Would you call my daughters “black and white twins?”

Guest post by Lori S.
Our two-tone twins, Roomba and Scooba, when they were about four months old.
Our two-tone twins, Roomba and Scooba, when they were about four months old.

Every few years now, another story seems to pop up. Black and white twins! How strange, how… impossible. These stories play on deeply embedded assumptions for their frisson. Twins equal alike. Black and white equal opposites. How can two babies be alike, yet opposites?

In July 2008, the big story was the Addo-Gerth twins in Germany, Leo and Ryan. Born to a native German father and a mother originally from Ghana, the boys had markedly different skin tones and thus made for a great photo-op. At the time, seven months pregnant with twins of my own, I just sort of rolled my eyes about it all.

My own daughters, whose in-utero nicknames were Roomba and Scooba, were born late in September that same year. But it didn’t occur to me until a few months ago that they, too, could be considered “black and white twins.” Scooba is as pale as I am, while Roomba is perhaps only a shade lighter than her father.

I’ve gotten comments all their lives about the difference. “One of those babies has been spending a lot of time in the sun, hasn’t she!” was a common one. As if I kept one in the shade at all times and kept a bottle of tanning oil in the diaper bag for the other one. Nevertheless, I got this comment so often that I finally had to come up with a stock answer: “No, she’s not tan, she was born that way.”

I’ve also been asked more times than I can count if the twins are “mine.” I’m never sure if I’m being asked if I’m the nanny, or if they’re adopted. I’ve been asked if they’re twins — how could they be twins? Really? Amazing!

But it wasn’t until recently, when another “black and white twins!” story hit the news media, that it occurred to me that my daughters could have had a spot on that bandwagon, too, if I’d wanted them to. It was actually Triniti and Ghabrial Cunningham, whose story was reported in February this year by ABC News, that clued me in. Triniti and Gabe look more alike than my girls do, both in terms of facial features and in terms of skin color. But there they were, being touted as a genetic marvel on the morning news.

The thing is, if you talk to black and biracial families, you’ll quickly learn that — to be blunt — only white people are fascinated by these “black and white twin” stories. Because most black folk in the US, at least, know a family with widely divergent skin colors. And those families have had to put up with the same sorts of comments I am now fielding on behalf of my daughters: “She’s your sister? Really? But you look so different!”

I’m avoiding bigger generalizations about the experience of mixed families on purpose, because I am not an expert here. Especially considering some of the other strange quirks of my family. We live in Oakland, California, where families of mixed heritage are accepted enough that nobody does a double-take when we walk into a restaurant or store. And as it happens, my twins have three parents, all of whom are big ol’ queers. We’re not going to make a great poster family for biracial harmony. Maybe it’s a good thing we skipped jumping on that media bandwagon after all. I’m already worried about being the Free Square on everybody’s Diversity Bingo Card, as it were.

I’m just the white mom of two black girls. Who happen to be twins. One of whom’s skin happens to be lighter than the other — like sisters in black families all over the country. I have no particular investment in underlining their mixed heritage. I won’t feel rejected if they don’t identify, in some way or another, as white. I’m their Mom. That’s enough for me.

Comments on Would you call my daughters “black and white twins?”

  1. Oops, that was supposed to be *I don’t know what I want our kids to look like (though I know the decision isn’t mine)

  2. Maybe it’s just the picture but I really don’t notice that much of a difference between the two. Working in childcare, I’ve seen plenty of twins and it’s not uncommon at all for fraternal twins to look VERY different from one another regardless of ethnicity. It amuses me how people continue to be amused by something so simple.

  3. I don’t think people are generally as fascinated by siblings who look markedly different. But with twins people often assume they are identical and therefore are more surprised that they don’t look alike than they would be with two siblings of a different age.

    I don’t think it’s white people fascination so much as interesting genetic variations. πŸ™‚

  4. Your daughters are beautiful! Their coloring is definitely different, but not outside the normal variation you’d expect to see among sibs in biracial families.
    Some people love to ask questions or make awkward comments about your kids-especially biracial kids.
    My husband is Indian and I’m Irish/Italian with light brown hair and eyes. Whenever I am out alone with our 6 month-old daughter (who has beautiful dark-olivey skin, curly dark hair, and brown eyes), people ask me if I adopted her! One woman even went so far as to tell me that, “It takes a special person to open their home to a child.” To which I replied, “Yes, I figured I might as well seeing as she lived in my uterus for 9 months.” Poor lady looked so confused…

    • It’s funny – I always someone whether a child is theirs (so as not to start complimenting a babysitter on her beautiful daighter, or something), but if they say yes I usually just leave it at that. What does it matter if they’re adopted or not? She’s their daughter! But I loved your response. πŸ™‚

  5. Your statement about african-american family being a range of skin tones is SO true. Two of my brothers and I have medium to dark brown skin and almost black hair and eyes, but my third brother has very light tan skin, and reddish-brown hair and hazel eyes. In fact, he had dark blond hair and blue eyes when he was born! Yep, that caused some speculation in the family – until you see our dad’s baby picture, spittin’ image!

