Martin Luther King Jr., standing on a corner in Mesa, Arizona

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My three-year old son Josh looked at my husband and I the other day.

"Mom — you, Angela and I are yellow.  Dad and brother Jeffery are brown."

Looking at me, Darryl tried to explain the color differentiation from his traditional Navajo perspective.

"Son – you and Angela are made up of both your Mama and your Daddy.  Your right side, from the top of your hair to the bottom of your right foot, is your Mama’s side.  Your left side, from the top of your hair to the bottom of your left foot, is your Daddy’s side.  You carry us with you every day — your grandmas and grandpas on both sides of the family.  Mom is yellow and Daddy is brown, so you are somewhere in between. Jeffery’s Mom is brown too, so that is why he is more brown than you."

This explanation confounded Josh.

"If Mom has the right side and you have the left side, there is nothing left for me!"

Laughing, Darryl and I assured Josh that he need not worry — there was more than enough of him to go around.  So went one of many discussions of race in our household. 

We know that as our kids grow, based on the way that they look, they will get questions about their identity.

Already, as a baby, people would get confused when they saw me out with Josh.  At the grocery store, a smiling worker behind the counter said "Your baby is beautiful!  When did you adopt him?"  At Starbucks a few months later, the barista said "He is so cute!  Which country is he from?"

I was always tempted to answer with a snappy comeback, but patiently explain that indeed, I threw up for nine months carrying this beautiful baby, whose father is Navajo.

While social grace is preferable, curiosity about each other based on how we look is natural.  We do look differently, and it is interesting.

My sister-in-law, married to my brother, is half Japanese and half Puerto Rican.  She and my brother are both scientists, so for fun, before their kids were born, they did calculations of the probability of having blue eyes vs. brown.  The odds of having blue-eyed kids were minuscule.  And, of course, both their kids came out looking just like their light-eyed father.

Her random stranger comments often allude to how long she has been a babysitter.

When you live in a mixed race family, comments about differences are very common. It is not awkward, or contentious or strained, it is just part of life.  We welcome discussion, because we want our kids to grow up loving themselves, and both their right and left sides.

Geovannie, a favorite student from my capoeira days, was exceptionally good at getting help from teachers and mentors of every background.  He told me one day, while we were driving back from an event in San Jose, "I appreciate everything you have taught me Pam.  And at the same time, when I see someone who looks like me saying the same thing, it means something different.  I know they live in my skin." 

Carmen Van Kerckhove, a client who I am exceptionally proud to have worked with, is leading a very interesting, and in my opinion critical, discussion about race at her blog Racialicious, and consulting firm New Demographic.  In a guest post for Anderson Cooper’s CNN blog, she said:

"All of us notice variations in skintone, facial features, hair
texture, eye color, and the myriad of other phenotypic factors that
cause us to draw conclusions as to what race a person is.

Then why do people insist on claiming that they don’t notice color?
Often, it’s because they are scared to death of being labeled a racist.

But here’s the thing. Noticing a person’s race doesn’t make you
racist. What does make you racist is if you make assumptions about that
person’s intellectual, physical, or emotional characteristics based on
the race you think the person is."

Josh learned about Martin Luther King Jr. at preschool.  As soon I picked him up, he was excited to tell me about this loving man who "had a dream about world peace."  We talked about his speech, and about his dream of having people judged by what was in their heart ("content of their character" is a bit of a stretch for a 3-year old) rather than the color of their skin.

A few days later, we were driving back from the store. 

"What happened to Martin Luther King Jr. Mommy?  Was he killed by bad guys?"

"Yes he was, son." I said. "However,"  I continued, "my feeling is that his spirit is alive and well.  He has inspired a lot of people during the time he was alive and after he passed on.  Next week, he will get to see our first African-American president sworn in.  I bet that makes him pretty happy."

"MOM!" Josh yelled from his car seat.  "He IS happy!  I see him!  There is Martin Luther King Jr., standing right there!"

I looked at the nondescript gas station on the corner by our house in Mesa, Arizona.  Of all the places Martin Luther King Jr.’s spirit could have shown up, I guess this was as good a place as any.  Josh was very excited.

The task ahead of our new President is ominous.  It reminds me of a cartoon I saved from long ago entitled "Opportunity of a Lifetime."

