When David Valdes Greenwood and his partner adopted their daughter Lily they had no idea of the assumptions people would make when they saw her.
Pop Quiz on Racial Identity
1. 'Is Obama black enough?'
2. If Tiger Woods’ infant daughter Sam has a Swedish mother, 'what [does] that make Sam'?
3. Who would ask such insulting questions?
1. Black enough for whom?
2. It makes her a baby.
3. Time Magazine and the New York Post respectively, both this year.
The pop quiz above reflects a difficult, somewhat depressing truth: despite the fact a growing number of Americans consider themselves to be multiracial, our culture is still obsessed with monoracial purity. As the multiethnic parent of a multiracial child, I am constantly reminded of this fact — not just by the media, but in my family’s daily interactions with others.
My daughter Lily is, in terms of racial and ethnic identity, an unsolvable mystery. Her birth mother is 100 percent Polish-American, but the only description we have of Lily’s biological father is that he 'looked white' — which doesn’t explain Lily’s sickle cell trait (in the U.S., most common among African-Americans) or her hair, which suggests a child of African descent. Quite possibly, Lily’s biological Dad was of mixed race — or races — himself. And since sickle cell is actually also found among some Latinos, Saudis, Indians and various Mediterranean peoples, she may also be multiethnic within her multiple races.
How do you define a girl who is at least white and likely some other combination of races or ethnicities? You call her Black. At least, that’s what people do wherever we go. It doesn’t matter that Lily and I have exactly the same skin tone and I am Scotch-Irish/Cuban. To others, her hair defines her: those tight dark curls read as Black. A dark-skinned woman with perfect extensions stopped us in a restaurant to offer hair care advice, which was a very welcome thing, but then she brought us up short, saying, 'I’ve known other Caucasians who adopt Black children.' Beyond making it sound like our adoption was an ongoing race-centred hobby, she was making cultural assumptions about everyone involved.
That woman wasn’t the first or the last, so you might wonder why we wouldn’t just roll with it, letting people think of Lily however they like. For one thing, our country has a long history of emphasizing mono-cultural identity as a way to define and limit citizens: informal pigeonholing in media portrayals and social settings; formal tracking, from academics to business matters; and manipulation of civil rights, from the 'one drop rule' onward. But on a more basic level, it’s just not accurate. I don’t want Lily to think she has to choose one racial identity just to make things easier for others. I know from personal experience how frustrating that can be.