“Is she yours?” a stranger at the park asks, gesturing towards my daughter who is chasing bubbles near me. “She’s much darker than you. Your husband must be dark, too.”
I hear things like this surprisingly often:
“She’s beautiful, but she sure doesn’t take after you,” says a man on the street, stopping to let us pet his dogs. “What does her dad look like?”
From the pediatrician: “Dad must be the dark one, huh?” He presses his cold stethoscope against her small chest. “She doesn’t get this coloring from you. Do you, cutie pie, you don’t get it from mommy!”
When this first started happening, I was always surprised, taken aback by the boldness of strangers, but not upset. The thing is, they’re right: my daughter doesn’t look much like me. We’re an interracial family, an outwardly visible fact, and at first I thought people commenting on this was harmless enough. But it’s not.
An interracial marriage is about much more than race. It’s about culture, traditions, religion, the generations that came before us, and the unique combining of these things. But our skin color is the only thing a stranger sees: my husband is brown, I am white. He was born in New Jersey to Indian immigrant parents. I was born in Wisconsin, though most branches of my family tree reach back to Poland. My husband was raised on Sikhism, centuries-old Punjabi traditions and homemade paneer and paranthas. I was raised on Catholicism, football and farm-fresh cheese curds. Now we raise our children in a carefully-cultivated middle ground with roots firmly planted in both our cultures. But this is all hidden beneath the surface, beneath our skin. On the surface, to outsiders, we are a family of brown and white.
My daughter, now three years old, looks just like her father. She has brown skin, brown eyes, dark hair and shares the shape of his nose. She has my dimples, but this isn’t enough to make anyone think she looks like me. My son, a year and a half, is her opposite and my mirror. He has pale white skin and his hair and eyebrows are a shade of brown so light he often looks blonde. He has brown eyes, but this isn’t enough to make anyone think he looks like his dad.
After the birth of each child, we said ardas with my husband’s family in the prayer room of his childhood home. Still kneeling on the floor after the prayer, our heads covered in keeping with Sikh tradition, we ate parshad, a brown-sugary dessert that leaves a sweet buttery film on my fingers, to celebrate. When both children were small babies, I would rock them to sleep singing a version of The Lord’s Prayer, embedded in my memory from my childhood of Sunday mornings spent at church. We tell the kids, “Dada is Sikh and you’re Sikh, too.” But it’s more nuanced than that.
Over the past year we have celebrated Rakhi, Diwali, Holi, Christmas, and Easter, our celebrations more rooted in tradition than religion. For Halloween my daughter wore her Green Bay Packers cheerleader outfit but instead of candy she wanted parshad. When we came home from trick-or-treating, her fingers sticky with the chocolate she agreed to eat in the absence of parshad, she asked to have a dance party so she could watch her cheerleader skirt twirl.
“What song do you want?” I asked.
“Nimbooda,” she said, without hesitation. It’s a nineties Bollywood hit that she loves. I turned on the song and she spun in circles, the green and yellow of her skirt whirling around her, her candy-stained mouth trying to sing along to all the Punjabi words.
When the song ended, she said, “Mama, you play Fleetwood Mac now.”
We have not cut my son’s hair yet, though it falls in his eyes and needs to be pulled up into a little man-bun. At first, this was simply because I could not bear to cut his beautiful blondish curls. But his hair has taken on new significance.
In the Sikh religion, hair is never cut, a rule followed strictly by most of the men in my husband’s family. His father, brother, and cousins have uncut hair beneath their turbans, as did both his grandfathers. My husband, as a child, wore his uncut hair, long and jet black, pulled up into a bun, called a joora, and as he got older, he, too, covered his joora with a turban. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he broke with this tradition, getting his first haircut.
The first time I pulled our son’s hair into a little bun, my husband said, “I like his little joora.” He pulled affectionately at the knot of hair. “Just like dada used to wear.” My son has since learned the word joora, one of the only Punjabi words he knows, and when my husband says, “Where’s your joora?” he reaches up and pats his hair proudly.
We will cut our son’s hair eventually; we don’t intend to have him follow a tradition that my husband no longer follows. But for now, my husband likes seeing a bit of his Sikh heritage, his own childhood, mirrored in his light-featured son. This is potentially the most Indian our son will ever look.
Both children, with their opinions and preferences and ever-expanding vocabulary, reflect our form of multiculturalism. They press their hands together and say, “Sut Sri Kal” when greeting their Indian family. They yell, “Go Pack Go!” when they’re with my family.
When I asked my daughter what she wanted to wear for picture day at her nursery school, she picked a formal Indian outfit, bright purple with beading, that she had recently worn to a family wedding.
As I helped her step into the clothes, she said, “Mama, you remember when I wear this?”
“You remember I have henna on my hands and feet?” she asked.
“Yes, I remember your henna. It was beautiful.”
