We were standing in line at the medical centre, Maia, Leo and I, chatting to one of the volunteers. She was a cheerful woman of around fifty something who was stood directing people between the surgery, the pharmacy and the Covid vaccinations queue.
“Is this your little sister?” she said to Maia, referring to Leo in the pushchair.
“Little brother..” I corrected, smiling.
“Totally different colouring isn’t he?!” she said casually, sounding curious.
It took a second for me to register who exactly she was referring to. A different colouring to whom? For a moment I naively assumed she meant Maia. “Well not exactly“, I thought, “they’re both..white.” What a strange thing to say. Then I realised, she meant me.
She was saying my son was a “totally different colouring” to me.
A lump formed in my throat. Though quite why, I wasn’t sure.
She was merely stating the obvious. She was quite unnecessarily declaring that my son and I didn’t look alike. That we looked “totally” different.
Why she felt the need to do this, I don’t know. It was neither particularly kind nor unkind. Just futile.
I immediately felt the need to convince this annoying stranger that Leo, the sweet fair little boy in the pushchair, was in fact my son.
“He’s the spit of his Dad…looks just like him…” I said.
“BUT NOTHING LIKE ME I GATHER…” I felt like adding.
The lump remained in my throat as we headed into the pharmacy. I looked down at Leo, at his big blue eyes and perfect complexion.
“She’s right..” I thought. Nothing about what she said was inaccurate, it’s true, he doesn’t look a thing like me. And that’s fine. But why do I feel like crying? Why does it hurt? What is so painful about being told he’s a different colour?
I suppose in that moment it was the initial shock of the statement itself. On numerous levels. For one, I didn’t expect those words to leave her mouth, it’s not something I’d ever feel the need to say to a parent. Why would anyone want to hear that?
It was also about the word colour.
“Your race looks different to his race” she was effectively saying.
“He doesn’t look like yours..” was what I heard.
The idea that people might think my son wasn’t mine, because of our appearances, hurt and frustrated me.
“I BIRTHED HIM, HE’S DEFINITELY MINE, CAME OUT OF ME, EVEN WITH THE COLOUR DIFFERENCE!!” I felt like shouting back at her.
It felt as though, with her words, she was somehow disconnecting the two of us. She was saying “How can this boy possibly be genetically connected to this woman when they look nothing alike?”.
This was when I realised that people must often assume I am his nanny. I try not to dwell too much on this, as I don’t know what people are thinking, and it doesn’t matter a hoot anyway. Nobody else birthed that boy, despite appearances, he only has one mother.
My own mother knows the feeling. Visiting family in the Philippines when I was little, strangers would ask her who my parents were, assuming she was my nanny. Her being fully Filipino and me, with my light skin, only half Filipino, they didn’t think I could possibly be hers.
“No, she’s my daughter” she would affirm, just as frustrated as me.
I’ve re-told this story to friends and colleagues, mainly to try and gauge whether my reaction is justified. Most have a similar response, putting it down to ignorance and a blatant disregard for my feelings. I do think it was insensitive. Others have suggested it was also a generational thing.
“Old people just don’t know what they can and can’t say now, you can’t blame them, it’s not their fault…” one woman said to try and make me feel better.
I didn’t think it was anything to do with being “woke” to possess the basic understanding that announcing to a stranger that their child specifically doesn’t look like them, because of their colour, was completely gratuitous. I thought innate sensitivity stretched across all generations. One doesn’t have to be woke to be sensitive. Surely putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and thinking how they’d feel if something like that was said to them, is one of those early lessons we learn in the playground? Perhaps it wouldn’t have bothered some people. I’m aware it’s something I was meant to just brush off at the time.
A couple of friends have mentioned racism. I didn’t believe her comment was racist. If it was in any way, it certainly wasn’t intended to be, (not that it’s not possible to be unintentionally racist). I didn’t receive it as such, I mean she said it with a giant smile across her face, and throwaway comment aside, was perfectly pleasant towards me. A casual observation with no malice behind it.
It just hurt. That’s all I know.
And I’m one of the lucky ones. Reading about the racial abuse some mothers have gone through simply because their children are a different colouring to them, I realise just how fortunate I am that it’s not an issue in my day to day life. This BBC article ‘I’m black, my partner’s white – stop asking me if this is my baby’ is worth a read.