Grandmas with brown babies

I can completely forget the most bizarre events, and the memory only comes back when the same thing happens again.



Last week at the windy playground that Boo’s started to prefer (for its tire swing, if you must know), I sat chatting to a grandma with an almost-walking little girl. The topic hadn’t had time to get past the “She’s-so-cute-how-old-is-she?” stage when grandma pointed out:

“Her father is from Mexico. He’s a lawyer.”

Oh, I thought, noticing at last consciously that yes, grandma appears to be white and little girl appears to be Latina. And Oh! again, as I picked up on grandma’s not-so-subtle announcement of her son-in-law’s middle class job: He’s Mexican, but he’s not one of those.


It seems perfectly likely despite grandma’s wording that the “Mexican” lawyer dad is U.S.-born and possibly from a family that’s been in California a helluva lot longer than mine or hers, but I kept my peace. Because it wasn’t the first time something similar has happened.

* * *

Boobaby and I have been going to playgrounds since she was just a few months old. I held her or brought the stroller, my impression being that exposure to the sounds and smells of the tribe would make her more comfortable with big kids later on. (It seems to have worked, by the way.)

Sitting off to the side with an infant in the carrier, I chatted with grandmas a lot, and one particular person was in the habit of making friendly predictions about every kid she saw.

“Look at that girl’s hair!” she would shout. “She’s going to be a model!”

“Look at that boy kick! He’ll be a football player!”

It was blatantly sexist, but a quaint kind of mannerism, and since she thought Boobaby was going to be a great singer, I let it pass without remarking.

Until, that is, it occurred to me that the only words she ever had for her own two-year old grandson were along the lines of “He’s a bad boy” or “He always misbehaves” or “He doesn’t listen.” And yes, grandson was brown, and grandma was not. And yes, at least twice that I remember, grandma announced to me, apropos of nothing, that her son-in-law, the boy’s father, was Jamaican.

Now, she never drew the connection between “Jamaican” and “bad boy” and it’s true that some people are apt to find fault in their own progeny while they praise others’. And maybe mothers-in-law are biologically predisposed to think ill of their daughters’ choice in a husband.

But — and I was there — I felt a little too much ambivalence from grandma toward her own grandson for that.

* * *

I’ve heard about a kid’s heritage — or phrases like “they’re adopted” or “their moms had a sperm donor” — from grandmas and grandpas a score of times, but very rarely from a mom or a dad. And I take comfort in the fact that my generation isn’t much inclined to think that a kid’s biological parentage will matter to casual acquaintances.

I’m not naive enough to think that we’ve progressed past racial awareness. Questions of tradition, ethnicity, race, history, oppression, and power are subtle and powerful, and deserve to be discussed. But they have no place on a playground.