  6. What is with these idiotic doctors calling them “million to one odds?” Seems to me they are perfectly average odds for bi- or multi-racial siblings, which is all “black and white twins” really are.

    Your piece reminded me of a great book by Danzy Senna called Caucasia, a novel loosely based on her experience of being the “white” one of a pair of biracial sisters.

  7. I kept getting distracted from reading this post because your girls are so cute. Seriously, those are some adorable babies.

    • You should see them now πŸ™‚ I’d’ve posted a more recent picture but they don’t like to hold still long enough for me to get them both in the frame any more!

  8. My family got a lot of questions too. Both my parents are white but my mom’s side are Italian descendants and my dad’s are German descendants so my brother and sister ended up with olive skin and dark hair. I on the other hand am super white and have blonde hair. And it still amazes me how many people think we’re cousins or not even related even though our facial features look insanely similar.

  9. I think they are adorable. The only fascinating part is the science of it all. It all genes. science it cool. πŸ™‚

  10. Remember, you’re not the white mom of black girls…you’re the white mom of biracial girls! You are half of who they are racially, and they should be proud of who they are on both ends. It may be a struggle at times (my biracial niece was the “white girl” when she grew up in a predominantly black/Hispanic city, and now she’s the “black girl” at her high school in the suburbs), but if you raise them to be proud of who they are, they will be able to educate their peers and spread tolerance wherever they go!

    • I respectfully disagree — I am the white mom of black girls. I chose that statement carefully and with intent. Identity and culture aren’t simple math problems, and they aren’t “half” anything. “Also” yes, “half” no. My children are black *and* biracial. But never “not black.”

      My children can be proud of me, my family, and their contributions to who they are without having to assume even one iota of my racial identity. And that’s what I intend to teach them.

    • This is a really interesting thing: how biracial kids experience different aspects of their identity based on where they are physically. Many people write about being estranged from both of their communities (“not white enough” or “not black enough”) but for some kids, because of their mixed appearance, the whiplash of different settings is even weirder and more confusing.

      I’m mixed in what is a very confusing way for some people, and often experience discrimination towards different groups of which I am not even part. (I’m actually Japanese and Russian, but have been the target of racial slurs and racist behavior towards Latinas, Native Americans, and Indians.) BUT in other parts of the same city, everyone assumes I’m white and might even tell racist “jokes” to my face, so sure are they that I’m just another caucasian.

      It was a real eye opener for my husband, who grew up in an inner city area with people of all different skin tones, and seemed to think I enjoyed white privilege just like he did, when we moved to the back woods rural south. There are places where I became a very visible minority, and he saw people follow me around stores, assume I didn’t speak english, and worse. I was simply the most exotic thing they’d ever seen. But after that my husband stopped thinking I was joking about my experience as a woman of color.

      Anyway, my point is that it’s so strange for people like your niece, who have to adjust their entire concept of racial identity based on setting, and often don’t have the understanding or support of either/any community to validate their very fluid experience of perceived identity.

  11. People ask me all the time if my babies are twins. They aren’t. My daughter is 17 months, and my step-son is 2.5yrs. They look nothing alike and are different in size, but people still assume they’re twins. I wonder if I’d think the same thing if I saw them as a stranger.

  12. I’m sorry but I am a little offended by the comment that only white people are interested in race. I don’t believe that to be true at all. I am by no means saying that people have a right to rudely inquire about whether you’re the mother of your own babies, but I don’t think it’s a big deal if people are interested in how this occurs. So what? People are curious. That’s a pretty big accusation to make.

    • I have to agree. It is offending and saddening. Coming from a white family, we don’t ask questions beyond age because we think its rude and we are not fascinated by race because it doesn’t matter, cute is cute. It is such a huge and negative generalization. I’m sick of feeling like I should feel bad or ashamed because I’m white.

      • Absolutely! Generalizations and stereotypes are just as bad applied to the majority as the minority. Is it OK to be sexist against men? Prejudiced against straight people? Of course not. Then it’s not OK to be racist against white people!

    • Hey guys: we never would have left that part in if either of us felt like it was racist at all. I think that there’s obviously a way it can be read that might lead one to feel that way, but as the person who edited the piece, here’s my take on it (if it’s worth anything to you):

      She says: “The thing is, if you talk to black and biracial families, you’ll quickly learn that β€” to be blunt β€” only white people are fascinated by these “black and white twin” stories. Because most black folk in the US, at least, know a family with widely divergent skin colors.”

