The New Normal, or what a family looks like



This is my ‘normal’

You get used to the staring.

When my husband and I first started dating, the staring bothered me. Wherever we went, people would gape at us, openly unashamedly, wearing all of their (offensive) questions on their faces. At first, I would fly into impotent rages and rant on and on about it. After a while, I forgot about it. My husband is a C5/6 quadriplegic and he is used to the stares, that began long before he and I even met. “You have to live your life”, he reasoned, “And you can’t if you let it bother you”. He’s right, of course. And after a while, the stares fade into the background. Because there you both are, living your lives, going about your days. You get used to it.

But every once in a while, we’ll be out, and I’ll be tired from a long and stressful year, filled with change and loss, and one too many people will let their open, unashamed curiosity at this sight, of a white man in a wheelchair holding hands with, kissing, a black woman, and I’ll lose it.

I understand the curiosity: I would be curious too. My marriage doesn’t look like most people’s and I understand all the questions they have, that they cannot ask (and that somehow staring will resolve?). I can anticipate all the questions, from the mundane (how does your husband get to work?) to the incredibly invasive (how do you have sex?). I know what people think marriages look like: two people, able-bodied, same race, same nationality, 2.4 kids. As-seen-on-TV, in your own family, just about everywhere. So, I get how far outside of that frame of reference my own marriage falls, and I have come to read the staring as an expression of curiosity.

Harmless, right? Well, up to a point.

A couple of weeks ago, thousands of miles away in Ireland, a little blonde girl was discovered in the home of a dark-skinned, Roma gypsy couple. This situation, being far outside of the frame of reference of the police officers who happened upon it, led to the removal of a child from her parents. In the days following this removal, the child was touted as a kidnap victim, a little “blonde angel”. (As if the colour of her hair would urge us to care more for this kidnap victim – a kind of race-based alert for the seriousness of the case; a “blonde” alert, if you will. All of which makes me wonder if people would care less if my unborn, probably non-blonde children were missing.) Then the awful truth emerged: the dark-skinned couple are her parents, and the well-meaning, police officers, working from their limited framework, removed a child from her parents, and the had the world searching for her ‘real’ (perhaps blonde, definitely fair) family.

Cases like these are why people’s curiosity, their assumptions about my marriage, my family are not as harmless or innocent as they seem. When people see me and my husband and think “I wonder if they can have kids”, they are perhaps a few small mental shuffles away from thinking, when they later see me with my not-blonde, but not-racially-identical-to-me children, “I wonder if they’re her kids”.

I agree with my husband. There is no point in spending all my energy huffing and puffing and hyperventilating about a couple of nosy strangers. But there’s no getting away from the reality that the curiosity and the nosiness emanates from a limited understanding of what a marriage looks like, what a family looks like, and that this narrow understanding is dangerous. It’s an understanding that allows people to actively exclude the realities of everyone who does not fit within it. And exclusion makes it easier to treat the people you’re excluding with less respect, as if they’re slightly less human.

And whilst I am not a fan of the people who come up to us in public spaces to ask us private questions, I much prefer that to the staring. Coming up to us, asking us something acknowledges that we’re human in a way that is different to the way in which you’re human, but that the difference doesn’t mean we’re less. Simply staring at us, making us an object of whatever is running through your mind, making spectacle of our everyday, positions us as outside of what you consider the normal human condition.

A few months ago, I discovered the American blog, We are the 15 percent: it enthusiastically collects and exhibits pictures of normal American families who are not racially identical, and who fall outside of the narrow as-seen-on-TV framework. It is beautiful. As an homage (and out of curiosity about what proportion of South African families are breaking the mold), a friend and I started a local version, named Border Crossers. A general mailer was sent out to friends and colleagues who we know have the kinds of families people stare at. We asked them to share their pictures, show themselves. Some responses were enthusiastic, and a few were less so: people don’t want to reinforce narrow ideas of racial boundaries or fetishize what, for them, is normal (other people’s definitions of ‘normal’ be damned). And whilst I understand the impulse to resist re-inscribing race and all its narrowness, I think it’s especially important for those of us who resist the boundaries prescribed by race to show ourselves. As a way of saying to those who would gape, and imply that we’re outside of the norm, “Look at us! That’s right, take a gander. We’re not legion, and there are more of your kind of family than there are of ours, but we’re here and we’re real, and pretty soon, there will be too many of us for you to stare at. And your gaze will be harmless.”

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