One day, my two-year-old daughter was climbing the walls in lieu of napping.
Frustrated and longing for a moment of stationery quiet, I buckled her into the car and drove the fifteen minutes into town. Usually, I will drive in the opposite direction of town, out along the country roads as the paddocks unfold around us. On this day though, I drove toward civilization, parked the car at Aldi, then walked up the main street and back, approximately a 30-minute walk. During the walk, we were stopped four times by middle-aged white women who asked if they could touch my daughter's hair.
On each occasion my daughter, herself familiar with this routine, compliantly leant her head forward whilst the stranger ran her fingers through her tight curls, always getting stuck and pulling until my daughter winced and ripped her head away. So cute, so beautiful, they'd say. So weird, I'd think. We live in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, which is a predominantly white, or anglo community, and my daughter is mixed-race. I am white (and red-headed no less) and her father is black. The last lady, who incidentally provided the impetus to write this essay, pulled her hand away and then said she looked like a toilet brush before breaking out into fits of giggles. We were standing in the line at Aldi by this stage so many other people heard it. Everyone laughed. How adorable.
This kind of scenario is not unusual in our day to day lives and in fact is nothing compared to some others we've encountered. There was the time my Dutch neighbour, a woman in her 60s, cradled my newborn after I brought her home and oohed and aahed and smelt her head and then said, "Oh my, she even smells black."
There was the woman with the strong Scottish accent at the hardware store who asked me three times in varying ways whether my daughter had actually come from my own body and the woman on the train to Sydney who asked where my child had come from. I replied, "Half of her came from me and the other half her father."
There was the person who asked me how old she was when I got her and the woman who practically chased me out of Dan Murphy's to congratulate me on what I was doing, that it was obvious my child and I had an amazing bond. She was practically crying with joy. My first instinct was to grab a bottle of the wine I'd just bought and skull it. I've overheard kids in the supermarket ask their parents why that kid's black and once when I was collecting her from crèche, a young boy ran up to me and said with the greatest astonishment, "Did you know that Frankie comes from another country?"
"No she doesn't," I replied. "Her father does.""Oh," he said shrinking back, slightly perplexed.
But what's my point? There are so many directions one could go. One thing I do notice is that these instances normally occur when I am alone with my daughter, and it is usually other white people who make these comments. I assume that when my partner is there, they realise some sort of line between themselves and him and they are not willing to cross it. Though this is an assumption, of course.
Normally, these occasions are novel and more often than not, I have a delayed reaction. It is on the way home, in the car, half an hour later that I suddenly think, Damn! I should have said that. Usually, to be honest, I just laugh it off. And this bothers me more in many ways. In doing so, I am putting their comfort ahead of mine. I don't say anything back because I don't want them to feel uncomfortable, I don't want to appear rude or combative, in spite of how I or my daughter might feel. What does that say about me?
When I was pregnant, I quite literally avoided reading anything related to pregnancy. I steered clear of other pregnant women and did not change my life a great deal in preparation. I ate shellfish, had the occasional glass of wine, and didn't attend a single prenatal class. But now that I have the child, and even more recently, as she is getting older, I find myself actively seeking out information and anecdotes from others in my situation.
Recent internet searches on my computer are "managing African hair," "caring for black hair," "products for mixed race hair". Most commonly, the comments about my daughter concern her hair. The hair is the ultimate object of fetish when it comes to the mixed-race baby. We quite literally cannot go out into public without receiving multiple comments regarding her hair.
On the whole, they are complimentary or inquisitive and made by people of all races and ethnicities, though given where we live, it is mainly other people who look and sound just like me. Twice, I have met African women who have chastised me for letting her hair grow wild--for allowing some of the curls to form dreadlocks. On both occasions, I have smiled sheepishly, blaming my lack of knowledge regarding the care of my child's hair on my own skin colour. "I only know how to comb white hair," I have said.
It is always easier to just slip back into the stereotype, I suppose.
The little I have found to read about this issue has been interesting, yet hasn't necessarily shed any light on the topic for me. Many black women equate the curiosity others have with their own mixed-race children with the misperception that white is superior to black, that being partially white is better than being not white at all.
For me, I have had the inverse response:
I feel my child is valued because she is partially black.
To me, the curiosity is representative of a more general fascination with blackness and black culture. Many times, I have wondered if people assumed she was adopted because a woman who looked like me could not possibly have given birth to so beautiful a child. And mostly, what I can find to read about it is centered on the experiences of North American people. The politics of race are different in Australia, in particular, because of our failure to address the complex relationship between the First Australians and the rest of us and the gross inequalities that have resulted in that failure for the majority of Indigenous people. I dare say that if my child were half Aboriginal, I would be dealing with a whole different set of circumstances.
You see that's the thing. When someone sees a mixed-race child, they will more often than not project their own perceptions of the politics of race and ethnicity onto that child, whether consciously or not. I have had so many people tell me that my daughter will grow up to be a singer or a model or an actress simply because of the "look" she has. This speaks to the fetishisation of mixed-race children, but it also speaks to their gender as well.
There is a very telling line in British novelist Zadie Smith's novel NW, in which the character, Nathan, tells his childhood friend Keisha that everyone loves a black man when he is a cute little boy, but as soon as he reaches physical maturity they will cross the street to avoid him. The same, I don't think, can be said for their female counterparts. Instead, the image of light-skinned black women such as Rihanna is projected onto my little girl. Already, at two, when she dances people will laugh and comment on how well she "twerks".
In the end, of course, I don't care what my child looks like or what she grows up to be, so long as she is healthy and happy and independent.
Thankfully, my daughter is willfully independent and does not take "no" lying down. So many of my own fears and concerns are assuaged simply by knowing that she will more likely than not have the strength to find her own identity and sense of self outside of what society tells her she is.
But still, in spite of all my best efforts, she is growing up in a society that still does not understand itself and in the end, this will have some affect on who she becomes and how she sees herself in the world. And I suppose the best thing we can do is to share our stories and work our way through it.
Camilla Palmer is a Postgraduate researcher in the School of Arts and Media at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.