      I actually talked to my house mate (who is a black male) about this section, and whether or not it held weight, and he spent about an hour talking to me about various times that people have wondered if his siblings and his various cousins and their siblings are all related because there’s such a WIDE range of skin tone in their families. Most of the time, the people asking the question are also white. I’m trying to be careful here, and I realized that in families that are white there are also divergent skin tones, but I think the differences between brown and black skin tones are more immediately obvious and, apparently, worth asking about to some white people because the differences aren’t what a lot of white people are used to.

      Also, I’d like to point out that she’s speaking from the experience of someone who is part of a biracial family, and also based on experiences she’s heard from black families. I honestly think it’s kind of impossible to fully understand what her experience is like if you’re not also from a biracial or black family. I think that could be what she was getting at — not that all white people are rude and horrible and ask questions about her babies because they’re ignorant, but that a lot of people who aren’t biracial and/or black ask her questions about her children’s relationship. It’s not something bad about white people as a whole, but in her experience, something that’s happened repeatedly is that white people are intrigued by something they perceive as so different or rare.

      Maybe? Or maybe I should stop and let Lori explain.

      Does that make sense at all? I just want to reiterate that neither Ariel or I (or the entire Offbeat Empire) advocate racism of any kind, and we don’t feel like this statement is racist. I’ll also email Lori, who is also white, and have her come in and explain the statement as well. But I don’t think anyone is expecting someone to feel bad for being white — she’s just stating what she has observed in her experience as both a mother of biracial girls and friend/partner of a black person from a black family. We’ll see what she says.

      AND if I totally muddled this up, I apologize. πŸ™‚

      • Stephanie,

        Thank you. You’re entirely correct that it’s not that”all white people are rude and horrible and ask questions about her babies because they’re ignorant, but that a lot of people who aren’t biracial and/or black ask her questions about her children’s relationship.” And it’s not that this is a *bad* thing per se (although tedious in its repetition? you bet). Ignorance, i.e. lack of knowledge, isn’t a bad thing per se either. And yeah, I get that people nonetheless feel bad when their ignorance is pointed out. Calling it racist or reverse racist, though, seems more than a little off-track.

    • I didn’t say that only white people are interested in race — I said, specifically, that only white people are fascinated by the supposed novelty phenomenon of “black and white twins,” i.e. twins of supposedly different races.

      And it isn’t an accusation, it is an observation borne out by experience.

      I don’t engage in “reverse racism” discussions as a rule. They are predicated on a blindness (deliberate or accidental) to the power differentials in our society and I don’t have the time or inclination as one lone individual to do the heavy lifting to even get on the same page as someone who sincerely believes racism and reverse racism to be equivalent. Same goes for “color-blind” comments.

      Finally, just to be clear — nobody should be ashamed because they’re white. I’m not. Nobody should be ashamed of their *identity*, but they might want to consider and reconsider their *actions* in certain lights. Not for reasons of self-shaming, but for the purpose of self-education and improvement. And that’s in part why I wrote this piece.

  13. My sister and I are both pale, freckled redheads with extremely sensitive skin, while my brother has reddish hair but can tan like nobody’s business! We think he somehow got the only Cherokee genes in the family that trickled down from a distant great, great relative. He spends an hour outside during the summer and he looks like an Italian lol. No idea how it turned out that way, but it did. We always got the boyfriend/girlfriend assumption when we were younger, I guess people just thought there was no way we could be related and have such different skin tones.

  14. I’ve just had quite a rough day, and I just wanted to tell you that the photo of your two GORGEOUS girls has absolutely MADE my day πŸ™‚ Congratulations on having two such beautiful babies!

  15. I would double-take, because your kids are OMG SO DELICIOUS LOOKING! πŸ˜‰ And I double-take at all babies (it’s the NICU nurse in me, I just want to cuddle all babies!)

    My ancestors are all British Isle (mostly Scottish), so I have dark hair, dark eyes and very pale skin. My wife is half Chinese (dad is Chinese, Mom is German), but she has dark hair, dark eyes, pale-ish skin (although she doesn’t look mixed as an adult, her baby pictures she certainly does though!!!). People ask us CONSTANTLY if we are sisters, and it’s HILARIOUS when we’re like “uh, no, we’re married”. We’re excited to see what our kids will look like (we’ll each have a kid biologically related to us with the same donor).

    Both our moms have blue eyes, so in theory we carry the recessive blue eyed gene, and our donor has blue eyes…… sooooooooo that should be interesting!!! πŸ™‚

    I have started assuming that someone hauling kids around is a parent, mostly because I live in a city where everyone looks SO different and comes from a bagillion different cultures. I find people are much less offended when I say “oh, your daughter is very smart” and they correct me and say “oh, she’s not mine”. I was EIGHTEEN when I started regularly babysitting a 2 year old and people thought he was mine (he’s caucasian-Korean mix, heavy on the Korean genetics, and the sweetest, adorable kid ever, so I took it as a compliment). I used to laugh because I was so young!

    Genetics are such a fickle fickle thing, but so fascinating!

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