Sigh. I'm so glad I found this forum. I've been tearing my hair out in frustration over the things my mother-in-law says every time I see her (which, being local, means at least once a week). Ugh, so I'm here to rant and hopefully get some support!
I'm Chinese-American, and my husband is Caucasian, and we have a 15-month-old little hapa boy. Now, I've read a lot of stories of frustration from multiracial people and families whose problems they believe are exacerbated by the fact that they live in small, conservative, mostly-white communities. Well, I have the opposite problem. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is highly diverse, highly liberal, and there is absolutely no shortage of Asians - and hapas - here. But what I encounter all the time here - rather than what might be your typical, overtly racist routine of suspicion and avoidance - is an overeagerness to "embrace" my and my child's heritage. And "embrace" is in highly ironic quotes, because it's done in a way that feels really dehumanizing, commodifying, objectifying, othering, what have you. Do any of you ever get that with yourselves or your children? That whole "ooh, you/your baby is soooo deliciously exotic!" thing? It is so, so common here in the Bay Area. So many people here, in my experience, seem to see themselves as "in touch with diversity," so with it, so hip to the "world cultures," so progressive and magnanimous and above even the tiniest subconscious sliver of racism. And yet in some ways they seem worse than the out-and-out racists. Okay, worse is not the right word. But what I mean is that at least the out-and-out racists wear their prejudices on their sleeves.
Well, my MIL absolutely exemplifies the "ooh, I'm so liberal and I so love you exotic people" type to a T. I don't know if others of you feel this way, but I take offense to being described as exotic and especially to having my child described this way. I know that it's "meant well," but to me it feels dehumanizing and grossly Eurocentric. And my MIL uses the adjective *all the time*. I finally worked up the nerve to have a rather extended conversation with her about it a few months ago, and just to give you a sense of her complete lack of self-awareness, she gasped and said "who would use that word?!" And since then, it's like she's tripled her usage of it. I have no idea if she's forgotten the conversation, or if she doesn't hear herself use the word, or if she misconstrued that conversation to mean that she somehow has license to be offensive because she's family.
Here are some fun examples:
"How much of the food your mother cooked you while you were growing up was exotic?"
(about my son) "Oh, I just adore that there's something exotic him."
(relating an incident that she described as "wonderful") "My friend's daughter just had a new baby, and she was jealous that her baby was just plain white while so many of the babies in the ward were exotic. Isn't that just fantastic?!"
(in response to looking at this amazing book by Kip Fulbeck that features photos of a huge range of hapa faces) "Isn't it just wonderful how they all look the same? Okay, well, not the same, exactly (as she sees a photo of a hapa mixed with African-American, followed by a photo of a hapa with blond hair and light eyes), but, you know, they're all so exotic."
But it's not *just* the specific word, exotic, if you know what I mean. It's her whole orientation toward people of color. I feel like my MIL's token ________ (insert minority population here) friend, like she uses me for street cred. It's like she cannot *wait* to tell people that she has a Chinese daughter-in-law and a hapa grandchild, which would be lovely if she weren't so fixated on telling people that we're not white. It's like she can't simply be proud of who we are, we're also good for lending her some credibility as the "racially aware" evolved human. It's like she uses me as tacit permission to be offensive, because, you know, she's "in."
Oh, and can I just add that just last night, she referred to me as "pretty much white"?! I am seething. Not because it's any sort of insult to be white, of course not, but because she thinks it's her place to define my identity for me. And she decides that because I don't fall into whatever warped picture she has in her mind of what a Chinese person is, that because I'm articulate in English, I'm creative, I'm outgoing, I'm progressive, I'm basically white. (Never mind that I come from a family of immigrants, I speak my mother tongue, I'm raising my child to be bilingual, I've endured plenty of racism in my life, both spoken and veiled... none of that should matter. Even if none of that were true, it is still wildly inappropriate for her to decide someone else's racial identity for them.)
Honestly, I am pretty adamant that I don't want my child(ren) to be in an environment in which they feel these types of feelings about their own racial identities. Like they're on some sort of weird pedestal because of their skin color. Like their identity is reduced to trendy, like the latest fall handbag. Like they're exotic little flowers. Like other people are allowed to put them in some sort of box based on their own ignorant biases. I mean, they're going to get that from the rest of the world, for the rest of their lives. I don't want it coming from grandma. If we just had to see her on a holiday or two, that would be fine, I suppose. But we live just minutes apart, and see them constantly.