Breaking down my mom's white feminism with Black labor
Being biracial does not come with a handbook, nor does being the parent to a mixed child. Even the beloved 1973 children’s book black is brown is tan could not give every parent the proper outline of what to expect when you are expecting a mixed child. There is no blueprint. Many believe the mixed experience is linear and that every mixed person has a “best of both worlds,” Hannah Montanaesque situation. The reality is that being mixed can feel like a game of chance—your experience is dependent on factors like geographic location, class, whether you are raised by both parents or one (as well as the race of your parents), and also appearance. No one biracial, multiracial, mixed experience is the same. However, there is still this belief that we move seamlessly between two (or more) worlds, that we are gatekeepers and human race whisperers. We have been told that we are the key to unlocking the colorblind utopia—but no pressure.
Because the narrative that mixed folks being the future of a colorblind society exists, there is an erasure that happens to our individual lived experiences.
I think about the labor that requires from us throughout our lives; the kind of learning curve we may have if there is no one to teach us about our identity, or how we have to educate not just people we encounter on an everyday basis but also our own families on how we identify—especially if it is different from them. There is an overwhelming pressure people of color endure in constantly educating those around them. Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair” is a Black anthem for a reason. There is also the labor of educating families, particularly white families. It could be referred to as a labor of love, because it is your family, but sometimes—most of the time—it is still labor.
My mother is white. She grew up in Germany, where she met my father. She was raised with a liberal, socialist mindset, where the concept of race did not become visible for her until her adult years. She otherwise did not see color. Her marriage to my father, a Black man from Fresno, California, taught her many things about what she later learned to be racism and white privilege. She raised me by herself in a small white town in the Pacific Northwest after they divorced when I was roughly a year old. I grew up around kids that not only looked nothing like me but also had completely different circumstances: two-parent homes, middle-to-upper class, white. I was always seen as one of two things: Black or other. My little town was filled with people who, like my mom, swore that they didn’t see color—at least not until it mattered. Excuses evolved from sleepover invitations when I was young to dating when I got older: “My mom/dad/dog doesn’t like Black people” became “I don’t date Black girls.” That’s how I know where I fell on the spectrum. I wasn’t Black until it mattered, and it always did.
I didn’t necessarily understand being Black until I was older. I knew it felt weird when strangers would grab my hair or when peers would mention my assets (butt, lips, hips). I knew there was a complexity to someone saying “your Black side is coming out” if they thought I was being a little sassy. But I didn’t understand it as racism in the moment. I just always thought I was different, and there was nothing I could do to change that.
I moved through adolescence awkwardly attempting to straddle ambiguity—not too white, not too Black—and went to college finally ready to find my path to self-discovery. I dove head-first into Black student organizations and courses on race, gender, and sexuality. I opened the part of me that was stymied when I was younger and allowed myself to be unapologetically Black. I brought this wealth of knowledge back home with me, claiming titles like feminist for my mom and me to share, knowing that she would be proud of her radical daughter receiving an education. It had always been her and me. She taught me all I knew, but now it was time for me to teach her.
This is where a “being biracial” handbook would have been handy, or a “how to talk to your white parent about race 101.”
There were learning curves that neither of us had faced—for the first time my mother realized how Black I am, and for the first time I realized how white she is. It was a shock to both of us.
We went through stages of learning about my newfound identity together, which was not new in any way but being expressed without restriction for the first time. Each stage represented my own expression of identity and my mom’s way of handling it. I quickly learned about my mom’s whiteness in a way I had never thought about before. She had never thought of me as her Black daughter, and I had never thought of her as my white mother. We both had to realize the ways in which our race and identity shaped our lived experiences and our relationship.
Stage One: Resistance
First, there was a “since when did you get so Black?” stage, which consisted of my mother being introduced to my newfound “radical” Afrocentrism. Its overtness seemed pretty jarring to her. This stage had a lot to do with my own self-exploration and discovery. I was being exposed to so many new things at once—for the first time in my life, I was not the only Black person in the room. I wouldn’t call it culture shock, because it was my culture, but it was like stepping into a room that had always been locked. Now I was immersed. I ate, slept, and breathed being Black. Until that point, I had more or less ate, slept, and breathed whiteness out of a need to assimilate. If anyone experienced culture shock, it was my mom. To her, I had never been this Black before. I had to explain to her that for the first time in my life, I existed in a space where I was free to be who I always was.
