In 1961, my parents were forbidden by law to marry in our liberal state of Maryland. Interracial marriage was illegal in 16 states until 1967. My mother is Filipina and my father was a white American predominantly of Irish and English ancestry. When I told my children that grandma and grandpa could not get married legally in the state of Maryland, they were incredulous.
I’m Not the Nanny
Being the only person of color in my all white Catholic school made me feel as if I did not belong there. Feeling “other than” was exacerbated when I became a mom and was frequently mistaken as the nanny of my lighter skinned children. The dentist assumed I was a nanny bringing two white children in my care to see him. The Gymboree teacher addressed the adults in the class as “moms and nanny!” (I was the only person of color in the room full of blonde moms). When a Filipina nanny in my predominantly white neighborhood asked me if I was “live-in,” I blurted out, “Yes! And I’m sleeping with the father!” The Filipina nannies there still look at me sideways when they pass me on the street….
Biracial Boom Guest Blog
“Our Expanding Familial Mosaics”
by Maria Leonard Olsen
Author of children’s book Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown? and adult nonfiction book
Not the Cleaver Family—The New Normal in Modern American Families
My children began to ask me questions about why people were frequently mistaking me as their nanny and not knowing I was their mommy. They were increasingly uncomfortable about it. Knowing what I know now, I should have moved to a more diverse neighborhood. What I did instead was to write about the subject and to set out on a personal quest to convince people not to let their curiosity overwhelm their manners.
Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown?
I first wrote an article for my local newspaper entitled, “Being a Parent is Not Apparent.” Some local preschools passed copies of it out to their new parents. I found a publisher for my children’s book, Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown? in 2013. I have spoken at numerous schools, libraries and festivals in an effort to raise consciousness about the fact that American families do not look like the cookie-cutter mold of a generation ago.
This generation has been lucky in some respects, and for that, I am grateful. My mixed-race children do not have to choose as I did among “race” boxes on various forms that do not fit them. My multiracial daughter is involved with the Mixed Race Student Coalition at her college, which is “a space for those who identify with a mixed race background or have an interest in mixed race affairs/cross cultural collaboration through social and academic events, discussion, and support.” My gay son may some day legally marry a man that he loves, unlike the many closeted homosexuals I knew when I was growing up. Our nation (well, at least on the coasts and in many American cities, as well as the country’s millennials) is embracing the changing nature of our families, and that is something to celebrate.
In 2013, the Census Bureau reported that within a year, white children under the age of 5 would be a minority and that by 2043, less than fifty percent of the U.S. population will be white. The typical American family no longer resembles the lily-white Cleavers of a generation ago (Who remembers the 1960s popular television show “Leave it to Beaver”? Ward Cleaver was the wise, calm father, and June Cleaver always wore a dress and pearls—even to vacuum! The show’s two children learned an important life lesson by the end of each episode).
I spoke to 100s of people across the country about their “non-traditional” families and published a book this month called, “Not the Cleaver Family—The New Normal in Modern American Families.” I included chapters on families who were child free by choice, mixed race, led by same-sex parents, single parents, parents of singletons, and those that included adopted children.
It is estimated that fifteen percent of new marriages are interracial though, in reality, the figure is likely higher. People don’t stare at mixed race couples in most places, like they used to in my parents’ generation. With respect to mixed-race families, however, the most common comment I heard was irritation with the “What are you?” question. I get that question possibly once a week. And people speak to me in Spanish almost every day, though I am not Latina. Questions present a forced choice for many biracial people—whether they identify more with one facet of their ancestry or are compelled to choose, based on their appearance.
While part of my goal in writing Not the Cleaver Family was to raise awareness of insensitivities that occur as our American family units change, microaggressions take place in my life–and I suspect in many other minority members’ lives–on a daily basis. The lack of malicious intent does not reduce the frustration. And all of those with whom I spoke commiserated over the effect insensitive comments may have on their children. I suggest in the book that perhaps an easy rule to follow is simply to assume that the child you see is with his or her parent. “After all, would you want your four-year-old daughter to hear a stranger ask you if she is your ‘real’ daughter?”
I spoke at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles past summer. It is the largest gathering of mixed race people in the U.S., and I encourage people to attend if they can do so. I brought my son, and it was the first time I truly felt I belonged somewhere. Opportunities like Mixed Remixed are so affirming, especially to those of us who never quite felt at home in any racial or ethnic grouping.
Education can eradicate prejudice and increase acceptance. And the Internet at least exposes more people to a wider world. It is harder for many to stay xenophobic while our mixing pot continues to expand and visibility increases.
I realize that I am “preaching to the choir” when addressing readers of this wonderful blog. We know that assumptions for many of us are ingrained in childhood. But together we can move towards concepts of race and ethnicity with more bridges than boundaries. Not the Cleaver Family is a consciousness-raising effort to help educators and citizens who hope to remain aware of—and appreciate—our changing society. Let’s keep the dialogue going and raise the vibrations on these issues of primary importance to the fabric of our society and the primal urge to belong.
Meet the Author
*Maria Leonard Olsen is a biracial woman, mother of two children, a lawyer, journalist and author. She leads writing/empowerment retreats for women, and is a co-host of the Inside Out radio show on WPFW-fm, 89.3, in Washington, D.C. Maria graduated from Boston College and the University of Virginia School of Law, served in the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department, fostered newborn babies awaiting adoption, and has been on the boards of Children’s National Medical Center BOV, the Catholic Coalition for Special Education, GirlsUp and the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Washington. She has written for The Washington Post, Washingtonian, Bethesda Magazine, Parenting, BabyTalk and Washington For Women. She recently returned to practicing law now that her children are launched. Mommy, Why’s Your Skin So Brown? is her first children’s book. Healing for Hallie, about the importance of expressing one’s feelings, is her second children’s book. Not the Cleaver Family—The New Normal in Modern American Families, an adult nonfiction book, will be released on November 29, 2016. Maria has spoken at numerous schools and events, including the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles, The Japanese American National Museum’s Family Day, the Washington Independent Review of Books and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asian American Month Celebration (as the highest ranking Asian American political appointee then at the Justice Department). See www.mariaolsen49.wix.com/author for additional information. Please send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Not the Cleaver Family – The New Normal in Modern American Families
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