Managing Editor’s Note: I find some of the most compelling stories of diversity come from couples and families who are interracial. Balancing not only the complexities of their relationships, but also the pressures and preconceptions of the outside world, offer tremendous insight from a kind of microcosm of American culture. In this post, Lisa McKenzie writes about having a husband who is half-Chinese half-white, while she, a white woman, lives with recurrent multiple sclerosis. McKenzie’s experiences lead her to this understanding:”If race is a construction, well, so is disability.”
by Lisa McKenzie
I was sitting with my husband outside an ice cream shop on the east side of Cincinnati, watching our son caper around a park with his buddies from Shakespeare Camp, when my husband observed, “I don’t feel white here.”
My husband is white. Half white. He is also half Chinese.
Cincinnati is white. Half white. And nearly half black. My husband clearly isn’t black. Since moving to this city, he’d mostly been treated as though he were white. The white realtor assigned to show us around Cincinnati appeared genuinely puzzled when we’d said we’d wanted a diverse neighborhood. “Why would you want that?”Which crossed the realtor off our list of people who would understand us. My husband and I had still managed to find a diverse neighborhood in uptown Cincinnati; a walkable neighborhood with Indian restaurants and a mosque. Yet the first neighbors we met there were white. They’d asked us, “What church do you go to?”
Which was not a question we’d ever imagined ourselves being asked. We’d concluded we were passing—as Christian. Two white Christians. Which meant, we’d hoped, that the white Christians of Cincinnati would leave us be. By the night of the ice-cream shop, my husband might have thought he’d left behind the often unasked question, expressed through strained, semi-surreptitious second glances, “What is he?”
A question I didn’t see any harm in, at first. Couldn’t a person be curious? I’d been curious, back when I’d checked out this ebullient boy bouncing around campus on a pogo stick, his smile wide, his eyes… slightly Asian-ish. When we’d finally met, he’d poured out his origin story without my inadvertently offending him by asking, “What are you?”—and asserting our difference.
On this particular night, something about this very up-scale, all white neighborhood felt prickly to him. And in truth, I was uncomfortable, too, but for a very different reason. My prickly feeling was coming from my legs. I, too, have a shifting identity. For me, relapsing/remitting multiple sclerosis means sometimes I can walk, and sometimes I can’t. And while I had easily walked— maybe swaggered—three blocks from our parking space to the ice cream shop, my legs were letting me know they were done cooperating for the day.
As my husband and son took off to get our car, a Honda Element, I stayed behind and deflected praise of my son’s stellar performance as Hamlet. I was determined not to be that mom—the insufferable stage mom. Maybe the kid was something of a genius, but I was more comfortable drawing attention to his mismatched socks, or inviting new families to come to his party at the neighborhood pool. I had only a few more minutes to convince the other moms I was one of them—before they would see, plainly, I was not.
As soon as my husband pulled the car up in front of the ice cream shop, the jig was up. It was my turn to be the outsider. I stood. My legs buckled from under my custom-tailored vintage style dress. My son hopped out and took my arm. I wobbled. I pitched myself none too gracefully into the passenger seat, relieved to finally be tucked away in our Element.
If race is a construction, well, so is disability. We all have an uneven distribution of abilities; attributes that wax and wane over time. My husband doesn’t get to choose when he is perceived as white. I don’t get to choose when I appear disabled. I must admit, I’m kind of glad he fell in love with me before any MS symptoms appeared, so that I know he loves me despite the disability, and not because of it. He and I are in for the long haul, and as anyone in a long-term relationship learns, appearances are the first thing to go. Love is what lasts.
LISA McKENZIE teaches writing at The Art Academy of Cincinnati and The Kenwood Senior Living Center. Her work has been published in 100 Words, 34th Parallel, airplanereading.com, River Styx, Salt Hill Journal, and wordgathering.com. Follow her blog at mslabrat.org.