Rachelle, Jean and Camille. Paris, France
Rachelle Chapman was born and raised in Chicago IL. She studied political science at Hampton University, and Law at Ohio State University. She’s worked in government relations, and on political campaigns, including the election of President Obama but stopped working when her daughter was born. Her husband, Jean is French, and they have been married 10 years. Their daughter, Camille, is 4.
How do you identify yourself racially?
I am a Black American. My parents are both Black and my roots go back to Mississippi, Tennessee, Oklahoma.
Where were you born and where have you lived?
I was born in Chicago and grew up in a Chicago suburb. After studying in Virginia and Ohio, I moved back to Chicago, and lived in the city until last year, when I moved to Paris, France with my family.
Why do you live where you are currently? Did having a multiracial family factor into your location?
We made this move primarily for my husband to be closer to his parents, but also because we thought the quality of life would be significantly better. Paris is a very diverse city, so I wasn’t all that concerned about the multiracial factor. Her school here is far more diverse than her school in Chicago was.
How did your families respond to you being in an interracial relationship?
My family was very welcoming and open-minded about our relationship. His family was also cool about it, at least they never let on that they weren’t. I think their biggest issue was with me not speaking French.
Do you know any other multiracial families? Is your community mixed?
When we lived in Chicago, we had several multiracial families in our circle of friends, and we still maintain those friends. In Paris, most of our friends are my husband’s acquaintances, but through our daughter’s school, I have met a few parents of varying ethnicities (Filipino, Japanese, North African, Senegalese).
Does your daughter speak the family languages?
Yes. She speaks French and English.
Have you explained to your daughter what her racial makeup is?
Not yet. She knows mommy’s family is brown and papa’s family is pink, but that’s about it. Right now, she seems to be more focused on geography, like where we were born, wrapping her head around the fact that the US and France are different countries on different continents.
Have you ever had negative reactions to you being her mother publicly? How did it affect you and what was your response?
I was always bracing myself for people to assume I was the nanny, but it rarely happened. White people seemed confused by how we have markedly different hair textures, as if no one ever changes their hair. People usually say she’s the perfect combination of both of us, and I agree.
What are your thoughts on the saying “mixed raced children are so beautiful”?
It disturbs me. I noticed people say that a lot more in the South. I think it comes from being colorstruck, and I don’t really have a good response to it. I’m going to have to come up with something. Mostly I hope my daughter didn’t hear them. I don’t want her internalizing that somehow her characteristics are more beautiful than others.
How do you teach your child about their ethnicity/heritage through traditions or customs?
Food, yes! So much can be learned through food. Jean learned how to cook from his mother and grandmother, and he makes a concerted effort to teach Camille in the kitchen. I’m slacking on my side of it, but Camille is learning about southern cooking and the importance of the Sunday dinner with family.
Do you find you consciously lean to one side more than the other?
I guess I have always tried to immerse Camille in blackness, so to speak. I don’t want Camille to reflexively think white is the default. I let my mom take her to church on a regular basis, even though Jean and I are not particularly religious. I was raised in a black baptist church (my grandfather was a minister), and I want her to know that part of her culture. We’ve taken her to two family reunions down south, because it’s important that she learns about her history, traditions, and the concept of extended family. I think I might always lean to my side.
What have you learned from the women in your life directly impacts you today in raising your daughter?
From my best friends to my mother to my Facebook friends, I have been schooled by some very phenomenal women. And I think all of them have one thing in common- grace.
What other aspects of your life do you find being a mother has changed you?
In addition to forcing me to be less of an introvert, being a mom has made me learn patience. I have never been a patient person, and my biggest fear about parenting was that my lack of patience was going to make me a terrible mother. God gave me the perfect child to learn patience. She has done everything in her own time since day one and I just have to roll with it. I still struggle with it, almost daily. But I have learned how to step back and either address my own frustrations, or redirect hers.
How does your extended family aide in developing ethnic identity?
