“She’s getting very dark, isn’t she?” This is what one of my friends recently said about my much adored—12-week-old daughter.
She didn’t mean to be rude. But it was a comment that struck me with the force of a jab to the stomach.
Immediately, I was overwhelmed by a confusion of emotions. I felt protective, insulted, worried, ashamed, guilty, all at once. The reason? My lovely, wriggly, smiley baby is mixed race.
Now, I think of myself as pretty ‘right on’. My home is on the border of the London Republic of Hackney. I’ve been to the Notting Hill Carnival, even if I found the music a bit loud. Yet now I realise what a ‘white’ world I inhabit.
I am white and I have two sons from my first marriage who are both milky complexioned and golden haired. My twin sister, who I spend a lot of time with, has a Danish partner. As a consequence, she has two boys who are also pale skinned and flaxen haired.
Into this positively Scandinavian next generation, I have now injected a tiny, dark-skinned, dark-haired girl. To say she stands out is an understatement.
My colouring and that of my children has never really been an issue before. However, three years ago I met the man who became my second husband and who is the father of my daughter.
Although born in the UK, his parents came from India in the Sixties. This makes him British-Asian and our daughter mixed race.
There is another more PC term for the plump little bundle I strap to my front. She is ‘dual heritage’. It’s a bit trendy, but I quite like it. It implies a pride in coming from two cultures, rather than the less attractive connotations of ‘mixed race’.
The usual time something is labelled ‘mixed’ is when it’s a packet of nuts and they’ve bulked out the luxury cashews with cheaper peanuts. I’m not sure I want my daughter to be regarded as an adulterated version of some pure original. Still, it is the most accepted description.
The truth is, whatever the label, the fact there is a label proves that my daughter’s conflicting parentage matters.
At the more frothy end of the scale, mixed-race children are regarded as pretty dolls—white kids with a nice tan.
When I was pregnant and people asked me about the child I was having, and I explained her father was Indian, they would often coo something along the lines of: “Ooh, she’s going to be beautiful!” as if I was discussing a new rose, made from an exotic cross-breeding programme.
On a less benevolent level, mixed-race children can receive a hostile welcome from both white and black communities. Being neither one thing nor another may get you on the cover of Vogue, but it isn’t an easy way to make friends.
But this is 2007, surely things are more enlightened than that? I hope so, but I fear not.
One reason for my fear is my own mixed reactions to my daughter. Don’t get me wrong, I love her. She is the child I didn’t think I’d have after my first marriage broke up. She is the only granddaughter in our family and we all dote on her.
But when I turn to the mirror in my bedroom to admire us together, I am shocked. She seems so alien. With her long, dark eyelashes and shiny, dark brown hair, she doesn’t look anything like me.
I know that concentrating on how my daughter looks is shallow. She is a person in her own right, not an accessory to me. But still, I can’t shake off the feeling of unease.
I didn’t realise how much her looking different would matter and, on a rational level, I know it shouldn’t. But it does.
Evolution demands that we have children to pass on our genes, hence the sense of pride and validation we get when we see our features reappearing in the next generation.
With my daughter, I don’t have that. Do black fathers who marry white women and then have paler-skinned children feel my sense of loss? Or maybe Chinese mothers or Middle-Eastern grandparents grieve when they see a child they know to be their own, but whose features don’t reflect that?
I worry that, as my daughter doesn’t look like me, people will assume she is adopted. After all, it’s all the rage in showbiz circles.
Madonna famously scooped up a black child when she wanted to be a mother again and Angelina Jolie appears to be assembling a ‘pick ‘n’ mix’ of kids from different countries. It’s all very United Colours of Benetton, isn’t it?
In the real world, I fear for my daughter’s sense of self. She has a tiny foot in two cultures. How will she negotiate a path between the two? I worry that my sons will feel less of a kinship with their sister because she is different, although there is no sign of that.
As for myself, there is an inescapable status issue to address. White women who have non-white children are stigmatised as ‘Tracy Towerblocks’ living on benefits, most of which they spend on lager and fags.
Even if I don’t fit this profile, my daughter’s difference definitely points out the fact that my children come from two different fathers.
If I wanted to pass us off as a nice, neat nuclear family, she would blow my cover at once.
But it is more than that. I am frightened, frightened of others’ reactions to her, as well as my own. I didn’t think of myself as racist and yet my daughter has shown me a side of myself about which I feel deeply uncomfortable.
Even admitting to having mixed feelings about her not being blonde and blue eyed, I feel disloyal and incredibly guilty.
I know the obvious comment is that I must have known how a child of our union would look when I married an Indian man, but it is a wise woman who thinks that far ahead when she falls in love.
I didn’t think about any of this before I got pregnant. I wanted to have a baby. Her colour and culture were immaterial then.
But self-flagellation is not useful. I have more pressing concerns. I am now the mother of a ‘black’ child, even if she is more the hue of weak tea than espresso.
This is a role for which I am utterly unprepared. Part of me thinks I should be playing sitar music to her in her cot, mastering pakoras and serving them dressed in a sari, but that would be fantastically fake coming from me.
When she was born, pale but with lots of dark hair, I asked the midwife if her eyes would stay blue. ‘Asian genes are very strong,’ she said in what I took to be an ominous tone.
No more Brady Bunch kids for me. The midwife has been proved right and every day my baby’s eyes get a little darker.
Even so, when she looks up at me as I feed her, my heart melts. My love may not be colour blind, but hers is, and that is truly humbling.