By Amanda Frye Leinhos
“So, which one is yours?”
I was sitting in the front row, amiably chatting with the woman next to me at the middle school’s Geography Bee finals. My daughter Mimi, a 7th grader, was one of the 40 finalists, and she’d been a little nervous, so I’d found seats up front for my two other daughters and myself, so that we could catch her eye and make faces and try to help her relax. I had just collected our belongings and sacrificed the seat I’d been saving for my husband, who was late getting out of a meeting, so that the couple next to me could sit down. The white women in this affluent Silicon Valley community generally seem to fall into two types, and the woman next to me was more like a techie mom than a trophy mom – one who did programming instead of Pilates, who’d married late, had a kid in her early forties, and was spoiling the heck out of him. She’d been telling me all about her son, and how excited he was to be here, and how they’d always known he had a gift for learning and retaining these kinds of facts, and how incredibly smart and talented he was. I could see the moment that she remembered — if I was sitting in the front row, it was most likely because I had a kid in the competition, too.
“So, which one is your daughter?”
“She’s just there, in the front row. There are two girls sitting together? She’s the one on the right.”
She shifted and began to gush about what an achievement it was that our kids had made it to the finals and what an accomplishment it was in a school of this size to be among the finalists and how proud I should be, clearly thinking that as a black mother I must have no idea about how important education was to my child’s success and that I should be encouraged to value this experience. She smiled at me, pleased with herself for doing her liberal duty on behalf of the less fortunate. I closed my eyes briefly and took a breath, my usual coping strategy when I’m getting racially read as inferior, condescended to, and underestimated. I was really glad she didn’t try to pat me on the hand. Actually, she should be glad.
“So where is she? I don’t see her.”
I turned to look at the woman next to me. What more could I say? You can’t pick out the two girls in the front row? You don’t know your right from left? I tried one more time, just to be nice.
“Front row. Fourth from the left. One. Two. Three. Four. Ponytail. Glasses.”
The woman looked away, turned toward her husband, and started telling him about how there were snacks on the table in the back of the room, if he wanted some. Apparently, that was the end of our conversation.
I’m a brown-skinned woman, I’ve loc’d my hair, people clearly read me as African American. But my husband is white, and we have three daughters who vary in hue from golden brown to pale. Nadia, our oldest, is dark enough that people assume she’s related to me, but that doesn’t always happen with our younger two girls. Mimi was evidently light enough by this woman’s measure that she couldn’t see my daughter as mine. My presence at this event was already slightly illegitimate in her eyes; she’d already behaved as though she believed black families aren’t supposed to value education. But in that moment we went from illegitimate to invisible, because we didn’t fit her idea of what a family should look like. I’m not mad about it. It happens often enough that I don’t often get angry anymore. Instead I thought, “How sad for you.”
How sad, because no black woman has ever questioned whether my kids belonged to me. And how sad, because our ability to define family broadly and with love is one of the ways black folks have survived in this country. Being able to lean on each other, to care for each other’s children, and to rely on each other for support and advice builds the resilience of black women and black families. My kids have so many ‘cousins’ because of all the friends we claim as family, and these relationships ground them and connect them to a collective identity that carries them through the inevitable challenges they face. There are so many people in our lives who’d have claimed my baby as theirs, and been just as proud of her as I was. And having just come off of a week of vacation and visits filled with the experience of kinship, I wasn’t all that mad about her ignorance. I was just grateful for what we have.
As it turned out, her son and my daughter washed out on the same question, which three-quarters of the finalists weren’t able to answer correctly. No shame there – they all did well. Mimi had regained her cool after the first question was asked, and she genuinely enjoyed herself. At the end, we celebrated and clapped and cheered, and they all received an official certificate and pin for their participation. And I left feeling some compassion for that woman, whose definition of family was so narrow that she couldn’t see my daughter was mine.
Amanda Frye Leinhos is a mother of three daughters and a doctoral candidate in sociology of education at Stanford, where she studies race, inequality, and language and the role they play in schools. She holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from Harvard and was born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area.