When she got her henna done for the wedding, months earlier, she kneeled in an adult-sized armchair, sitting still and quiet for longer than I thought possible, as the henna artist meticulously drew tiny flowers and swirls on her palms and the backs of her hands. She watched with fascination as the traditional designs appeared on her skin. She must have been surprised by how cool and wet the paste felt as it touched her skin, just as I had been when I got my wedding henna done, but she said nothing. After she saw her dadima, my husband’s mother, get henna on her feet, she wanted that, too, and stood statue-still on a bedsheet spread on the floor, holding up her own skirt, while the designs were drawn on her feet.
In her class photo, which is framed on her dresser now, my daughter grins happily in her Indian clothes, surrounded by her classmates in their jeans and sweaters. At three years old, she is already fairly aware that her Indian clothes are culturally different than her classmates, that her Indian heritage makes her unique, but this awareness comes with absolutely no inhibitions or self-doubt. I hope this lasts forever.
Next to her class picture is a framed photograph of her fishing with my father. They are on a dock, my dad kneeling behind her, helping her hold up the same light-blue fishing pole I used as a kid. They had just reeled in a fish together, which dangles from the end of the line. My daughter looks a bit skeptical of the fish, but my dad has a huge smile: fishing is a Wisconsin pastime he shared with all his children and now with his grandchildren. Sometimes my daughter points to the picture and tells me everything he taught her: how to dig for worms, how to put a worm on the hook, how to cast and watch the bobber.
“Mama, you have to watch the bobber in the water,” she says. “You wait, wait, wait.”
She is willing to wait patiently only for fishing and henna.
Both my children, right now, exist comfortably in their identities. They flow between their different cultures seamlessly and without hesitation and they fully accept themselves and our family. It would never occur to them to wish to be different than exactly who they are.
But strangers cannot see all this, cannot see the way we blend our cultures with love and intention, and instead they comment on my daughter’s skin. She, like all children, is quietly aware of far more than adults give her credit for. When someone says to me, “Is she yours? She’s much darker than you” my daughter is listening and absorbing. I’m afraid what she hears is: Daughters are supposed to look like their mothers, why doesn’t she? What’s wrong with your family?
At some point, she will notice that no one says these things about her brother. And someday my son will realize that no one ever says he looks Indian, that he has no visible, physical connection to this very real part of his identity.
Every comment my children hear about their skin tone has the potential to erode their whole-hearted acceptance of themselves. Every comment tells them there is something noticeably different about them. My daughter being browner than her white classmates, my son being whiter than any of his paternal family, will be things they are forced to consider through the lens of these comments. Even if made with innocent intentions, these comments can plant the seeds of discontent, or worse, shame, where only pride and love exist now.
There are other reasons for me to worry. Last year, a senator from Indiana said he would support overturning the Supreme Court ruling that legalized interracial marriage, allowing individual states to either legalize or criminalize marriages and families like mine.
Ninety-four percent of Americans support interracial marriage, according to polling I found. I’ve always assumed anyone commenting on my daughter’s looks is speaking from a place of innocent interest and good intentions, even if their words are inappropriate. But ninety-four percent is not everyone.
“Do you know what six percent of the US population is?” my husband said when I told him about the polling data. “Almost twenty million!”
The other day at the park my son’s joora came loose, curls falling in his face. I wrestled him onto my lap to fix it, combing out his hair with my fingers. My daughter came over and sat on the bench next to us, resting her head on my shoulder. My fingers kept getting stuck as I combed: his hair was tangled and sticky with lollipop juice and sunscreen. His temples and the nape of his neck were damp with sweat, and he squirmed while I struggled to re-form the joora.
“No! No hair!” he insisted from my lap.
I held the rubber band in my teeth while I worked. “It might be time to cut your hair,” I mumbled. When I finished, securing the rubber band around the bun, smoothing the fly-aways out of his face, I turned to my daughter. “What do you think? Should we cut his hair?”
“No! No cut his hair!” she cried defensively. She wrapped him in a hug from the side and tried to kiss his cheek while he pushed and squealed away from her. She learned this from me: I, too, often squeeze him to my body and kiss him while he protests.
“Why not? I think he might like having his hair out of his face.”
“No!” she insisted. “He look like dada when dada a baby.” She grabbed his joora, a little roughly, but he didn’t protest, just turned to stare at her. “You like your joora, right?” she said, putting her face right in front of his. “Mama, he like his joora. No cut his hair, ok?”
I was moved, almost to tears, by her defensiveness of him and his joora and the special identity we have created as a family, rooted firmly in two established cultures but distinctly our own. She, like me, understands that we must defend the sacredness of our interracial family.
They both wanted to go play more, but I crouched on the ground so I could pull them to me, one in each arm. I tickled them and kissed the tops of their heads, one dark-haired, one light-haired, until they giggled and relaxed their little bodies against mine. “Ok, we won’t cut his hair.” I kissed the joora and held them against me. “We won’t cut your hair yet.”
Katlin Singh was born and raised in Wisconsin and remains a Midwestern girl at heart. She’s a former first grade teacher and a current full-time mom. She now lives in New York City with her husband and two children.