I have a cousin who is dedicated to researching, preserving and celebrating his family history. He organizes the family reunions I mentioned above. He has been an inspiration to me in so many ways. But he has really brought home the idea that what brings us together is far more important than what separates us. In addition, my mother has a circle of close friends who we call the Auntie-Grandmas. They have been loving, supporting and spoiling us since Camille was born. As strong, spirit-led women, they have been great role models for her (and me).
How does your culture factor into your parenting?
I had the hardest time answering this question. There’s food, there’s music, there’s art, there’s religion, which I touched on earlier. It seems like some of the elements of black culture that have to do with parenting are things I’m trying to avoid. i had a very strict kind of “biblical” upbringing, in the spare the rod, spoil the child sense. My mother was fairly strict and I got spanked a lot. To the extent that it is somewhat ingrained in me to want to hit Camille when she misbehaves. But I don’t really believe in physical punishment. I understand it, I understand why some parents rely on it, but I can’t. The few times I succumbed to it only served to make us both feel bad about ourselves. I think culturally speaking, we confuse fear with respect, and I don’t want my kid to fear me. I want her to fear the consequences of disappointing me, of disrespecting me. It bothers me that the first thing I thought of when considering my culture is something negative, but there it is.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
My mother and my paternal grandparents. My father died when I was 8 years old. Mom sent me down south to spend summers with my grandparents. They made a concerted effort to keep his memory alive with me. His love of reading and his intellectual curiosity, his relationship with his siblings, the songs he liked to sing. Those summers had a huge impact on my childhood. Everything, from the heat to my grandmother’s garden, to Sunday church services are burned into my brain. My grandfather was an awesome storyteller. I try to be that with Camille. I wish I’d recorded his stories.
What has your daughter taught you about yourself?
I think Camille has taught me not to be so hard on myself. That I’m enough. I put pressure on myself to be some sort of supermom, who never gets frazzled and always solves problems, and makes everything into a fun lesson. But that’s not really who I am. Camille has this way of seeing who I am and letting me know that I’m cool even when I’m not perfect. She forgives me for my bad days. Pretty amazing for a four year old.
What is the mirror she holds up to you and how do you deal with your reflection?
The stubborn side of my personality is multiplied and given back to me. She is just as bossy as I am and I see how annoying it can be.
How has your relocation affected you? What was your transition like?
I love being here, but I hate not being in Chicago, to put it succinctly. I never wanted to live in the same place my whole life, but I never realized how hard it would be to completely uproot. New country, new language, new people. The most difficult part of the transition is the language barrier. I can speak french, but I can’t converse at french speed, so everyday tasks like taking phone calls and making appointments are rife with opportunity to make mistakes. I have to lean on my husband a lot to get things done, and I know he hates that. In the US, I was the one handling most of that stuff. I’m getting better though.
Have the French influenced your mothering?
The French seem more nonchalant about parenting. Not that they are less involved, but they don’t seem to sweat the small stuff. I don’t think “helicopter parents” are a thing here. If Camille is invited to a play date, the expectation is that I drop her off and return at the appointed time, instead of staying and talking or watching the kids play. Parties and activities are like that too. I’m not allowed to watch Camille’s gymnastics class. At the playground. you’re more likely to see the parents sitting on a bench with a book than hovering over their kid on the jungle gym. As a result, I have learned to let Camille be more independent, and I’ve had to improve my conversation skills to get her to tell me about her day, because her teachers are not necessarily going to give me a play-by-play like I would get at her school in the US.
How do you feel as a mother?
I spent most of my adult life not really believing in marriage, and thinking that I wouldn’t have kids. Part of it was philosophical, part was health reasons. So, when we finally decided we wanted kids, and that I was medically able to do it, it was something of a project. Camille was a carefully orchestrated result of fertility specialists and maternal-fetal medicine doctors. So many little, yet crucial, things had to line up exactly right for her to get here, it’s hard not to see her as a miracle. So, I feel incredibly lucky to be her mother. I suppose it’s harder than I ever imagined. It’s difficult knowing that she won’t have a sibling. I never anticipated feeling that way. I also never anticipated how isolating motherhood can feel, even when you have a partner. In the end, it has made me a better person, and I’m learning every day.
All photos by Céline Bansart