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Ideas
March 4, 2021 12:58 PM EST
Coster is the author of What's Mine and Yours

When my husband and I first moved to North Carolina, we were invited to join an interracial couples’ group at our church. We were surprised, declined, and then privately rolled our eyes at how we’d been misread. Although I am Black, and my husband isn’t, we didn’t see ourselves as interracial. We are both Latinx and identify as people of color.

In our families, my Caribbean one in particular, our lineages are complex, questions of how our people identify are sticky, and answers shift with time and context. In my family, I know siblings who identify as different races, although they share the same set of parents. My own parents were both Latinx and Caribbean, but only my father identified as Black. While my mother had Black ancestors, to say she was Black wasn’t quite true to either how she identified or how she moved through the U.S. And yet, their differences seemed more significant to outsiders than to them. They were used to familial bonds existing across lines of color. The places they came from—the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Curaçao—were distinct but also kindred. All this to say, my husband and I had precedent. We assumed that to be interracial was to be different, divided, which wasn’t how we felt. We were people of Diaspora. We had so much in common. Still, there was something dishonest, avoidant about the way I’d scoffed at our invitation into the interracial couples’ group. I was quick to say that we didn’t have the same issues to work through that the other couples might. And I was right—we had our own.

The author and her husband
Courtesy Naima Coster

The first time we traveled back to the U.S. together from a visit to Colombia to see my husband’s family, I was questioned heavily at Customs. What did I do for a living? What was the purpose of my trip? Where had I gone and why? With whom? It was only after it was over that my husband said, “I’ve never been asked so many questions coming back from Colombia in my life.” I’d been so focused on answering swiftly, politely, just to get through the encounter, I hadn’t noticed that only I had been required to give a thorough account for myself. The last time I’d traveled to Colombia alone, I’d been pulled aside for even more intense questioning.

Immediately, I started to cry. I had grown up watching my father be harassed by airport personnel, in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic, where we traveled every summer. He was regularly singled out for supposedly random searches. I grew to expect it, but I never stopped feeling angry and scared. I identified powerfully with him, although people often told us we looked nothing alike. I am lighter-skinned and have always benefited from all the associated privileges. Now that I was the one in my family who could count on being targeted and stopped, I wondered if it had been lonely for him, too.

I believe connection is about more than shared identity, and shared identity about more than common suffering, but I’ve still found it difficult to resist the allure in seeing myself as the same as those closest to me. I’ve felt this impulse especially in contexts where I already was an outsider to whiteness and couldn’t bear any further alienation—in my private high school where I bonded fiercely with the girls of color in my class, in the Black spaces I called home at Yale, in my family of origin and my chosen family because I wanted home to be a refuge from the tensions of the outside world. I felt it when as a child I picked out the crayons that I thought most closely resembled my skin tone and my father’s and felt great relief that they were, at least, both brown.

The desire to belong to the people we love is powerful. It can be tempting to make that belonging straightforward, to elide differences and emphasize the ways I am like my loved ones: I am Black like my father, Latinx like my husband. But this urge to seek simplicity, to focus on commonality is akin to the sort of clumsy, reductive thinking that is so troubling in popular public conversations about race. Those conversations are often marked by binary thinking and easy categorization, although how race and culture shape identity, kinship, and solidarity are much more complicated.

I likely became a novelist, in part, because novels are deep, capacious. They can hold ambiguity and nuance without being neutral and ultimately saying nothing. It’s no accident that both my novels explore how hard it can be to belong in a mixed family. My most recent novel, What’s Mine and Yours, follows two young people who fall in love at a newly integrated high school in North Carolina. She is a white-presenting Latina; he is a young Black man. Race matters in their relationship although the beloveds wish it weren’t so. While these characters aren’t a fictionalized version of my marriage, I couldn’t have written them if I hadn’t started to reckon more honestly with the differences in my experience and my husband’s. I finished the book while I was pregnant, at a time when we spoke often about how these questions of identity and our family might become trickier with a child. We focused mainly on how my husband could support and validate the experience of a child we imagined would be brown.

To our surprise, our daughter was born with light skin and green eyes. Strangers and relatives alike declared she looked nothing like me, and their coded comments were familiar. They were speaking about appearance, but their words cut deeper—they suggested something much more elemental about who she is, who I am, and the gap between.

Once on a walk in the park, a woman asked if the baby in the stroller was mine. I said yes, and the woman responded, “Really?” I said yes again. “She doesn’t look like your daughter,” she said, as if determined to have the final word. I am never not wondering whether I’ll be seen as my daughter’s mother when we are in public. No one has ever been confused about whether my husband is her father.

My daughter is a toddler now, and her eyes have turned hazel, her brown hair has started to curl. Occasionally, someone will say she has my eyebrows, my undereye circles, my nose. Mostly people continue to insist we look nothing alike. I know what else they mean. I don’t know how she will ultimately identify when she’s older or how she will move through the world. I imagine it will be complicated. My hope is that I’ll let it be so. I hope we remember we don’t have to make a case for how alike we are to be kindred. We don’t even have to be kindred to love one another.

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