She and her sister wandered off in a department store as children sometimes do, but when their mama found them, it wasn’t a happy reunion.
The cashier didn’t believe they were related. Little Álora Cummings couldn’t leave with the golden-brown Honduran woman who gave birth to her. Instead, her Irish father had to be called. The parent with skin white like Álora and her sister Tasha had to drive to the store and validate his family to a saleswoman.
I know this feeling. I’ve been asked if I am adopted. I’ve been confused as my white sister’s brown friend. Over and over again, I have been forced to explain how I am related to my big sis and that short woman with the hazel eyes, wavy dark hair and white skin. She’s German, Irish and Cherokee: my mommy.
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For Tommy Hansen, kids never believed he had a white dad.
“My mother is from Laos. My father is white. But because my skin is dark, because of how I look, kids always said I was lying when I would say I was half white. To them, it only mattered how I looked on the outside.”
For Shane W. Evans, whose father is African-American and Seminole, there was often a look of skepticism and the same frustrating question about his Sicilian mother: “Is that your mom?”
As I’ve grown older and met more and more mixed people, the stories are similar: We have been made to feel alien, abnormal, without community. That’s part of the reason Evans, an illustrator, joined his best friend, actor and author Taye Diggs (“The Best Man Holiday,” “Private Practice”), to create the children’s book “Mixed Me!,” out on Tuesday. It’s a follow-up to their acclaimed “Chocolate Me,” inspired by Taye’s childhood being bullied because of his beautiful dark skin.
“Mixed Me!” tells the story of a boy nicknamed Mixed-Up Mike. His peers joke that his parents don’t match.
Shane’s wife is Asian. Their daughter is mixed. And Taye’s son Walker, with singer/actress Idina Menzel, is biracial and the reason for the book.
“It brought up many topics and issues swirling around for me today and when I was growing up,” Taye wrote in an email. “Race identity, inclusion, racism, culture, hair, complexion, bullying. … The list goes on.
“Our society continues to be intrigued by these interesting concoctions of heritage, and I wanted my son to have some writing that was tailored just for him. Walker is an inspiration to me, and he continues to teach me more and more with every second I spend with him. ‘Mixed Me!’ gives a peek into what his experience might be.”
Growing up, I didn’t meet other mixed kids until middle school. Álora says the only mixed friend she had as a kid in Iowa was her sister. Tommy was a party of one in Gardner.
The kids picked on him daily. They mimicked karate sounds. And because his skin wasn’t white like theirs, they assumed he wasn’t American.
“I was strong at school,” says Tommy, 27. “But at home, I would cry so much. My dad would give me words of encouragement, but I was ashamed of who I was for a long time. I would ask my father, ‘Why can’t I just be white like you?’ I never knew anyone else who was mixed. If I were able to read a book like ‘Mixed Me!,’ it would have made a difference back then.”
It wasn’t until high school that Tommy started to embrace himself.
And me? I was a grown woman before I really felt comfortable and confident in my identity as a biracial woman.
Álora, 26, says moving to Kansas City a few years ago helped her find a sense of community as she met more mixed people. It’s easier to take pride in her Honduran heritage here. Back in Iowa, her junior high school teachers used to make her fill in the “white” bubble on standardized tests because to them she looked white. But in high school, she was urged to fill in the “Latino” bubble to add to the school’s diversity. Kids would make jokes about Latinos.
“People would say you’re only half, so why do you care,” Álora says. “But it’s half of who I am.”
“Mixed Me!” normalizes the biracial experience. It could educate people so they wouldn’t ask kids the wrong questions.
“It’s good for kids growing up mixed to see a book like this and know they are not alone,” Álora says. “It’s also good for other kids to read a book like this so it can help answer questions and show them it’s normal to be different. We should celebrate difference, not separate ourselves by our differences.”
Shane says love is often in the home, but school is where we are challenged.
“How do you bring your children out into the world and teach them to navigate the challenges?” he asks. “Parents have to give them the proper tools, love and confidence and trust. I hope this book can be one of those tools.”
Some people think President Barack Obama has erased racism because he is biracial. Sadly, no.
This week I told my friend’s 8-year-old daughter about “Mixed Me!” She lit up with excitement. Her mouth hung wide open. Her mama is black. Her daddy is white.
We sat in a chair together in their South Kansas City home as she played with my hair, taking delight in the way it curls just like hers. And then she said something that shattered me.
“When I tell the kids at school I’m mixed, they call me ‘white girl.’ They don’t believe me.”
I remember being called that, along with zebra, Oreo, cracker-black, house slave and a ton of other slurs. That feeling of not being black enough or white enough leaves you feeling half-empty. I remember the one year I passed for Puerto Rican to avoid the questions.
People still ask me crazy things. Two weeks ago, a reader called and said, “I thought you were mixed. You only write from the darkness. You never write from the white side.”
I looked at this sweet little girl and said no one can define her. She is wonderful just the way she is.
On that day, I was wearing an old shirt that says “Mixed Girls Rock.” She kept staring at the words. I had it made when I was 21 — that’s how long it took me to believe those words I had ironed onto a little green T-shirt. I want her to know that now.
This is multicultural America. Very few people have a family tree without mixed roots. Educate yourself. Educate your children. Mixed me loves myself. And I love mixed you, too.