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Couple's Brown-Skin, Lighter-Skin Kids Face Double Standard

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When you walk around your neighborhood you may be aware of how people are reacting, responding to you. We're going to hear from someone in Northern California who's always aware of how people see him. It was the basis for his six word entry to The Race Card Project.

MARC A. QUARLES: My name is Marc A. Quarles. I'm from Pacific Grove, California and my six words are with kids, I'm dad, alone, thug.

INSKEEP: With kids, he's just a dad. When he's alone, he thinks he's seen as a thug. NPR special correspondent Michele Norris joins us once again to learn more of this story we began to hear yesterday. Michele, of course, is founder of The Race Card Project. Always a pleasure to have you in the studios, Michele.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: Hello, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK, remind us where we left off.

NORRIS: Marc Quarles lives in Pacific Grove, California - that's in northern California - and in brief, he's black, his wife is white and German. They have two kids ages 15 and 13 and every summer his wife Claudia takes the two kids to visit family in Europe, they go back to Germany. And Marc Quarles says that when the family's gone, he's treated very differently in his neighborhood. He feels like his family is almost like a security blanket.

QUARLES: People seem apprehensive to approach me and most of the time I've noticed my white counterparts almost avoid me. They seem afraid. The same does not happen when I have the security blanket and shield of my children. When my children are with me, I'm just a dad. I love being a dad.

NORRIS: Steve, you can hear there how much his family means to him when he talks about this and when he sent us the six words he also sent in a family photo, and since our listeners haven't had a chance to see that maybe we should let him paint a picture because as he thinks about his kids now, all those issues and complications of race and identity start to come into play and this is very much on his mind.

QUARLES: We're an interracial couple. My son has brown skin, fairly straight hair and my daughter is very, very light. She could almost pass for white.

NORRIS: In many ways, his core story is all about difference, how the neighborhood treats him when he's with his family and how they treat him when they're away. And as we talked to him, we realized that it's also a story about difference even within his own family, how the community and world might treat his children, with one child being lighter and the other child being darker-skinned and the family is now starting to realize this, not just how the world will treat them, but also how the kids see themselves.

QUARLES: I don't know if my wife and I are doing the right things by not talking about race that much with them because at one time for a Martin Luther King holiday, the children going to the same school had to write a little essay and draw a picture about what the King holiday means to them and my daughter, for her little essay and picture of the King holiday what it meant to her, my daughter said that if it were not for Dr. Martin Luther King she and her brother Joshua would have to go to different schools. She meant that she would go to one school and that her brother Joshua because of his browner skin would have to go to a school other than school that she attended.

INSKEEP: Same parents, but she's perceiving that they may be seen as being different races. How did the family handle that?

NORRIS: At a very young age. I mean, they wrestled with it. They of course talked about it. Marc talked about it with his wife and in the end they decided not to try to have this sort of heavy-handed conversation about race with their very young children. They decided that they wanted the kids to kind of figure it out for themselves and so that's how they decided to handle their daughter Danielle's complicated MLK essay.

QUARLES: We decided to let her grow and potentially approach that conversation a little bit later because I think eventually and unfortunately, someone who's a little lighter than she is, with a little straighter hair, with a little blonder hair, is going to call her out and get her to understand that she does have some brown in her.

NORRIS: I need to point something out, that since we're talking about this on the radio it's possible that she could hear this conversation. That you haven't had that conversation with her but you sort of just did by saying this in front of a microphone so...

QUARLES: (Laughter).Well, you know, I think it'll be accepted from her and my son Joshua hearing it on the radio because now it's not Dad just sitting you down and having a little talk or a lecture. It's real.

NORRIS: It's a possibility that having Dad talk about them on the radio will also be - they'll be horrified no matter what.

(LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: You know, I can't believe he's talking about me.

QUARLES: Yeah, yeah there is that.

INSKEEP: Well, I do wonder, Michele, whether he brings it up or not, do his kids bring up race with him?

NORRIS: You know, that's the thing, the kids are now teenagers and the kids are the ones who are leaning in and starting to ask questions about this. His son, for instance with the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, his son Joshua approached Marc and said I want to talk about this, Dad.

QUARLES: He brought it up many times and continues to bring it up many times because he identifies with being more black than white, although he's split right down the middle. Things like that do concern him. As he's getting older he's getting bigger and stronger, and folks are starting to wonder about him, you know, what is he? Why is he here? And what I tell him is that there are simply things that he cannot do just because of his appearance and his brown skin. There are things that he can't do that the other kids can do.

NORRIS: But Dad, that sounds like a double standard.

QUARLES: Well, it is a double standard, son and trust me one day you'll understand. I know that may sound like a copout, but you can live in this world with that double standard and be successful and have a wonderful life.

INSKEEP: A wonderful life. How?

NORRIS: Wonderful is kind of a big elastic word in the sense. He's not saying that he accepts this, he's saying that he has had to figure out how to rise above it, how to succeed by letting certain things roll off his shoulder and he says that's the path to success for his son, too.

INSKEEP: Michele thanks for bringing us Mr. Quarles's story.

NORRIS: Good to be here, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Michele Norris who is founder and curator of The Race Card Project and you hear her right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.