I was really looking forward to being dumber than my child. For the first 20 weeks of my pregnancy, my husband and I spun a collective daydream about our perfect little white baby: We pictured the child walking through life with confidence and lightish hair, a perfect combination of my curly African hair and my husband’s straight, Causcasian hair. Our child would be his willing partner at museums, so gifted in math, homework could be done without my help. The dumbest, basest jokes, our favorite kind, would make this child’s eyes roll.
The afternoon of my 20-week ultrasound, I left work early and got on the wrong train. I was late, my husband even later, and we were silent in the waiting room, answering work emails. Following the technician down the hallway, I felt wobbly and unsure: less This is it! than Oh, is this it? We knew we might be wrong, but there hadn’t seemed much harm in hoping. What was wrong with wanting the white child with straight hair, so smart, annoyingly smart, just like his or her dad.
In the aquarium glow of the ultrasound room, the technician held the wand over my bare stomach and asked if we wanted to find out.
“Yes,” my husband and I said at the same time.
“You will have …” she said, adjusting the wand, “a Black baby .”
Race disappointment is not a term I was familiar with, but one I quickly learned. Parents magazine points out that there are “ways to deal with your mixed feelings.” A blogger for the New York Times’ Motherlode emphasizes her luck at the health of her child, while Babble recommends being open about your race-related feelings, whatever they are. Katherine Asbery’s 2008 book, Altered Dreams … Living With Race Disappointment, devotes 135 pages to struggling and eventually coming to terms with her unfulfilled desire for a white baby. (???? my husband texted me, after coming across the copy I bought to research this essay.)
From what I can tell, not many people in the parenting realm have spent much time considering the race part of the term’s construction. What we see on an ultrasound screen isn’t a fetus’s race — it’s the color, the purely biological difference based on skin color. Race is the set of traits we’ve decided as a society to associate with those skin colors. But when discussing disappointment, no one ever says “I am grieving the straight hair I so vividly imagined” or “I was hoping my baby would have pale eyes just like mine.”
What they do, instead, is exactly what I did: mourn the image of a child that they’ve constructed based on the way we expect whites and Blacks to behave. Writing for Babble, Andrea Elovson describes what she thought having a white baby would be like: “Dressing the baby in GAP clothes, combing the baby’s fine, straight hair, eventually helping plan a wedding, and spending countless hours chatting over mimosas at fancy brunch places.” But what if her child had been a fan of rap music? What if the child didn’t want to wear GAP clothes or drink bubbly cocktails?
My husband and I shared a daydream that was incredibly specific — and I believed that meant it avoided simplistic race norms. When relatives asked about the baby’s race before we knew it, innocently wondering whether to buy GAP or FUBU, I chastised them. It doesn’t matter, I wrote. We believe it’s fine for a white to wear FUBU! Meanwhile, I spent my lunch break haunting the window displays of GAP stores. If I felt brave enough to go inside, I fingered the $300 jumpers in demure plaid and khaki, the useless UGG boots, and imagined my white child learning to read.
Once we found out we were having a Black, we cringed over new visions: sagged pants. Fried chicken, gangs. Boring and time-consuming sports. Haircuts, I confess, that I could not care less about.
No matter how evolved I thought we were, it turns out I wanted a white baby, badly, and not for reasons I’m proud of. Do I want a Black baby who’s smarter than me? Not really. I already know plenty of Black people, young and old, who think they’re smarter than me. But I think when I yearned for this intelligent little white child, what I truly wanted was a better version of myself. This white child would be sophisticated enough to appreciate visual art. Because it had already happened to me, this white child’s 13th birthday would pass without the poor duck contracting meningitis that would leave him or her forever a little fuzzy on trivia, a little slow with math. (You know that’s not how probability works, right? my husband helpfully contributed.) It’s a generous and unfounded conjecture, but maybe this is why men are more likely to take paternity leave with Black sons: the desire for a do-over.
Race-disappointment texts often assure mothers they’ll love their children once they actually appear. I definitely didn’t need anyone to reassure me that I’ll love my Black baby — the summer I spent barfing on this baby’s behalf seems like testament enough. But I came up short when searching for probable reasons to like this child, this mysterious person whose toenails have only just started to form, when all I knew about him was that he was Black. It seems stupid now, but all I could picture were the stereotypical-Black characteristics.
Talking to a friend a few weeks ago, I told her yeah, I knew, and yeah, it was a Black baby, shrug. “I’m sorry,” she said. But as our conversation went on and I described a perfect white child I’d seen on the subway, she helped me realize: There’s no reason my Black baby can’t be stereotypically white. There’s no reason I can’t sign the child up for a class, even if it is full of white kids. The next day I went out and bought my Black baby some GAP clothes, in the hopes of having a child who is a better version of me after all.
But for all I know, my Black child will hate them. Or like them for a month, and then move on. It’s anyone’s guess, just as it’s anyone’s guess how the white child I might have had would have felt about FUBU.
I think in turning out to be a Black child, this baby did her or himself — and any theoretical future children I might have — a huge favor. That ultrasound revealed two things: the nature of his skin color and my racism. It also forced me to realize there are a thousand, a million things about my Black child that I don’t know yet, and that perhaps I won’t ever know. It seems I won’t be getting a do-over after all, and not just because it’s a Black child.
How stunningly horrid are the words you just read? As I’m sure you are all aware, we can’t actually tell a baby’s skin color using ultrasound. But we can tell gender. This is word for word take on an article Jen Gann wrote for New York Mag on her utter disappointment at having a baby boy, except I switched gender for race, just to illustrate how profoundly hateful her words are. Her assumptions about boys and masculinity and how stupid, horrible and boring they are extended to her own child, while she was still pregnant, and her way of dealing with it was to dedicate herself to socializing her son as a girl.
Misandry is not a thing? Oh no? Is that so.
Jen Gann begs to differ.
Lots of love,