Photo: Tasneem Jamal
One night when she was six years old, my daughter Lily asked me, as she was drifting off to sleep and apropos of nothing, “Mummy, am I white?”
The question was fair and should not have been a surprise. I am South Asian. Lily’s father, my blue-eyed husband, is of European extraction. And yet Lily’s question, delivered in barely a whisper, sent me into an actual panic: my heart racing, my body tense.
I spoke quickly, as gently as I was able, and in terms I believed a six-year-old mind could grasp. “It depends where you are and who is asking,” I said. “I mean, obviously, you are partly white and partly Indian. In the summers you tan and become darker and look more Indian. When you’re with me you look like my child and when you’re with Daddy you look like his child. And when you are with both of us you look like a beautiful combination.”
I had been talking in this rambling fashion for a few minutes before I realized Lily had fallen asleep.
Her darkened bedroom was illuminated only by a small nightlight so that everything around me, including Lily, was bathed in varying shades of grey. As I looked at her, I saw myself as a child. And I was transported.
I was six years old and it was my first Halloween. The year was 1975 and I had been living in Canada for about nine months, my family having been expelled from my birthplace in Uganda as part of an ethnic cleansing; in other words, because we were the wrong race. After a tumultuous 18 months moving from country to country, dwelling to dwelling, we were finally settled in a house in a lower middle-class neighbourhood in Kitchener, Ontario, which is about 100 km west of Toronto and which in those days felt more like a big town than the vibrant city it is today. After some begging, I had convinced my mother to buy me a witch costume. It was a cheap, flimsy affair, essentially a black apron made of some kind of synthetic, disposable fabric that tied in the back. The plastic mask, which featured a twisted nose, a black mole on the cheek, and a little black hat built right into it, was held onto my face by an elastic that stretched around the back of my head. And though the costume was hidden by my winter coat, I felt transformed. I was ecstatic. My two older brothers had run off to trick or treat with their respective friends, and my parents—in the manner of 1970s parents—trusted me to wander out on my own to a few houses nearby.
I remember very little about my solitary outing that autumn evening. I remember only an elderly neighbour who lived three houses down from ours. I don’t recall the details of her facial features or how she was dressed or whether she gave me a chocolate bar or a lollipop.
I remember how gentle she was, in her words, her tone, her manner. I remember that she liked me.
“Look at you,” she said, taking a step back, as though amazed that anything could be as marvelous as me. “Aren’t you just the most adorable little witch. Tell me, sweetheart,” she said as she lifted a treat from the bowl beside her, “what grade are you in?”
“One,” I answered softly. As I did so, I carefully folded the handles of the bag I was holding over my hands in an effort to hide them.
“Do you go to the elementary school down the street?”
I nodded as I continued folding the bag surreptitiously over my bare, brown hands. I had neglected to wear mittens that night and I realized that if she saw my hands she would see that I was not white and, as a result, she would stop being kind to me. She might even holler at me to get off her porch, go away, Go home, Paki! as others had hollered on the street, at playgrounds, and on the schoolyard. She placed the treat in my bag and wished me a Happy Halloween. I thanked her and ran off, thrilled for the candy and for something I could not yet articulate, something that would take me many years to articulate.
What I had experienced that night was the simple joy of existing in a world in which you can walk, live, breathe in the confidence—in the security—that you are not wrong.
As I stared at my sleeping daughter almost four decades later I understood the source of the emotion, the panic, the roiling inside me that was precipitated by Lily’s innocent question. I could name it: shame.
If I were being honest I would have said to Lily: “I hope you are white. I hope others see you as white.”
I am a mother. I want the wind always at my child’s back. I want the trees to shade her when the sun is searing. I want everyone to see her as I see her: as the most precious thing on earth. Not wrong. Never wrong.
I love that I am South Asian. I love the shape of my eyes and the hue of my skin. I am proud of being multilingual, of the phonemes that roll off my tongue with ease. And yet I wish—agonizingly—for my daughters that they are not what I am.
Taken together, these statements cannot both be true. Still, despite the realization that night of my shame, I insisted to myself that they were.
By the next morning, Lily had forgotten her question and I, unable to offer an answer that did not make me acutely uncomfortable, didn’t bring it up.
Life carried on. Lily and her sister, Mia, continued to spend time with my parents, going to Bollywood movies and wearing bangles and salwaar kameez. With my in-laws they ate roast beef and bread pudding. My husband and I bought them Judy Blume books, let them watch Disney, and took them to museums. From the moment my children were born I had ceased to make statements about “people like us” or “people like them.” My children, I knew, were simultaneously them and us. Beginning on the night of Lily’s question, I avoided using the phrase “white people” in reference to anyone at any time.
One day, when Lily was eight, she came home from school and told me that she had remarked to her best friend that she is “half-Indian.”
She reported that her blond-haired friend had been aghast. “Lily,” she had said, “that’s racist!”
Lily laughed as she recounted this. “It’s not racist,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s what I am.”
Even as I remained confused, even as I nursed the ancient wounds in my heart, my child was forging ahead, growing into herself, formulating her identity, walking, living, breathing.
I have, in moments, seen myself and my husband in Lily and in Mia. At times I have caught in them glimpses of our parents, our grandparents, shades of white and brown, of European and South Asian, flowing, moving, shifting in the light and shadows, in expressions and mannerisms. At other times I have seen nothing of us. I have seen only the girls. Each of them in the act of becoming, like a hitherto unseen flower—not yet named, not yet categorized, not yet classified—in bloom.
Some flowers need the searing sun to grow, others the shade. My pain is not my children’s pain. My fears are not their fears. They will have their own joys, their own challenges, their own wounds. Just as I have had mine. For me, the world was either black or white when it came to race; in other words, either right or wrong. For my mixed-race children, there are no stark blacks or whites (or browns). There are varying shades; there are nuances. This is one of many gifts they are giving me: a perspective that refuses to be simplified or reduced, a perspective that pushes and opens and expands.
One day, recently, early in the morning when everything was quiet and I was hovering between sleeping and waking, it occurred to me that the elderly neighbour from that long-ago Halloween night would have known exactly who I was. We were the only non-white family on the street, in the entire neighbourhood. She would have seen my brothers and me outside, where we spent most of our summer days. I had learned to ride my bicycle on the sidewalk in front of her house only weeks before Halloween. I walked past her home every day, to and from school, wearing the same winter coat I wore over my witch costume.
I couldn’t see then what had suddenly become obvious now. I couldn’t even have imagined it.