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Opinion: We Are Not Just ‘the Nanny’

“So do they pay you extra to speak your language to them?”

My look of confusion turned into a fake smile when I realized the other woman’s implications. Speaking Vietnamese to my children at the park surely meant I was the hired help. Adapting to life as a new mother was already full of challenges. Now I had to defend the right to be my biracial child’s mother?

I was a young Asian woman taking care of a curly-haired child whose skin tone is a few shades darker than mine, so the obvious conclusion must be that I was my daughter’s nanny. Eleven years later, the same assumptions still exist, as evidenced by comments that the woman in the viral BBC video is indeed Robert E. Kelly’s wife, and the need to display family photos in order to prove it.

Kids Crash Professor's BBC Interview on Live TV 0:50

When the video went viral, friends shared it on my Facebook page, shaking their heads that many people assumed Jung-a Kim was a hired caretaker. Friends who are in interracial marriages commiserated in knowing frustration. One friend commented that she bit her tongue in another conversation when the dreaded “nanny” assumption was dropped. The story led to a robust conversation on the Facebook page for my blog, I’m Not the Nanny.

According to Pew Research Center, 1 in 6 new marriages are between people of different races. Our marriages are not unicorns. But don’t just let us non-white mothers of mixed race children do all the work. Everyone must call out these microaggressions as they occur. Don’t make us ask — just do it.

Most of my “Aren’t you the nanny?” instances occurred when my daughter and son were younger. I thought once they became school-aged, I would no longer have to field those insensitive questions.

Thien-Kim Lam and family
Thien-Kim Lam, who runs the blog I'm Not the Nanny, and her family. Courtesy of Thien-Kim Lam

Every time I let down my guard to just parent my children, it happens. Take the woman doling out samples at Trader Joe’s. As I reminded my children to say “please” and “thank you” after accepting their amuse-bouche poppy seed cracker topped with cranberry studded cheddar, two white boys bounded up to the counter. The employee stared askance at me. Busy with my own children and tired after a long day at work, I gave her a confused look. Did we forget to do something after accepting our fancy cheese and crackers?

It wasn’t until I navigated past the brown rice pasta that it hit me. She thought I was in charge of the other kids too.

On the flip side, I’ve had strangers stop mid-stride, turn around, and tell me how beautiful my children are.

“Mixed babies are the best!” they exclaim, clapping their hands in glee.

“Black and Asian babies are the best mix out there,” others whisper conspiratorially to me.

I’m not even surprised anymore by the strangers who command me to produce more children because my husband and I make such beautiful babies. Apparently, I’m a biracial baby factory tasked to brighten their day with my children.

I smile, nod, and continue on my way. It takes energy to discuss racial assumptions, and I have to pick my battles. I’ve even lied about our family’s background because I’m tired of fighting with strangers.

I adore that mixed race children are celebrated. There are Facebook pages that proudly celebrate interracial families by sharing photos of mixed race children in every combination imaginable. Interracial and monoracial families alike gush over the children’s golden brown skin, luscious curls, and toothy grins.

The multiracial children are put on pedestals for their beauty and even for how mixing races will save the United States from all its racism. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

Listen up, people: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t rhapsodize about the beautiful mix of multiracial babies, then turn around and assume that I’m the nanny. My children aren’t memes to make you feel better about the state of race in our country.

And don’t be offended when someone calls you out on your hypocrisy. You want to be enlightened about interracial families? Stop assuming that we’re the nanny.

Thien-Kim Lam is the founder of I’m Not the Nanny, a lifestyle blog about multicultural parenting, tech, and food.