"Fast-growing midtown corp needs bright, articulate M/F to reorganize 760,000 files from top to bottom, fire four people nobody else will, and take care of children aged three and one.  Must be certified in UNEX, GOM, SYSCO, CREM, LEM, ZOT, FENIX, JOD and FRON.  Own car a necessity, also up-to-date trucking license.  Knowledge of quantum physics, short-order cookery helpful.  Can you type?  Even better.  If you have $250,000 in cash and are not afraid of large dogs, we’re looking for YOU.  At least twelve years’ experience required.  Personable, attractive, college grads only call 555-1212 for appt.  Starting salary 9k.  Great benefits."

All of us are depending on Obama’s leadership, intellect and character to get us to a better place.  I can hardly imagine what the task feels like and I wish him lots of strength and support.

Two nights ago, Josh was watching the news with his Dad.  Barak Obama flashed on the screen.

"Dad!" Josh said.  "That is the President of the United States, Barak Obama.  He is brown!"

At that moment, I flashed on Martin Luther King Jr., standing on the corner in Mesa, Arizona.  He was smiling.


9 Responses to “Martin Luther King Jr., standing on a corner in Mesa, Arizona”

  1. LaShaunda says:

    I’m black and I’m married to a black man. Our children look like him, he’s light skinned, I’m brown. The first time I was asked if they were mine was by a white woman with black kids. She had adopted hers. I told her I gave birth to mine. I learned a long time ago we come in many shades. Which is one of the reason I named my online magazine Shades Of Romance. I believe books and their authors come in many shades too.

  2. Barbara Saunders says:

    A quotation from author Richard Rodriguez: “Barack Obama is brown. Mixed. There are millions of us in America who similarly belong to more than one race…Brown is not a new color to America. Our past is as brown as our future…In this world, the political necessity is for someone who might help us imagine lives larger than racial designations. A politician might win the day, if he or she were able to speak of the ways our lives are mixed.”

  3. Carol Saha says:

    My little ones are part me, white, and part their dad, white-American Indian-Black. Something about skin color came up with my then 5 yr old son. He didn’t believe me when I told him he was part black because his dad is. My kids are blond haired, green eyed and very light skinned. So he asked his dad. Then he came back and said okay, he was part black, but he’s part silver surfer, too. Kids don’t care. We teach them to care or not.

  4. David S. says:

    Beautiful post; I cried at the end of it.

    My wife and I have a son who turned out to have noticeably darker skin than both of us. He snagged some genes that skipped from grandparents (or great-grandparents? we have no idea). Like you, we just think it’s interesting. Going back just 2 or 3 generations, he has about 12 “countries of origin.” We just tell him his origins are mostly European, but that he’s all American.

  5. Nice post Pam.
    My daughter’s kindergarten teacher came to class last week with pots of black and white paint. She painted a black stripe on one arm and a white one on the other. The whole class agreed that there was no-one in the racially diverse class whose skin matched either stripe’s color. They decided instead that everyone is a different shade of tan!

  6. Andy Pels says:

    I love the stories. I am Norwegian/German/Jewish and have a brother who is originally Korean, nieces and nephews who are part Lao and Mexican, and a son who for some reason tans VERY easily and has had people think he is Mexican (really – one of his friends saw my Scandinavian/European wife at school and said to my son, “Trevor, your Mom is WHITE!”). I’ve heard a lot of odd comments, too. I count myself lucky to have such variety in my family. Besides that I love them dearly, I think it has taught me well so that I don’t make silly comments like those we’ve heard.

    It would have been cool if your son had seen Dr. King in Winslow.

  7. Pam as always you put it so eloquent and real. its all pretty cool and I think more amazing than we realize – I wrote about it today how Bono songs hi homage to MLK on same spot he gave his dream speech whoa! In case you missed Bono and MLK together here

  8. Dale says:

    Pam, wonderful post. Being a second generation Asian American, your attitude on race absolutely hits home. It’s people like you who are teaching their kids the right way to think about it. People look different. I would go one step further… teach your kids to take the best of both worlds.

    I wish blogger had trackbacks, because I plan on recommending your post on my blog about Asian Americans (

  9. Thoughtful,wise and timely.Thanks for sharing, Pam.