By Shannon Shelton Miller
My 6-month-old wouldn't smile for his stage mom, no matter what faces she made or how much she cooed in his ear. So the photographer asked for my help. I positioned myself next to the camera, directly in my son's view, then dangled his favorite toy frog above the lens. He burst into laughter and the photographer snapped away, getting the happy baby shots the company wanted for its new product packaging.
We were done. But as my son's Mom-for-a-Day handed him back to me, I couldn't help thinking about how much easier it would have been if I had been cast as the mother from the beginning.
My skin was just too dark.
Acting has been a longtime hobby of mine, and I've been lucky to land some small jobs for ads ranging from medical equipment to vacuum cleaners. When I took acting classes, my instructors often told me that directors preferred to cast parents with their own kids for family commercials so the emotions would appear more natural. But those teachers weren't thinking about the glaring exceptions to that rule -- the white mother with her cocoa-skinned children, or the African-American mother, like me, with her vanilla baby.
Last spring, a Cheerios commercial featuring a biracial family triggered an eruption of hate speech on the company's YouTube channel. Consumers didn't mind, though; supportive comments significantly outnumbered hateful ones, and nearly all agreed that the biracial daughter was adorable. The commercial was a winner for Cheerios, so much so that the cereal giant released a new version that aired on Super Bowl Sunday, continuing to push against a boundary that remains curiously in place in American advertising. It's the one place where biracial families are still invisible.
Corporations will happily cast a rainbow of Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian and African-American actors for their commercials in the name of diversity, but they're rarely cast together. I seethed last year when I read one casting call for a major retailer requesting "real" Caucasian and African-American families, and then, in capital letters in the next sentence: "NO MIXED FAMILIES."
A decade ago, before I married, I was often cast as the mother in ads featuring an African-American family. After arriving on set, I'd meet the actors playing my children. Their honey-brown skin matched mine, and we often shared a head of tight, curly ringlets. "I'm your 'pretend mom' today," I'd say. Then I'd meet their biological mothers, who frequently were of Caucasian descent, before they walked off set to watch their children from a distance.
I wondered then how those mothers felt, even if they weren't actors who'd auditioned for roles with their children. Did they accept this as part of the drill? Or did they feel a sense of unease at the implication that their real-life family wasn't quite normal?
Then I married a man descended from a line of Swiss-German farmers, blue-eyed blondes with skin that turned red with the slightest kiss of sun. The horror stories we'd heard from others in interracial relationships didn't come to pass in ours. Our families celebrated our union, and our Ohio military town had many inter- and multiracial families. Our presence didn't raise an eyebrow, save for servers occasionally asking us if we wanted separate checks or a few odd stares from strangers on the street. We felt supported. Accepted.
When it came to raising children, however, I wondered if he, as a white man, considered what it would be like to raise a child with brown skin and curly hair -- one that might make others question his parentage.
"Are you OK with having a child a different color than you?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. "Are you?"
That stopped me. I pictured our child being slightly lighter than me but still, in the eyes of the world, Black. Then, about three months after our son was born, I could tell his skin tone was likely to be closer to my husband's than mine. My son, Blake, and I share a set of expressive dark brown eyes, but his skin is more vanilla latte than mocha; his light brown hair falls in soft waves and doesn't coil like mine. The difference doesn't concern me, but I began to worry that others might question our relationship and think it impossible that I could be his biological mother.
I got back into acting around this same time and thought it couldn't hurt to see if Blake could land a few jobs himself. He was at an age where he wouldn't know the difference between playing with his toys on a set versus at home, and I figured a few jobs could add to his college fund. I told myself we'd stop the second he showed disinterest. I had no intentions of being a stage mom.
In industry terms, my little boy is what's known as "ethnically ambiguous," a description given to actors who aren't immediately identifiable with one race. Think Vin Diesel or Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
The few times our agent submitted us as an unambiguously African-American mother and child, we weren't selected. There's no question about my ethnicity, but my son's skin tone throws things off.
He won't get work as Caucasian either. In casting terms, that usually means Northern and Western European, and his skin tone is just brown enough to make him look "ethnic." He might have a shot if a company requests a child with a darker, more Southern European appearance or -- most likely -- one who's Hispanic.
It wasn't long before I saw a casting call for babies 6 to 12 months old who looked like they could be the children of a mother with dark hair and Hispanic features. In casting talk that means Eva Longoria as opposed to Zoe Saldana.
"Looking for a mother and child who look like they 'fit'," the call read. My agent assured me we did and submitted us together. A week later, Blake landed his first acting job. "The company only wants to book your son," the agent told me. "They've already cast another woman for the mom. I hope that's OK."
Sure it's OK, I told myself. Acting, after all, is the art of pretend. Why should it bother me that my son would have a pretend mother? I knew the deal.
When we arrived at the studio the next week, the "mother" was already on the set. She was a fair-skinned, raven-haired woman of Puerto Rican descent. Their skin matched perfectly.
"Hi there, sweetie!" she cooed. "Oh, he's so cute, what's his name? How old is he?"
I smiled and answered her questions, and gave her tips on how to make him laugh. She was nice enough, and I felt more than comfortable that she would be kind to my son.
Then I walked away. But despite my personal pep talk and knowing the drill, I couldn't help feeling our bond was being denied. If real-life middle America accepts my husband, son and me as a family, why can't Madison Avenue? We don't need to look like we "fit" because we already do.
After the 15-minute shoot was done, I retrieved my baby from the actress and sat in a corner to nurse him. He nestled into my arms and placed his peaches-and-cream hand on my cocoa cheek, an intimate touch he reserves only for me.