Revisiting Desiree’s Baby

by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Sue Lyons-Joell

In 1893, Vogue magazine published the Kate Chopin story, “Desiree’s Baby”. The melodramatic tragedy set in antebellum Louisiana involves a foundling mother, her planter husband, and their newborn son. Desiree drowns her child and herself when her planter husband rejects her for having the “taint” of black heritage. The baby looks more like his mixed-race nurse than either parent. The punchline is that after the death of Desiree and the baby, the husband discovers that HIS mother was of mixed heritage, not Desiree.

The story is based on female empowerment (or in Desiree’s case, the lack of power), and the dynamics of US slavery and the Black Codes. It’s also been used as a fictional case study for skin color genetics. Skin color is one of those complex traits: 5-7 genes in any given population, and over 60 potential genetic combinations (some with the same end “result”), It leads to the spectrum we see globally, and sometimes in our own families. I’ve personally used the story in the last few years to prepare my less science-minded family members that my kids could run the spectrum of hair, eye, or skin color.

Somewhere along the line I forgot to prepare myself.

Upon first meeting me, you may not know what I am, but you know that I’m not white. I’ve never been an undercover minority, I just make people undecided. That’s been a source of pride for me – I never intentionally or unintentionally “pass.” My husband, though, is often mistaken for non-Latino white. Unintentionally, he “passes”. So does our daughter. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Wait, yes I do… Uneasy. Anxious. Maybe a little isolated. I’m the only visible minority in my household, for all intents and purposes. Subconsciously, when I thought about starting my own multiethnic family, I must have had something different in mind.

I had this noble vision of Momma Bear (starring yours truly), defending my imaginary beige baby from the onslaught of color-struck family members (OK, mostly the in-laws). I’d encourage her to embrace the heritage her father’s family has largely rejected. I envisioned having a co-conspirator to share the ups and downs of being multiracial. Given, all of that may still happen. The bottom line is, I envisioned my daughter to be more Rosario Dawson than Jennifer Beals.

In the grand scheme of things, this means absolutely nothing. This isn’t even close to what I was thinking after delivery. After some complications and 5 days in the neonatal ICU, I was simply ecstatic to take my daughter home. It was the discharge paperwork that did it. My labor nurse had filled out a basic identification form right after delivery – weight, length, Apgar, footprints, and the like. This nurse had met my spouse and my mother, and had been there through most of the night with us.

On this form was a “fill in the blank” for “Color/race.” I swear, that’s how it read. Color? What year is it? Break out the Crayola box… The nurse had written, “Caucasian.” This marks my first encounter with a reversed One Drop Rule, wherein one (perceived) white parent = white child. I didn’t cause any fuss, but I did cross out that label and put “multiethnic” instead before I signed the form. It was what I had always agreed to do, to label my kids as accurately as possible until they’re old enough to make their own choice. It took me a minute to realize exactly what that could mean.

At almost 2 months old, there’s every indication that my daughter may stay this fair – paler than my husband, actually closer to my German/Irish mom. If so, how her personal ethnic identity evolves and what it means in her life will be radically different than my own. She’ll get to choose whether to reveal her ethnic backgrounds, and how and when to do it. She will be the undercover minority at the lunch table, maybe hearing things she doesn’t want to hear. She may blend in with the majority at will. She may have her own struggles if she chooses an identity that jars with people’s assumptions.

I worry that I won’t be as able to help her navigate the American racial landscape. I fear that her experiences will be so drastically different that when she voices the universal teenage lament, “Mom, you just don’t understand!” she’ll really mean it. I wonder if she’ll reach a point where she rejects an identity that she doesn’t HAVE to have – if she’ll “pass”. I hope that when she tells me at 14 to drop her off a block away from her school that it’s only because the family car isn’t cool enough.

Most of the time I throw off these scenarios as ridiculous and trifling, as jumping too far ahead, as playing head games with myself. But I have to wonder – there seem many forums, studies, and conversations for white parents with minority children. I have never considered the reverse, learning to be a minority parent of a “white” child. I guess I’d better start.

Sue Lyons-Joell is a wetlands scientist near Philadelphia, PA. Also known as Lyonside, she has been active in various multiethnic groups and online forums since college. She’s more of a blogging fan than an actual blogger. Sue and her husband have one daughter, born in February ‘07.

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