I’m super addicted to chai lattes. A few years ago, I realized I could save a bundle of money by skipping my daily Starbucks trip and making my own lattes at home. The natural food grocery up the street from our house carries the same brand that the baristas at Starbucks use, so I buy about a half dozen at a time every few weeks. The store is about a block away from the studio where my kids take dance, and being the king of efficiency that I am, I always combine the trips so that I can run over while the kids are in class.
On Thursdays, our son takes a boys’ dance class, and a friend of mine who has kids the same age and genders as ours brings her son too. While I typically get to leave my daughter at home with my husband, she has to bring her daughter along to sit in the lobby while her brother dances away; this is typically a recipe for first grade boredom, but this week I had to bring my daughter along because my husband wasn’t home yet. This worked out well because the two girls just giggled away most of the hour. Of course this week I also had to make my chai pilgrimage, so I offered to take both girls with me on the short walk. They came along gladly, smiling and laughing all the way.
We got the to grocer, and I remembered that earlier that day my daughter had asked me to make sure her lunch was nut free so she could sit with some of her friends at the allergy table. The natural grocery store has a slew of peanut butter alternatives, and I was overwhelmed by the options. The girls scampered off to look at something or other, and I asked the friendly-looking female clerk for some nut-free spread advice. She steered me toward some pumpkin seed spread, and I collected both the girls and my boxes of chai before heading back to the same woman to check out.
“Do you run a camp?” she asked, as she ran my goods over the scanner.
“What?” I asked.
“A camp? Is that what you’re doing with those kids?”
I looked over at the girls, one white and one black, and realized she must have been confused by this pseudo-Asian walking in with two different colored girls.
“Oh, no,” I told her, mildly irritated, “just going to the store with my daughter and her friend.”
“Oh…” she mumbled. “I…just…uh…you look so young is all. I figured there was no way those kids were yours.”
“Well, only one of them is, and thank you.”
This sort of thing happens often. People are genuinely confused by our family, especially when only one of the dads in our family is present. Things don’t match up visually, and most people want to know why. What’s difficult about these situations though is that people quickly assume that we can’t possibly all be from the same family. I wondered why the clerk didn’t ask, “Are those your daughters?” or “Is one of those girls your daughter?” Is there something inappropriate about asking if two differently colored people are related? If she simply wanted to open the door to a polite conversation, why not ask, “Do the girls have nut allergies?” which would have been totally appropriate given the circumstances of our interaction.
A colleague once told me how she was waiting for a table at a restaurant in Boston. She and her boyfriend were waiting at the bar, idly making chit chat with two strangers until their names were called. One of the strangers started talking about her son, and my colleague asked if she could see a picture. The woman, who was white, pulled out her phone and called up a recent photo. The photo showed two little boys, one white and one black. “Don’t worry,” laughed the woman, “my son is the white one!” After the fact, my colleague wondered why the woman presumed someone might be “worried” that her son was black.
I believe this all speaks to the idea that our society believes darker skin is lesser, certainly less desirable. This is clearly evident in the white dominated society of America, but it is also documented within minority communities; what happened at the grocery store though is something a little different, or at least it was a result of that societal norm. Either consciously or not, this clerk opted to ask if I was some sort of hired caregiver for my daughter because to ask if she was related to me was either too preposterous or offensive to even bring up. I’m hopeful that my short time with her will help her see that my family is nothing to be ashamed of.