"Is she your babysitter?" my son's schoolmate asked when my wife arrived to pick him up from school. His mom looked horrified, my wife said. We were not surprised. Disappointed, exasperated, and annoyed — yes. But, we were not surprised.
We are a multiracial family. My wife is black. I'm white. Our son is a mix of both of us and almost 7 years old. But even in New York, a city full of people of different races and ethnicities, we still raise eyebrows, draw stares, and even elicit comments — sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of ignorance, but sometimes because of something more sinister.
As a dad, I was already vigilant about all the dangers, real and imagined, that lay in wait for my son — the childhood illnesses, the bullies on the playground, the TV shows and videos that are wildly inappropriate, the corn syrup added to everything, the friends who did something "mean."
But, as a dad in a multiracial family, I've also become hypervigilant about prejudice, real or imagined. In the same way I've taught my son to stop at the red traffic light and to look both ways, I've taught myself to scan the situations and the people my son encounters, so I can protect him from racial bias and racism.
Till now, protecting him has been made a bit easier because he doesn't yet comprehend the concept of race and the hallmarks of prejudice. All my son knows about race right now is that "Mommy's brown, and Daddy's white," and though it may be self-serving or naive, I want to keep it that way a little longer. I want to spare him the pain of knowing that there are people who will judge or discriminate against him and his mother because of their race and question our family because we look different.
I know I can't protect him forever. After all, each day brings with it more racism. A black family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, was blocked from using a community pool; a multiracial family walking in Berkeley, California, was followed and harassed by a woman shouting, "you don't belong here;" an 8-year-old black girl in San Francisco was reported to the police for selling bottled water.
My son, like all kids his age, is inquisitive. He learns by asking, which is great. And, one day soon, he's going to ask me the questions I don't want to answer, the ones where he asks me why someone thinks his mother is the hired help and why someone else called him and his mother the "N-Word" and his father a "N-Word Lover." I know that day is coming. I've known it since the day I found out my wife was pregnant. I was just hoping I'd have a few more years to shield my innocent little boy, a little more time to keep racial bias, prejudice, and discrimination at bay.
But my plan was foiled. In a flash, my son's fellow grade-schooler burst the bubble in which I had hoped to keep our son for another few years. Or, if he didn't burst it with his curiosity, he made a pinhole through which the protective air of our home rushed out and the real world came rushing in.
I once naively assumed that because we live in the liberal bastion of Manhattan's Upper West Side, we would be safe from stereotyping and prejudice. As a black woman, my wife never harbored any such delusions. But I have had to learn the lesson that racism knows no geography.
It seems like each week, if not each day, within blocks of our home, our multiracial family is met with racial bias or outright racism.
Not long ago, my wife and son were waiting at the bus stop, and a white man asked my wife, "Hey, you headed up to Harlem?" Because, of course, where else could a black woman live.
Several years earlier, when my son was still a toddler, someone peeked at him in the stroller, then back at my wife and asked: "Is he yours?" Because why else would a black woman be with a lighter-skinned child, unless she was the nanny?
Then there was the time my wife and I went out to dinner, walked up to the hostess to ask for our table, and the hostess — while looking straight at us but apparently unable to comprehend or unwilling to acknowledge the existence of interracial couples — said she would seat me when everyone in my party was present.
So, while I once thought that living in a progressive enclave would protect my family from racial bias and discrimination, it does not. We live in a community in which our neighbors rail against injustice, civil rights violations, and separation of immigrant families at the border. Yet, ironically, despite the liberal values for which the neighborhood is known, prejudice and racism live in our own backyard.
There are no white supremacists walking down our block with tiki torches and Confederate flags. And when people see my son in a hoodie they react with "oh, cute" rather than with alarm. But in the years since my son was born, we've seen enough looks, heard enough comments, and weathered enough questions for me to have learned what my wife already knew — that prejudice exists in every Zip code.
So I need an answer for my son — right now — about why his classmate thinks his mother is the babysitter. And I need an answer that, at not quite 7, he can understand. Problem is, that answer can't be found in a parenting guide, in the school curriculum, or on a summer reading list.
My wife and I have to come up with an answer of our own, which, when you think of it, is what parenting is all about.
Writer/comedian Alex Barnett is the white, Jewish husband of a black woman (who converted to Judaism) and the father of a biracial son. Barnett is the host of The Multiracial Family Man Podcast, on which he interviews guests to discuss issues of concern to multiracial families. He is also the co-founder of Multiracial Media.