What It's Like to Grow Up Mixed-Race in America
I remind her of things that are brown and beautiful: chocolate, the earth! "Chocolate is bitter," she says. "The earth is dirt." I fill her bookshelves with beautiful brown characters, send her to a school with beautiful brown students and smart brown teachers. She remains unconvinced.
One day she decides to grow out the blunt bob she requested last year. She can't blonde her hair (not on my watch) or blue her eyes (yet) or white her skin (ever). But she can long her hair. This, she can control.
Every day she brushes her hair, shows me how long it's getting. "It's this long if I tilt my head," she says. And I wonder how long it will have to grow—to her shoulder blades, her butt, the floor?—before she's convinced she's beautiful, and that the length of her hair and the color of her skin have nothing to do with it.
I grew up in Houston, with a father who'd immigrated from Romania by way of Israel. Dad's skin was the color of ginger ale; my mother's the pinkish white of slightly undercooked chicken. My father said things differently; he called me "Amenda." I was preoccupied with our blood, which, according to Anne Frank's diary, marked us for death.
"Don't tell people at school you're Jewish," my mom cautioned when I was 9. Instead of going to High Holiday services at our temple, we went to see The Purple Rose of Cairo. During Passover, my mother and I sneaked McDonald's into the house beneath our shirts. I got sent to the rabbi's office for asking how God made the sky if he was in it. I wasn't Jewish.
I told people my father was a Russian spy. Given his darker skin, narrow eyes, and thick accent, my classmates believed me. It helped that my sister's name was Natasha. It was the '80s, the South, and it didn't matter that Dad was a Romanian dental technician. I was determined to control the narrative, to make myself mysterious rather than "other."
The author with her father, 1977. Photo: Courtesy of Author
The neighborhood girls wear crosses in their creamy earlobes, tuck their hair behind. On Sundays, they wear prim dresses, are unavailable to play. God's children. "When can I get my ears pierced?" my daughter asks. "What's church?" "My hair is this long when it's wet," she says after a shower.
At the library, a woman says my son and daughter are beautiful, then asks, "But what are they?"
"My children," I say, smiling. "Their father is Indian," I add, and she nods appreciatively.
My daughter understands that her skin makes her vulnerable. She has sat in our Syrian refugee friends' homes. She knows that people kill other people because they don't like how they look or what they believe.
As a child, I had nightmares about where we would hide when they came for us. I settled on the plum tree in the yard. Who would look there? Now when the tornado siren goes off, the four of us crouch in the bathroom off our kitchen, holding one another, waiting for danger to pass.
One night at dinner, we're talking about the guy in the market whose cart, heaped with water bottles, blocked my son from reaching the broccoli. "Mucho agua," he said to my son, by way of apology. "Why was he speaking Spanish?" my daughter asks now. "I don't know," I say, but I do. We all do. I tell her, "When I was little, I had really long hair. Did you know that? Superlong, like down to my butt." She laughs. "I used to run around naked, my hair flapping like a squirrel's tail." My son returns to his book; he doesn't want to hear about his naked-child mom. But my daughter is intrigued. "One day," I continue, "I was in the yard, wearing only my hair, when a car pulled up. I didn't realize we were going to have company!" She chews, swallows. "What did you do?" she asks. "I ran inside! I slid under the dining room table and stayed there, head down, so my hair fell over my body—a cloak." She stares hard at me. "Could they see you?" she asks. "I don't know," I say, "but it felt like I was invisible." And she looks at me, for the first time, like she sees me, like she sees that I see her.
Amanda Avutu is a writer in Atlanta.