SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Dawn Palmer

Family Dynamics


The cool ocean breeze was blowing through my hair as I rode my bike faster and faster, racing towards my best friend Dee Dee’s house for the first time on a Saturday morning in mid-spring, 1984.  I was following her directions, directions written by another ten year-old.  When I finally came upon the house that I thought was Dee Dee’s, I knocked on the door.  I could hear Michael Jackson’s Thriller coming from somewhere inside the house.  My heart was pounding, partly from the excitement of finally going to Dee Dee’s house, and partly from riding my bike so fast.

   When a white woman answered the door, I was taken aback.  I said I thought that I had the wrong house, and that I was looking for my friend Dee Dee.  She told me to hold on, and called for Dee Dee.  I was thoroughly confused at that point, because Dee Dee was not white, she was black.

Up until that point, I had never really thought about Dee Dee and I being different in any way.  We were best friends, the same.  We did everything together, from playing at recess to being in the same Girl Scout troop.  However, I could not comprehend how a black girl had a white mother.

“Dee Dee, your friend is here!” my mom shouted to me.

I was playing Barbies in my bedroom with my little sister, when my best friend, Dawn, showed up.  I had actually been waiting for her for what seemed like an eternity.  Dawn and I had made plans yesterday at school to play at my house today.  (We always played at her house, probably because it was close to the school, or maybe because of her strict parents.)  I even helped my mom clean the house in anticipation of my “company”.

As I came down the hall to get my friend, my mom passed me and gave me this questioning look, upshot eyebrow and all.  I didn’t know what that was about, but I had a feeling I was going to find out soon.

My friend Dawn was still on the porch and was looking confused herself.  I greeted her and asked her to come in.  She set her bike down, took off her powder blue Jordache windbreaker, and in one exasperating breath, she blurted out that she had gotten lost, and that she thought she had knocked on the wrong door at first.  I just laughed at her; she was being silly, of course this was my house.  I had written down the directions for her yesterday.

She continued to act funny though, and was staring at all of our family pictures as I showed her through my house.  She barely heard me at all; our pictures mesmerized her.

     All of the pictures in her living room and hallways were of two black girls, a white woman, and a black man.  I was pretty sure that I saw Dee Dee’s baby picture on the wall, and I was looking for her mom in the pictures, too.

   I couldn’t ask Dee Dee about her mom in front of her mom and sister, because they were looking at me funny.  When we finally got to Dee Dee’s room, I whispered, “Is that your real mom?”  As soon as I asked the question, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have asked, or even stared so much back in the hallway.

I had heard this question a thousand times, and received strange looks even more times than that.  Now I knew why Dawn thought she had the wrong house!  And like all the other times that I had to respond, as if playing a broken record, I repeated, “Of course that is my mom.  My dad is black, my mom is white.  Some people can have a white mom  and a black dad, and still look black.”

I tried not to get irritated with her, but now she seemed like all the other kids on base.  She had two white parents and did not have to answer that question over and over again.  Now, instead of having fun, all I could think about that Saturday morning was when was my friend going home so I wouldn’t have to answer any more of her questions.

   I did not question the relationship any further, until I got home that evening.  I remember asking my mom and dad how and why it was possible for a white woman to have a black daughter.  I can only remember them giving me the “just because” reason. 

I was so perplexed by the idea that I mulled over it for many years.  Dee Dee and I lost touch after my dad got transferred to another base in Ohio, as most military kids often do.  I still think about her, and I know she thinks about me, too, because about five years ago my parents ran into her at a hotel on the California coast, not far from the base we both lived at.  She asked them how I was doing and to tell me she said “hi”.  Maybe my questions did not bother her as much as they bothered me. 

More importantly, to this day, I am still bothered by the fact that my parents could not explain to me how or why Dee Dee could have a black father and white mother.  I do not know if my parents were even capable of explaining such dynamics to me, because they, like most military families, walked around with blinders on, as if every family was the same.  Their decision to ignore racial diversity, thus not educating me about it, put me into the embarrassing situation I was in when Dee Dee’s mother answered the door that spring morning in 1984.

As a child, I abruptly learned about the dynamics of families, and perhaps, even more importantly, about racial diversity.  When I met my best friend’s white mother, I suddenly saw that there were different families.  Not all families were all one race, like my family.  Dee Dee’s family was multi-raced, something that I had not considered possible, until I had met Dee Dee’s mother.

Not every family is nuclear, having a mom, a dad, two kids, and a white picket fence.  Families today are very dynamic, with different members making up different households.  Perhaps if my parents had taught me that all families are unique, and that it was okay to be different, rather than just ignoring the topic all together, I would not have assumed Dee Dee’s mother was white. 

  That morning sticks with me to this day, because I never assumed anyone’s family background, or racial identity, again.  I do not necessarily ask if someone’s parent is the same race as they are, but I have a more open mind about who makes up a family. 

Now that I have my own children, I try to teach them about diversity.  I do not make them believe that we are all the same, but rather, that we are all different and unique in our own ways.  Whenever my ten year-old son comes home from school and asks me about his classmates’ races, or their family dynamics, we discuss why he thinks they are different, and then I make sure he understands that it is okay to be different.  Hopefully he will not make the same mistakes I did when I was his age.

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