Lancelot, the playwright whose perspective Lauren Groff features in the first half of Fates and Furies,* is oddly speechless when he sees composer Leo Sen for the first time:
[W]hen Lancelot still couldn’t speak, the ginger boy said drily, ‘Expecting an Indian, weren’t we. I get that often. My father’s half Indian and looks it. His genes were steamrolled by my mother’s. On the other hand, my sister looks like she should be in a Bollywood film and nobody can believe we are related one iota.’
“Sen,” as the novel tells us, derives from the Sanskrit word for “army,” leading Lancelot to assume that Leo Sen would look South Asian, a group known for black hair rather than red.
However, their sandy-haired, blue-eyed father’s genes did not “steamroll” mine. Our daughters’ red hair — an autosomal recessive trait — comes as much from me as it does from him. Our girls received a copy of the MC1R gene from each of us. I received mine from my redheaded father, who is of mostly European ancestry, but the single copy resulted in little more than slightly reddish highlights in my otherwise off-black hair.
My husband’s surname did steamroll mine, though.** As a result, unlike Leo Sen, my daughters have an “appropriately” Irish-sounding last name to match their bonny red hair. That doesn’t stop nosy strangers from gawking at our family. People often ask us about our relationship — “those can’t be your kids, right?” — thereby causing uncomfortable interactions that I’m exploring in a light-hearted way with my children in Anusha of Prospect Corner. In our update to Anne of Green Gables, the main character’s ambivalence about her red hair stems from insecurity about her racial identity rather than from anti-ginger bias.
My daughters are only just beginning to explore what it means to be redheaded girls of a multiracial background in our part of America. To what extent will the way others perceive them impact how they perceive themselves?
My own racial identity has changed over the years. I felt much more “non-white” when I was in college, as many people reacted to 9/11 with fear and hostility towards anyone who looked like they could be of Middle Eastern descent. In law school, a place with few ethnic minorities, I didn’t feel “white” at all. Now, I often slip into saying I’m bi-racial, focusing on only the two biggest contributors to my genetic makeup, even though I would not be here but for my ancestors from two other continents.
All of this is to say that racial identity isn’t easy to define. As the Pew Research Center recently discussed in Who is Multiracial? Depends on How You Ask:
Racial identity is far from a straightforward concept, and when multiple strands of identity come together this has the potential to increase the complexity. An individual’s racial self-identity may take into account a range of factors beyond genealogy, including family ties, physical appearance, culture and how others perceive them. In other words, being multiracial is more than just a straightforward summation of the races in an individual’s family tree.
To figure out how to best capture this complexity, Pew tested six different ways of defining a population of multiracial individuals to survey. The way the question was asked had a large impact on the percentage of respondents who said that they were mixed-race.
With the standard two-question measure (similar to what the Census currently uses), which asks the respondent to choose one or more races with a separate question for Hispanic ethnicity, only 3.7% of the population identified themselves as multiracial. Meanwhile, when the researchers asked respondents to identify whether their grandparents were of “some other race or origin” different from their own, the mixed-race population grew to 16.6%.
I wonder how my own children will fill out these types of forms when they’re older. My hope is that they will see their identity broadly, basing it on more than just their outward appearance. There is more to racial identity than meets the eye.
*To see Mr. AMB’s thoughts on Fates and Furies–and his review of its reviews–check out: Fates and Furies (What On Earth Is Going On With Its Reviews?).
***Image above: My little S in 2010. This is what my twins look like now: