I have been sorting out some pictures today, trying to print some* to send to my sister-in-law. I’ve written her a letter too, and re-reading her letters to me has made me look at these pictures of Ariel that I have printed with a different eye.

[* I’m actually very pleased with the prints – the first time I’ve tried to do proper photo printing at home on glossy paper – they are almost like “real” photos, with the advantage that you can select and edit before you print – I’m happy πŸ™‚ ]

Let me backtrack a little.

Before, when my sister-in-law would write to me I would have trouble reading her notes and letters. Trouble because it made me think too much of her brother, and all that sad jazz. So much so that I didn’t take much in, and rarely even wrote back, and when I did it was light and superficial, small talk, a duty letter. My bad. Anyway, I feel ready for it now, ready to face his family if not him, especially as she is not aligned with him (and never has been in fact) in the whole situation between us all, especially in my growing realisation that I must not leave it too late to give Ariel a real shot at knowing that side of her family, of her heritage. I feel so grateful at how hard my sister-in-law has worked at maintaining the link, and sorry to have evaded the relationship for so long. I had reasons, but still it was not the right thing to do. And all this is why I’ve re-read some of her older letters, remembering her words before I set down my own.

In a couple of her letters my sister-in-law talks about how her daughter is very light-skinned (the father is white) and looks almost white, rather like Ariel does.

From my perspective as a white mother, I saw the light skin, on some level, as a practical convenience in that Ariel would be able to partake of white/light privilege, and I wouldn’t get pegged as a “race traitor”, as some white mothers of non-white children seem to feel they are… I mean, I recognise the fact that her lightness is a complicating factor in many ways, allowing me (and others) to erase her heritage if we aren’t careful, for one thing. But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that the accessibility of white/light privilege didn’t strike me, selfishly, as something that would be a benefit, albeit undeserved, for Ariel personally.

My sister in law, as a black mother of a light child, has a completely different take. She says that sometimes people do not think her daughter belongs to her (I remember my mother-in-law once saying something similar about her son who was very light, even blue-eyed, as a baby – they thought she was his babysitter). She says that his white family feel entitled to take control and custody, which she thinks is intimately connected with my niece’s lightness. She worries that this same beloved daughter, privileged for her lightness, might in the future be ashamed of her darker mother.

Thinking on this, I look at the pictures I have printed and all I see is lightness. The blue-grey eyes. The lightish brown hair: a little sun-bleached in the summer pictures, in one beach snapshot it is almost a golden halo. The very light skin. Her father is in her slightly broad nose, her slightly full lips and, just a little, in her brown curls which are a mixture of my dead straight fairness and his kinky black.

Nobody will think that I am the wrong mother for this light child.

I will send her the pictures anyway, and I will wonder what she makes of Ariel’s lightness and of her privilege.

My sister in law seems hesitant about these comments she makes. She no doubt wonders how I would react to her talking of race and racism. In another note she apologises for “going on” about race and her daughter’s white family; and acknowledges that white mothers have their troubles too. She worries what I will think, yet she speaks her truth anyway. I’m glad.

My ex-husband always discouraged any friendship between me and his sister, successfully since he managed to keep me away from her (and indeed his family in general) and was always the gatekeeper on those occasions when we did meet. They don’t get on so well. I know her more from letters than from real life. Isn’t that sad? Yes, it is. I am touched by the honesty and clarity of her words, I am touched by her directness, by her unwillingness to pretend that everything is fine. Her brother called her complaining and manipulative – the things that men always say when a woman will not fall into line. Although I have long suspected his – objectivity? that’s a nice bland way to put it – it is only now that I’ve truly stopped believing him and started to hope that there can be something good to dig out of it all, some hope of salvaging a positive relationship for Ariel with his family that does not have to include him.