have kids and navigate these dynamics and they do a great job. But for me, newly married, 25 years old, in the 1990s, I made a conscious choice to give society one less chance of screwing up when it comes to figuring out who I am, who I’m with, and who I’m parenting.
I think of that college tour, and the white couples who showed no obvious affection to each other. You could tell who was together, but no one was staking claim. They did not have to. And maybe that is their loss. Because seeing that other couple, their hands entwined, the way they whispered to each other and smiled—it made me realize that the struggles we have as interracial couples make us stronger. They bond us more closely together. They make us bolder – he is my person, and I will not hesitate to let everyone see it. And they make us reaffirm this more often than most people have to. And that reminder of constantly choosing to be with the person you are with, despite the challenges, the side-eyed glances, the quizzical looks, the borderline offensive casual comments, is a gift.
I chose you, and you chose me, even though it was hard, and even though it might have been easier if we’d been more the same. But really, would it?
I hook my arm around my husband’s. I kiss him on the cheek. He whispers in my ear. I smile. And I look around to make sure someone saw. Because he is my person, and there is nothing I want more than for the world to know it. I want us to be seen for what we are. A couple like any other, but one that might just have a little extra something because of what we’ve been asked to prove to the world.