On the way to Preschool this morning on the M4 bus, another family sat down in front of us. The mother was Caucasian, looked to be in her late 50s followed by her teenage daughter who was African-American. The teenage girl, sensing my daughter’s huge, quizzical eyes on her, turned and smiled. They moved to another section of the bus and my daughter, quietly pondering this moment, turned to me and said, “Mommy, I like black people. I think they’re pretty.”

A bit startled but delighted nevertheless I think I said something like, “Well, that’s great. Black people are beautiful.” “I’m beautiful too, right mom?” “Yup – you are.” “I’m beautiful and brown, right mom?” “Yup, you are beautiful and brown.”

The mommy inside my head was doing cartwheels – “Yippee! Good work in the self-esteem department!” And then the oddest curve ball came, like a banana crème pie in the face. Taking in the trace of a grimace of an elderly white gentleman, clearly just a bit perturbed by the chatter, she said “But mom, I don’t like white people.” Hmmm. “But Zoe, mommy is white. Grandma and Grandpa are white?” “I know, but I don’t like white people today.” Hmm.

So I did the customary “people are all just people, regardless of the color of their skin” routine, and I think it registered. But there was something delicious in the irony. While I would certainly never support intolerance or teach my daughter to mistrust any race or ethnicity, including white people, seeing her embrace the notion of a darker skin color as “beautiful” was like a beacon of hope for the future.

It was a tiny little moment where the rules reversed and “black” was truly, innocently perceived as a gift, a thing of beauty. I am sure there have been many books and master’s theses written on the origins of racism and the hierarchy of skin color in various cultures around the world. Ultimately, regardless of what the scholars say, race and intolerance continue to mold and shape our lives, even as they become submerged in a new, “politically correct” “multi-cultural” America.

I brought my daughter home from Guatemala in 2001, about 3 weeks after 9/11. A few weeks into single motherhood and sleep deprivation oblivion I was rather rudely confronted in Fairway market in manhattan by a total stranger as I contemplated the purchase of Murray’s organic chicken.

As we swept from olives to cheese to hummus and finally over to Murray, we were followed by the amused glare of a total stranger (think Shrek with sunglasses). “She’s not yours, is she?” he said, thrusting himself between myself, my shopping cart, and the chicken. “She’s dark. Looks like an Eskimo. Who are you, the babysitter?” I can’t recall what I said, probably some sort of unintelligible stutter. But I do remember fleeing to Annie’s pasta display and holding back tears while I played patty cake with my unsuspecting daughter.

I was afraid of this – I must admit it. I was afraid to adopt transracially for fear of exactly this kind of public scrutiny. And while I can honestly say that it doesn’t sting even half as much today as it did back then, I wish I could tell you we haven’t experienced anything like that since. Perhaps my Shrek imitator was oddly crude, bold in his amusement, perhaps just more honest than most.

More often these days, this phenomenon takes the form of what mixed-race families love to call “the 3-point-stare” where a stranger will look at your child, then at you, then back at your child. But at the same time, I would also venture that, overwhelmingly these days, mixed-race families, particularly in large urban centers, are embraced. Most people really do try, even if they are uncomfortable or startled, to be supportive. But under the polite questions and awkward second glances, our culture grapples with race and a new definition of “family” as more and more people break the “rules” and create rainbow families, adoptive families, gay families.

Today, I would probably laugh at my antagonist and say something like “of course she’s mine, now would you please move, I need my Murray’s chicken!” But the question lingers: will my family and the mother and daughter on the M4 bus ever truly be considered “beautiful”? Today, as my baby embraced her beautiful brownness on the M4 bus, I think we got a little closer.

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