Stage Two: Fragility
Once my own self-education and initiation had settled in, I moved into my “let me share my knowledge with you” stage. But I found that my mother wanted to learn on her terms: only history lessons or landmark news stories that didn’t hurt her feelings. Say it nicely, be polite, don’t raise your voice. I recall the first time she said I sounded angry. Her words seemed loaded with something I had never heard from her before. White feminism is one thing, your mother’s white feminism is another.
There is something inherently painful about the lack of empathy for people of color. There are some things that can be discussed over coffee, and there are some things that evoke emotion—passion, anger, sadness. I cannot talk about the complete disregard that white people and white structures have for Black lives without feeling strong emotion. Sometimes it is rage, sometimes it is grief, and I will not apologize for that. I found it increasingly hard to mask my emotions to accommodate my mother’s fragility. But that is a kind of labor that people of color perform every single day.
Stage Three: Q&A
After a while, I grew tired of accommodating the white ego. Like many white people, my mom wanted her “Introduction to Social Justice” delivered as painlessly as possible. I was tired of tip-toeing around her fragility because it reminded me of the endless cycle of systemic racism. This was around the time of the 2016 presidential election. I didn’t speak to anyone in my family about the election or the current state of American society. That would be additional labor that I did not have the energy for. Following the inauguration, my mom entered her white feminist phase. We all know a white feminist or two. We work with them. We bump into them at Trader Joe’s. White feminists have made their presence painfully apparent in the midst of the Trump era. During this stage, my previous rage settled into a low simmer.
This stage is when my mom and I began asking each other questions and really searching for answers. I would ask where she was when her friends were voting for Trump, or why she was only interested in participating in a protest when it was for the Women’s March and not for Black Lives Matter. She would ask me questions like what does Starbucks have to do with gentrification or why can’t I identify as Black and white. One recurring question is, “Is ____ a cultural thing?” Being that I am her direct line to all things Black, LGBTQ+, and otherwise #woke (I used that intentionally and ironically, do not come for me, internet), she gives these unfiltered questions to me. At first, when she started asking questions, she was still fragile; often, she would ask a question and not necessarily want an answer. But now we have gotten to the point where she is ready to hear my words, raw and unfiltered. And so she asks, ready to learn.
I’m happy that she is curious and wants to learn more every time that we talk. I’m thankful that she never runs out of questions to ask. I’m also sometimes tired of answering them. I can feel both ways.
Stage Four: Spread the Wealth
My mom is at the stage now where she has taken nuggets of knowledge I have given her and is passing them on to others. It was not overnight and it continues to be laborious, but it has also heartened me to educate her on who I am, my history, and my identity. She brought me into the world; she deserves to know me. The next challenge is seeing if she continues these conversations with her peers and if she challenges herself to be uncomfortable outside of the safety of our relationship. The next step is for her to be an ally not just to me but to others who look like me, and those who don’t, and to be an ally when no one is looking. It is time for her to also learn on her own time. I once heard Michaela Angela Davis say in response to the rise of white feminism that it’s time for Black women to take a nap—white women can do some of the labor for a while. They’ve been handed the tools, we’ve laid the framework, they have the blueprint, now it’s time for their labor. This journey with my mother is me handing her the tools to continue the dialogue and for her to share those tools that she has been given.
The way my mother and I talk about my identity, my Blackness, now ebbs and flows. There are days where she makes suggestions on how to wear my hair without understanding the racial subtext in her comments. There are days like when I received my Master’s degree and she gave me a T-shirt that said “Black and Educated.” I would be lying if I said that she doesn’t make mistakes and that we don’t still have hard conversations. She is still grasping the way I move through the world because she doesn’t always witness my experiences. The way I have been treated as a Black, fat, queer woman has not always been visible to her. I think that is the hardest thing for both of us. She has always seen me as her daughter, and not the complexities that came with my other identities. But now she is learning what my life has been like outside of my role as her child. I have to remind myself to be patient from time to time, like when she asks questions whose answers, to me, seem obvious.
But I think that shows her love for me the most: that she is deeply invested in learning about me and the things that matter to me even though it is sometimes awkward and difficult. Just a few years ago, she went from being “colorblind” to being forced to acknowledge the difference between blue and Black. She could be fragile and choose not to engage with me at all. But she knows she doesn’t have the privilege of turning a colorblind eye because she brought a Black child into a world that doesn’t protect Black and brown people. She is learning, every day, how to be a mother to her Black daughter.