04/13/2012 12:26 pm ET Updated Jun 13, 2012

Being Brown in the 'Burbs: No Burnt Crosses, but a Few Cross Looks


I should have known by the look in his eyes. The middle-aged white man looked at my chocolate self, then to my light-skinned baby and back to me. "Excuse me," he said walking closer. "But is his father white or Asian?"

I paused. Did he just ask me that? Here? In the frozen-food section of the grocery store?

Inhale. Exhale. "He's white," I said, feeling my blood rise. Gathering courage to stand my ground for whatever racial onslaught was to come, I said louder, bolder: "He's Norwegian."

"Oh." He responded and walked toward me, fumbling to pull something out of his pocket. Egad, what is he going to do? You know folks are crazy.

"The reason I'm asking is because this is my family." He pulls out a picture of himself, a round black woman and two very tall biracial boys all smiling in their Sunday best. "The oldest is in college and this one's in middle school."

I melt.

"Let me show you my other son." I whip out my phone and pull up a picture of my eldest, Logan, with his wildly curly hair and caramel skin.

"Do you guys live here? Are they treating you OK?" He looks very concerned, it's clear he cares. By "they" he means the community, our predominantly white, moderately conservative Chicago suburb. He's not asking me if there's been crosses burnt on our lawns, but if we're treated well, like equals, genuinely received by our neighbors.

We do like it here and generally have had no issues. Unlike our previous suburb, where everyone at the grocery store from the cashiers to the customers were routinely rude to me. At the time I chalked it up to grumpy people, then one day I took my husband shopping with me. It was a marked difference, people smiled when they greeted you in the aisle, asked you if you needed any help, there was no hostility. I was shocked.

After that trip with him, I told him he needed to come to the grocery store with me each time because I didn't want to be treated so rudely. It sucked because it felt a bit like we had the Black Codes in the grocery store, where I needed a white person to vouch for me.

(There was also a bit of that Saturday Night Live episode where Eddie Murphy went undercover as a white man. On the bus, after all the black people were gone, he watched how a party broke out among the whites.)

That grocery store experience was a few years ago and in another suburb, where we live now it is better. And this time in the store, this white man was telling me how he and his wife did have some struggles several years ago, but that his kids enjoyed the good schools. "They are good at the schools," he said nodding meaningfully. As if to reassure me that it won't matter to the other kids, that my boys are biracial.

My little Ethan started to squawk and I needed to finish up my shopping, so we said goodbye. I wished him a nice day.

Smiling, I walked away thinking I should have known by the look in his eyes. When this white man looked at me and my family, he saw his own.

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